On a Friday evening in east Charlotte, a group of about 20 people ranging from young teenagers to folks in their 30s, gather around pickup trucks and trailers in an abandoned lot in the southeastern corner of the former Eastland Mall property. Some people post up next to the trucks, but most are up on some sort of bike.
Two of them ride dirt bikes, three others are on four-wheeler all-terrain vehicles, or ATVS. The rest — younger kids who either can’t yet afford dirt bikes or don’t have trailers to bring them to the lot — are riding bicycles.
The lot is one of the riders’ most-used “wheelie spots,” as some of the riders refer to them. The reason for the nickname is easily apparent. Regardless of bicycle, bike or ATV, every rider on the lot is there to practice their wheelies. Folks around the truck give tips to one ATV rider who is either bringing his front tires down too early or scraping the back of his ATV on every turn.
After only about 30 minutes on the lot, a police car parks in the next lot over, facing the riders. A second soon appears, and the two eventually pull into the wheelie spot. Two CMPD officers exit their SUVs and watch, keeping a distance from the group standing near the trucks.
“Let the white dad talk to them,” says one in the group, referring to a middle-aged father who is there with his son, one of the younger kids on the bicycles. “They won’t mess with him.”
The man chats up the officers for a few minutes before Russ*, an ATV rider who’s been riding in the Charlotte area for nearly 20 years, walks over to talk with officers. Eventually a circle forms around the officers, who say they’ve been called out by the owner of the lot. Though the owner lives elsewhere, he apparently received a call from someone at the nearby flea market.
The officers say they support what the riders are doing and think it’s cool, but they have to come out to service the call. They talk with Russ about his efforts to come to an agreement with CMPD about using the lot, similar to the skateboarders who have built a DIY skate park on the southwest corner of the property. They talk for about an hour.
The officers don’t kick anyone out from the spot, and eventually they leave. The riders continue to hit wheelies until darkness descends, then they pack their vehicles back onto the trailers. Many of the cyclists rode all the way from the Freedom Drive area; half of them plan to go ride into Uptown while the others will start the long journey home to the other side of the city.
That Friday night is an ideal situation for the riders, and they say about 50% of their interactions with police at the old Eastland Mall site go down that way. Other officers don’t look so kindly on their presence there, and those officers will come out and immediately begin yelling at the riders to get off the property. Similar interactions happen at vacant lots all around the city.
If it stopped there, the story of Charlotte Bike Life would be an innocent tale of cat-and-mouse — riders practicing their passion and dodging police harassment, the worst that can happen being a citation.
However, in recent years the riders have increased their presence on the public streets of Charlotte, riding out together in groups of 20 to 30. In North Carolina, dirt bikes can be made street legal if they meet the same inspection guidelines as motorcycles and cars, though barely any street riders follow such guidelines. It is not legal to ride an ATV on the street under any circumstances.
The recent ride-outs have led CMPD to focus special attention on street riders, while local media has written headlines stating that the groups are “terrorizing” the public by riding recklessly.
On Aug. 11, things came to a head when longtime Charlotte Bike Life rider Michael Adams was killed after wrecking his dirt bike during a police chase on West Boulevard near the Wilmore neighborhood. Now, Adams’ friends and fellow riders are saying media coverage has unfairly villainized them — that they are a group of hobbyists pursuing their passion in a city with limited space to do so. They also say overzealous police are responsible for the death of their friend.
Charlotte Bike Life is not a gang, a crew or an organization with members. As Russ explains it, it’s just an umbrella term — a way to rep your city on social media.
“The name is not really anything; it’s people getting together and on the road,” he says. “There’s a bike life culture here, we’re from Charlotte, everybody claims their city, we claim Charlotte Bike Life because we ride Charlotte, we’re from Charlotte, we live Charlotte and we’re part of a bike life community. It’s like saying Charlotte Skateboarding, there’s no such thing. So there’s not an organization; it’s a group of friends.”
Russ moved to Charlotte from Miami in 2002 and began riding on wooded trails around the city. He wasn’t into street riding back then because he didn’t need to be. Russ says he remembers a time when he could ride trails from the University area to Mint Hill on the southeast side of the city or Steele Creek to the southwest. The construction of I-485 wiped out countless trails, he says, and the development boom that followed took care of most that survived.
It’s only been within the last three years that street riding has begun to explode in Charlotte, and the increase in popularity has coincided with similar trends around the country.
“There was always culture here but it was more racing or trail riding, doing tricks, jumping.” Russ says. “The community in Charlotte over the last three years has blown up, but it’s blown up everywhere in the past three years, not just in Charlotte.”
