Welcome Undesirables

I’ve started writing this blog post several times over the last couple of months. I try to keep my regular Skateboard Guff posts positive, and not get people riled up with them. Broaching this particular subject often gets me angry and frustrated and it turns into a bit of a rant, more so than when I write about getting skateparks built.

This was sort of born out of wanting to have a whinge about people who go out of their way to stop us skateboarding, at any location, but I zeroed in on something more wide reaching and compelling that is a bit more food for thought: society’s extremely odd passive aggressive relationship with skateboarders. 

Stay with me here. 

When I talk about the starting point for this blog post, it stemmed from a viral video of a middle aged woman in active wear harassing a skateboarder so he can’t skate a bunch of ledges in New York. This same woman has been caught on camera getting stuck into skateboarder’s business so many times that it’s obvious she is targeting skaters with the intention to harass them and cause trouble. 

I already know your response. “Truck her” you’re thinking. I mean, she’s being incredibly annoying and really getting up in the skater’s face. But the problem is that when the police arrive on the scene, she will manipulate the situation to her advantage. This is part of her game plan: make you so annoyed you give up on your skate, or cause a situation where she is injured and can get the police to remove you by force. 

I saw this video a few times, and began trying to form an angle to write about what she was doing. But then video game journalist (and skateboarder) Gita Jackson posted this tweet, that really inspired what this blog post is about:

Skateboarders are proof of how easy it is to otherize random people, make their physical presence an issue, and then deputize random citizens to protect private property to the extent that this woman tries to injure this guy several times.

Gita Jackson, @xoxogossipgita

I’m not a journalist of any description and I wouldn’t claim to be. I’m pretty piss poor at writing. So of course someone who writes for a living would eloquently explain my frustrations with this video, and society at large, in a short form post. 

Skateboarding is both hilariously outlawed, and openly accepted, in today’s society. This isn’t like the 90’s where skateboarding painted a massive target on your back. Skateboarding is an Olympic Sport (although I debate the term “Sport”), it’s a multi billion dollar industry, and it’s a huge cultural phenomenon. Millions of people on this planet have crafted their entire identity around it. It is as much a part of modern life as Marvel movies and Amazon Prime deliveries, yet it is still looked on with disdain by some people. 

Our perception in the eyes of Joe Public is the murkiest it’s ever been. Some people still hate skaters as much as everyone did back in the 90’s, others absolutely love us, and see the benefit of riding a skateboard and the good it can do you. This murkiness in opinion is extremely bizarre, because it leads to strange situations such as “Karens” hopping around after you trying to stop you from skating a ledge, whilst the BBC showcase skateboarders at the UK National Championships. 

Imagine Marcus Rashford being stalked around a car park by a Baby Boomer in lycra because he was just having a daft kick about with a couple of mates, before he heads off to play a game of football in front of thousands of fans. It’s just a ridiculous notion. But you can guarantee that the likes of Nyjah Houston get aggro and kick outs from nosey NIMBY’s a mere 24 hours before competing in some of skateboarding’s biggest competitions. 

If you are under any misguided notion that an altercation with an argumentative, interfering middle aged white woman at a skate spot would end in your favour, then you would be wrong. If police are called, they will eye up the entitled, hysterical person screaming at you, and you will get the blame. 

Skateboarders (be honest now) look a bit rough around the edges, and if you compare a group of us to the kind of person who would call the cops on us, we lose out almost every time. Society sees us as undesirable, on a similar level to junkies, drunks and criminals. 

Our public image comes across so badly that parents and teachers see “skater style” as a shorthand for “takes drugs, is irresponsible, and has no plan for life or career prospects”. Skateboarders are some of the most driven, determined and pro-active people I know: many run their own businesses, and skateboarding’s industry balances many skills from graphic design, commerce, event planning and delivery, and even film production. The stereotype doesn’t hold water when you look at the real life data. 

Some of you might cleverly point out that if you’re skating at a street spot, you may well encounter people who aren’t best pleased with your use of public spaces, and that we should stick to using skateparks. We’ll, I’m here to tell you that isn’t the solution you would think it is. 

As skateboarding continues to get older, so do it’s participants. The average age of a skateboarder now ranges in the late 20’s to early 30’s. When you consider that some of the earliest pioneers of the skateboarding industry are now in their 50’s (and in some cases, 60’s), it shouldn’t surprise anyone that fully grown adults are the biggest demographic of skateboarders. If you go to a busy skatepark, you’ll soon find out that this is actually a surprise to many, many people. 

