On the rails, in the fringes

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Four skateboarders repeatedly hop off the stage in Sycamore Glen, guiding their boards into flips and controlled spins with the grace and nonchalance of seasoned experts. The group is made up of Highland Park residents in their late teens and early twenties. The sound is a veritable cacophony. The racket of loose wheels wobbling from impact after impact can be heard hundreds of feet away. To a passerby, the noise makes for an intimidating rumble, but to the men causing the uproar, it is the familiar soundtrack of their passion.

Skateboarding is not allowed anywhere on the Occidental College campus. When I first encountered this particular group of skaters, they were being stopped by a Campus Safety officer. Though they were not riding their skateboards at the time, the officer informed them that visitors were not allowed and asked them to return to their vehicle and leave campus. The skaters did not attempt to argue or fight the rules, but remained respectful and followed the order.

I followed the group to Sycamore Glen and introduced myself. When they were confident that Campus Safety had not followed, they began to skate.

Though demur with the officer who confronted him, Bishop, an Eagle Rock local, brags to his friends that he has skated at Occidental around a dozen times. He and his comrades discuss the ins and outs of skating on campus and the hidden lips and obstacles where Campus Safety infrequently patrols.

“I think we know this campus better than [students] do. You just walk past it all, we appreciate it and we use it,” one of the skaters, who did not give his name, said.

One at a time, the skaters pop off the small ledge and guide their boards into lateral flips and tight spins. When the
execution is good, the trick is performed with such grace that the uninitiated observer is unsure what exactly has occurred. Like a horse’s gallop, the trick is a dance which cannot be traced in live motion, yet is done with such expertise it seems utterly simple; there is an air of improvisation to it. When the trick is less skilfully done, the board rolls mindlessly off, the skater pursuing it on foot.

Their riding was interspersed with talk; they are as much athletes engaged in practice as they are friends bonding. They weighed the achievements of professional skaters and argued about the implications of success.

The sport of skateboarding promotes both cultural and social bonds. For the local skaters, skating is foremost a passion — connecting friends and giving them something free to do together. Like any group of similarly minded fans or athletes, they discuss their interest with the terms and enthusiasm of the initiated. They relate over shared
knowledge and experience.

“Skating’s organic. It’s about kicking it with the homies and making something creative. When you go pro, that element is gone. The art is gone,” Bishop said.

One of his friends argues the merits of an up-and-coming group of young pros.

“They’re good, but what have they contributed to skateboarding? New tricks? New styles? No, nothing,” Bishop said.

From skating, other topics arise: the nature of class distinction, success and money, among others. They share their ambitions. Bishop explains in detail his ideas for a line of skateboarding clothing, but criticizes the aimless pursuit of wealth.

“If you give me a million dollars, what would I get? A chain today, Jordan’s tomorrow. I’d be broke in a week. What’d it do for me? I’ll just keep expressing myself by skating,” Bishop said.

When the lack of respect for skateboarding is mentioned, minor differences of opinions are washed over by a sense of solidarity. The skaters lament the sport’s limited mainstream media coverage, Olympic representation and persisting popular associations of skateboarding with listless youth, crime and danger. The sense that skaters are not respected as professional athletes riles them. They laud the professional skater and point out how his broken bones outclass the injuries of Lebron James.

Yet the continued quasi-underground status of skateboarding is part of its appeal. The sense that the activity is sometimes forbidden and often frowned-upon makes skateboarding as a community all the more immersive.

“Skating couldn’t be in the Olympics. How would you judge art?” Bishop said.

Small groups of local skaters are drawn to the Occidental campus because of the lack of crowds and the open areas. The features favored by street skaters — clean concrete, wide stairs, jumpable gaps and low rails — are common on campus. Though there are at least four skate parks within five miles of campus; skaters oriented toward the street style prefer the open terrain of a public space to the ramps and jumps found at a park.

Like many who choose to skate on campus, Bishop and his friends must navigate the barriers raised by the prohibition of skateboarding.

