Thursday, July 19, 2012

Of Bike Theft and Morality

When I was twelve or thirteen my father bought me what I consider my first "serious" bicycle: a kid-sized Specialized Rock Hopper in a ghastly shade of green with some trim that came from exactly the wrong side of the color wheel to compliment the primary coat. I loved the hell out of it regardless and, frankly, I needed it, because I was a new 6th grader at the middle school three miles across town and my parents couldn't drive me every morning to class.

That bike was the catalyst of three firsts in my life: my first independent mode of transportation; my first trip to the hospital after I clipped a pole near the house; and my first bout with bike theft.

For cyclists, bike theft is as inevitable as death and taxes and, when it happens, feels like a little bit of both. Bike theft is the tax we must pay to ride and when it occurs a little piece of you -- the piece you gave to that ride -- dies inside.

This is not to say that I've had my bike stolen recently, thank goodness, because if I did I am so effing broke that there's not a chance I could replace it for months. Not a victim, for now, but victimization is all around me and sometimes I feel like the wolves are just beyond the tree line waiting for me to screw up.

My coworker's bike -- my Tuesday evening Conzelman Road riding buddy, Alex -- was stolen last month after he got drunk in the Financial District and neglected to take the proper security precautions. A bit closer to home, two months ago somebody kicked in our apartment building's main door and made off with our friend's kick scooter, but could have easily grabbed the bikes. In fact, why the hell didn't he? Unfamiliarity with the operation of the hook each bike hangs from?

Then just recently a teen in SF was arrested after police found 114 stolen bikes in his family's house's garage and storage units in Oakland. That's a hell of a bust, amounting to about a third of the bikes officially reported stolen in a year in SF (about one a day according to police, but it's not difficult to conjecture more are stolen and not reported). These thieves were prolific, but profoundly stupid. The teen (and probably his family) were stealing the bikes in SF and selling them on Craigslist and at the Laney College flea market on weekends. Eventually something was going to give and somebody was going to ID their bike, putting into effect a police sting and yadda yadda. Which is exactly what happened.

If you're an aspiring bike thief listen up, I'm going to give some sage wisdom now: if you steal a bike in the Bay Area, sell it in LA. If you steal a bike in LA, sell it in the Bay Area. If you're a Craigslist or eBay seller, don't sell in the area, do the same thing as above. Also for online sellers, don't do business with an out-of-state buyer or the penalties if caught will be greater due to interstate commerce laws. Had your fill of Criminality 101?

What I'm presently conflicted on is the morality of purchasing parts and/or whole bikes from somebody you suspect of being a bike thief. Back in May I visited a parking lot swap meet in Cuppertino and wondered the entire time how much of those piles of components and fittings were lifted. How many of the patrons were looking for their cranks, or brakes, or wheels back? In their defense, none of the vendors looked the part of the thief and I'm doing that community a grave disservice by even insinuating that there were hot parts there.

Anyway, without any statistics to back me up except a burning feeling in my gut, I'm going to say that 99% of all stolen bikes and parts are never recovered. Yeah, no figures or evidence at all, but I'd bet my bottom dollar I'm within a percent of the correct number. So, if you're willing to agree with that, with the recovery rate so abysmal how can we say it's wrong to buy something you suspect is stolen? If not you, some other opportunist will probably come along and snatch up a good deal.

Honestly, I'm torn on the matter. There's a base injustice to it, sure, but only you would know of it (unless you blabbed to a friend or something). That's a big deal, to be certain -- I already have trouble living with myself over the meager crimes I've perpetrated in my lifetime thus far. I suppose it will come down not on an academic argument, but what's in my heart if ever presented face-to-face with the situation.

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