Opinion

OPINION: Online Blockwatch turns up heat on Chilliwack bike riders

A young man on a bike downtown Chilliwack. Going to work? Bored? Looking for empties? Or is he a criminal? - Paul J. Henderson
A young man on a bike downtown Chilliwack. Going to work? Bored? Looking for empties? Or is he a criminal?
— image credit: Paul J. Henderson

After a recent Chilliwack RCMP press release about crime hot spots, I decided to take a drive over to the Woodbine/Hazel area south of Yale Road to see what was up.

As if I, an interloper who doesn’t live in the neighbourhood, would see anything of criminal or news interest spending just a few minutes in the area.

What I did see after spending no more than 20 minutes in my car driving the streets was about five suspicious looking guys riding bikes.

Don’t stop the presses, and don’t call the cops.

There is nothing new about suspected thieves seen riding around neighbourhoods in all communities on two wheels.

The stereotype is ubiquitous: A helmetless male in his 20s, usually white, sometimes First Nations, is seen pedalling around with a bag over the handlebars and/or a backpack.

Criminal!

Well, maybe. Or maybe he’s a student. Maybe he’s a low-income fellow doing what he can to get to his low-paying job. Or maybe he’s unemployed, down on his luck, cruising around looking for deposit recyclables and anything else he can find.

And yes, maybe he’s casing out your house, looking to steal your cigarette butts, your roses, your power tools, your purse, your bike or your truck.

There has been a growing Facebook vigilantism going on with regard to this sort of thing, and a corresponding backlash from folks upset about, well, disparaging people on bikes with backpacks.

A Facebook group with more than 4,500 members called “Beware! You Need to Know!” has seen an uptick in postings about property crime and theft in recent months. In recent weeks, there have been more and more postings about suspicious guys riding bikes in neighbourhoods.

“Woodbine and Yale Rd this morning around 6 am saw a guy riding a bike with someones recycle bin, looked like it was full of cans,” someone posted.

Others reacted angrily defending those who ride bikes for various reasons.

Maybe it was his own recycling bin and he was returning some cans?

But on my incredibly brief visit, looking with the jaundiced eye of a reporter for someone doing something wrong, I was surprised. I saw one man with ripped pants riding a bike with a chariot-style trailer, followed by another dodgy looking guy. They pulled into a driveway and, just based on body language and attitude, appeared like they belonged there.

Then saw a young man in his 20s riding a bike down Hazel. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, but he had a full-face motorcyle-style helmet on his handlebars. He was wearing gloves and had a large plastic bag over the handlebars, too.

So I followed him for about five minutes and as long as I could. He rode up and down streets in the area in a totally random fashion the entire time, to the point where I finally lost him as he rode through Portage Park. Was he up to no good? I don’t know.

His actions seemed like he was either casing out homes for later crimes or he was looking for opportunities.

But maybe he was looking for empties to bring to the recycling depot. Or maybe he was bored, looking for friends.

Or maybe it was none of my damned business what he was going.

“I ride my bike sometimes in a hoodie. I also don’t wear a helmet. So now that makes me a bad person . . . . You guys saying these things are clearly bitter and not any better then they people you are bitching about,” someone posted on Facebook.

I think the online Blockwatch that has been going on of late serves a good purpose in the community.

There does seem to be a lurking danger, however, that the social media vigilantism, the public shaming and intense focus on suspicious guys on bikes, might be acted upon in the real world and someone innocent might be targeted.

But maybe I’m just paranoid.

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