On Dirtbikes and Protest: 12 O’Clock Boys is a Stunner

PosterSo there’s this group of guys. At war with the law from birth, they have been cast aside, excluded, judged, enslaved, and martyred throughout history. But these men – odds be damned – will not give up. They will triumph over the long arm of the powers that be through their style, their speed, and their totally badass dirtbike tricks.

They are the 12 O’Clock Boys – and surprisingly, they aren’t from an awesome 80’s movie about dirtbike ninjas fighting corrupt cops on the gritty neon streets of a fictional urban underground. Nope, these guys live in real-life Baltimore and they are for-real protest warrior superheroes. These guys ride the longest, fastest, tallest wheelies through city streets, on sidewalks and through city parks. On warm Sunday afternoons, they cruise in packs – showboating like motorcycle gods and antagonizing the police – who are forbidden by law to chase them. The media says they’re a menace – but watching them fly, they just seem free. On the bike on Sundays, the problems of the real world don’t exist – it’s just you, the bike, and sometimes a screaming siren or two.

Seriously, you have GOT to see this documentary. Because this phenomenon is weird and awesome, yes, but also because this insanely real systematic oppression of Black Americans is playing out every day in the streets of 2014 America. To not engage with the stories of our countrymen in duress is – in the most passive way – to support the systems that are allowing the atrocities around us to continue to happen.

But back to the shallow end for a moment here.  Motorcycles!  Motorcycles are so cool. This film brought up a lot of convergences with other films and stories for me… and one of them was the 1971 classic motorcycle glory party documentary On Any Sunday.

For some reason, Sundays are sacred to motorcycle people… all around the world, Sunday is cruising day, it’s race day, it’s the day for leisure rides and swap meets and goofing around on a bike. I thought it was so interesting that the 12 O’Clock Boys also cruise on Sundays. At one point in the film, one if the dudes talks about how on Sunday – violence between rival gangs, rival neighborhoods, etc. stops – because Sunday is the day for riding. There’s a deep tradition of leisure and goofing off here that I really respect – and these guys know how to goof off on a bike in maybe the coolest possible way.

It’s so evident that these guys genuinely love this – there’s real joy, real pride in this riding. But it’s not just about pleasure cruising – these flocks of showboating dirtbike enthusiasts are – through their riding – directly antagonizing the police. Even though these bikes aren’t street legal, the police aren’t legally allowed to give chase… so these guys ride in circles around the cops, all aggro and pissed off, and the cops can’t do a damn thing about it, which I imagine is super frustrating. As the film presents it, without the intent of antagonizing the cops, this crazy phenomenon probably wouldn’t exist.

My first clear thought when the movie ended was “These guys are protesters.”  Of course it brought to mind Ferguson and the protests around the country after our justice system failed to indict the police officers responsible for the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner… but these guys have been at this for years. Though they’re not carrying signs or laying down in the street, these rides are an act of civil disobedience – a direct protest to the years of oppression Black Americans have endured at the hands of public systems in Baltimore. The police are just the most visible arm to fight – but as I watched 12 O’Clock Boys play out, it felt very clear to me that this was about fighting back against an evil much, much bigger.

12-oclock-boys-pugMaybe it was because the filmmakers focused – smartly – on the story of one kid, Pug. When the film starts – Pug is 13 and already obsessed with dirtbiking, idolizing the 12 O’Clock Boys in particular… and the filmmakers followed him for 3 years. Middle school is a painful time to follow any kid – but Pug’s story is particularly tough. Raised by his single mom in a rough neighborhood, Pug is still bright eyed and very much a kid when we meet him… he loves animals, he has a tiny little 4-wheeler… he’s full of beans, for sure, but he’s got hope. Pug’s older brother dies early in the film – when he was only a teenager himself and as we follow him through this and subsequent years of disappointments, we watch Pug’s bright eyes turn hard and cold, his mischief become more violent, and his obsession for biking start to blend with his rage. By hanging with him throughout the film, it’s impossible not to see that this kid was born into a world that had no hope for him, and a cycle of poverty and violence that he had very little chance of escaping. A natural badass on a dirtbike, though, I genuinely wanted him to succeed at riding with the 12 O’Clock Boys… becoming a part of something bigger than himself, something that – even though it’s illegal – isn’t hurting anyone. (Depressingly, our real-life Pug was injured in a police chase at the end of this summer, when he was bumped off his bike and then tazed by police. Ugh.)

Another big convergence here is, of course, The Wire… but even more than that, this film made me think of a documentary based in part on Wire creator David Simon’s writing, called The House I Live In. This film explains the depth and severity of systematic racism as plainly as you can, given the complexity of so many interrelated issues. Although its focus is on the misguided “war on drugs,” there’s a part of this film I’ll never forget – where the film describes America’s treatment of the poor in our country (particularly poor people of color) in the past 50 years as a genocide in slow motion.  I encourage you to find this whole movie and watch it – even though it’s sobering, but if that’s too much reality for you today, please just take 8 minutes to watch this clip.

I know this is some heavy shit. But as Michael Brown and Eric Garner and so many others have shown us, we have entered the annihilation phase, folks, and we have got to do something to stop this craziness.

And if that something is ride the longest wheelie you can, as fast as you can… holy shit, I am FOR it. That’s the coolest act of defiance I can imagine.

See this for so many reasons.

betsy midnight

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