Focused by Devin Kenny

The art, activity, dance, and protest of skating.

Part of the Theory + Practice series.

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Focus: In skateboarding, to “focus” your board is to find the sweet spots and stomp through them, to break your board, kind of resembling the way a martial artist might break through boards or bricks, but much less clean. Skateboarding is all about applying and distributing the right amount of pressure and force at the right moment. In our current times of civil unrest and pandemic, the question of where and how we focus our energies becomes paramount. I have been seeing skateboarding pop up (no pun intended) in a variety of charged locales.

The place formerly known as Lee Circle in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, has been utterly transformed: the statue of Robert E. Lee toppled and removed and its rock plinth covered in pro-liberty/pro-human rights/anti-police graffiti and projected images from local artists and activists. One projection is the Frederick Douglass quotation: “Power conceives nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Several yards away, a modified Parks and Recreation sign reads— 

Welcome to Beautiful Marcus-David Peters Circle
Liberated by the People MMXX

—in classic hand-painted style. After the jump there’s photo and video footage of people doing tricks on the small ledge up the steep incline below the plinth where the Lee sculpture once stood. A young Black skater with a white Vans t-shirt, black chinos, and black-and-white vulcanized low-top Converse does a frontside nosegrind frontside 180 out to fakie into the bank; in the next slide is a photograph of a young white skater in brown chinos, black low-top sneakers, and a black t-shirt doing what looks like a frontside 5-0 on one of the other, higher ledges surrounding the plinth. ACAB, FUCK 12, and BLACK LIVES MATTER can be seen spray-painted prominently in the photos, ostensibly left by protestors. They are members of Richmond’s Bust Crew. 

The “broken windows theory” posits that if dilapidated property, graffiti, and other quality of life crimes are harshly punished, then an area will improve, and its land and property will increase in value. I’m interested in this inversion, where graffiti and street skating actually indicate a change in the value of the property that should be (according to this theory) negative, but I would argue is positive: an ad hoc, outdoor, no-program community space was made from a banal, monumental, sculptural portrait that only served to fire up zealous fervor in hateful Americans. That seems like an improvement to me! The autonomous zones sprouting up across the country over the years are oftentimes covered in graffiti and DIY fliers/posters/zines and tracts: a frenzy of expression and political activity. 

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Depicted is a painted image of the World subsumed by flood waters, with buildings in turmoil, animals thrashing, humans in dire straits, and in the distance      an ark floating off.

Leave alone the question of whether or not G-d was protesting with the Deluge; leave alone the question of whether or not an omnipotent and omniscient being that created everything can or would protest; instead, let’s consider two later phenomena: the anarchist slogan “No Gods, No Masters” and the reality that human beings wrote the books that would become the Torah and the Bible. I don’t know the author of the meme, but that probably doesn’t matter. We don’t know all the authors of the slogans that become iconic on protest signs either; and many of the books of the Bible, although they are attributed by name to singular figures, are an accumulation of various oral histories. It’s the people that carry them, figuratively and literally; and in the case of protest signage and memes, the image creates a record. In the earliest eras, the ritual or the body as the archive were the most widespread methods, with the written word being a less common medium to help record. The prophets were divinely inspired, and the memester pulls from the zeitgeist and crystallizes it into a form to reach the general population. But lemme stop … 

“DeStRuCtIoN oF pRoPeRtY iS nOt A VaLiD fOrM oF PrOtEsT” from r/PoliticalHumor

Yet memes take different forms. For instance, numerous images feature colonists of European descent dressed up as Mohawk people dumping boxes of tea into Boston Harbor in protest of the Tea Act of 1773. This was a significant event in the history of what would become the United States of America, and it would become iconic in the myth of the occupied land known as America. As a child, I heard this story in many overly generalized iterations, but I wondered why did they dress up, and why did they dump the tea? Even as I got older and understood the latter as protest, the former component still eluded me. The irony of dressing as Indigenous people, while also being settler-colonialists who in most cases would rather this population dead, is absolutely dreadful. “Ironic” doesn’t come close. But that’s America. That’s the United States liberating itself from England and others but actively trying to stop Haiti in its quest for autonomy from France; that’s Ted Nugent and Kid Rock using a Black music form (one with pivotal contributions from women and queer creators) and spewing hatred against Black people, women, and the LGBTQ+ community. It’s Disney taking stories from the public domain and making millions and billions of dollars off of them and then fighting to make sure their own intellectual properties never enter that same public domain that was so fruitful.

