An Afternoon at the Skate Park

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Vera L

I took my seven year old to the skate park after school one afternoon while his brother was at baseball practice. The popular Berkeley skateboard park is settled on the edge of a large soccer field, a field big enough that a couple of kids’ teams can use it at the same time for practice. This afternoon, the weather was sunny and cool, and spring soccer had just started up, so the park was crowded. There were skate boarders and two teams’ worth of soccer players and the accompanying parents everywhere.

I turned the corner hoping that I’d be able to find a parking space close by, despite the crowd. I like to be able to position the car so that I can look up occasionally from my knitting (an activity essential to fill the hours I spend sitting at my sons’ activities) to note my son’s location, or watch as he practiced tricks, or just to be sure that he hasn’t fallen and broken an arm while I’m not looking.

I lucked out. A car pulled out of a spot just in front of the fence, between the skate park and the soccer field. I had a complete view. My son tumbled out of the car before I even turned it off, buckling his helmet as he rolled on his board towards the gate. I pushed my seat back, opened the car windows, and picked up my knitting.

I enjoy watching at the skate park. I like noticing things here and there that clue me into the culture of the place. Despite the fact that it is wildly popular, skateboarding still has something of a “lone rebel” attitude surrounding it. The kids who usually frequent the park are guys of varying races and abilities (every once in a while, a young woman skates, but not often). There are very young riders (I swear I saw a kid who couldn’t have been more than three years old riding once), up through grown men, some well into their thirties. They often come alone to skate. Even when they come with another friend or two, they skate without talking or interacting much at all. They watch each other silently to time their turn to sail down or up a wall, or grind along a lip, or jump up out of the bowl. There are times that a truly skilled maneuver will draw shouts of congratulations, or a skater will utter a loud curse after a clumsy fall. Sometimes the guys gathered around the edges waiting for their turns have conversations, but the predominant sound at the skate park is the roll of the wheels on the concrete, the grinding of boards or the crack, slap sound of a board that’s escaped from its rider and is ricocheting across the park. There are no coaches barking orders or giving pointers, and we parents who accompany our children (just the parents of the young kids, mind you) make ourselves as unobtrusive as possible.

That afternoon, my position between the soccer field and the skate park gave me the opportunity to notice the difference in what the soccer players were doing. Theirs was a team sport, with kids moving in unified drills, following specific instructions from a couple of coaches, lots of shouting back and forth, lots of coordination and cooperation, all under adult supervision. And the two teams practicing at that field were girls’ teams, middle school age from the looks of it. The vast majority of them were white, with a few Latino and African American girls scattered here and there. I happily knitted along, watching for my son, fascinated by the two different worlds bordering each other.

After a bit, I noticed a group of four skaters – all boys, maybe fourteen years old – hanging around with their boards along the edge of the soccer field in front of me, lounging against the outside wall of the skate park. They did a few desultory rolls up and down the sidewalk that separated the skate park from the soccer field, but didn’t seem to be doing much more than hanging out and talking. They were laughing with each other in that loud, boisterous way young teens have. A group of girls was doing a soccer drill near the edge of the field in front of them, and the boys were watching them.

Something about their attitude, about the way they jostled each other and laughed, made me wonder if they were giving the girls a hard time. Then I saw the one of the coaches, a white man, walk over to the edge of the field, shout something at the boys, and walk away. The group of four moved closer to the field, right on the edge of the grass, talking and laughing louder. “Oh, oh,” I thought, as I saw the coach walk back towards them. He stood in front of them, put his hands on his hips and started talking to them angrily, and they responded. I couldn’t hear what either side was saying, but it didn’t look at all like a cordial chat. He then moved right up to the lone black boy in the group, got in his face yelling even louder, reached out with both hands and started pushing him away from the soccer field. When the boy raised his hands and pushed back, the coach wrestled him into a headlock and started dragging him away from the field and through the gate.

The kids’ friends backed away, shouting, “Hey, what are you doing! Let him go!” as the kid struggled to get out of his grip. By now, a number of the skaters who were inside the skate park assembled along the fence and were also shouting things like “Let him go! What are you doing?”

I got of my car and walked towards them, trying to keep my voice calm and firm as I said loudly, “What’s going on? What are you doing to that kid?” The coach looked up at me, struggling to keep the kid’s head locked under his arms and said, “It’s OK, ma’am. I’m just trying to calm him down. This kid took a swing at me. I’m taking care of it.” The tone of his voice said, “I can do or say anything I want – I know what my status is.” I could see the kid’s face as he struggled to free himself. He was scared.

