by Conrad Drexel
kites received the following from a reader in Southern California whose previous submission,“Catching Fire: Participant Reflections on the Summer of Protest and Rebellion,” appeared in kites #3.1
As an introduction to the culture by way of personal experience, when I was coming of age in the mid-late ’90s, skateboarding was a refuge for outcasts and rebels. It occupied a hazy overlap between otherwise more distinct sub- and countercultures, namely hip-hop and punk, that I had already been straddling. The mechanics of skating also appealed to my appreciation of science—in particular, physics—because tricks require either an explicit or implicit knowledge of how to manipulate the board in order for it to concretely perform how you abstractly conceptualized. Physics are fundamental to all sports, of course, but they feel more overt and pronounced in skating: grinds and slides produce friction, requiring you to wax surfaces; the board is not attached to the body, requiring you to scoop, slide, and stomp with precision in order for it to move with you over gaps, obstacles, and sets; and skating isn’t shy about reminding you of Newton’s third law—when you bail and hit the ground, the ground hits back.
Even on days when I had a bad session and couldn’t land a single trick, skating was therapeutic. It was an opportunity to hang out with people from different age groups and areas, talk art, politics, or whatever else was on your mind, and beat yourself up to the soundtrack of good music playing from a gutter-ass boombox2 (in my case, the music would typically reflect the mood: sessions would start with more tonally “light” artists such as A Tribe Called Quest or Sublime, but after saturating my clothes with sweat and shedding some blood, more grimy groups like Nine Inch Nails or Wu-Tang Clan would get swapped in). For a sport that is highly reliant on individual goals and initiative, skating is remarkably social. It’s other people who challenge you to push through the fear and pain; it’s other people who congratulate you when you do; it’s other people who film your lines and teach you the intricacies of new tricks; and it’s other people who will just be there on the perimeter of the skate spot—whether you choose to talk to them or not—where you rest, recuperate, and take inspiration from those still skating.
Despite its 2021 introduction as an official event in the Summer Olympics,3 skating continues to appeal to a niche population in the US. It is, however, growing in size and scope, with a far more multinational and proletarian body of skaters today than there were 20–30 years ago. If you haven’t noticed this demographic shift and uptick in popularity in the streets, you may have noticed it in the news surrounding 2020’s summer of protest and rebellion. In Los Angeles, for example, when California Highway Patrol officers tried to pacify protesters who had overtaken the 101 Freeway, they fled after a skateboard smashed through their patrol car’s rear windshield. After the murderous and unrepentant 17-year-old fascist Kyle Rittenhouse shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum during the rebellion in Kenosha, Wisconsin following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, he was pursued and struck with a skateboard by Anthony Huber, who Rittenhouse then shot through the heart while Huber attempted to disarm him. Rittenhouse had traveled across state lines from Antioch, Illinois armed with a rifle and the intent to live out the far-Right fantasies of vigilantism and violence against the people in the midst of rebellion.
So, taking inspiration from kites’ “A Call for Communist Social Investigation a Year After the Summer of Rebellion” and my (somewhat dated) knowledge of the scene, I headed out to skate parks across Los Angeles County, California to speak with people about their thoughts on the events of the past year as well as their concerns and hopes for the future. I talked to skaters of different ages and nationalities, most of them proletarians, and interviewed a few whose words provided a springboard for political analysis.
While it’s important to accommodate the more free-form and open-ended nature of conversation and inquiry—we’re communists, not census takers—it’s equally important to structure social investigation around prepared questions. When I met C and Z, two Black proletarian skaters aged 17 and 18, respectively, the first thing that I was interested in learning was their thoughts on 2020’s protest and rebellion against police brutality. As we spoke on the periphery of the park, Z was quick to mention that he had joined in on the mass upsurge, and that it was his first experience stepping into the streets in political protest. We discussed why that was—why 2020 and the police murder of George Floyd stirred him and so many others to take action against a system that is no stranger to demonstrating its disregard of Black people as a surplus population fit for mass incarceration and murder. C and Z spoke to the casual brutality and inhumanity on display in Floyd’s murder as a motivating factor:
- Z: Just watching the video, it’s like, damn, how could a human do that to—
- C: Yeah, it’s like, you can’t just sit inside the house and be quiet.
- Z: That’s a human kneeling on his neck, and bro, I’m telling you “I can’t breathe!” That shit’s like, …how do you do that? That’s just cold, bruh.
- C: Then, his partner, they just sitting there, just standing, saying nothing.
- Z: They just watching it happen…. I dunno…just me, personally, even learning about slavery in school—learning how they did us—that shit just makes me mad. And it was for years, too, hundreds of years. That shit’s just crazy. Something’s gotta change, and it need to start with our generation, you feel me? We gotta make a change; it’s not gonna change itself.
