Take A Ride With Baltimore's Renegade Bikers, The '12 O'Clock Boys'

Jan 26, 2014

It doesn't take long to understand why a Baltimore gang of dirt bikers is called the 12 O'Clock Boys: Flying at top speeds down city streets, they flip precariously high wheelies, maneuvering their bikes to near vertical positions, like clock hands at high noon.

The police try to crack down on them, but that only adds to the gang's allure — especially for a young rider named Pug. "If I fall, I'm gonna hop back on my bike," Pug says. "Doesn't matter if I break my arm or anything, I'm hopping back on this bike."

Filmmaker Lotfy Nathan first met Pug when he was just a month shy of 13. He spent three and a half summer with the teen to create his new documentary, the 12 O'Clock Boys.

"I think it's a kind of escape for these guys; it's a kind of renegade sport," Nathan tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "But I think, looking a little deeper — and you see in Pug — what he needs is a kind of way of edification, he needs mentorship, which a lot of kids in inner-city Baltimore need. So he finds that in the group, partly because it's renegade, and partly because it's intimidating, dangerous. I think that that kind of wholesome, building thing needs to also be cut with an edge for a lot of those kids."


Interview Highlights

On what it's like when the 12 O'Clock Boys roll down the street

It's a chaotic experience. ... I first saw it on the periphery. I saw them tearing down the street. I had no idea what they were about. A lot of people in Baltimore — depending on what neighborhood you're in — don't know what they're about. ... Their presence on the street, you know, they're extremely loud, huge pack. ... I thought they were kind of bandits, or something, pirates. You know, some of them have these bandanas on their face; they certainly look intimidating from the outside. And it's all about the noise and the presence, you know. They really take over the whole city.

On the gang's intentions

It's complicated. I think it's impossible to deny that it is supposed to be rebellious. And that's why this cat-and-mouse thing with the police I think is something that's kind of brooded into part of the game. So part of it is that it's renegade, and it's a thrill in that regard. But it's also ... a kind of sport for a lot of these guys. They just happen to have a desire to ride dirt bikes, that's what they want to do. They can't get out to the county — you know a lot of these guys complain about this a lot — that they just don't have that resource. They don't have that facility and they want to do it.

On whether the 12 O'Clock Boys are a better alternative

And as far as crime goes in Baltimore — I don't like the argument of "lesser of two evils" — but you can't ignore it in Baltimore. There are so many worse options for a kid like Pug. I mean, when I met him in 2010 I remember there were drug dealers directly outside of his house, tempting him with a stack of $100 bills. Putting it in his hands, telling him to throw it up in the air. You know, a little kid who is not even 13 yet seeing that these are the only people on his block who have money. It's tempting to do a lot worse. So I think for a kid like Pug this is almost a wholesome activity.

On his love of animals and his dream of becoming a vet

He also really does love animals. It's just something that isn't nurtured as much. You see his mother in the film; she's trying her best. It's difficult for her, and it's also difficult for Pug to get that kind of attention in the school system in Baltimore for example. The dirt bikes are just an open invitation. It's an institution in Baltimore that's very easy to join.

On how he got to know Pug over the course of three and a half summers

I think I saw the egg crack, you know. It was starting to happen when I met him. Like I said, he was kind of emulating the older guys, he was talking like them. He was deciding what kind of man he wanted to be at the beginning, in 2010 when I met him. And then by the end I think he was just a lot more determined. He had lost his older brother [who had died] ... His word started to take over, above other people. Above the authority of his mother, the authority of his teachers, his own friends.

On whether he "joins" the gang

It's not necessarily a matter of joining the group. There's no initiation, per se. It's just a matter of keeping up. His mother is still really fighting for him not to go out in the street, and he does listen to her enough to abide by that. But it's also after a certain time he's just going to do it if he wants to.

On what he's up to now

Pug is 16. ... He's still in school. He also is more interested in girls now. ... I knew that would take over. I tried to tell him that actually. ... He's liable to go in any direction, but he's also got limited options, living in Baltimore. And I try to tell him that his salvation would be to really try hard at school. It's just difficult to communicate at that age.

On how he still talks about becoming a veterinarian

I think he might start by getting a job at a pet store.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Dreaming big dreams is part of being a kid, fantasizing about moving beyond real life and becoming someone else; someone who's in control when it seems that nothing else is stable. For a young kid named Pug, growing up in Baltimore, that fantasy means riding with a motorcycle gang, known as the 12 O'Clock Boys. They're called 12 O'Clock because that's how they ride their motorized dirt bikes; flipping dangerously high wheelies at top speeds down city streets. The police try to crack down on them but, for Pug, that only adds to the gang's allure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "12 O'CLOCK BOYS")

PUG: Some people fall and hop off their bike and take it in the house. But if I fall, I'm going to still hop back on my bike.

MARTIN: The film's director, Lotfy Nathan , explains why a kid like Pug is drawn to this world.

