The war on mini-bikes

'Operation Kick-Stand' has an absurdist quality to it

A war of words has broken out over the connection between motorbikes and violent crime in some Boston neighborhoods. Common sense seems to be the first casualty.

The argument comes in the wake of the shooting of a 4-year-old boy at a Dorchester playground, an innocent victim of gang gunfire on Monday night.  Initial reports suggested the assailant sped off on a motor minibike. The incident has prompted a clampdown on the motorbikes, with the city announcing an all-out ban on their use in parks and Mayor Tom Menino and Police Commissioner Ed Davis calling for a new law to ban them outright from the city.  Residents have “been terrorized by these things,” mayoral spokeswoman Dot Joyce said of the small motorbikes.

Today’s Globe follows up with story questioning just how much of a connection there is between the ear-piercing motorbikes and urban mayhem. “Little data tie motorbikes to crime,” reads the headline on the story, in which Boston police officials admit that they don’t have firm statistics to back up what they say is anecdotal evidence. Meanwhile, some area residents suggest all the attention to minibikes is misplaced. The problem “is not so much the bikes. It’s the guys that are riding the bikes,” a man at the playground with his niece and daughter tells the Globe.

In the thick of the debate is Boston City Councilor Charles Yancey, and the veteran pol seems to be on both sides of it, a charge leveled at lots of politicians with some frequency. In this instance, however, by talking out of both of sides of his mouth, Yancey may actually come closer to the truth.

Yancey initially seemed to be on board with the city clampdown, telling the Globe earlier in the week that police need to aggressively go after young people who are speeding or driving recklessly on dirt bikes. “If it is not tolerated in Back Bay or Beacon Hill, it shouldn’t be tolerated here,” said Yancey, who represents Mattapan and part of Dorchester.

But in today’s paper, he seems to be joining with those calling the minibike mishegas a distraction from the deeper social problems that underlie urban youth violence. “We have so many people who are leading very desperate lives in our society, and some are resorting to taking out their frustrations by opening fire on a local playground,” said Yancey. “That should certainly deserve as much attention by the local administration and the media as these bikes.”

Of course, the small motor scooters are not the cause of the mayhem concentrated in the city’s lower-income black neighborhoods. The factors that would lead someone to unload a gun in a crowded playground are complicated, though they include a complete breakdown of parenting and values that often gets too little attention in these discussions. The sudden crackdown on minibikes – complete with a Desert Storm-like label from City Hall, “Operation Kick Stand” – has an absurdist quality to it. It’s the latest chapter in what are often knee-jerk responses from the mayor’s office to the plague of gang violence.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

But Yancey was also right when he said incessant racing of these minibikes, the sound of which is something like a dentist’s drill coming through an amplifier, would never be tolerated in the city’s more upscale neighborhoods. The minibikes are one more assault on the quality of life in those city neighborhoods where they are prevalent. Menacing-looking teens regularly race them across playing fields in city parks, green spaces where city residents are supposed to be able to find some refuge from the motorized clatter of urban life. It is exactly the sort of disorder that criminologists say should not be tolerated because it creates a fertile ground for more serious crime. 

In the quest for some peace and quiet in the warm months of summer, let’s ban the motorbikes to bring a little quiet to city neighborhoods. It will take more resolve than quick-fix gimmicks, however, to bring peace.