Meet Baltimore's Peacekeeping Roller Skaters
A group of Baltimore roller skaters have joined the Freddie Gray protests in an attempt to keep the demonstrations peaceful.
When his phone rang on Tuesday afternoon, Randy Lewis, Jr., had a feeling he knew why his mom was calling. "What are you up to?" she asked. "I'm like, just, 'Well, I just packed my bag. Me and some of my skate friends are gonna try and go liven up the crowd on Pennsylvania Avenue."
"Randy, you're not going anywhere," she said. Within minutes, the rest of his family was calling. No one wanted Lewis, a 30-year-old black man living in Baltimore, leaving his house.
There was no keeping him in, though. He'd watched Monday night's chaos unfold on TV. The looting, the rioting, the burning of a CVS all went down less than a mile from his row home on Lombard St. in West Baltimore. Camden Yards is less than a mile in the opposite direction. His block is a billboard for the economic disparity of Baltimore. The corner store across the street has boarded up all of the windows, just in case the looters moved to this part of the city.
The scenes shocked him as much as everyone else. He didn't understand what was happening in his hometown, but he also didn't understand why it was the only thing being shown by the media.
"They're calling us all looters and thugs," says Lewis as he shakes his head in disbelief. "Not everyone was out there looting as they saw on the television."
He knows there's more to the story, and he wanted to make sure the world saw the full picture. But how? When two skate friends, as he calls them, asked him to head out with them on Tuesday afternoon, he had found his answer.
Roller skating is Lewis's way of life. On his windowsill, an old skate now serves as a flowerpot. There are stuffed skates hanging from the ceiling in his living room and skate ornaments nestled into a small plant by the door. The memorabilia is in his kitchen, his bathroom, everywhere in the house. This is more than a personal hobby—he has a quad skate tattooed on his right forearm, Lewis is part of a thriving underground community of roller skaters. There really isn't a name for what Lewis and his friends do on skates—every city has its own style. It's part dance, set to a rhythm, but still different from anything most Americans have seen.
There are hundreds of skaters in Baltimore, says Lewis. It's a proud community. And so as the media continued to portray Baltimore as a city of thugs, the only way Lewis knew to reshape that image was to get out and roller skate.
On Tuesday afternoon, despite his mother's pleas, Lewis grabbed his pair of well-worn outdoor skates, and set out towards the protests. He met about 15 friends at Shake & Bake on Pennsylvania Ave, the only remaining skating rink within the Baltimore city limits. Travis Johnson joined him. Johnson grew up in the city but recently moved to the suburbs.
"Personally for me just sitting at home looking at everything I felt uneasy," says Johnson. "Just being so removed, seeing it on TV, unfolding right in my city, I wanted to at least be down there to understand what is going on personally."
Less than a mile from the now-famous CVS, they laced up their skates. They didn't know what to expect, but they knew what they hoped to accomplish. They wanted to send a message of peace.
"The way people give off positivity can effect change as well," says Johnson. "We wanted to give something that people can not just see as entertainment, but can get away from all the negative that's happening... not necessarily to forget, but, ya know, the world is watching us. Let's show them a variety."
"People had been saying this is like a war zone. It's not a war zone, and we wanted to counteract that with skating," says Johnson. "This was a peaceful way to say let's get back on the saddle and get something accomplished."
As they skated up the street, people started yelling, "Roll, bounce, roll bounce." About 25 local gang members walked alongside, cheering them on; a marching band gave them a beat. Drum circles, dancers, and other peaceful demonstrators joined in. People were asking skaters to stop for photos. At the intersection of Pennsylvania and North Avenues, a circle started to form around them. Black, white, young, old, it was a completely mixed bag. "It was beautiful," says Johnson. "It was more reflective of the tone of the city.
"People are not paying attention to a gun over here if you're cheering and dancing and having fun," he adds. It was joyous.
To call it a "street party," though, as the Baltimore Post would the next day, is to miss the point entirely.
"Parties have no purpose at all," Johnson says. "It was about the message of unity, it was, 'Okay, this city is united in trying to find the silver lining of the whole situation.'
"We're being portrayed so poorly by the media, and I think what most people were out there doing was demonstrating in a very eclectic way... It wasn't just a party and to say as much just marginalized what the intent was."