I have been interested in the activity of street skateboarding for a long time, not only as a practitioner, but theoretically as well. Recent events have had several noteworthy manifestations intersecting with skating. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as sites of commerce and exchange shuttered, skaters were still present outside, in some cases skating where it previously had been rare, such as formerly bustling thoroughfares for cars. In the 1970s, with an economic downturn in Southern California, people couldn’t afford to fill their pools, and skaters would take advantage of this during the daytime while the homeowners were likely away at work. In the 1980s people started building backyard mini-ramps as well as jump ramps that would be placed in the middle of the street or cul-de-sac, sometimes built with materials “liberated” from local construction sites, as people sought ways to emulate the vert ramp pros they admired. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, skating public plazas in urban areas became popular, and skaters were considered a public nuisance along with loiterers and the homeless. In many skate videos of the period, this overlap is explored time and time again, as street denizens become “local color,” cameos for companies, teams, or crews, knowingly or not. While in some cases, the presence of these individuals was indicative of longstanding relationships built over months of visiting the same place and encountering people who lived there, this was often not the case.

Across the decades, the activity of skateboarding has functioned as a kind of irritant, but one that responds to the climate of the time. Architect and city planner Oscar Newman’s Design Guidelines for Creating Defensible Space (1976) helped bring into development a glut of functional yet largely unenjoyable public spaces (and mediocre public sculptures alongside them). These plazas would remain largely empty during the day, except when used by unintended populations, including skaters. This is not to say that the activity of skating or its participants are inherently radical or progressive thinking: skateboarding itself gained popularity as a thing to do while the waves were flat, and it could be argued that it evolved from a novelty variant of surfing, which is appropriated from earlier wave sliding/wave riding cultures found largely in the Polynesian islands but also in West Africa and Peru. Regardless, the intersection between the formerly subcultural activity and other sectors of society seems fruitful. In terms of street furniture, many of the same methods used to keep homeless people from sleeping on a surface also prevent birds from perching on it and hinder skaters from utilizing it. Common experiences of repression can bring seemingly disparate groups into conversation.

Over a toppled statue to human trafficker Edward Colston, a Brown person in a light-blue surgical mask, with a blue-gray hoodie, gray low-top sneakers, and dark-blue slim-cut pants holds a skateboard with both hands as the fulcrum, caught mid-strike before the wheels of the board smack the face and the body of the defamed philanthropist, much like statues of Saddam Hussein were slapped with the bottoms of shoes as they were dragged through the street. The statue’s ad hoc removal happened on June 7 in Bristol, UK (a central city in the trans-Atlantic slave trade), amid the protests of George Floyd’s murder by officer Derek Chauvin.

“While enforcing a 6 PM curfew Monday night, a group of skateboarders ages sixteen to twenty-four found themselves running from pepper balls shot by LA County Sheriff deputies. Skateboarders had attended a protest in Hollywood and said they were trying to figure out a way home, made more difficult by the curfew, when the sheriff deputies shot the pepper balls at them which are filled with pepper spray. ‘They stick their guns out the window and we take off. Like, there was no ‘Stop’ or ‘You’re under arrest’; there was no … there was nothing! They just started firing at us!” The video has gone viral, with rapper Lil Nas X and others circulating it on social media.

“Carrying signs that read ‘Listen to Black skaters,’ ‘Abolish the police,’ ‘Being Black is not a crime,’ ‘Destroy racism,’ and more, over one hundred skaters gathered at Twin Peaks, the second-highest hill in San Francisco, after a call publicized on Instagram this past June by co-organizers Re N and Dominico along with many others.” Borrowing from practices like Critical Mass bike rides, but notably more dangerous (the speeds one achieves going down these paved hills are incredible), I was excited to see that people took what’s usually a singular or small crew activity and repurposed it by combining it with a march/protest/rally to address an issue that affects everyone, including the US skate industry, which is majority white. On one end of the protest was a huge gathering at Embarcadero, a legendary plaza where much innovation in street skating took place in the early 1990s. 