Then another parent – a well-dressed black man who had been leaning against his BMW watching – walked quickly up to the pair and calmly told the coach, “You’ve got to let that boy go.” Which he did. The black man immediately stepped in between the two and turned to kid saying, “Calm down, son. Just calm down.” The coach back away, and panted out “Is that your kid? He needs to learn some manners!” The man turned back towards him and said, “No, he’s not my son, and what you were doing was wrong.” He turned to the kid: “Go on, now, there’s been enough of this,” and the kid went to join his friends, who were still complaining loudly, indignantly and profanely. The coach walked away, back to his team. I searched the skate park for my son, and saw him on the far side, practicing his ollies. He had missed the whole thing.

The man who had stopped the altercation walked over to me, and we stood there next to the fence talking.

I said, “I don’t know what those kids were saying to the girls, but that coach started the fight. He started pushing that kid.”

“I know,” the man told me, “I was watching from my car. I don’t know what he was thinking. That was a stupid thing to do. Does he usually practice here?”

“You know, I’ve never really noticed. I don’t pay that much attention to the soccer players. I’m usually watching my son skate.” “My daughter is practicing with the other team. I don’t know that coach at all. I want to talk to him about this.”

And he called out “Hey, coach!” and gestured for him to come over. The coach approached us from other side of the fence, and the man said, “I want to talk to you about what just happened. That was too much. That kid didn’t deserve that.”

The coach spoke directly to the man, not acknowledging me at all. “Those boys were harassing my girls, and I needed to get them under control. I can’t let them do that stuff. And he took a swing at me.”

I had to speak up. “But he didn’t. You escalated whatever argument was going on. You put your hands on that boy first, and he pushed back. How did you expect him to respond?”

The other parent said, “You know, this is a public park. Those kids have a right to be there. You can move your team down the field, or call the cops if you need to. You shouldn’t have tried to push him out of the park. You have no idea who that boy is. You have no idea what could have happened.”

The coach answered, still speaking to the other man and not to me, “You’re right, you’re right. I’m sorry, I didn’t handle it well. I should go apologize.” And he walked back to his team again, this time telling them to move down the field. I saw him talking quietly to a woman as they moved – maybe one of the moms from the team – who was very animatedly saying “What? What! But we should be able to protect our girls!”

The boys had retreated to the wall again, staying well away from the soccer field. But they were cursing up a storm, loudly asserting what they’d do if “that *#^%*@ ever comes near me again.”

The coach walked back slowly across the field towards the skate park, and approached the group of boys. He stood away from them a bit, and began talking quietly. I assumed he was trying to apologize. Why he thought that group of kids would accept an apology from him now was beyond me. Sure enough, I heard a few rude curse words from the boys, and the coach threw up his hands and walked away.

As he got nearer to my car, where I was sitting again, not even thinking about my knitting, one of the older skaters from the park – a white man – approached the coach and said very calmly as he pointed down the sidewalk, “There’s a phone over there. You can use it to call the cops if you think anyone here is a threat to your team. And if I ever see you do something like that to a kid again, I’m gonna be calling the cops.” The coach said nothing, and walked back to join his team while they scrimmaged.

The tension hung in the air for a while. Then a mom who had passed out snacks to the girls from the other team that had just finished practicing walked over to the boys. I watched attentively, wondering what would happen next. She said something I couldn’t hear, turned and walked back to her car, and the boys followed her. She stopped at the open trunk, handed them a plastic container, and the four boys dove eagerly into the leftover cookies. As they ate, they gradually started up a conversation with the soccer players who were finishing their snack.

I picked up my knitting, settled back and listened to the sounds of wheels on concrete and the shouting of the soccer players while the jumble of questions in my mind untangled itself. I thought about race (Why did the white coach focus his aggression on the only black boy in the group? What would have happened if two black parents hadn’t been there to stop him?), about gender (What was the coach “protecting” his girls from – rude comments they’d probably heard hundreds of times?

What lesson had the girls learned? Are the bizarre testosterone-motivated interactions between guys inevitable? Why did the coach pretend I wasn’t part of that conversation?) about white privilege (What if the cops had come? Would that coach have been able to convince them that the kid was the one in the wrong? Would the coach remember today’s lesson that there actually were some limits on his authority?) about the complexity of community and about the simple inclusive gesture of a mom offering cookies.

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