Despite a very specific downtown skateboard ban, neither skaters or the KPD seem to know what the law really says

by John Sewell

Trey McReynolds' invention may seem ungainly at first—certainly, it's not the kind of vehicle you see everyday. But for the veteran local skateboarder, it allows him to pursue his sport as well as make a statement about the city codes that forbid him from skating in Knoxville's streets and in downtown altogether. Composed of a bicycle frame with one skateboard mounted on the front forks and one in the rear, it's been dubbed the "skatebike."

"I decided I'd make something where, if a cop decided to pull me into court and say it was a skateboard, the judge would probably just laugh," McReynolds says. "I might still have to pay a ticket, but 99 percent of cops would not drag this into court and say, 'This is a skateboard.' They could call it a 'similar vehicle,' though."

Such craftiness may seem like an invitation for a fine, but for local skateboarders it feels more like civil disobedience. In 1993, the city completely outlawed skateboarding in Knoxville's Central Business Improvement District (CBID), an area that includes the World's Fair Park, downtown Knoxville, and the Old City. In the rest of the city, skateboarding is outlawed on the streets, but is permitted on sidewalks and crosswalks, as long as skaters are courteous and don't endanger pedestrians. However, enforcement of this ban hasn't been uniform, with skaters having their boards confiscated in legal areas—or conversely being allowed to skate in illegal areas.

"I get the feeling the police don't know what the rules are, not just the skateboarders," says city Councilwoman Carlene Malone, who's been fielding skater complaints.

The result has been not only confusion as to what the actual laws dictate, but also a feeling of persecution among skateboarders. Since the outlawing of skateboarding downtown, there have been a number of skirmishes between skaters and police, sometimes resulting in arrests, citations, or illegal confiscation of boards. While this may appeal to skaters who enjoy their rebellious image, it also raises the question of why skaters are on the receiving end of an on-and-off ban: Is it because they're deserving, or is it because of unfair stereotypes?

Gangsters on Wheels

Appearing as a mutation of California surf culture of the early '60s, skateboarding has emerged as a popular sport in its own right. Anywhere there are plentiful concrete surfaces, they are ubiquitous: young thrashers using skateboarding as a catharsis for their adolescent aggression. Accompanying the sport is a sense of style, an attitude, and a subculture that encompasses a wide range of youth movements: punk, hip-hop, alternative, heavy metal, and the devil-may-care, high testosterone appeal of extreme sports.

As with all forms of youth culture, the publications and products associated with skateboarding have sought to identify with the implied rebellion of the sport in order to appear hip and reap big sales. This kind of marketing has proved quite profitable, but has also served to solidify a "bad boy" image, which some impressionable neophytes to the sport sometimes carry into their dealings with authority figures.

This may be one reason that while skateboarding was outlawed in the CBID, roller skating and rollerblading are still legal (although some rollerbladers complain of not being allowed by police to skate either). Skateboarding was banned in the area because of complaints by business owners and residents of damage to sidewalks, curbs, rails, and other structures.

Downtown resident Susan Key says that even though it is illegal, many skateboarders still come to the Market Square area on a regular basis. "It's usually after business hours when they come out," she says. "I really can't condemn it, I just think that it shouldn't be done if it is putting other people in danger. I don't think skateboarding should necessarily be outlawed, I just think that maybe there should be a specific place for them to do it."

Ironically, the "banning" of downtown skating has made the area even more appealing to a daring few.

"I think that in a way the police have helped put the gangster image on skateboarding," says McReynolds, also known as local radio personality Col. Bacchus. "Now that it has been made illegal, the kids run when they see cops. Running (actually skateboarding) away from cops has almost gotten to be a game with lots of kids. They think it's fun as long as they get away with it."

McReynolds is probably the most flamboyant skateboarder in the Knoxville area. Known for his wide array of unique vehicles—such as a six-foot board with large, off-road style wheels and "the rainboard," a board designed for use during showers that features shag carpeting mounted on top of the deck—he is a common sight on the sidewalks of the Fort Sanders area, skating since 1974. He's seen the image of skaters go from being innocuous to outlaw status.

"What happened was, at one point in the early '90s, a few skaters started doing graffiti downtown," says McReynolds. "They were new school skaters, young kids. Back then it was just a little fad. You don't see any skaters tagging these days. It was just a little core group, but the police blamed it on everyone. What eventually happened was, to try to stop the spray painting, they just banned skateboarding."

Jamie White, a younger, "new school" skateboarder of the type often perceived as being a "gangster," says skaters are misunderstood by the KPD—that the police consider all skaters to be trouble, whether they deserve it or not.