LOTFY NATHAN: I think it's a kind of escape for these guys. You know, it's a kind of renegade sport. And I think, looking a little deeper and you see in Pug what he needs, is a kind of way of edification. He needs mentorship, which a lot of kids in inner-city Baltimore need. So he finds that in the group, partly because it's renegade, and partly because it's intimidating and dangerous.

That that kind of wholesome, building thing needs to also be cut with an edge for a lot of those kids.

MARTIN: I briefly described the way that they ride. But would you mind filling that in more contextually? Give us a sense of just what happens when these guys take to the streets.

NATHAN: It's a chaotic experience. I first saw it on the periphery. I saw them tearing down the street. I had no idea what they were about. And a lot of people in Baltimore - depending on what neighborhood you're in - don't know what they're about. But their presence on the street, and they're extremely loud, huge pack. I mean some of them have these bandannas on their faces - they certainly look intimidating. And it's all about the noise and presence, you know.

MARTIN: A lot of these guys are from really tough neighborhoods. There is a lot of crime but they're not out there trying to wreak havoc on neighborhoods - or are they in some way, psychologically?

NATHAN: I think it's impossible to deny that it is supposed to be rebellious. And as far as crime goes in Baltimore, I don't like the argument of lesser of two evils - but you can't ignore it in Baltimore. There are so many worse options for a kid like Pug. I mean when I met him there were drug dealers directly outside of his house, tempting him with a stack of hundred dollar bills; putting it in his hands, telling him to throw it up in the air.

You know, little kid who's not even 13 yet seeing that these are the only people on his block who have money. It's tempting to do a lot worse. So I think for a kid like Pug this is almost a wholesome activity.

MARTIN: How did you first meet Pug? How did you come to know his family?

NATHAN: I met him in April 2010. I started filming late 2008. I was for the most part getting guys in their mid 20's to early 30's. And when I was introduced to Pug, he was about a month away from turning 13. I saw that he had a totally different presence.

MARTIN: How so?

NATHAN: He was saying pretty much exactly what the older guys were saying. But, at the same time, he looked so innocent. He looked so vulnerable. He had this kind of transparency and delicacy.

MARTIN: He loves animals and talks about wanting to be a veterinarian. And it's like, on the one hand, he really does like animals but he kind of knows he's supposed to give that answer, right? Like, that's a respectable thing to do, even though I really just want to ride dirt bikes.

NATHAN: Yeah, but he also really does love animals. It's just something that isn't nurtured as much. You see his mother in the film; she's trying her best. It's difficult for her. And it's also difficult for Pug to get that kind of attention in the school system in Baltimore, for example. The dirt bikes are just an open invitation. It's an institution in Baltimore that's very easy to join.

MARTIN: So you follow him for three and half summers. How did you see him change over that period of time?

NATHAN: I think I saw the egg crack. It was starting to happen when I met him. Like I said, he was kind of emulating the older guys, he was talking like them. He was deciding what kind of man he wanted to be at the beginning. And then, by the end, I think he was just a lot more determined. He had lost his older brother...

MARTIN: Who had died. He passed away.

NATHAN: Right. His words started to take over, you know, above the authority of his mother, the authority of his teachers, his own friends.

MARTIN: The whole film is him aspiring to be part of this group. Do they let them in?

NATHAN: It's not necessarily a matter of joining the group. There's no initiation, per se. It's just a matter of keeping up. His mother is still really fighting for him not to go out in the street. But for certain time is just going to do it, if he wants to.

MARTIN: She does get fed up with him. We've got a clip of his mom, Coco, just at her wits end. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "12 O'CLOCK BOYS")

COCO: I'm doing everything I'm supposed to do. I'm getting him bikes. I'm letting him wear the best clothing there is. He has all these animals and pets and everything that he just left here for me to deal with. He's just roaming the streets, not listening and I can't deal with it no more.

MARTIN: So what is Pug doing now? He's how old?

NATHAN: Pug is 16.

MARTIN: Is he still in school?

NATHAN: Yes, he's still in school. He also is more interested in girls now.

(LAUGHTER)

NATHAN: So...

MARTIN: Which is its own kind of dangerous distraction.

NATHAN: Yeah. Yeah, I knew that would take over - I tried to tell him that actually.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: What do you think might happen to Pug? What path might be pursued in his near future?

NATHAN: It's difficult to say. He's liable to go in any direction but he's also got limited options living in Baltimore. And I try to tell him that his salvation would be to really try hard at school. It's just difficult to communicate at that age.

MARTIN: Does he still talk about wanting to be a veterinarian?

NATHAN: He does, yeah. I think he might start by getting a job at a pet store.

MARTIN: Lotfy Nathan, his new documentary is called "12 O'Clock Boys." He joined us from our studios in New York. Thanks very much.

NATHAN: Thank you for having me, appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: "12 O'Clock Boys" comes out in theaters and on video-on-demand this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.