When probed, they conceded that, despite seeing a need for change, it took other people being in the streets to motivate them to do the same. This encapsulates an appreciation and the importance of even informal leadership among the masses, as those who are the first to resist are seldom the only ones who see a need for resistance, and though they may be the first to step out of line, their doing so often ensures that they will not be the last. A single spark can start a prairie fire.
C and Z were easy to talk to, and like D, an 18-year-old Latino skater, they were examples of how often any initial reluctance to speak or self-doubt among younger masses, manifested by statements such as “I don’t know if I got anything good to say,” is contradicted by 30–45-minute conversation. D had recently moved to the LA area from a city “on the way to [Las] Vegas[, Nevada].” Among other things, skating provided D with a relatively quick and easy sense of community in a new city, which can be difficult to establish and maintain, especially in the midst of a pandemic. When I asked D about police brutality and murder as well as the particularity of the Floyd case, he commented “It sucks how that shit just happens, and it’s kinda normal [to the degree that] it’s just like, ‘Damn, another one?’4 A few months pass by, and people forget about it like it was nothing.”
While Floyd’s murder by police lasted longer in the popular consciousness than most victims, that was due to the righteous outpouring of rebellion and sustained protest by multinational proletarians and members of popular classes throughout the US and even internationally. But at the heart of why people forget is precisely why responses such as “another one?” are commonplace: incidents of police brutality and murder may be newsworthy, but they’re hardly shocking, even to the newly “woke.” They’re all the time and everywhere, and Black and Latino proletarians know that more intimately than most. There was profound wisdom in the dark humor of Dave Chappelle when he said during an interview that he is running out of closet space due to the “Justice for _” T-shirts he feels compelled to buy whenever a pig cuts down a Black person in the US.
While there was unity among the responses from C, Z, and D regarding the need for something to be done by ordinary people to resist police brutality and murder, contradictions emerged on the subjects of protest and rebellion as the proper forms through which to resist. C and Z expressed an understanding of the frustration and rage that drove people to burn and loot, with Z reflecting on the burning of the Minneapolis Police’s 3rd Precinct building, saying, “That’s how you know it’s serious. If somebody’s going to that extent to try to bring change, it gotta be serious. You gotta show them that we really want change.” When I asked whether they thought anything did change as a result of that act of rebellion, Z weighed in again, essentially describing that there are layers to things that cannot be accounted for in a dichotomous “Yes/No” answer, saying “Nah. I mean, in a way, yeah, maybe, but I don’t know. That’s kinda already how they expect [Black people] to be—burning shit up, destroying shit—that’s already how they look at us.”
There is something doubly insightful about Z’s response that shines a light on how broadly and deeply white supremacy saturates the social fabric of the US. First, there is the simple fact that a rebellion is not a revolution; rebellion alone did not and ultimately cannot unseat white supremacy, whereas revolution entails wresting the bourgeois class from political power, smashing the bourgeois state machinery, and transforming society from the ground up to ensure all vestiges of white supremacy are weeded out from fruit to root. Second, Z’s suggestion touches on the sophistication of the bourgeoisie, particularly in its capacity to squeeze blood from a stone and transform resistance to its rule into means of maintaining it. Let’s break it down: Black people are criminalized and treated like animals to be caged or put down, and when they rise up in righteous rebellion and torch the most blatant concrete manifestation of literal structural racism, the system exploits the opportunity to reinforce its white supremacist narrative of Black people being criminals and animals. This narrative is perpetuated and profited from by bourgeois media outlets around the country in both overt forms (Fox News) and more sophisticated ones (MSNBC). With the narrative strengthened, policing efforts and policy measures that target predominantly proletarian Black communities are easier to rationalize, especially for petty bourgeois people of all nationalities, whose “allyship” and sympathies for Black people often stop short of the masses of Black proletarians.
C and Z spoke more generally on the tendency for businesses to be damaged or even destroyed in the course of rebellions, their goods looted. Z began by asking a rhetorical question: “How is [looting] changing—” before being cut off by C, who seemed to share Z’s views: “That’s making everything worse.” I asked whether they thought the bourgeois media’s focus on looting buried the lede and shifted the blame away from killer cops, to which Z responded, “Yeah. I was learning about that in school, actually, how the media be portraying Black people as, like…like they don’t really show the good.” At this point, C jumped in: “But it wasn’t only Black people robbing the stores; it was all races—” before Z finished C’s thought: “It was all races, [but] they was just showing the Blacks. I feel like media does do that a lot.