Discussions inevitably turn to topics of style, preferred tricks, battle scars and run-ins with the authorities. The relative fringe status of skateboarding can instill some sense of marginalization, a feeling of shared burden which strengthens the bonds between skaters.

They commiserate with one another.

“A basketball player can put a hoop on a wall anywhere, and they won’t get called out for trespassing. We’re the only people they do this to,” Bishop said.

Despite the prohibition of skating on Occidental’s campus, a diverse group of skaters come to the college to meet their friends and practice their sport. Among them are students and locals, novices and experienced skaters. They are mindful of Campus Safety and careful to be civil. They empathize with those whose duties task them with stopping skateboarders, yet they are undeterred.

Around Occidental, there are about as many college students skating as locals.

“We all know we exist. Some of us interact, some don’t,” Media Arts and Culture (MAC) major Kelly Wourms (junior) said.

If Occidental aims to foster engagement with the surrounding community, it has unintentionally succeeded within the skating subculture. There is a two-way exchange taking place. Just as students from Eagle Rock High School and Lincoln High School come to Occidental to skate, Occidental’s skateboarders speak of riding walls and clearing gaps on the campuses of these local schools.

Wourms relates his experiences at Verdugo Skatepark in Glendale, witnessing the interaction of geology major Graham Spain (sophomore) with young local skaters.

“He shreds. They worship him. It’s adorable,” Wourms said.

At first Bishop criticizes what he sees as disrespect faced by skateboarders compared with other visitors who come to campus to walk their dog or simply sit in the Academic Quad. Though he admits to having been warned against skating on campus before, he insists that Campus Safety must express more clearly its desire to rid the campus of skateboarding.

“If you don’t want us here, publicize it. Then we’d say ‘F— Oxy’ and go somewhere else,” Bishop said.

He offers his rebellious and antagonistic words almost as formality, a necessary ritual in the propagation of skating’s anti-establishment ethos. But as they continue it becomes clear that he and his friends do feel connected to the college community.

“I want it to be so that people who see Oxy want to come here. I like Oxy. I like people,” Bishop said.

The skaters tell me about attending concerts on campus and getting into student parties. While we’re talking, one of them receives a phone call. It’s from an Occidental first-year, they explain — a novice skater who they’ve befriended and are helping to teach new tricks. They make a plan to meet later in the day to skate and hang out on campus.

Later on, I meet with Spain and two of his fellow student skaters, undeclared majors Logan Justice (pictured) and Matt Lui (first-years). They practice their moves while we discuss skating at Occidental.

Like all skaters, they are wary of the risks they face.

“It’s concrete guerilla warfare out there,” Spain said.

However, they do not let the ban get to them.

“There’s no set area where we skate. Everywhere is our skatepark,” Lui said.

The skaters have different styles and levels of experience, but they all learn from each other.

“The thing is, you get a different experience from riding different terrain. Skateboarding today is very catalytic to this. It’s all open now. With these guys, I’m trying more street.But I’m more into transitions,” Spain said.

“I’d say we’re the complete opposite,” Lui responded.

“You see, we’re a rich and diverse community,” Spain said with a laugh.

Any sense of victimization is overshadowed by the camaraderie of the skaters and their acknowledged sympathy with the authorities.

“It’s super individualistic. The good skateboarder isn’t a team player, but it’s through that individualism that people come together and bond as a community,” Justice said. “We feed off of each others’ energy when we skate. When I’m alone, I won’t have the motivation to push myself.”

The individual skater’s passion for the sport is fused with the connections he forms with those he rides with.

“The influence of others really opens you up to new things,” Lui said.

“Yeah, that’s how new tricks get made. Different perspectives coming together,” Spain responded.

The other skaters agree.

“It’s ultimately about appreciation. You’re doing this to be appreciated. The most self-accomplishment comes from others. It’s about the shared experience of skateboarding,” Justice said.

