‘Skating Switch’ in the Panopticon: On Abolitionist Skateboarding Futures
Skateboarding is polarizing in both the freedom enjoyed while participating but also in the ways it is commonly viewed as a threat to public space and safety by those who do not actively participate. The latter notion is reflective of a society that prioritizes the pedagogy of policing and ideas of harm reduction, as well as behavioral and carceral reform. Societal perceptions of legality and danger affect skateboarders increasingly as the culture of skateboarding is further framed and perceived in violent and dangerous ways (Németh, 2006). The society we see around us is an ongoing reflection of the way we view and construct it to be. As such, if skateboarders inherit and communicate a more empathetic, abolitionist perspective about their craft, skateboarding stands to influence renewed socio-economic perspectives.
On an Engaged Pedagogy of Skateboarding
Terry Yosso observes the US schooling system as “one of the most prevalent forms of contemporary racism…”, as “…deficit informed research often ‘sees’ deprivation in Communities of [Colour]” (2005). As such, in the ongoing process of active learning and unlearning, skateboarders should turn to a process hooks refers to as “engaged pedagogy” (1994). “”[Engaged] pedagogy” is more demanding than conventional critical or feminist pedagogy”, in that “…it emphasizes wellbeing”, states hooks (1994). When education is the practice of freedom, students are not the only ones who are asked to share, to confess” (hooks, 1994). In this sense, students can stand to be seen as skateboarders, and those looking to positively contribute to the growth of the culture in a meaningful way.
This website, this article, and the ideas they respectively champion, celebrate skateboarding as a powerfully untapped tool for educating and understanding the odd state of our cumulative teachings. This article suggests that great consideration should be given to the social construction and design of abolitionist skateboarding futures as this notion stands to impact a greater socio-economic condition. The writings of Dylan Rodriguez challenge us to “consider abolition as both a long accumulation and future planning of acts performed by and in the name of peoples and communities relentlessly laboring for their own physiological and cultural integrity…” (2019). In this sense, through their embodied experiences, skate communities can be observed as upholding values inherent to their culture through a performance in society that Bourdieu rationalizes as an embodied state (Bourdieu, 1986).
Reflecting on the suggestion of Culture as a Toolkit, Ann Swidler notes, “values remain the major link between culture and action” (1986). While not particularly interested in the framing of Swidler’s broader point, this particular perspective is key in understanding the embodied nature of the skateboarding experience. Values, observed as “properties of things and states of affairs that we care about and strive to attain”, can be reflected throughout society in as many ways as we are individuals (Flannigan & Nussenbaum, 2014). However, some of these ideals, “reduce values to an economic proposition…” jeopardizing the safety of individuals, and indeed the properties themselves (Flannigan & Nussenbaum, 2014). Consider the suggestion of property value, and the rules, laws, and governing bodies dispatched to maintain a sense of the value of the land that we collectively contextualize in all our daily experiences. An example we can make is in the case of Philadelphia’s LOVE park, officially named John F Kennedy Plaza, and the interaction of skateboarders in this public arena. “Throughout it’s history, the space had been home to political rallies, civic events, and electoral campaigns. Its location across from City Hall … made it a natural gathering point for residents, employees, and tourists. The site had also been the site of a large homeless population” (Németh, 2006). Nemeth notes that “in March 2000, City Councilman Michael nutter proposed a Bill banning skateboarding in the space, citing damage caused to concrete ledges and the danger posed by skateboarders to other park users” (Németh, 2006)
Just one year after this ban, “Philadelphia hosted the X-Games in 2001 and 2002, an international extreme sports tournament televised by the ESPN network” (Németh, 2006). Németh continues citing that this event would come to draw in “$40 million in revenue from advertising and endorsements” in year one and “…$80 million over the two years of the event”. (2006) Footing a $60, 000 bill of damage and an $800, 000 dollar facelift to LOVE Park, the space was later reopened for public use with the addition of “numerous pink planter boxes with native plant displays to make the park unskateable and placed wooden benches with crossbar dividers around the park to … [deter] skateboarders and reclining homeless persons” (Németh, 2006). This observance of hostile architecture speaks to a larger condition about a system that aims to maintain the appearance of normality, thereby minimizing it in society. “The [City of Philedelphia] instituted a 24-hour police presence in the park to enforce the ban. (Németh, 2006). As highlighted by Flannigan and Nusssenbaum, “all of these values emerge from the rules of the game, and any combination of them might contribute to a player’s experience of the game’s values. Precisely how players or spectators experience the values of [skateboarding] depends on the unique combination of personal, cultural, and situational factors that they bring to the game (2014). Borden writes that “…street skateboarding promotes the ‘use value’ of a space over it’s ‘exchange value’, as it fails to produce any tangible, exchangeable goods. In some opinions, the activity “appears to serve no known purpose in life and does nothing to raise national productivity ( Borden, 2001 & Németh, 2006). These perspectives fail to acknowledge skateboarding as a burgeoning $1.5 billion dollar industry while profiting from it (Németh, 2006). Abolitionist skateboarding perspectives call us to change our perspective and ask where else these resources could have been allocated. Particularly, away from the policing and rule of people living in the margins.
