The Florida youth team encouraging kids to get on their bikes

Photo: Instagram (@surfgvng)

Photo: Instagram (@surfgvng)

Dwight C. Wells, aka Screamer, bounces on the cushy saddle of his white and seafoam green beach cruiser. He leads a procession of 18 teenage boys on bicycles down Northwest 62nd Street in Liberty City, a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Miami, Florida. A stocky 32-year-old with a photogenic smile and dark cocoa skin etched with a menagerie of tattoos on his upper body, Wells suddenly pulls up the handle bars and the front wheel lifts off the ground.

The boys, pedaling BMX and mountain bicycles, take turns popping wheelies, too. The group simultaneously rides on one tire for more than two blocks, weaving in between slow moving cars on a slightly overcast afternoon. Along the way, Wells stops the caravan at local landmarks such as the segregation wall on Northwest 12th Avenue -- built in the 1930s to separate a new black housing development from white-owned residences -- and the African Heritage Cultural Center on Northwest 22nd Avenue, where the kids strolled through an exhibit in honor of the late Miami artist Purvis Young. 

Bicycles have always been a part of our culture. Before beepers and smartphones, you would have to look for a pile of bikes outside a front yard to find your homies.

Wells and his cycling crew navigate through residential streets to Lincoln Memorial Park on Northwest 46th Street and 30th Avenue. They stop in front of a tall iron gate leading into the 20 acre cemetery, one that’s served as the oldest resting place for African Americans in Miami. 

“Let me ask y’all a question,” Wells inquires. “Do y’all want to be on the other side of that gate?” In unison, the boys reply, “No!” Wells then yells, “Bikes up!” The teens shout back: “Guns down!” They repeat the chant a couple of more times and ride off again. 

Since his release from a state prison in October 2013, Wells has been on a mission to save as many African American adolescents as he can from the gun violence plaguing Liberty City and surrounding inner-city enclaves, pushing them to enjoy their youth through bicycles. 

“Bicycles have always been a part of our culture,” Wells tells me in a raspy, deep voice. “Before beepers and smartphones, you would have to look for a pile of bikes outside a front yard to find your homies. My goal is to build a community of kids who believe in picking up a bicycle before picking up a gun.” 

Today, Wells’ Bikes Up Gunz Down club is morphing into a full-fledged youth organization, providing guidance and assistance to 120 boys, from giving out book bags and school supplies to taking them on field trips. Sometimes the kids will accompany Wells on trips to the local jail, where he speaks to inmates about staying out of trouble once they’re released. He also organizes community events featuring professional athletes from Liberty City, like NFL stars Devonta Freeman and Antonio Brown, to expose the teens to positive role models. 

Photo: Jacob Katel

Photo: Jacob Katel

“Most of the kids are from Miami,” Wells says. “Although some come from across the line from Broward County. We’re making this a way of life.”

Miami certainly needs it. In March, the Miami Herald found that 316 Miami-Dade children and teenagers had been killed by gunfire in the past decade. According to data obtained from ShotSpotter, a high tech gunfire-detection system used by the Miami Police Department, a mind-boggling 8,280 shots were detected from March 2015 to March 2016. Most of the bullets were fired in Liberty City, as well as Overtown and Little Haiti, two neighborhoods with large African American populations. 

In one afternoon in August alone, six young people were shot while attending the wake of another teen killed by gun violence. Four survived but two died, including 15-year-old Isaiah “Zay” Solomon. The following day, an 8-year-old girl was struck and killed by a bullet from a drive-by shooter taking aim at someone else.

Often the killers are still going through puberty, too. In February, 6-year-old King Carter, the son of a close friend of Wells, got caught in the crossfire between three warring teenage boys. Police arrested Leonard Adams, 18, and Irwen Pressley, 17, for Carter’s murder. 

“I’m trying to be a bridge to these kids,” Wells says. “A lot of them like doing tricks on the bicycles. They like the attention. I think it is a positive thing.”

Born on Oct. 21, 1984, Wells spent his early childhood living with his family in a small apartment in the Lincoln Field public housing project. “I was traumatized since birth,” Wells recalls. “I used to hear gunshots and sirens when I was still a baby.” 

He learned to ride a bicycle by age 7, and it became his favorite pastime. “I was one of the most prolific cat walkers in Miami-Dade County,” Wells boasts. “Cat walking is what we call wheelies. I was so good at it, the O.G.’s in the hood would take bets on how long I could stay on one wheel.”

Photo: Jacob Katel

Photo: Jacob Katel

But Wells couldn’t escape the violence enveloping Liberty City. As he entered adolescence, drug running cliques like Vonda’s Gang, John Doe Boys and the Boobie Boys battled one another to lay claim to Miami’s crack cocaine black market. The war lasted six years until 1999, when a federal task force dismantled the three gangs in wide-ranging racketeering indictments.

When he was 15, tragedy hit his front doorstep. Shortly after five a.m., his best friend Alan Bruce was gunned down near the entrance of his apartment. “My homie got shot four times,” Wells says. “He had holes in his neck and face. To see him die right there messed me up big time.”

After the shooting, Wells and his family moved to another housing complex, where his life spiraled. “My mojo went up,” he says. “I got a lot harder. I became a product of my environment.”

Wells racked up arrests for burglary, aggravated assault and grand theft. In 2004, six months before his 20th birthday, he was arrested and charged with strong arm robbery, carjacking and second degree murder. Three years later, he pleaded guilty to all three charges and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

I’m trying to be a bridge to these kids. A lot of them like doing tricks on the bicycles. They like the attention. I think it is a positive thing.

“While I was institutionalized, one of my friends lost his 18-month-old son in a shooting,” Wells said. “He got clipped by an AK-47. That’s when I decided that when I got out, I would do everything I could to stop kids from killing one another.”

David Anasagasti, a well-known Miami street artist known as Ahol Sniffs Glue, met Wells one afternoon this past February. After hanging out with Wells and his crew of bicyclists for a few hours, Anasagasti was so impressed with Wells’ efforts that he offered to help him connect with other community groups and individuals that could help Bikes Up Gunz Down. “He teaches them the history of black Miami and how hard it was for him growing up,” Anasagasti said. “He’s really doing a positive thing.”

Wells says his goal is to take his Bikes Up Gunz Down movement throughout Florida and, hopefully, to other states like Georgia and New York. “I’m teaching these kids to respect first and love second,” Wells said. “If you teach them to respect others, then they learn you can’t hurt people. They don’t want to go down the path I have been on.”

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