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And Justice For All

11/4/2009
One week after Tony Hawk's historic — and feverishly debated — wheelie through the White House halls last month, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. was once again the site of an event unprecedented in skateboarding history.

For a few hours, the stretch of asphalt directly in front of the president's home and office was blocked off by the Secret Service and reserved for the sport, which is otherwise strictly prohibited in most of D.C.

The cracked and cratered blacktop in front of the pillared facade is where many activists come to protest and tourists come for photo ops. It's a picturesque landscape that, for many, represents the very essence of America. From across the lawn, it's possible to imagine President Barack Obama taking a moment from his schedule to draw back a curtain and glance out at the spectacle.

And what better spectacle for the embodiment of the word "change" than a lively display of creative athleticism put on by skaters promoting health and happiness?

"We just want to show people that skateboarding is fun," says Paula Hewitt, director of Open Road NYC, the nonprofit organization that put on the event. "And that it's a good thing for kids to do." Hewitt worked with White House officials to get permits authorized and give skaters an opportunity to raise awareness for their cause.

For Hewitt, their cause is a civil rights issue, so the White House was a perfect venue. "Skateboarders are a class that is discriminated against," she says. "They are often prevented from engaging in a legal activity in public places."

In the coming months, Open Road NY will be filing class action lawsuits against the cities of New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. "We're filing civil lawsuits to clarify policy and, where necessary, change the policy," Hewitt says. "We hope to achieve fair treatment for skateboarders, like any other athletes. Kids that should never have any legal problems have problems just for skateboarding."

The day's demonstration didn't include large X Games-like ramps or an all-star cast of top pro skaters from around the world. Billy Rohan, 28, a pro skater living in New York, helped organize the event, and he wanted to keep it simple.

With more than 10 years of experience as a pro, Rohan recently embraced a new role as one of the sport's great advocates. For this event, he decided the crew didn't need ramps and instead would play a one-on-one tournament game of S-K-A-T-E. The game is skating's version of basketball's H-O-R-S-E; opponents match each other's tricks, a missed trick earns the skater a letter and the first to spell S-K-A-T-E is the loser.

Rohan assembled a crew of NYC skaters, crammed them into a 15-passenger van and drove to D.C. "Really, a game of S-K-A-T-E is the most perfect way to present skateboarding because it's competitive but it's fun and there's not a kid in the world who doesn't play with their friends," Rohan says. "You don't need a skatepark; all you need is flat ground."

Hewitt and Rohan, along with other members of the skate community, have been attending community board, school board and city council meetings, writing proposals and building relationships with community leaders in New York to help facilitate the city's embracing of the sport. Results have been positive.

"In the last year, we've been able to get two city schools to build skate spots on their campuses and developed a curriculum for skateboard physical education," Rohan says. "Right now, we are working on a proposal for the city of New York to put skateparks under all the city's bridges."

Rohan is an excellent diplomat, and he's able to reach people on many different levels. The strategy he employs doesn't involve asking for money or demanding any resources from the city. "When you talk to people, you want to show them that just because you ride a skateboard doesn't mean that you don't understand the concept of hard work and how to communicate with people," he says. "Rather than saying we want the city to build us skateparks, we're saying, how can we help build the skateparks for the city at no cost to them. We are just trying to get areas to better the city. There are a ton of resources that we have access to in the action sports community."

Misconceptions about skateboarding and stereotypes probably are the biggest obstacles Hewitt, Rohan and skaters around the world face. The goal is to educate people, to normalize the sport and to show people it can do a lot for communities.

"You're going to have some enemies, the people that are like, 'Not in my backyard. We don't want skateboarding,'" Rohan says. "But once you can dispel the myths, you open the doors to show them that it's a great form of recreation that provides kids with an alternative to crime and just having too much time on their hands."

There is another conflict within the movement for wider acceptance: Some skaters simply don't want skating to be accepted, not by the government, not by anyone.

Jake Johnson, a skater from New York and one of the industry's rising stars, came out to skate at the White House, but he made it clear he was not there as an activist. "I'm just here to skate," he says. "We shouldn't have to sell skateboarding to anyone. I think it's great that Billy [Rohan] is bringing it to schools and building parks, but I don't think it should get to the point that parents are pushing it on their kids or anything, like soccer where it's an organized sport and kids have to go to practice."

Many skaters sympathize with Johnson. The sport has its own culture, and part of its DNA is a free-spirited disposition that attracted many to it in the first place. If mainstream acceptance means skating will lose its edge, diluted by "skateboard moms" and further intrusion from corporate sponsors looking to cash in, it might not be worth it.

The resistance to conform is understandable. No one should have to change who they are or create a false image, especially to be a skateboarder. But until skateboarding can be practiced without hassles and legal limitations, all who choose to skate will struggle. "I had an awesome time over the last 22 years because of skateboarding, and the fact that so many kids aren't able to do it in their own towns is really a big problem," Rohan says. "Skating is a true American pastime, and it should be promoted as such; it's really sad that it is what it is."

In the end, playing a few games of S-K-A-T-E in front of the White House might be a small step toward Rohan's goal, but it's an important one. "This was an amazing and unique skateboard trip for us. Who would have thought that we'd ever be skating at the White House?" he says. "It's important that people see this. If you can skate at the home of the president, you can skate anywhere. How great would it be to have games of S-K-A-T-E at the Eiffel Tower, at Big Ben and the Great Wall of China? I want to have a game of S-K-A-T-E at the pyramids in Egypt."

Ultimately, Rohan's hopes for skating are global. It's a very real possibility that skateboarding will make a debut at the Olympic Games in 2012. Rohan is hopeful. "Having skateboarding in the Olympics someday won't change anything in skateboarding other than getting people behind it and saying, 'Hey, we should have been backing this for the last 20 years."