Continuing our conversation, we discussed how, even when bourgeois media spins the story, more militant forms of action force attention to issues that are otherwise glossed over or ignored completely when resistance is orderly and confined by “proper procedure.” Z reconsidered the burning of the Minneapolis Police’s 3rd Precinct building in light of our conversation:
There was a change. People showed [the system] that they were serious, like “We really want [Officer Derek Chauvin] locked up; we really want something out of this. We not just gonna let it slide.” It made them think or something—it changed something. [Was the system forced to concede something due to the rebellion?] Definitely. I’m not gonna say that violence is always the answer, but obviously it works sometimes
C and Z recognized that the struggle against white supremacy requires more than isolated incidents of protest and rebellion, and while they didn’t proscribe revolution explicitly, they did proscribe the need for discipline and organization. But they were also sober in their time frames despite seeing the urgent need for real change, with C saying “[the struggle is] gonna be long, like lifetimes.” Z related the enormity of the task back to the struggle against slavery before suggesting “it’s gonna take some time; change doesn’t happen overnight.”
D expressed empathy for those who took part in the rebellion, but had misgivings about the damaging of property and expropriation—or “reallocation”—of goods:
The whole movement thing I actually support, like the Push for Peace with all the skaters and stuff.5 [People] are sick of [police brutality and murder] happening over and over, and they just get away with it and just walk like it’s a normal day. The way people reacted—like rioting, stealing—I don’t think that was right, but, to be honest, if I was ever in the position of a cop killing one of my family or relatives, I’d be pretty pissed also, [because] they’re just getting away with it, too.
On this subject of accountability versus getting away with murder, while every skater I spoke with expressed some degree of appreciation for the way in which the 2020 protests helped shed light on the longstanding issues of white supremacy and police brutality, none really accredited them with affecting change except insofar as the initial rebellions held bourgeois feet to the flames by making things unmanageable. Like Z before him, D recognized Chauvin’s charges and convictions to be concessionary measures by the bourgeois state to pacify masses rising:
I’d say [things changed], just ’cause you’ve never seen people standing up for their self and rioting, except for back in the LA riots and Watts…. I feel like it did help a lot, mostly just
’cause the officer who killed George Floyd was judged for it, and I feel like if no one ever stepped up and did that, it would be another free man. [Protest and rebellion] was getting worse and worse, ’cause nothing was happening. I feel like [Chauvin was tried and convicted] ’cause of what was going on.
E, a shy 15-year-old Latina proletarian skater, spoke more personally about when the 2020 rebellion touched neighborhoods in her area:
I got scared of going out on the streets. People were crazy—they were trying to do something good, but was also doing bad stuff at the same time. I think it’s nice that people are actually taking a stand and defending our people and stuff, but I dunno…. People are just tired of getting pushed around by the police, ’cause the police are just messed up out here.
When I asked whether she thought conditions had changed as a result of the 2020 protest movement, E quickly stated, “No.” We spoke more broadly about the changes over the last year, focusing on general subjects that she felt more equipped to talk about. In particular, we discussed the transition from 2020 to 2021, and with it, the transition from Trump to Biden, from Republican to Democrat. Unlike many people twice her age or more, E didn’t see much change here, but rather continuity. On the transition from one year to the next and from one bourgeois administration to another, she said
It’s just a title. What people do affects the world; it’s what makes the changes. I didn’t really care [when Biden was elected], because I know all presidents lie, and there’s not much [good] they’re gonna do. Just because one person’s saying that he can do this or “I can do that”— whatever—it’s not gonna change.
E was not the only one I spoke with to express little to no hope in change coming from the bourgeois executive or from bourgeois governance, generally. D spoke to the latter when we broached the subject of change, saying, “I do think there’s a need for a change, but I have low [expectations] for things changing. It’s not just the police holding things back; it’s the people working [government] jobs, in general, [that] are throwing [issues] under the bus and trying to forget about it.” While this lack of faith in the system may be cause for concern for the bourgeoisie and its apologists, it should be encouraging for communists, especially when what change and hope for change C, Z, D, and E did see came from the people themselves.
But, like everything, the people are not without their contradictions, as the four skaters gave voice to when discussing the looting of and damage to petty-bourgeois property, which they saw as individualistic opportunism. More concerning and indicative of the crippling of the imagination that this system gives rise to is the hopelessness in many among the masses for any fundamental and lasting change. Often, this is effectively perpetuated by tying the uglier contradictions among and within the people to supposedly immutable shortcomings in human nature rather than the inhumanity at the heart of capitalist-imperialist social relations. This is embodied in Z’s statement on the subject of change:
I feel like it’s gonna take a long time to change. Honestly, I feel like it’s gonna be low-key impossible, ’cause there’s always gonna be people who are racist or filled with hatred. There are people that are caring—people that are nice—and people that are gonna hurt you. That’s just life; good and evil are always gonna live among each other.