On Subversion and Skating Switch in the Panopticon
As skateboarding enters the Olympic stage, skateboarders stand to benefit from tactfully challenging suggestions of harm and the relationship of this suggestion to notions of skateboarding as ‘violent’. Skateboarders should feverishly challenge all perceptions of skateboarding as a threat to public safety, considering abolitionist frameworks and Critical Race Theory as a compass when building new spaces or communities for skateboarders and the general public to interact with. The writings of Rabinow in The Foucault Reader suggest that at present, skateboarders are affected constantly by the Panopticon as, “through spatial ordering, the panopticon brings together power, control of the body, control of groups and knowledge … [locating] individuals in space, in a hierarchical and efficiently visible organization” (1984).
‘Skating switch’ or in a mirrored stance, with your dominant pushing foot on the board, is favored among skateboarders for its high degree of technicality and perceived difficulty. This is opposed to “fakie” which is skating backwards or “nollie” which is to pop off of the front of the board in your most comfortable stance. These “stances” can be seen as a framework – a metaphor for the varied ways in which society must constantly renegotiate oppressive tools – to be elaborated upon towards the benefit of our collective understanding of skateboarding. As suggested by Alan Eladio Gómez, in episode 23 of the Vent City podcast, this relative perspective of what is both challenging and rewarded within communities can and should be applied to our understanding of the ways in which we, as individuals, navigate society. Furthermore, this perspective can be seen as a framework for approaching not only skateboarding but life, calling us to renegotiate our stance as frequently as skateboarders do in order to view life from the perspectives of those living on the margins. Because of a pervasive culture of “deficit thinking”, marginalized bodies are constantly read for capital, and ascribed capital based on a standard agreed upon by society (Yosso, 2005). “Those who occupy the central position in the panopticon are themselves thoroughly enmeshed in a localization and ordering of their own behavior” explains Rabinow (1984).
In understanding the ways in which hierarchies are made in society, we can further understand and challenge how they affect skateboarding culture. The intersections that comprise our collective experience, defining what is easy and difficult about life, are conflated to varying degrees based on the way we choose to live and identify, but moreso, based on how we are surveilled and policed. This article reinforces the idea that the experience of inclusivity and intersectionality cannot simply be spoken into existence but must be challenged in the structures that inform and govern skateboarding and it’s participants. Inside and outside of skateboarding, different bodies are read to have their own respective cultural capital but nonetheless, in the panopticon, skateboarders are both policed and surveilled based on society’s standard of our merit as individuals. Therefore, this article acknowledges that the culture industry of skateboarding cannot be truly inclusive until we are all meaningfully and individually included.
In an active subversion of and resistance to what Yosso observes as a ‘deficit thinking’ of and about skateboarding, skateboarders can turn towards the community cultural capital they produce to challenge commonly upheld notions of skateboarding’s value in society (2005). This article challenges readers and skateboarders at large to critically observe the ways in which capital within skate communities can manifest in more transformative ways. In thinking through skateboarding as a tool towards abolitionist futures, Yosso’s six facets of community cultural capital can be viewed as a part of Ann Swidler’s ‘Cultural Toolkit’, suggesting the enriching nature of skateboarding made manifest through Aspirational, Linguistic, Familial, Social, Navigational and Resistant Capital (2005).