I’ve told many tales about parents arguing with me over the usage of a skatepark before. In most cases these people just want their kid to have equal access to the park, which I can understand. I don’t have a quarrel with anyone who wants to join in and use a skatepark responsibly. It gets weird when these people, for some reason, think you shouldn’t be in the skatepark at all because you are a fully grown adult who is skating at speeds that could flatten a child. 

These people have an extremely weird and warped view of skateboarders, and if you are a fully grown adult they will do all kinds of mental gymnastics to make up reasons why you shouldn’t be there. “You’re a paedo, why you hanging around here?”. “You ought to get a job instead of riding that thing”. “It’s sad that you’re down here playing on a kid’s park rather than doing a proper sport, there’s something wrong with you.”

Again, the interactions with these people are just so conflicting. They want the kind of high quality skatepark that attracts good, experienced skateboarders, but they don’t like it when good, experienced skateboarders turn up to skate it. If you go to most skateparks on a weekend you just end up arguing with all kinds of people who think a skatepark shouldn’t be used by skateboarders. 

The amount of hoops we have to jump through to even get anything worth riding built is a joke. We are expected to get good enough to win gold medals in the Olympics, judged by a metric that doesn’t really benefit us, but are then told councils cannot be bothered to build anything more than the bare minimum. 

And then on the other hand, when local councils want to do something that seems on trend, modern and youthful, skateboarders of any age and description are expected to line up and show off their stunts for the adoring crowds. “Oh yes we absolutely love skateboarding… apart from when we are expected to support it with adequate facilities”. 

Gita Jackson’s tweet describes it so perfectly. “Othering”. Society “others” skateboarders, and brings us in just enough to keep us at the edge of what is deemed acceptable. It picks and chooses what elements of skateboarding it wants: it wants impressive sportsmanship, it wants the youthful creativity and ability to stay ahead of the curve, but it doesn’t want the openness, or the attitude toward public space that makes skateboarding what it is. Skateboarding has no rules (And I mean, actual rules, not stuff like “Don’t push mongo”), and I think the issue is that society doesn’t know how to deal with that. 

In Western, Capitalist society, everything is designed to make money, to be a service that can be commodified. Skateboarding, past buying a skateboard, isn’t really about that. It’s a performance art, it’s freedom, it has no rules, it’s open. And the society we live in doesn’t like things when they are too open, and don’t fit neatly into a box that can be marketed and sold.

This is why the confines of competition, and of providing a service (like building a skatepark aka “a place for kids to be dropped off for a few hours”), that can exist within skateboarding’s purview are acceptable to the public. This is the safe, commodified version of skateboarding: Smiling, happy people on the TV at a skatepark competing for gold medals. Crass, loud, raw skateboarding on the street or at a DIY spot is undesirable, so that is rejected by society – therefore jogging baby boomers feel like they have a free pass to interfere and ruin it for us. 

I don’t know what the answer is to this. Skateboarding always refuses to fit itself into any pigeon hole, and when capitalism finds something it thinks it can contain skateboarding in (e.g. Reality TV, Video Games, professional competition), core skateboarders reject it when it becomes too commercial. We are extremely adept at spotting when something has stepped over the line of selling out, so this is a dance that will continue forever I guess. 

This is why I (perhaps frustratingly) sit on the fence when it comes to the Olympics, or having official bodies to represent us. I do believe that representation from real skateboarders is key to getting us better skateparks, getting more people into skateboarding, and breaking down those outdated perceptions of us. However, I also believe that skateboarding’s place on the fringe, as an undesirable activity, keeps it pure and makes it an escape from the quite frankly terrible world we sometimes find ourselves in. 

I don’t want the ills of our society to pollute skateboarding. Whilst we have people sticking their nose in our business when we’re skating a curb in a car park, to me that says that skateboarding is still open, it still has freedom that Joe Public doesn’t understand, and that it hasn’t been caged in by those who would wish to package it and sell it. 

So maybe skateboarding is where it’s meant to be. Acceptable, but also vilified. Whilst a busybody baby boomer stopping me from skating a spot might be annoying, ultimately I know I’m out there trying to do something I love doing, and I am lucky that many others understand that. Those who would stand in our way, however, will always be fuelled by anger, hate and “othering” random people for some mistaken sense of superiority. And in that, I know which side of the fence I’d rather be on. 

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