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In the News Index

Source: Philadelphia Weekly
Date: June 16, 2009
Byline: Catherine Caperello


Enemies of the Skate?

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."

Calls to district captains for comment were unreturned as of press time.

Klotz alleges his own skateboard-related run-ins with Philly police. He recalls a time when he was with five or six friends filming tricks outside of the Comcast Center, grinding on a ledge, when a security guard told them to leave.

"One of the kids of course was giving the dude a little bit of attitude, and the head security guy was like, 'You guys gotta stay here now and wait till the cops come.'" Klotz and crew attempted to flee but were rushed by seven or eight cops outside of the 7-Eleven across from LOVE. Though he was the only one with a skateboard, all of them were arrested.

Though the skating ban has netted the city money in citations at $75 a pop, it has done little to deter skateboarders in Center City hotspots like LOVE Park, City Hall and the Municipal Services Building. Instead, it's created a game of skate-run-chill, in which skaters ranging from 10 to 30 wait for officers' shift changes to get in precious minutes of skating before they're chased.

Captain Dennis Wilson of Philadelphia's 9th District takes the problem of skateboarding downtown very seriously. "They're breaking the law and they know it. We have to constantly stand guard at that park to keep them out, and we shouldn't have to."

Wilson discloses that since the beginning of 2009, his officers have made 12 arrests, issued 39 tickets and confiscated 10 boards for skateboarding at LOVE Park. He says he gets complaints about skateboarders riding or pulling tricks all the time. "It's illegal for a reason," contends Wilson. "They've broken those blocks [on the floor of the park] and popped them up so they can use them as ramps. They grind all that marble [sic] to shame. If they were just kids who rolled through and didn't do any damage, that would be one thing, but they're not."

Wilson says that accusations of excessive force are false, and counters the claim: "We've had officers hit with skateboards." Yet he concedes that though tactical in their approach, his men have to be careful when going after the kids, not to chase them into oncoming traffic.

"They're hard to catch," he says, "and I definitely don't want them getting hit by a car for a $75 ticket."

Skaters say it's not the tickets that most kids in LOVE are afraid of, but the cops themselves.

"They're running because they don't want to get their asses kicked," says Jake Hanitschak, a teacher at the University of the Arts who has been skating LOVE since 1993. He worries that skaters running into traffic trying to escape the cops is a recipe for disaster. "You've got kids running mach top-speed into 16th Street, into the Parkway, out front past 15th, out JFK. There will definitely be a little kid getting hit by a car any day now."

Similar fears were realized on Sun., June 6, when skateboarder Stephan Bernard, 20, was hit by a taxicab crossing 15th Street. He was running from a bike cop after skating City Hall. Bernard's body shattered the windshield. Bernard was taken from the scene by ambulance to Jefferson Hospital.

"After that happened I thought it was guaranteed I was gonna get into trouble, get a fine, something," he says. "But he [the cop] just turned around and took off." Bernard says he recognized the officer, but declined to file a complaint or share that officer's name with PW for fear of retaliation.

Another skater, Brinton Hawk, was arrested in May after he chastised a high-ranking officer for body-slamming a kid who looked to be about 10 into the ground. "I asked him, 'Why would you tackle a little kid like that?'"

Hawk says the cop asked him if he wanted to be arrested instead. Staying true to the original game, the 29-year-old darted across the street and made his escape. He was picked up in a paddy wagon two blocks away, after the cop put his description out over the radio. After Hawk was arrested, he says cops circled around him, mocking him. "They were all just harassing me — calling me a loser for skateboarding," says the bearded, tattooed skater. "They were like, 'Look at you. What are you, a loser? A 30-year-old loser?'"

Sometimes Hawk wishes he'd kept his mouth shut, but says he just couldn't. "It's trouble that I don't need, but I stuck up for what I believed in. Opened my mouth a little too much maybe, said a couple things I shouldn't have said when I was walking away from this officer."

Hawk faces an array of charges including inciting a riot, but says, "If I cooperate I'll look at six months probation and a $300 fine for being a first-time offender.

Recent events have the Philly skateboarding community on HaveBoard.com buzzing. Posts normally garner only a handful of responses, but the one about cops charging LOVE with drawn Tasers received 48 comments from people telling what they saw that day and about other experiences they've had with police downtown.