As our bodies are read for their respective capital in societies it is important to understand the body as a part of a larger political project. In spaces that are constantly governed and policed by normative ideals of a presentable, middle-class, white masculinity, one must always question who’s politics are at play in the spaces they operate in. This article recognizes different forms of capital in skateboarding as:
- Aspirational Capital: Or the constant hope and chance of getting sponsored or ‘turning pro’
- Linguistic Capital: Or recognizing, naming, and creating new tricks in conversation with skate culture
- Familial Capital: Or your skate crew (including filmers), sponsors, and community park locals
- Social Capital: Or the network effects of knowing and recognizing/being recognized by other skaters in space
- Navigational Capital: Or finding skate spots, filming clips, attending contests, finding sponsors, not getting arrested
- Resistant Capital: Or tools like ‘Bondo’, bolt cutters, generators, spotters (who watch for the threat of danger or authority during filming), etc.
While this article doesn’t expand upon the suggestion of capital relative to skateboarding beyond identifying these points, it is important to know that in the case of LOVE Park the city of Philadelphia directly profited from the spotlight that the skating taking place there brought to the city, while denying skaters who were not select professionals the opportunity to participate locally.
On Skateboarding as a resurgent Creative Class
“The park had gained worldwide fame and attention, but to those using the park on a daily basis, LOVE Park, was a stage, and its downtown location afforded its ‘performers’ a broad audience” (Németh, 2006). The presence of the community became a global spotlight that enriched Philedelphia’s skateboarding culture. The nurturing of this community and those like it are, as Lorde suggests, “…not pathological but redemptive” (2007). In conclusion, this article proposes we look to skateboarders, and those who regulate the spaces they operate in as architects and urban planners. Observing a need for both terminal values (understood to mean the comforts of life and a sense of freedom) and instrumental values (honesty, cooperation) this text suggests that in meeting a more empathetic framework of how skateboarders use space, the activity can be read as less violent and minimize the need for active policing and hostile architecture. The collaborative use of space suggests the reallocation of funds to minimize the housing crises that conflate the presence of houseless skateboarders in space but also address the root of the aesthetic circumstance at it’s core. In architecting a blueprint for abolitionist skate futures, conversations of the physical structure of parks is also common topic. In closing, this text suggests that if plaza-style parks (those made to mimic the natural terrain of an activated society) are to become a common occurrence, we should observe how this relegation of skateboarders to an isolated and patrolled space further embeds the culture in the Panoptic gaze and encourages a more joyful rebellion as skaters wilfully switch their stance and perspectives to skate against the current of society. If plazas are the future of our abolitionist skate architecture, we might benefit from meeting with the politicians who regulate and govern these spaces if only to remind them that they could stand to save their money by being more inclusive. For had they considered us a part of the design plan the first time, they wouldn’t need to build us our own cities to skate tomorrow.
Borden, I. (2001) Skateboarding, Space and the City: Architecture of the Body (London: Berg).
Bourdieu, Pierre. “The forms of capital.” In Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Ed. J. Richardson. New York: Greenwood, 1986: 241-258.
Flanagan, Mary & Nussenbaum, Helen. Chapter 1 & 2. Values at Play in Digital Games. 2014 (14- 41).
hooks, bell. “Engaged Pedagogy” from Teaching to Transgress. 1994.
Jenkins, Henry. “What Do You Mean By “Culture Jamming”?”: An Interview with Moritz Fink and Marilyn DeLaure (Part One).” Henry Jenkins, http://henryjenkins.org/blog/2017/9/7/an-interview-with-moritz-fink-and- marilyn-delaurie-part-one Accessed November 18 2020
Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley, Crossing Press, 2007, pp. 110- 114.
Németh, Jeremy. “Conflict, Exclusion, Relocation: Skateboarding and Public Space.” Journal of Urban Design, Vol. 11. No. 3. October 2006, 297–318.
Rodriguez, Dylan. “Abolition as Praxis of Human Being: A Foreword.” Harvard Law Review, vol. 132, no. 6, April 2019, p. 1575-1612. HeinOnline.Yosso, Tara J. “Whose Culture Has Capital? A Critical Race Theory Discussion of Community Cultural Wealth.” Race, Ethnicity and Education, 8, no. 1 (2005): 69-91.