“A lot of Black mothers, especially when it comes to letting your child do something that mostly white people do, they may not tell you, but they’re afraid that those people will hurt you,” says Rashad, a 22-year-old skateboarder who’s been protesting in Washington D.C.
Despite his youth, it’s a message he’s already keen to impress on the next generation of skaters — young Black boys and girls who suddenly find themselves mesmerized by a wooden board on four wheels that flips and flicks in the air like a feather. “If there’s anyone out there who’s young and Black and wants to skateboard, but their parents aren’t being very lenient about it and don’t want them to do it, eventually you’ll understand: Your parents might just be trying to protect you,” he tells me.
Rashad’s mom was right, of course. Things have been said to him in the skateboard community that he couldn’t believe: “‘Oh, you can jump so high probably, because you’re Black,’” he cites as an example. “‘You can do this trick better probably because you’re Black.’ And I didn’t realize until recently that she was just trying to protect me from experiencing microaggressions, racism, all of those things because, when you’re a Black person and you jump into something that people tell you that only white people can do, there’s a reason for it.”
In this particular case, the reason Rashad’s mother didn’t want to buy her son a skateboard isn’t too hard to fathom: Cops don’t like skateboarders, and skateboarders don’t like cops. A Black skateboarder, then, is particularly imperiled. “When we have those small interactions with cops, my white friends will step up and be the ones to have a conversation with them, because they know the police are just more comfortable talking to them,” Rashad says. “When they see me, they ask me to sit down. They need to see my ID. They have a thousand questions, but the answer is right there in front of them: I’m just skateboarding.”
It’s precisely this reality that has summoned Rashad and his friend Nnamdi, along with thousands of other skateboarders across the country, to the protest line. With slogans like “All Cops Are Bad” and “Fuck the Police” emblazoned on the bottom of their boards, the young men are embattled in a fight for their lives and their future. “The whole point is fighting against the system,” says Nnamdi. “This isn’t just for fun, you know? This is a war. This is so we don’t have to ever go through this again. This is so our kids never have to go through this again.”
By now, you’ve seen the videos of skateboarders all across the country showing up to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Dressed in Thrasher T-shirts and the like, they roll into city streets with one foot stroking against the pavement, as they’ve done for much of their lives, their forward momentum keeping them upright amidst the imbalance. But this time, the asphalt is neither their playground nor their canvas. As Rashad tells me, the “skateboarders are there to march.”
Noticing the presence of the skateboard community in these protests, writer and skateboarder Christian Kerr recently shared some helpful tips in his “Skateboarder’s Guide to Attending a Protest” for Jenkem Magazine. In the article, he outlines several practical suggestions, like how to deal with tear gas or how not to engage with the police. “There’s no need to hug or applaud a cop for doing anything except quitting, but think about what yelling ‘Fuck 12’ in the face of a cop accomplishes, especially if you’re white,” writes Kerr. “Remember that any violent repercussions are going to be doled out to Black and Indigenous folks first and foremost, don’t highlight the target already on their backs.”
This message seems tailor-made for a very small subset of white, so-called “skateboarders” who have been seen using skateboards to damage property amidst the protests. Although small, this potent minority is acting out the perfect brand of violent juvenile anarchy that encourages the antagonistic media propaganda machine.
Just as this group unhelpfully obfuscates the line between legitimate protesters and those looting, it also distorts the perception of the skateboarding community, which, having a long-standing reputation as anti-authority, is easily contorted to fit neatly into such a bullshit narrative. After all, as Kerr notes in his article, “‘Skate and Destroy’ has been a longstanding saying in our culture.”
Kerr insists on setting that record straight, telling me that those responsible for incurring damage are nothing more than posers — just regular dudes pretending to be skateboarders. He even hesitates to ascribe too much importance to those “videos that you’re seeing of ‘skaters’ smashing windows.” “Obviously, I’d never say that these things didn’t happen, because we can all see it with our own eyes,” he says. “But I also think that for 95 plus percent of skateboarders, they’re showing out to peacefully protest, and not to incentivize the police to respond violently by acting violently themselves.”
