Strife with police is old

Clash with authority familiar to skaters

February 16, 2008|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,Sun reporter

Jason Chapman saw something familiar when he watched the YouTube video of a police officer manhandling a skateboarder in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

"I've had the same thing happen to me, but worse," Chapman, 34, told a group of skateboarders gathered around a computer at Charm City Skatepark, an indoor skating facility he owns in Baltimore's Canton Industrial Area.

Though the officer's intensity angered Chapman and the other skaters, the nature of the conflict - skateboarder vs. authority figure - is one with deep roots in skateboarding culture.

In the 1970s, the antics of the Zephyr Skate Team, a group of California surfers-turned-skaters, cemented the sport's anti-establishment image. In the 1980s, skaters plastered their boards with stickers declaring "Skateboarding is not a crime."

More recently, the conflict has made its way into skateboarding video games. Security guards armed with stun guns chase skaters in the 1999 game Skate and Destroy, and they tackle virtual boarders in Skate, a game released in the fall.

Chapman, who grew up skating on Baltimore streets, said he had several run-ins with aggressive security guards when he was younger. He and his friends dubbed one man "Tackleberry" for his penchant for knocking skaters down. He refers to the officer who was suspended Monday - who complained that the skateboarder had referred to him as "dude" - as "Officer Dude."

Officer Salvatore Rivieri, a 17-year veteran, has been suspended, pending an investigation into the incident in which he loudly berated 14-year-old Eric Bush and took him to the ground in a headlock.

Yesterday, WMAR-TV aired another video shot last summer, of Rivieri at the Inner Harbor kicking a remote-controlled vehicle belonging to an artist from Washington. Sterling Clifford, a city police spokesman, said that "this second video may be evidence to be included" in the inquiry already under way.

As the price of video cameras has dropped, skaters have increasingly documented conflicts with security personnel.

"Kids are tech-savvy," Chapman said. "And as important as going out and learning a new trick is filming a new trick."

Video footage of altercations has proliferated on YouTube and other video-sharing sites. One title, "Angry Catholic Priest vs. Skateboarders," depicts a group of boys with skateboard exchanging curses with a man who repeatedly demands that they "get off the property." Another purports to show police officers attempting to remove skaters who are protesting a skateboarding ban in Philadelphia's Love Park.

Laurie Schwartz, a spokeswoman for Baltimore's Waterfront Partnership, said skateboarding is prohibited in the Inner Harbor to protect pedestrians.

"The other problem," she said, "is that it damages the bricks and concrete and other hard surfaces that have been constructed."

Bicycling was also prohibited but is now allowed before 10 a.m. and during certain hours on the weekend to encourage people to exercise, she said.

Dakota Welty, 13, of York, Pa., who skates in Baltimore almost every week, said the ban is frustrating because he can skate in the Inner Harbor in the video game Tony Hawk's Proving Ground. Released last fall, the game allows players to navigate through downtown Baltimore and the Inner Harbor.

A growing number of skate parks are being built around the country, but Dakota said they don't replace the sensation of skating in the street.

"It's just so fun to skate down the street," he said. "It's always different, not like a skate park. The ground is different everywhere you go."

Brenda Welty, Dakota's mother, said she allows him to go street skating only if he is with other skaters whom she trusts to act responsibly. "Kids need to respect the police officers," she said, "but the way some police officers are going about it is instilling some very negative perceptions about them in kids."

Chapman said skateboarding has shed much of its anti-establishment image because of the popularity of the X-Games and TV shows featuring skateboarding.

"We used to be dirty or scum," he said, "but it's different now. Kids nowadays don't have, like, `Thrashin" written on their boards. Because they might have seen Tony Hawk on Letterman last night." (Thrashin' is a 1986 movie about skateboarders.)

Through videos and magazines, he said, the skateboarding industry has tried to discourage vandalism and littering. "We still grind things, and we can be a nuisance," Chapman said. "But a lot of kids are more respectful."

Like any other physical activity, he said, skateboarding helps youths stay fit and keeps them away from other temptations.

"I love Baltimore to death, but she's a tough cookie," he said. "Because of skateboarding, kids don't get into drugs in a city where heroin is a popular leisure-time activity."

chris.emery@baltsun.com

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