Door To Door: The Bike Life Motors Into The Cleveland Mayor's Race

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson watches trick bike riders at a park in 2019. Jackson pushed for the creation of a dirt bike park to offer bikers an alternative to riding on city streets. It didn't materialize.
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson watches trick bike riders at a park in 2019. Jackson pushed for the creation of a dirt bike park to offer bikers an alternative to riding on city streets. It didn't materialize. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]

Basheer Jones had dirt bikes on his mind when I caught up with him this past weekend at Emery Park in Cleveland’s Bellaire-Puritas neighborhood on the West Side.

I asked the mayoral candidate and Ward 7 councilman what voters in the area wanted. He talked about the dirt bike riders who pop wheelies in traffic and lead caravans down city streets.

“On the West Side, there’s a lot of concern about crime, a lot of concern about safety, lot of concern about dirt bikes, which we’re going to be addressing, this ‘Wild, Wild West’ mentality of allowing dirt bikers to do whatever they want to do,” Jones told me. “We can’t allow that.”

It’s no wonder he was thinking about bikes. Last week, Fox 8 News reported on a huge group of dirt bikers and ATV drivers who tied up a highway ramp while riding across the city.

And with that, a mayoral campaign already magnetized to public safety was given a big, boisterous visual metaphor, one that may resonate among older voters with more conservative leanings on policing. Three candidates responded in different ways.

Dennis Kucinich issued a press release excoriating city officials for not mobilizing police to arrest the “mob on wheels,” as he put it. The headline on that release: “Lawless marauders terrorize city.”

“Innocent people are going to die if the Mayor’s Office and police department commanders and City Council leadership don’t take swift, decisive, and unflinching action to stop these criminals and get them off the streets,” Kucinich said in the news release.

Jones didn’t send out a traditional press release. Instead, he hosted a conversation – live on Instagram – with people who are part of the “bike life,” the popular culture of urban dirt biking that’s caught on in cities around the country.

Over 90 minutes, Jones debated with the bikers and issued a friendly – if serious – warning: If you don’t dial things back, police and state highway patrol will be coming after you, with possible felony consequences.

“It’s a reality, brother, that residents are becoming afraid of the bike life movement, that’s a real thing,” Jones told one biker. “Grandmothers, grandfathers, I get phone calls all the time – from people that look like you and me – who are saying that they are afraid that they have blocked the highway, that they have blocked this street.”

One young Black man on the call with Jones argued that the bike life was unfairly singled out: Whatever happened to Mayor Frank Jackson’s idea to give dirt bikers a safe outlet, their own park away from city streets? Why pour resources into chasing down bikers when there are so many murders to solve?

“They look at us like we just criminals, no matter what,” he told Jones, referring to police. “And it could go to the race thing, it could not go to the race thing.”

The young man also expressed skepticism about a key detail in that Fox 8 story: that some bikers had fired guns into the air. Bikers themselves will be in danger if they’re viewed uniformly as a menace, he said.

Justin Bibb was talking about dirt bikes, too, at a small Sunday forum at Annie P’s Restaurant and Black Wall Street Café on East 93rd Street and Kinsman Avenue.

A woman asked what he would do about crime in the neighborhood. Next, she asked about the bikes.

“The dirt bike culture is a big part of many parts of our community, and I respect that,” Bibb said. “Both my uncles own bikes.”

“Because they’re not no criminals,” the woman said.

“No, no. And so we got to respect the fact that this is part of the culture, and that’s real,” he replied. “However, we also got to make sure we’re respecting our residents, too, that want to have a safe evening to enjoy and keep their neighborhoods secure. So the city of Cleveland, we got to enforce the laws that are on the books, but also explore broader recreational opportunities for our young people.”

Kucinich promised strong mayoral action, backed by a bolstered police force. Jones and Bibb, perhaps sensitive to the reality that many bikers may be the loved ones of Cleveland voters, offered more nuanced responses. Jones tried to talk it out with people in the bike life. Bibb emphasized alternatives.

I don’t know if you’ll hear about dirt bikes at tonight’s Cleveland mayoral debate. But people are talking about them, and the candidates are showing some real differences in how they respond. 

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