It’s illegal, but they do it anyway.
Half past midnight lurches by as three hooded silhouettes slink their way into the Cal Poly University Union Plaza. Moving cautiously through the dimly lit arena, the three prowl the area with light-footed stealth, surveying their surroundings with the utmost intensity.
Something is going down in the plaza tonight and this shadowy trio is on high alert for any unwarranted attention.
Surveillance of the surroundings has checked out. There is nobody else in sight.
“Fellas, you know what to do. Time for some rabid hammers,” exclaims one of the lurkers as he whips out from deep inside a backpack his weapon of choice: It’s a video camera.
One of the others dashes over to the Perimeter Street entryway and crouches in the long shadows cast by the adjacent stair case, glancing up and down the street.
“Coast’s clear,” he yells back to the one with the camera.
“Jarvis,” the cameraman calls to the third member who has moved into position on top of a concrete staircase. “It’s all you, man. Let’s rip this place up!”
Breaking the silence of dead night, four urethane wheels hit the concrete, as Jarvis, mid-dash, throws his skateboard under his feet as he attempts to pull a trick down the UU Plaza steps.
Skateboarders on campus say they must utilize the student union and numerous other locales deemed as “skate spots” at late hours to avoid the police and concerned citizens who think that skateboarders are a public nuisance.
The act of skateboarding, be it a mode of transportation or the evolved, trick-oriented, mainstream form of this hobby, hasn’t always been a troublesome hobby to pursue on campus. There was a time when skateboarding, in its infant stage, was a legal and legitimate means of alternative transportation on campus.
However, as skateboarders began to develop tricks that involved doing “grinds” and “slides” on rails and benches, a public concern for destruction of public and private property arose. And since skateboards have the potential to seriously injure riders and pedestrians, fear for public safety solidified a judgment.
Enacted almost two decades ago, Cal Poly and the entire CSU system banned the use of skateboards for tricks and transportation uses. Derived from Title 5 of the California Code of Regulations, Section 41301E, which prohibits “physical abuse on or off the campus – of campus property,” Cal Poly enacted into their vehicle code Section 21: Skateboard Regulations. These regulations (three in all) prohibit the use of skateboards for all intents and purposes, and set the fine for first offenses, which now stands at $120. The only exemptions to the prohibition are special events authorized by the Student Life and Leadership and approved by the University Police Department (Section 21.3).
Under the aliases “Jarvis,” “Smalls” and “Mike Jones,” the “Midnight Special,” a trio of Cal Poly freshmen, have come out to the UU at precarious hours because of the strict regulations prohibiting the use of skateboards on campus.
“There is just enough lighting out here at midnight for us to do our thing without the cops coming after us,” said Jones, the designated cameraman. “Plus, there aren’t any distractions, like some hot chick walking by. Then the pressure is really on to bust something (land a trick).”
For more than a month, since Jarvis first discovered that there was sufficient lighting in the UU Plaza at all hours of the night, these skaters have come out here to this “urban playground” to hone their skills and pursue their passion for skateboarding. During the day there is little that they can do except dodge the university police as they skate to class. Trying to do tricks at Cal Poly during the day is out of the question.
“There are too many students walking around and too many cars during the day so we pretty much have to do this at night. It’s definitely a drag, but we’ve gotten used to it,” said Jarvis, about the illegality of his hobby.
Jarvis and the group said they understand the potential public dangers associated with riding skateboards on campus and instead blame the inexperienced and careless riders on campus for their present plight.
“Anyone who has ever tried riding a skateboard knows it isn’t an easy thing to control. It takes years of practice to gain good balance and control so that you can skate safely, for yourself and the pedestrians you skate around,” Smalls said.
Staring down at the skateboard flipping between his hand, Smalls sighed and said, “We’ve come to terms with being a pretty misunderstood group. Nobody would really understand the amount of effort we put into this and the triumph we feel when we accomplish something on this block of wood and wheels. You wouldn’t understand what we do or how we feel unless you were a skateboarder.”
Concerning the destruction of private and public property, the group also felt they were being misunderstood.
“We don’t usually mess up private property, like small shops or anything, but we should be able to skate on public property, even if we are ‘damaging’ it, because we are putting something like a curb or a ledge or a set of stairs into use better than anyone else,” Jarvis said.
“Yeah, and the government damaged nature when they put all this concrete here anyway,” said Jones with a snicker.
Though this skateboarding crew feels that they are utilizing public property to a greater potential, many non-skateboarders hold a polar opposite opinion.