In fact, Kerr would like to challenge the stale notion of skateboarders as destroyers entirely. Its origins, he says, can be traced back to the early aughts, a time when white skateboarders were known for antagonizing cops. But the new generation — indelibly tied to the grounds of their city — know better than most the importance of community investment. “I think what makes a skateboarder is somebody who is an ally to the skateboarding community,” says Kerr. “And if you’re not an ally to Black people, to women, to any oppressed groups in America, then you aren’t a true skateboarder.”
He cites skate shops — “one of the worst financial decisions that anybody could ever make” — as but one example of skateboard culture as a beacon for the rest of humanity. “Those things exist as community hubs where people can come together,” Kerr says. “Generally people of color, minorities or those with hardscrabble upbringings and no place to go, find a community there.”
Community investment aside, Nnamdi, who directs skate videos, and who tells me he’s been “arguing with security since I was fucking 12,” says that activism is in a skateboarder’s blood, “in the sense that we’re always trying to go outside of our boundaries,” he says. “We’re always trying to skate spots that we’re not allowed to skate. Things that are high-risk factor. Things that kind of put us in a position where we might challenge authority. These are things we’re naturally drawn to.”
The current protests are but one element in a much larger purview of activism for Nnamdi and Rashad, who have long been vocal about the racism that plagues society both inside and outside of skateboarding. “Skateboarders don’t like being brought down,” says Rashad. “They don’t like being bummed out, which pisses me off, because there’s a lot of shit that bums me out. But that’s my reality. So, you got to deal with it too sometimes, because it’s about everyone working and fighting to end it.”
Rashad adds that he’s been called “preachy” when he talks about issues that go on outside of the skateboarding world. “My thing was, when you’re a Black skateboarder, people think you should just be happy to be there,” he says. “And for so long, I have known that people don’t want to hear what I have to say. I’ve posted about lynching, I’ve posted about mothers whose children have been hung up on trees but the police are saying it was suicide, even though they have bruises on their bodies.”
“Before I’m a skateboarder, I’m a Black man,” he continues. “There’s nothing that could change that. I can quit skateboard tomorrow, but I will still be a Black man. And at the end of the day, people need to know how we feel.”
The people he’s referring to are the white skateboarders who “love having Black friends,” and who “love to skate to rap music” and who “claim to love him as a person,” but who need to do far more than commiserate. “Because the things that make you uncomfortable, that’s our reality,” says Rashad. “I deal with it every single day. So, you should be able to deal with it for five to 10 minutes just to hear how I’m feeling, because sometimes when I pull up to go skate with someone and they could be in the best mood, in the back of my mind, I’m also thinking about the video I just watched of an innocent Black person being shot to death.”
That’s why, even amongst his own friends — who he says are at least listening and trying to participate — his hope is that moving forward, they won’t be so quick to just assume that everybody’s okay. “Because sometimes, especially when you’re Black, you’re just not okay,” he says. “There’ve been a few times I’ve tried to talk about some things and someone was like, ‘Oh yeah, man. That sucks.’ And it’s like, I’m not asking for you to hold me so I can cry in your arms. But at the same time, I need more than a, ‘Yeah, man. That sucks.’”
Kerr, too, alongside the practical guidance in his article, takes plenty of time to make sure that white skateboarders know what they’re protesting against. “Protests aren’t parades,” he writes. “These are life-or-death issues we’re talking about, and you should know something about the seriousness of the situation before joining up.”
Nnamdi agrees. He tells me that even for him, a “damn near fearless” skateboarder, attending these protests is frightening. “It’s scary getting shot by rubber bullets,” he says. “It’s scary getting surrounded by the police. It’s scary getting tear-gassed. That shit is scary. And it’s traumatizing.” But, he adds, in some ways, it’s like “battling for a skate trick.” “Like it’s a war that you’re going to go through because you know that the outcome of this is going to be life-changing,” he says. “And we will fall in the process and it will hurt. But the whole point is that if you stop after you fall, you’re never going to know if that next try would be the one.”