All hail the Wheelie Kids

A new documentary gets the story of 508 Bike Life right, finally

It’s something straight out of a Warren Ellis book if you really think about it. There’s a group of kids who like to ride their bikes together and do cool tricks and get out of the house and make friends and do all of the stuff we typically expect children to do and wring our hands about them not doing it anymore while they’re spending all day on the Youtubes. These kids are in turn hated by a wide swath of the city, and they are continually harassed and hunted down by the cops. This is the story of the Wheelie Kids, Worcester’s very own example of the way America loves to criminalize youth culture and especially when it’s youth of color that’s even better. 

Here’s one of my little fashy weirdo reply guys perfectly capturing this nightmarish mentality with a totally true anecdote that definitely happened. 

Where are they supposed to ride, Big George? In all of the bike lanes we have here in Worcester? All six of them?

America in general and Worcester especially being racist is a favorite talking point of mine and I’ve spent a lot of time on it here in this newsletter and the Wheelie Kids are a great example of it, but another favorite talking point of mine is how insanely car-oriented America is. Worcester is a city designed for, and especially in the case of I-290, destroyed by the mentality that transportation via car should be valued over every other mode regardless of the hardship it inflicts on pedestrians or bike riders or anyone else. Worcester is a miserable and dangerous place to ride a bike. There is no room for bikes on our roads or in our minds. If you want to ride your bike, you got nowhere to go but the street, and it’s dangerous as all hell. 

So we have this group of kids that have a cool hobby and they’ve got nowhere to do it and we hate them because one of us might slam into them with our cars, like that would be their fault and not ours. That these kids are for the most part people of color and from working class families removes yet another layer of sympathy that may be afforded a group of white kids doing the same thing in Holden. It is absolutely insane in the abstract that these kids are hated but in the context of our cultural values it seems totally normal. Plenty of people I otherwise respect share the opinion that the Wheelie Kids are a menace. It’s all ‘these kids need to get off the road because I might hit them.’ In a sane world the prevailing mentality would be ‘these kids are in the road, good for them, they’re public roads after all, I just need to make sure I’m especially careful in this four-ton death machine.’

Anyway this is all a long-winded way of introducing a new documentary on the subject of the Wheelie Kids called The Take Over. It’s short and I suggest watching the whole thing.

This documentary, produced by Eastern Blocc, appropriately frames the Wheelie Kids and gives them the space to tell their own story from their own perspective which is something that is tragically missing in all the local press coverage on the subject. The press predictably centers how the cops feel about it and casts the kids as a public safety threat above all else and while I was working for Worcester Magazine Brought To You By The Telegram it was very frustrating.

If you’re a loyal reader you may have sensed a pitch coming and guess what folks here it is. I left Worcester Magazine so I no longer have to participate in the rules of an institution which tragically fails to properly address American racism. I don’t have to play by the rules that set journalists up to fail anymore, and I can do that because I’m no longer paid by a company with a fiduciary responsibility to keep dudes on yachts fat and happy. I’m paid by you directly to write for you directly, so if you haven’t subscribed please consider it, thank you!!! 

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Back to the Wheelie Kids. The thing I like so much about this documentary is how it frames police antagonism in the context of how it affects the youth. They just want to ride their bikes and do cool tricks and have fun. The cops are continually harassing them and slapping them with the sort of misdemeanor charges that can rope kids into a never-ending abusive relationship with the American criminal justice system. You can see it in the kids’ faces how deeply bothered and scared they are by the police crackdown on their hobby. I mean a cop pulled a gun on them for christ sake. But also the fuck-you spirit and the determination and ah, it’s just so good it gives me chills down my spine. 

I had a short phone conversation with Mario Harper, one of the leaders of 508 Bike Life this morning, and he said in no uncertain terms that the goal is to keep riding and get more people riding and no, they are not going to stop. He’s 16, by the way, and he’s one of the older ones. 

“So basically we really want more youth on bikes, that’s the main goal, every season we want to see new faces come along that’s riding with us,” he said. 

Bike Life’s motto is Bikes Up, Guns Down, and it's part of a national youth movement. There are chapters all over the country and the whole point is getting kids outside and having fun. I went to a ride-out that 508 Bike Life put on last year and it was amazing. These kids were doing seriously impressive tricks and you could feel the community and camaraderie around it. 

“It’s a stress thing and they get a lot off their minds when they’re riding their bikes and not a lot of people really understand that,” Harper said.  

At 16 years old, he’s taking on a role model position for kids younger than him and less experienced, and if you can remember being anywhere from 9 to 14 years old you’ll know how important it is to have someone like that and how much that person can shape your life and the choices you make. From our phone call I could tell the kids riding with Harper are in good hands. 

“I really worry about the youth a lot,” he told me. “I go to bat for them.”

I don’t want to embarrass this person in any way so just keep it in your head that this is someone close to me and look at this message they sent me. 

Just thinking about this message I’m welling up. ‘But why’ is the sort of question we all need to be continually asking all the time. ‘But why’ is how we get out of this. ‘But why’ is how you pull the thread that untangles the programming our culture has rammed into our heads about who the bad people are and where the bad neighborhoods are and who you have to be worried about and who is scary and all the other racist things we’re taught to believe that aren’t the same thing as burning a cross but they sort of are.

This is what makes the Wheelie Kids so righteous. They’re taking to the streets, participating in an act of unbridled joy, and they’re forcing people to confront it. That most people react poorly is an indictment of the way we see these kids in our culture. That they’re throwing up a fat middle finger and doing it anyway is a beautiful act of defiance against a culture which would at best prefer to pretend they don’t exist. 

If you see the Wheelie Kids and you get angry, ask ‘but why.’

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I don’t have much in the way of pithy little outro notes this week meaning I have none at all.

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Until next time!

Correction: In the first version of this story I misidentified the documentary’s production company. The documentary is produced by Eastern Blocc, not Future Focus. My bad! It’s fixed on the website but unfortunately the thing about newsletters is that once it goes to inboxes there’s nothing I can do about that so I’ll have to remember to put in a note at the bottom of my next post as well. Kicking myself but what can you do. Way she goes, bubs.