He mentions strong communities in Tennessee, California, Florida and Virginia. Baltimore and parts of New York City are known as places with the most venerable street-riding communities.
Russ and fellow riders often take trips to cities along the East Coast to link up with Bike Life communities. Riders will meet with people they’ve met through social media and go riding in different cities, following the lead of the rider who’s from there, who knows where to ride and how to avoid police.
Most city’s police departments follow a do-not-chase policy when it comes to street riders, so as not to put anyone involved in more danger than is necessary.
One Charlotte rider who goes by “Chevy” travels to Washington D.C. and other East Coast cities to ride regularly. He said CMPD is the most antagonistic and provocative toward riders among the cities he rides in.
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“We’ve been to other cities where they strictly abide by do-not-chase [policies],” Chevy says. “A bike breaks down, yeah you’ll prolly get a ticket or whatever, but they do not chase.”
Later, he ends our chat with a sentence that has been at the center of controversy since Adams died in August.
“If the police never chased my boy Mike, he would still be alive.”
Though Russ wasn’t riding with Adams on Aug. 11, he knew how excited he was to go out that Sunday.
“He was waiting all week to get that bike built,” he recalls. “He got it fixed that day. He got on social media and you could see it in his face, he was the happiest man in the world that day. He hadn’t ridden in so long, he was just ready to get a decent ride in.”
Police say they received calls throughout the afternoon about a group of 12 to 15 riders driving through Uptown and the neighborhoods near Uptown.
Just before 8 p.m., 41-year-old Heather Perotti called 911 about a hit-and-run on South Tryon Street. According to the accident report, Perotti “was caught in a pack of ATVs [and] noticed that two had pulled behind her vehicle. In an attempt to intimidate her, the ATVs continued to strike the back-right corner of [her] vehicle.”
Things only escalated from there, according to a separate criminal incident report, which states that, “after the victim stopped her vehicle, she was suddenly punched by the suspect through an open window,” of her car.
According to CMPD, the suspect in the alleged assault was not riding an ATV but driving a car, but he was associated with the riders. Officers arrested 36-year-old Chavis Doby the next day and charged him with assault on a female in connection with the incident.
Though riders who were on the scene did not want to speak on the record — many of whom have become distrustful of media after years of negative coverage — they dispute the victim’s and CMPD’s version of events, denying that riders were intimidating Perotti.
What is known for sure is that an officer on a CMPD dual-sport bike responded to the hit-and-run call and shortly thereafter found a group of riders leaving the parking lot of a Bojangles’ on West Boulevard. The officer attempted to stop the riders and they dispersed. The officer gave chase, and that’s when Adams lost control.
According to Sergeant Jesse Wood with CMPD’s Major Crash Unit, Adams struck a curb, was ejected from his bike and hit a pillar of the I-77 bridge on West Boulevard. He was taken to the hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.
Riders say the officer should not have chased them, as is usually CMPD policy in such an instance, with some stating that he was being overly aggressive by trying to run riders off the road. CMPD has stated that no contact was made between the officer’s bike and any other riders.
According to Wood, neither state nor local law prohibits police from pursuing suspects.
“If a crime has occurred, then an officer does have legal authority to pursue somebody,” he says. “Different departments have regulations as to what they can pursue for, when they can pursue, and they will take into all kinds of accounts as far as the danger to the public, the officers and the suspect.”
CMPD directives state that “the responsibility for the decision to engage in a pursuit rests with the individual officer.” Officers must consider the seriousness of the crime committed by a suspect, the location, weather, speed limit and a number of other factors that could affect the amount the danger presented to officers and civilians in the case of a pursuit.
Wood says that one factor in the officer’s decision to remain behind the riders was the low speeds at which everyone was moving.
Though Russ and Chevy were not at the scene of the accident, they’ve spoken with every rider who was, and they find both the victim’s and CMPD’s version of events suspicious.
“When I say Mike was an avid dirt bike rider on the trails and in the street, there’s no way,” Chevy says. “They say speed wasn’t a factor. If speed wasn’t a factor, if they were doing 20 miles per hour, nobody’s going to die falling over on their dirt bike. No avid dirt bike rider is going to run into a pillar.”
CMPD representatives have stated that the officer was wearing a body-worn camera at the time of the accident, but have not yet commented on whether it was turned on. It is a CMPD directive that all officers involved in a pursuit turn on their body camera immediately.
Following the accident, CMPD called a press conference asking for riders and witnesses to come forward with their accounts. Predictably, many of the riders who were there that day went underground.
