Skateboarders in Center City say members of the Philadelphia Police Department are using excessive force, bordering on brutality, against them.
On a warm, sunny Saturday last month, at least 50 kids of all ages are breaking the law in LOVE Park. The place looks like a melting pot with kids of every size and color skateboarding on a grid near the entrance on 15th Street. They’re popping ollies and other tricks that land many of them on their asses. Other kids sit around the edges or try to “grind” their boards on the rectangular planters.
A park ranger named Ben has been on his walkie-talkie for more than an hour, waiting for police to arrive and clear the place out. “It’s a nuisance,” he says, “but kids are gonna do what they’re gonna do, unless there’s real authority here.”
If skating is illegal here, you wouldn’t know it by the number of people riding, until the cops finally arrive. Then a wave of kids run out of the park into city streets, dodging traffic to escape.
Ever since skateboarding was banned from public places in Philadelphia back in 2002, the rules of the cat-and-mouse game between cops and skaters has been simple: The cops come and the skaters run. In the past, when skaters were apprehended, officers just removed the bolts from the wheels, preventing the owner from riding. Sometimes cops would break the boards or make a kid do a trick to get their board back. Worst-case scenario, skaters were arrested or ticketed or verbally reprimanded.
But skaters say the rules have changed recently, and the new protocol is the stuff police brutality videos are made of. The game has turned into an extreme sport—even more dangerous than skateboarding itself.
Kids says cops have gone from ticketing or arresting skateboarders to chasing them with Tasers drawn, tackling them, body-slamming them, clotheslining them and grabbing them by the neck.
Bring up the topic of the militarization of LOVE Park and just about every skater has a story, and those at Nocturnal Skateshop off South Street are no exception. Store manager and co-owner Mark Brandstetter says he’s definitely noticed an uptick in the intensity of the conversation.
“Every day at least twice a day people will come down and be like, ‘Whoa, we just got chased out—they came in through every angle. Every entrance was a cop coming in,’” says Brandstetter, adding that the city is wasting precious resources on the wrong kind of crime.
Skaters Michael Rankine and Jason Klotz attribute the increased strong-arm tactics to a brawl that took place last January after a wedding party entered LOVE Park to have photos taken in front of the famous sculpture.
The duo claims that an overly intoxicated groomsman threatened a crew of young skaters. “I seen the wedding [party] walkin’ into the park. I kinda skated around their wedding. And I seen dudes grillin’ me like crazy,” recalls 21-year-old Klotz, who says he immediately rode around to the other side of the park. “I turn around and see this big dude in a suit go, ‘The next motherfucker to ride their skateboard, I’ma fuck you up!’ He said that, to like, 14-year-old kids.”
Klotz says the wedding party and the skaters got into an arguing match, and things escalated: “One of the wedding dudes swung on my homie and everybody went crazy.”
Rankine says that prior to that incident, things had been mellow between cops and skaters, but since then, police have been putting a car right in front of the park. “For a while they weren’t doing any of that,” says the 26-year-old. “For a while bike cops would come through, but no one was there on the regular—now there’s a lot more presence.”
Rankine and Klotz are no strangers to run-ins with the cops. Rankine says that on Mon., June 1, while riding his skateboard, he was flagged down by an officer in Center City. Rankine swears he wasn’t attempting tricks but still, “he [the cop] said that I can’t ride my skateboard on the sidewalk or anywhere on the street and there’s a new downtown skateboard ordinance that I can’t skate anywhere, basically.”
Rankine arrived at his South Philly home that day with only a warning, but he wasn’t so lucky two months earlier. The skater says last April he was arrested for skateboarding in LOVE at 1 a.m.
Being arrested, though inconvenient and expensive, isn’t really what bothers Rankine. Instead, he points to an incident from last summer that’s more telling of the increasing hostility between cops and skaters. Rankine claims he was skating at City Hall when a bike cop rolled up on him and started screaming in his face about illegally skateboarding. He alleges the officer pinned him into a corner and used his bike as a barricade.
“I had nowhere to go,” says Rankine. “He had his bike across me so I couldn’t even move to my left or to my right. I go to take a step over his tire and he throws his shoulder into me and slams me back into the wall. I try and step the other way and he head-butted me with the top of his helmet.”
Rankine says he didn’t report the incident because “it puts me out there even more. I just let it be because I knew I would be back down there the next day taking the same risks.”
Sunday was supposed to be Go Skateboarding Day 2009, which offered the possibility that the skaters and the cops at Love Park would have the angry, pointless run-in to end angry pointless run-ins. Instead, the whole thing kind of fizzled out. Larry West reports on the lameness.
PW's 2015 Gift Guide
Dinner with Luke Palladino