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The Picture Show

PHOTOS: Bike Life traditions in my Washington, D.C. neighborhood

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Michael 'Polo King Roane, (center) is a master rider from Southeast Washington, D.C. He's highly respected within the bike life culture in multiple cities and countries. Roane describes the sport as a stress reliever from the realities of being Black in
Dee Dwyer

Michael 'Polo King Roane, (center) is a master rider from Southeast Washington, D.C. He's highly respected within the bike life culture in multiple cities and countries. Roane describes the sport as a stress reliever from the realities of being Black in America.

While photographing the 2020 protests against police brutality and racism in Washington D.C., I saw men on bikes and ATVs show up carrying out a tradition I had witnessed as a youth.

I grew up in Southeast Washington, D.C., in the 90s during the height of rapper and actor DMX's popularity. DMX and the Ruff Ryders community were the first celebrities who shared the culture through their platform, helping to popularize bike life culture through music videos.

Outside entertainment was scarce in my under-resourced community. When the dirt bike and ATV riders rode past popping wheelies, I appreciated this form of expression and it brought me joy. I remember vividly the smiles on people's faces and the cheers that were reflected throughout the streets encouraging the riders to keep performing. In other inner city communities I visited I found a lot of people had this shared experience.

I decided to spend more time with the bike lifers to get to know them and the community, and to gain a better understanding of the intentions behind bike life.

One reason I decided to document this culture is because there is a gap of mutual understanding between lawmakers and the bike enthusiasts. This bike life culture is also often misconstrued as dangerous, but the bikers say they are misunderstood.

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I believe Black men are the most misunderstood people in the world. I hope that my work will clarify many misconceptions.

"Some people see us riding and think we're trying to terrorize the city while others enjoy seeing us," Bike Life enthusiast Michael Roane told me.

A Metropolitan Police Department Statement says "It is illegal to ride or operate a minibike, dirt bike or All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) anywhere on public space in the District of Columbia (including streets, sidewalks, alleyways, bike lanes, public trails and other public locations)."

Still, many community members vouch for the culture. And the men I saw partake in the ride on April 10., were there with good intention. On the day I was out with the bike life group they were commemorating the life of actor and rapper DMX, who had passed the day before.

The phrase 'Bikes Up, Guns Down' is repeated by Bike Life supporters. Their message is to encourage people to ride bikes instead of having gun violence in the community.

As I sought to learn more, members of the bike life culture warmly invited me.

This is that community:

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