For Russ and other riders, Adams’s death came at an especially bittersweet time: six days before the second annual Charlotte Bike Life Back 2 School Supplies Giveaway, a block party, cookout and fundraiser event that Adams had helped bring to fruition just a year before.
Some felt that, with all the heat from police officers, they should cancel the Back 2 School drive, but Russ knew from the minute he heard about Adams’s death that they would have to go through with it in his memory.
On Aug. 17, Charlotte Bike Life riders took over a block in one of the neighborhoods where they’re most welcomed by the community. They handed out 400 backpacks filled with school supplies to kids getting ready to return to school.
Russ points out that many of the local riders are business owners and respected members of the community. He is a contractor who makes furniture, while Chevy owns a landscaping business. The Back 2 School event is a chance for him to show kids what hard work can get them.
“I love seeing hundreds of people out there having a good time, the mix of people from all over the city, all different races, all out there because they like the bikes and they like what we’re doing and they could use some supplies. Who couldn’t?” he says. “A majority of us have struggled and have been fortunate enough to see a better day, so why not give something back to the community?”
In the days following Adams’s death, Russ says multiple media outlets reached out to riders for comments about the incident, though none agreed to come to the cookout for an interview.
Local media has painted a very specific picture of the local bike life scene, and have continued on that path since the August accident. With the headline “ATV and dirt bike riders terrorize Charlotte streets,” a Sept. 9 WCNC story shares cellphone video from a viewer showing a group of 22 riders passing her in a turn lane while she’s stopped in traffic.
The riders can be seen popping wheelies while some drive on the sidewalk before pulling into a gas station. One ATV rider spins his tires in the grass. The woman taking the video says, “They’re probably going to murder us. They’re dirt-bike, four-wheeler bandits.” The riders pay her no mind.
Russ says that when he’s riding with a group, he follows the laws of the road as closely as possible and tries to get his fellow riders to do the same, though he admits that he has no control over any other riders and that some do regularly get out of line in terms of riding on the wrong side of the road, blowing red lights and other traffic violations.
He and Chevy both insist, however, that they have never witnessed a fellow rider get aggressive toward a driver on the road.
“I joined the street culture five years ago and I’ve traveled out of state with it, I’ve never seen it,” Russ says. “We keep it moving. We see a car, we’re going around it.”
Lieutenant Mike Anderson with CMPD North Tryon division has been investigating street riders in Charlotte for two years now. He says that, though rare, violent incidents related to street riders have been reported.
“There have been some incidents over the past year or two where we have had violent crime happen,” Anderson says. “Most of the stuff comes from road rage between ATV or dirt bike riders and motor vehicle drivers in the road. Sometimes when you get in those large groups like that, it scares people on the road, definitely when there’s careless and reckless driving. We’re seeing that they’re not stopping at red lights, they’re not stopping at stop signs, they’re driving fast; it puts the public, and it puts the driver and it puts us in danger.”
One thing Anderson and riders we spoke with agree on is the danger posed from drivers who try to record riders while they drive alongside them. Wood says CMPD believes Perotti was recording riders before the incident occurred on Aug. 11.
“You have cars running red lights, following us, getting videos of us, calling the police because we’re riding on the road,” Russ says. “They are breaking laws just as bad as we are. At the end of the day, if I get pulled over, it’s a traffic violation. We’re worried about the bikers. Nobody deserves to be killed.”
Ross also scoffs at the idea that CMPD has formed a specific group to investigate street riders. He and Chevy agree that street riding is a hobby that keeps folks from spending their free time getting into other types of trouble.
“They’re trying to see who’s doing what, trying to build a case, but we’re not doing nothing wrong,” he says. “I remember when we didn’t have as many murders as we’ve had this year in three years. Charlotte’s murder rate is getting out of control. They should create a task force for that. I’m sure they have, but make another one. It’s not doing the job.”
When I ask what could be done in an ideal world to help alleviate this growing tension between riders and police, Russ and Chevy suggest that police should allow for riders to be on the streets on Sunday afternoons — between 2 and 5 p.m. perhaps — and they would agree to follow the rules of the road and not ride at other times.
There’s not much reason to believe CMPD will go along with that, so in light of the CMPD’s increased efforts to go after street riders, I ask if the risk of criminal charges, injury or death will ever persuade them to stop.
“If one of my buddies catches charges, I’m sorry, I still love to ride. You get what I’m saying?” Russ responds. “No person is going to stop me from riding. No offense to nobody, but just because something negative happens … Mike passed away on a bike, I’m not going to stop riding. Mike wouldn’t want me to stop riding. So I’m gonna bike like Mike.”
*Name has been changed upon request.