A similar event took place in San Diego with Rolling for Rights, a series of protest events during which people essentially do the thing that they would normally do, but with more people, more consciously, and with more discussion around salient political issues. At the Rolling for Rights event, pro skater Brandon Turner was very vocal and spoke to local news agencies about the goals of the event. Turner, who is a survivor of the Prison Industrial Complex (he was also put into solitary confinement needlessly on multiple occasions, allegedly because of overcrowding), didn’t seem to be focused on his own adverse experiences as a Black person, but instead concentrated on the way that skateboarding allows for solidarity across racial, religious, and economic lines unlike few other physical activities can.

Various phrases and drawings are visible on a colorful concrete building. A Black skater, locs bouncing in the wind, wearing a blue surgical mask, a black sweatshirt tied around his neck, a white t-shirt, red sneakers, and black baggy pants, ollies up a two-foot-tall ledge, an inset, cut out from the building, and then does a wallie, all while carrying a cardboard sign that reads NO JUSTICE NO PEACE scrawled large and legibly in black marker. A young Black woman exclaims “Oh! Okay!” while recording the trick, and cheers from people of all backgrounds can be seen and heard.

I started this essay thinking about the importance of destroying property in times of political upheaval. As a teen, I had always conjectured that skateboarding, like graffiti, doesn’t destroy property so much as it transforms it through the addition of physical things like paint, wax, bondo, concrete, et cetera, or ephemeral things like sound, camera flashes, and the like, and then through subtraction, as grinding does just that by shaving away tiny amounts of material from the source, whether metal, concrete, granite, marble, whatever. But while this is definitely damaging, there are also ways of street skating that don’t cause damage: skating stairs or gaps or loading docks, doing ledge rides, firecrackers (when a person at great speed rolls down a set of stairs while on their board), doing manuals, longboard dancing, freestyle, bombing hills, etc. While these instances don’t literally destroy the property, they do flaunt several of the conventions and perhaps the social contract embedded in property. The property is metaphorically destroyed no doubt, but in the vast majority of cases it’s still very much intact and usable for its original purpose. During the uprisings across the United States this past summer and fall, I saw photos of skateboards of all kinds being used as tools to damage police vehicles, while in peaceful protests, police have been illegally seizing people’s skateboards apropos of nothing, preemptively perhaps. The object along with its many uses as a simple machine give it a power in both street skateboarding or in spaces of collective anti/sociality: political expressions and street justice.

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On the steel fence separating the US from Mexico at Ciudad Juárez, several pink seesaws were put into use, bringing a new, more joyous sonic landscape to the area: children laughing and shouting because of the fun they were having. This was 2019.

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Between 1979 and 2007, communities in Naco, Arizona, and Naco, Mexico, played a game of volleyball over the border fence. The losing team would host a party on its side of the fence. The game was even played by municipal officials. 

I have long bristled at the idea of skateboarding as a sport, now settling on it as an “activity” rather than an “art” or dance. Just as graffiti can be treated as an art, skateboarding is an activity that can be treated like a sport (when seen in competitions like the X Games, Street League, and the Olympics) and an art, kind of like street interventions/guerilla theater made for the skaters themselves … and possibly the security cameras (shout out to Pink Bloque, Bill Brown, and the Surveillance Camera Players for helping me think through this), or even a kind of postmodern dance. Skateboarding doesn’t have points; it doesn’t have a coach; it doesn’t have many of the things sports normally have; however, it can be approached athletically if one chooses. 

I think of these interventions, these repurposings at the borders, as sharing something that the spirit of skateboarding has, a spirit which is made visible not just in encounters with security guards in times of peace, but also with police in and out of riot gear in times of war. Sociality and play are a part of the work and in fact are an indispensable part; for without merriment, without music, without funny graffiti, without dancing, without skateboarding, one loses sight of not only the things that are important, but also well-needed means to blow off steam and tension accumulated from lived experience as well as direct confrontations with repressive forces protecting the status quo.

Devin Kenny is an artist, writer, and musician based in NYC. @crashingwavy on instagram

Theory + Practice is a series supported by the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation.

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