Taking a look at the power in and of skateboarding

“Power” in skateboarding no longer just refers to Holmes’ method airs or AVE’s switch tres. Skateboarding now exerts a lot of power in a number of areas, meaning that there is also a lot of power exerted against it; it’s kind of like the every-action-spurs-an-equal-and-opposite-reaction phenomenon. No matter where you are, you’re always participating in certain networks of power, and over the last fifteen years skateboarding has consistently stepped up into broader and more numerous networks of power. We’ve always had individual power, but we had limited collective power, meager institutional power, and almost no money power to speak of. But all that’s changing.

In the early 90s, there just weren’t that many people skating, so the businesses were small-scale, struggling to stay alive, and very vulnerable to shifts in the tides. Now many of the companies are large enough, and institutionalized enough, that they can weather small shifts in the business climate, and even create some of their own tides around them (as major employers, with more and more substantial space requirements, and as major consumers of business services and materials). These companies now produce more products, and these products don’t just circulate through little surf shops, but through major retail outlets. Biz-wise, skateboarding has gone from the garage to the mall; it has moved into a much broader network of power. It’s literally spreading out across the world.

In the early 90s, there just weren’t that many people skating, so we had little collective power. When we were identified as a group at all, it was typically by some local reporter who would compare us to gangs and drug dealers, and we had no access to the media in order to fight these histrionic stereotypes. Now those same reporters are being paid to write about how creative we are, and how much we need a new skatepark. Now skateboarders have formed lobbies which actually get measures on the ballot, measures which pass. The most recent and exciting example of collective power is the reopening of LOVE Park. This starts to move beyond just our own self-interest. In LOVE Park, we won a small battle against broader trends of gentrification, and even enlisted Edmund Bacon-one of the great urban designers of the twentieth century-to help. We went from being scattered little thugs, to a recognized international culture with some actual collective power!

The money-power issue is more complicated, but let’s consider how money circulates through skating by looking at the environment. In the early 90s there just weren’t that many people skating, so we didn’t leave many marks. But let’s say that today you go buy a board and go skate a Bank of America plaza, and scuff the ledges. Bank of America starts paying for maintenance and security. You come back and keep skating, and eventually they go to Skatestoppers to buy some custom-made bronze parakeets that attach to ledges. You and your buddies just skate around the parakeets, late at night when the security guards aren’t around, so Bank of America buys some security cameras, then hires a landscape architect. The landscape architect comes up with some more clever and subtle design with big brackets, and ledges with divots in them, and tighter circulation patterns. Construction people get paid and material suppliers get paid. The landscape architect gets paid, then starts a design workshop titled “Banish the Boarders” and gets paid to train other architects his cute little designs. (This workshop title is real. It was run by a landscape architect in San Francisco named Ken Kay.) Because there are now so many people buying skateboards, these landscape architects have a lot of work. There is obviously more money than before in the skateboard industry itself, but there is also a lot more money now in the industries that work to curb or displace skateboarding.

Because there are so many skateboarders today we have changed the way the environment loooks-not only do we leave our marks everywhere, literally marking and claiming these spaces, but there are architectural responses to skateboarding everywhere. What was once a minor nuisance in schoolyards has evolved into a constant hostile negotiation that is played out in the landscape. This negotiation takes place in public spaces across the “developed world.” This fact highlights some key aspects of the functioning of power. First of all, you don’t have to be aware that you’re exercising power in order to do so. I happen to be aware that my skating in a plaza contributes to the creation of security-guard jobs and the development of architectural deterrence, but I also occupy positions where I’m frankly ignorant of the effect I’m having on the world. I don’t even have to be aware that a certain network of power exists in order to exert my power within it. Just think of all of the products we buy-they seem to just materialize on the shelf at the market, but it’s impossible to know all the details about who makes them, where they are made, and what they’re made out of.

Another point on the nature of power-it’s everywhere. Power isn’t something one person has and another doesn’t-everyone always has some measure of it. Power isn’t just the ability to make other people do what you want, it’s also the ability to not do what others want you to. It’s obviously also the power to help people.

Power allows you to get some distance from systems that you don’t believe in, or to dive into systems that you do believe in and enact them wholeheartedly. Power is also the power to blind you to the things that you really are doing. Power is not a thing; it’s a set of relationships that is always changing. If you pay attention to what you’re doing, though, if you’re smart about it, if you take a good look at the position that you occupy in any network of power, if you take the time to understand how power flows through you (how you exert it, and how you’re subject to it), then you’re in a position to use that network of power for your own ends, while simultaneously making that network more fair, or at least habitable, for other people. I hope there are enough people in skating who are thinking about what’s going on-and who care-to keep skateboarding good. Let’s face it, skating is mass culture now, which means, in a lot of ways, we’re more subject to the power of corporations and governments and freaky entertainment industry systems.

But it also means those systems are more subject to our power.

Let’s hope we don’t squander the opportunity, allowing skateboarding to become just another violent jock culture, another sport (“extreme” or otherwise), another gymnasium, another Insane Clown Posse record, another sitcom, another reality show, another Mountain Dew commercial, another Zima, another Tommy Hilfiger, another Lollapalooza, or another Chicken McNugget. This isn’t just a matter of personal taste or “skateboard elitism.”

Power is also the power of self-determination, and we exerted a lot of it by creating our own culture, not just eating whatever shit was fed to us in our Happy Meal.

Skateboarding has certainly changed the landscape considerably, as well as the mediascape and the culturescape, but in this process, the landscape of skateboarding itself has also changed. This is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, of course, but the power to determine the shape of your everyday life is not one that we should forfeit.