It began four years ago when hundreds of riders on ATVs, dirt bikes and motorcycles flooded South Florida’s streets popping wheelies on busy highways, driving the wrong way down roads and clogging and racing down residential side streets.
They called it an act of defiance, a peaceful but rowdy protest initially honoring the untimely and still unsolved death of a popular Philadelphia biker named Kyrell Tyler, or, “Dirt Bike Rell.” It’s since morphed into an anti-gun violence and civil rights demonstration timed to coincide with Martin Luther King Day, which is Monday.
For many police departments, it’s also become an annual traffic safety nightmare. During last year’s MLK holiday weekend, three riders — a motorcyclist and a dirt bike and ATV rider — lost their lives.
Now, in its fourth year, the #Bikesupgunsdown (also known as Wheels up, Guns Down) movement has been put on notice by South Florida law enforcement: We’re watching and you will pay for breaking the law.
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a great orator, a great leader. His legacy during the holiday should be remembered with great respect,” Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said this week. “But there is a zero tolerance policy for this illegal activity. The most important thing we can do is keep Broward County a safe place.”
Israel spoke a day after law enforcement leaders gathered in Miami-Dade to spread, essentially, the same message.
“These individuals that take on this hazardous task of coming out to ride these minibikes, ATVs or motorcycles in a reckless manner are putting their lives as well as others in danger,” said Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Joe Sanchez. “Let it be known, law enforcement will be out there to ensure that they will be cited, arrested and their bikes will be seized.”
Technically, riding a motorcycle isn’t illegal. Popping wheelies or driving the wrong way down the road, are. As for ATVs, they’re illegal on any paved roadway in South Florida. Even driving off-road vehicles at a reasonable speed on the roadways during or after the parade could result in a citation, police say.
In the past, bikers involved in the annual event have argued that the rowdy ride is intended to send a positive anti-violence message — but its the death-defying high-speed stunts caught on video that have gotten most of the publicity .
Miami writer and rapper Luther Campbell, who recently bought a small scooter for his own young son, Blake, said he supports the goal of raising awareness about the toll guns take on the community.
“I think it’s a great intention, anything to get the guns off the streets,” Campbell said. “But there are always going to be some knuckleheads that are going to make it bad for everyone else. You need to take something like that, that may have some issues and make it a good event.”
Campbell, who won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision over free speech based on his raunchy song lyrics and shows, also said if communities offered more safe, off-road spaces for bikers to display their skills, the zero tolerance policy police say they will enforce would be more effective.
During a series of press conferences this week, police explained the dangers of riding motorcycles and ATVs and supplied numbers they said supported their case. Miami-Dade Lt. Juan Villalba Jr. said in the past year seven people were killed in more than 1,100 all-terrain vehicles and motorcycle crashes in Miami-Dade. He did not say how many of those were associated with the MLK event.
“The hardest part of our job is knocking on the families doors and explaining to them that they just lost their loved one,” said Miami-Dade traffic homicide detective Jeffrey Childers. “We don’t want to do that.”
Villalba and others suggest that riders use designated off-road sites. But there are only two two public off-road riding areas in South Florida and they’re both far from Miami-Dade’s core. Miami Motocross Park is far west at 16665 NW Krome Ave., and the other is the Big Cypress National Preserve, at 33100 Tamiami Trail E.
Childers said traffic homicide cops will visit each district and discuss traffic enforcement options with officers. Though they acknowledge there may be instances when safety concerns force them to back off attempted stops, the officers said eventually bikers and ATV riders breaking the law will be captured.
Monday’s expected ride, a dizzying-but-dangerous exhibition of light-weight vehicles weaving in and out of traffic that often force drivers off the roads has proven deadly over the years.
Sunday, Hollywood police took a pre-emptive strike at biker and ATV enthusiasts. When police showed up and surprised a group of about 100 ATV and dirt bike riders who had gathered at a Hollywood intersection, most of the group fled south on U.S. 441. A short while later they found ATV rider Erik Bell after he crashed. Police said they also found a loaded weapon on the 33-year-old and arrested him for possession of a weapon by a felon, fleeing an eluding police, reckless driving and failing to register his motor vehicle.
Robert Chandler, a major with the FHP, said more than 100 of his officers will be on the roadways and that aircraft overhead will be recording whatever happens on the ground.
“You may not be arrested the day of the event, but we will use the same videos you make to find you,” he said. “You will be subject to prosecution and you will not evade our aircraft.”