They were not throwing a party to celebrate the previous day's looting, as some media implied. They were offering everyone an outlet for their frustration, an outlet that would capture media attention without being violent, to get away from the negativity for a bit. Skating offered a positive, creative way to keep spreading the message.
To see it misinterpreted is nothing new.
Once a major aspect of American culture, skating has all but disappeared in the mainstream. People still talk about disco and roller derby, but few realize there is a thriving skating community—a community that is predominately African-American, and has continued to grow despite the historically white rink owners' best efforts to keep it on the fringe.
Thousands of skaters like Johnson and Lewis meet weekly for adult skate nights at rinks around the country. Many travel to other cities once a month for weekend-long gatherings called Skate Jamz. Often drawing anywhere from 1,000 to 8,000 skaters, these aren't competitions—just a chance to get together. Johnson met his wife at a Skate Jamz event in Alabama in 2010. She'd traveled from St. Louis, he from Baltimore.
Filmmakers Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler have been traveling with many of these skaters for more than two years, telling the story of the community in a forthcoming feature-length documentary, United Skates.
"The rink is a place where they can let go of their daily struggles and leave them on the wood," says Winkler. "They have live DJs... Some catch up with friends on the sidelines, others tap into their creativity."
"The feeling inside the rink with these skaters is electric," says Brown. "It's easy to sit on the sidelines for hours, mesmerized by the staggering maneuvers and sheer athleticism on display."
The skate nights and Skate Jamz are peaceful gatherings—no one would dare mess with another skater's skate night by causing trouble, says Lewis—yet rink owners are often hesitant to host them, out of fear for what will take place. This is an ongoing theme within the skating community.
In researching the film, Brown and Winkler discovered that there was a time when rinks were among the most segregated public spaces in the U.S., with designated white nights and black nights. These segregated rinks allowed disparate skating communities to emerge within the same cities. While pop culture icons paid homage to the white skating culture during the disco era, little credit was given to the black skaters. They quickly became some of the early activists of the Civil Rights Movement.
Victoria Wolcott, an author and professor of race relations at SUNY Buffalo, tells Brown and Winkler that much of the early desegregation campaigns of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) focused on rinks. The Civil Rights movement's first "sit-ins" were actually "skate-ins." More than 50 years later, the undertones of racism persist at many of these privately-owned rinks. The segregated nights have new names—soul nights, adult nights—but everyone knows these names are code for black nights.
The skaters have slowly helped erode the stereotypes in some areas, yet there are still others where rink owners fear that welcoming African-American skaters will lead to violence and a drug culture in the rink.
Steve Earley, a former rink manager in California, told Brown and Winkler that he was once in this category of owners. When he did finally agree to host an adult skate night, it was on the condition that they hire extra security. Earley soon realized there was no need for security at all. Another rink owner told Brown and Winkler that he had more problems at his family's Christmas dinner than on his adult skate nights.
In Baltimore, Lewis has struggled with Shake & Bake's owners, trying to convince them to host more adult nights. There is currently one adult night for skaters 30 years old and over. Anyone younger than 30 must skate with kids of all ages. If they want to get serious about skating, or skate to certain music, they're out of luck. This keeps too many of the city's young people away, Lewis says. The city and Shake & Bake could instead offer teens a safe venue to vent the frustrations that are inherent with growing up in an underserved community.
The tension and stereotyping these skaters face is indicative of the systemic racism that persists throughout the U.S., the systemic racism that protesters are rallying against this week in Baltimore.
"It's upsetting to see the injustices that are happening, in Baltimore, Ferguson, in general, any injustice. Some people take that and internalize it... Their expressions can come out in ways that are not efficient for the community. Some people need to get their energy flowing," says Johnson. "That's what roller skating can offer. It gives people an outlet to release some of that tension and anger. It gives them a way to have a positive outlet."
Johnson, Lewis, and fellow skaters have been spreading that message at events in Baltimore throughout the year. Seeing the opportunity to do so this week in Baltimore, they went for it. They weren't partying. They were peacefully protesting.
When Lewis's mother called on Tuesday, she didn't want him outside. By the end of the week, she and many others realized that Lewis's skate group was necessary. Spreading a positive message, showing the true essence of Charm City, representing the majority, was necessary. Not only for Baltimore, but for the cities across the country.
"There isn't one answer to this whole issue," says Johnson. "But just starting with putting on your skates and helping people smile, feel happy, and be in a mental space to be able to deal with the issues, that's one of our goals."