“No matter what,” C was quick to say in agreement. C and Z saw that forms of white supremacy and social control are capable of being overthrown, but that their roots would remain deep and twisted. And why wouldn’t they when the history of racism in the US has only been swapping one form of white supremacy for another, from chattel slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration? If anything, this history lays bare how desperately the bourgeoisie needs to maintain white supremacy and how sophisticated it is in accomplishing that task. Still, complicated and contradictory as it was, C and Z held out some hope, colored by a youthful and proletarian defiance. “Slavery’s not a thing anymore. Segregation’s not a thing anymore. Like I said, change takes a long time,” Z commented. But “another 400 years?” C asked rhetorically, “We’re not having that shit.”
Conversation with each of the skaters veered thoughtfully in other directions. E described the hardships of being an entering freshman at a new high school during the pandemic. The difficulty of socializing through online learning and the desire to escape a “very toxic” household she shares with her controlling and judgmental mother made skating a welcome and welcoming respite. D and Z related their own struggles as exiting seniors during the same period of time, with Z lamenting, “We didn’t graduate right; we graduated on YouTube! I wasn’t tripping about prom, but graduation, though? I waited four years to walk that stage.” D mentioned his difficulty finding a job or even landing an interview as businesses shuttered or struggled to adapt to changing consumer habits and COVID regulations. E spoke to her family’s own economic issues, with her aunt having to lean on her mother for financial assistance after losing work. She reflected on the precariousness of so many others who live under this system, saying, “It’s just sad how quickly that can happen.”
For each of them, skating was something of an oasis, and for some, it provided refuge. It was an activity as well as a community that allowed them to challenge themselves and clear their minds of the stress and stressors of everyday life under this system. Skating offered something pure and simple in a culture dominated by social relations characterized by artifice and hidden agendas.
For comrades or groups of comrades who want to integrate with the masses and carry out social investigation, the local skate spots are a great place to start. Skating is an activity, so some people might prefer not to be distracted, but unlike many other sports, skating is also a scene, and you are bound to find people to talk to on the periphery who are there to just chill and watch—including the parents and partners of many skaters. Even among the skaters themselves, there is ample downtime during which to strike up conversation, as mentioned above. Just introduce yourself as a revolutionary or revolutionary journalist interested in hearing and giving voice to people whose perspectives are ignored by mainstream (bourgeois) media. In some cases, that’s enough, though it’s always smart to follow up with an idea of what subject(s) you want to touch on. Most importantly, don’t front, and don’t be afraid to struggle. Neither C, Z, D, nor E were immediately won to giving an interview, but much of that hesitance was centered around questions of their own self-confidence and who the fuck I was.Showing them examples of social investigation in kites helped resolve both.
With proper analysis, the spool of ideas and perspectives offered by these four distinct proletarian skaters unravels to reveal a common thread, and with revolutionary communist line and strategy, this thread can be tied to immediate organizing efforts and larger goals that excite the masses and draw them into organized rather than only spontaneous forms of struggle. I heard a desire for change, clearly. I heard a basic recognition that change occurs when the masses step out, generally, and step out of line, particularly. And I heard criticism of the individualism and opportunism that can occur among the masses in the midst of righteous rebellion. This, to me, suggests not only the need but the desire for the conscious, organized expression of the demand for fundamental change, with the masses and their interests in command. And that’s plain, proletarian language for the motherfucking communist vanguard party.
- The title of this article is in reference to the hook of Lupe Fiasco’s ode to skating, “Kick, Push.” It suggests that it is right to rebel and struggle, to kick down and push against not only institutions of oppression, but also the system they prop up and safeguard rather than coasting through life and resigning ourselves to the status quo.
- To account for younger readers, a boombox, or “ghetto blaster,” is a portable radio cassette and/or CD player. Basically, it’s what people used to play music on for public consumption while on the go and out the car in the analog, pre-digital era. See Do the Right Thing’s Radio Raheem.
- Unofficial events surrounding the Olympics typically include the permanent displacement of people in host cities in order to accommodate construction and other preparatory measures, the stoking of nationalistic fervor, etc.
- I quickly noted and told D that Jay, a skater I spoke with in the summer of 2020, responded to Floyd’s murder in the same way: “Another one?!” For my interview with Jay and others, see “Catching Fire: Participant Reflections on the Summer of Protest and Rebellion” in kites #3.
- Push for Peace was a protest initiative in 2020 organized by skaters in cities across the US, with actions falling on and around Go Skateboarding Day, June 21. It was organized to bring skaters together against police brutality and systemic racism, and, if nothing else, it demonstrated the boundless creativity and spontaneous initiative of the masses.