Spain has started a homemade magazine for skaters on campus called “Occidental Skateboarding.” Comprised of printer paper and held together by staples, the first issue features over a dozen action shots of Occidental skaters, as well as a couple news briefs related to skating and an interview. Its simplicity is befitting of an underground community. It is an intimate affair — a conscious effort by Spain to bring different circles of skaters together in some way.

Spain expects his efforts will pay off and the magazine will continue. The skaters share delight in discussing the world they care so deeply for with one another — a world which Occidental tries to stifle.

The ban on skateboarding has been in place for longer than the administrators in the relevant offices can say. But Occidental stands behind the policy, which, according to the Student Handbook, is based on the grounds that skateboarding is potentially dangerous to both skaters and pedestrians.

Two serious skateboarding accidents in 2009 highlighted the dangers associated with skateboarding. According to Associate Dean of Students Tim Chang, both involved students suffering serious injuries that forced them to withdraw from Occidental.

“The policy was in place before these accidents, but they served as reminders of the dangers of skateboarding on campus,” Risk Management Coordinator Nazeli Khodabakhsh wrote in an email.

The Office of Risk Management, which is tasked with limiting financial risk to the college, supports the skateboarding ban. Khodabakhsh explained the reasoning behind the policy.

“United Educators, our liability insurance company, recommends that skateboarding not be allowed in areas with steep inclines and speed bumps (like Oxy). Skateboarding, rollerskating, etc. also pose a risk to pedestrians even in areas without inclines,” Khodabakhsh said.

While Campus Safety does not prioritize actively enforcing the ban, it accepts the Office of Risk Management’s assessment of the dangers of skateboarding.

“If we see somebody skateboarding, we will talk to them. It’s one of many items we follow up with on campus. It’s our job. We’re not out there looking to catch people,” Chief of Campus Safety Sean Kennedy said. “Because of [previous injuries], we’d be remiss to do nothing. If someone had a bad crash and we didn’t talk to them about it, I’d feel horrible. I’d have failed in my responsibility.”

Bishop dismisses the college’s fears of financial burden brought on by an injured skater.

“Real skaters don’t sue. The last thing they think about is getting money out of you. They just wanna get the cast off and keep skating,” Bishop said.

The skaters themselves recognize the risks they take, but downplay any chance their skating has of hurting a pedestrian. In shielding themselves from Campus Safety, they say they put themselves out of the way of most students.

“We’re smart about it. There’s literally no one here where we skate. We know the risks and we take them,” Justice said. “It’s a very draconian thing to prevent people from doing what they want with their bodies.”

Spain expressed resentment about the contrast between the fines a skateboarder may receive and the relative impunity of those who violate policy on alcohol an drug use.

“I’ve paid $75–100 in fines for doing what I like to do; having fun in a way that isn’t illegal and
isn’t hurting anyone,” Spain said. “We’re students. They’re supposed to look out for us.”

While skaters will continue to be in conflict with the administration and Campus Safety, the relationship is surprisingly non-inflammatory. The skaters suggest the introduction of a liability waiver to allow them to pursue their sport while sheltering the college from legal responsibility.

While the administration has strong policies in place against skateboarding, Campus Safety is not overly antagonistic toward skaters.

“Questioning why we do things is important. We are all about communication. I think [a liability waiver] is a great idea worth discussing with student government,” Kennedy said.

But some skaters are doubtful that anything will change. They are defiant, but not disrespectful.

“We knowingly assume all responsibility for the injuries to ourselves that we cause; we wouldn’t be skateboarding if we didn’t. Ultimately the campus policy regarding skateboarding amounts to a prohibition of something which we skateboarders cherish, and which does not take into account our perspectives at all,” Justice wrote in an email.

The skaters will ride on, with or without acceptance from the school. The sport was born in the fringes and a mild outlaw flavor tints the culture, among rebel and straight-edge skater alike. Students and locals will continue to skate in Eagle Rock, and many of them will come together at Occidental College.