Hanitschak, a thin and lanky dude with neatly parted brown hair, was the only one to speak up about petitioning the city, putting his ideas into long posts on the site. His post got 113 comments. The 28-year-old was nominated to spearhead an organization effort. He represents between 100 and 200 local skateboarders, he says, who want to draft a proposal to the city to make skateboarding legal during certain hours when the park is not heavy with tourists or businesspeople on lunch breaks. They believe that making skateboarding legal will ease aggression on the part of police.

The chances of that happening are unlikely. Mayor Nutter has made his plans for the park clear. "LOVE Park ultimately needs a complete makeover," the mayor announced in 2008. "It could be our own version of Bryant Park in New York."

The clash between cops and rebel skaters will no doubt come to a head during this weekend's Go Skate Day 2009, an event held annually on the summer solstice — June 21.

Hanitschak and other skate community elders warn of the threat of violence for this year's event. "I would guarantee that you're going to see altercations."

In years past, the event has ended in physical confrontations between police and skaters. A YouTube video of Go Skate Day 2005 perfectly documents how easily things can get out of control. Even with a permit, a crowd at the "Free LOVE Park" protest turned into a shoving match when cops tried to clear the park, which resulted in kids being hit with billy clubs and arrested. Last year, arrests were made after someone threw a water bottle at police.

That's precisely why 37-year-old Jen Chattin plans on attending this year's event with her sons. "I'll even skateboard," says the single mother of four boys. She's fired up and ready to raise hell about the fact that a cop put his hands on her son.

Chattin was used to her 14-year-old son John and his friends coming home with stories about being bullied by police officers for skateboarding. But the protective mom wasn't prepared to hear the story of a cop physically abusing her son.

"He gripped me up by the neck and slammed me against the glass wall [of the bank]," says John of the day he and a friend were skating outside of the TD Bank on 15th Street last month when two officers approached them.

"I'm thinkin' they weren't gonna say nothing to us cause we're skatin' here," says the teen. John says he often skates in the area between the bank and Suburban Station and never had a problem with the cops.

But on this day, the teen, who weighs 110 pounds, says the cops grabbed him by the neck and then clotheslined his friend, giving him a bloody nose. The boys were not ticketed, but let go.

"I said, 'You can't do that,' and he said, 'I got a badge, I can do whatever the F I want.'"

Chattin was happy when her son picked up skateboarding as a hobby. In her mind it was better than him spacing out on television and video games all day, but after recent events all she wants is to galvanize other parents to protest excessive police force against skateboarders.

"You got kids from all over down at LOVE Park because there's nowhere for them to go. We have Von Colln baseball field. My kids don't want to play baseball. They want to skateboard."

The worried mom says that the boys aren't only chased and harassed downtown, but she's seen cops tell her son he's not allowed to ride his board in front of their own house in Fairmount.

Chattin says that calls to the captain of the officer who allegedly manhandled her child have gone unreturned. She hasn't yet filed a formal complaint, but says she did contact a friend who works for Central Detectives and another who's a lawyer. While no official censure has been recorded with the Philadelphia Police Department, John says at least a dozen of his friends told him that the officer was suspended.

After skating was made illegal, the city made a peace offering by donating land near the Art Museum for a public skatepark, which has been dubbed Franklin's Paine Park Project. But eight years later, only $3.75 million of the $7 million estimated for the project has been raised. Project Executive Director Jamie Elfant plans to step down, opening up the position for someone who can take it to the next level, she says.

For now, smaller, legal skateparks have popped up in other neighborhoods, but older skaters say they quickly become crowded and less appealing. They've grown tired of waiting for ground to be broken on Franklin's Paine, when LOVE's material, shape, lines and ledges are just right.

But Chattin fears for her son's safety every time he says he's going downtown to skateboard.

"I told him, 'When a cop chases you, stop,'" says the mom. "I try to teach my kids, don't hate the cops. They [the police] gotta just leave these kids alone and go after the bad guys, 'cause these kids are not bad."

Captain Wilson disagrees. It's the law, he says, and it's clearly posted. "These aren't just 12-year-olds. The majority are adults — adult vandals. It's a minor crime, but it's fair to call them criminals."

Wilson says his officers are ready for the onslaught of skaters scheduled to take to Philly streets and parks on Sunday, but won't go into detail because he doesn't want skaters to know what precautions the city has planned. "We have to tackle them — they think it's a game. I wish we had more officers to put out there and put an end to this. They're in the wrong."

Chattin will also be ready. She's already told her son, "The next time you have an altercation with a cop, you let them call me and tell me where you're at because I'll be arrested with you."

On Sunday, she'll be right next to him if anything goes down.

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