Chief Bill Wattan of UPD legitimizes the prohibition of skateboarding with the inherent risk that the activity brings. Before skateboarding regulations were set into stone, he said Cal Poly was paying $20,000-$25,000 in skateboarding-related damages a year. The damages ranged from chipped benches to scratched paint on hand rails, from wax stains to wheel marks on the ground (wax is used on rough ledges to make the surface slide better). Since the regulations were enforced, skateboarding-related damages have significantly declined to $1,000-$2,000 a year, Wattan said.
“The laws we have here are necessary because of the concern for damage to public property for one, and also the risk to public safety. We don’t want anyone getting hit by skateboarders as they try their tricks, or weave through people down hills,” Wattan said.
Wattan also said that the campus would be taking an unnecessary risk if skateboarding was legalized “strictly for transportation purposes” because there is still the danger of injury.
“Skateboards can easily become weapons, not intentionally, but a student who is riding a skateboard might fall off because he or she is going to fast and shoot the board into someone’s ankle,” he said.
In addition, he said skateboarding-related injuries are not covered by any CSU insurance policy, so the threat of lawsuits is a weighty concern. However, bicycles, a legal form of alternative transportation permitted all throughout campus, are not covered either.
Jarvis and the group feel cheated in that respect but they are more concerned with the lack of designated skate spots (skateparks), and the illegality of their passion, especially in San Luis Obispo.
Joey Steil, a dedicated skateboarder and employee of Monument Boardshop in Arroyo Grande said that skateboarding is a profitable business in San Luis Obispo with retail stores, such as Copeland’s, CCS and Moondoggies, selling a variety of skateboarding products.
“If the city is willing to allow retail chains to make a buck off skateboarding then they better be willing to accept the fact that there are going to be a lot of people using that equipment and the city better have a place for them to do it if they don’t want kids to be (Steil raises hands and makes the quote gesture) ‘damaging property.’”
The city has designated a concrete slab in Santa Rosa Park, a mish-mash of sun-bleached wooden ramps and rusted rails, however many of the skateboarders that go to this park say the city doesn’t care about skateboarding.
“We’re caged animals man,” said one student at the park commenting on the high chain link fence surrounding the park. “I’ve seen way better parks in bummy places like Salinas or Greenville. SLO considers us a nuisance so they put us in this cage.”
Though skateboarders on and off campus may feel persecuted for their passion, some important members of San Luis Obispo understand their plight, but simply can’t help them out.
“In terms of support and allocation of funds, it would be a huge undertaking for San Luis Obispo, considering the tight budget we have right now,” said council member Christine Mulholland. “My son is a skateboarder, so I feel I have a connection with skateboarders, more so than say other council members, but skateboarders would need to have massive public support to divert funds to such a project.”
Mulholland also doesn’t see skateboards as a mode of transportation in SLO in the near future.
“That is not possible, there is just too much at stake, be it pedestrians getting hit on the side walk, or skateboarders out on the street getting creamed by traffic,” she said.
Relaying these facts to Jarvis and the gang, they roll their eyes and mutter, “Figures.” This trio has grown used to the criticism and the difference of opinion with non-skateboarders. Feeling that they have exhausted themselves with trying to legitimize their hobby, they no longer see a point in trying to argue with campus administrators, city officials or the police. Instead, they ride their skateboards defiantly through campus and through city streets.
A silent protest.
For the last three weekends, these hooligans of the night have silently crept their way into the UU Plaza, ever so careful to go unnoticed until it is time to “lay down some hammers.” Aggravating the calm night peace with the rumble of urethane and the firecracker snap of wood hitting the concrete, their skateboards flap through the air.
Jarvis has now been attempting a new trick down the plaza steps for almost 20 minutes, and the rest of the crew is beginning to get antsy. With every attempt and minute that goes by, the uneasiness begins to mount. There is only so little time they can make such a racket without going unnoticed.
Jones darts up from his crouched position near the street erect as a suspicious prairie dog out of his hole. He sees something coming.
“CAR!” he yells, and the crew runs behind the stairs out of sight from the road, fearful that the lurching sedan might be university police.
False alarm. It’s just some late night prowler in a beat-up Civic.
Everyone heads back to their strategic positions and the skateboarding session continues.
“All right, fellas. I’ve got this one in the bag,” says Jarvis as he readies up to land the trick.
SNAP. CATCH. BAM!
Jarvis pulls the trick in one last attempt and is showered by applause as he rides away. With a couple of knuckle taps (the modern day high-five), and beaming smiles on their faces, the crew packs up their gear and heads home. Mission accomplished.
Regardless of what campus or city regulations dictate about their hobby these three are passionate enough to get away with skateboarding wherever and whenever, whatever it takes.
It’s now 1:07 a.m.
No one ever knew they were there.