"I just don't think they understand what skateboarding is about and they just misinterpret what we're doing," says White. "They just assume that we're rebels and we're just out to destroy property. They don't really take the time to look deeper into it. I think that the culture of skating has contributed to a bad image, but, just like anything else, judgments should be based on the individual and not on the lump sum of how you might think a group of people act. I shouldn't say that all cops don't understand, because that would also be unfair. There have been some cops that are cool."

Intermittent Enforcement

Enforcing the rules and regulations imposed on skateboarding has been quite a headache for Knoxville police. Neither skaters nor police officers seem to know the exact letter of the law in regard to skateboarding, which has resulted in many complaints—even from rollerbladers, who are still legal in the CBID district.

Robert Loest, a noted financial expert with downtown's IPS Millennium Fund and a longtime rollerblading enthusiast who doesn't exactly fit the "gangster" image, has been approached by security guards while rollerblading on the World's Fair Site on several occasions.

"I haven't had any hassles downtown, but every time I skate on the World's Fair Site, the cops tell me to leave," says Loest. "They've basically killed rollerblading in this town. I know what they were trying to do: they wanted to get rid of these kids who hang out, wax curbs, and grind all over everything—the kids who dress punk with the surly behavior. So what they've done is to outlaw two sports instead of dealing with the bad behavior. That's just the typical, heavyhanded way of dealing with things. They should be trying to stop the bad behavior, not outlawing a sport."

White, now an employee of Axis Skatepark, had a run-in with the KPD earlier this year which resulted in the confiscation of his board. Accompanied by a few underage friends, the 22-year-old skater was skating in the parking lot of a bank near Cumberland Avenue when a police officer confronted them.

"The cop basically approached us with a bad, authoritarian attitude," he says. "He was verbally abusive and trying to dominate us and that was just totally unnecessary. When I brought it to his attention that I felt that he was being disrespectful, things escalated and he decided to write me up. He gave me an ordinance citation, and there's not an ordinance in that area, so that wouldn't stand up in court. So when I went to court it was all backwards. I was originally charged with skateboarding in an unlawful place, and then, according to the cop, they did what is called 'amending a charge,' and I was charged with trespassing. I don't see why the cop was even dealing with us because it was on private property and he hadn't been called by the owner."

KPD spokesman Foster Arnett says (via fax) that officers will cite skaters on private property if either the property in question is posted or if there is a request from the property owner to enforce "No trespassing" laws.

The fine points of the law regarding confiscation also seem unclear to a number of Knoxville police officers. Asked for his understanding of the law, a veteran downtown beat officer (who asked that his name be withheld) says that it is indeed okay to take skateboards merely because they have been used in the wrong area.

"If you cite, you confiscate; but you don't have to," he says. "In a lot of ways I'm pretty easy-going. I'd rather talk to the kids than to take their boards or issue a citation.

"The majority of the skateboarders continue to come down here, and most that do skateboard come here pretty often. They all know me, so when they see that I'm around, they don't do it. I recognize the same faces from day to day, and I know a lot of these kids. The problem is nothing like it used to be. It was very hazardous down here until a few years ago when they passed the ordinance."

Since skateboarding is unlawful downtown, many recent skirmishes between skateboarders and police have occurred in Fort Sanders and on the University of Tennessee campus. Fort Sanders' largely student population is a haven for many young people who use skateboards as transportation. Many skaters have reported that UT policemen have told them skateboarding is not allowed on campus, despite the fact that the sidewalks and crosswalks there are city property.

Fort Sanders Hospital is another area where police officers don't seem to be clear about specific nuances of the law. The hospital's security guards (who are off-duty police officers and sheriff's deputies) have had several run-ins with Fort Sanders skateboarders.

"They told me I couldn't skate on the sidewalk, but that I could skate on the street," says McReynolds. "So now I just ride by there on the street and the cops just wave at me." This course of action might work for McReynolds when dealing with hospital security, but it is not in accordance with the actual laws of the city.

City Law Michael Director Kelley offers this response concerning the activities of off-duty officers at the hospital: "I don't know if those are accurate statements. If the security guard is hired privately, he is a representative of the private interest. If a police officer is hired privately while off-duty, he wouldn't have any authority over city property (which includes sidewalks) at that time."

Understanding the Law

Known by many as a stickler for rules and regulations, City Councilwoman Malone has entered the fray in hopes of educating skaters and cops alike of the laws regarding skateboarding—especially in regard to confiscation.

"I knew nothing about this until a kid called me up whose skateboard had been taken several months before," says Malone. "As I started looking into it I found out that we really shouldn't be confiscating skateboards, and in some cases they were confiscated, were not cited and were not given a ticket to go claim their material."

Asked about the alleged lack of knowledge among police officers about city codes restricting skateboarding, City Law Director Kelley responds vaguely. "I don't know about how police officers deal with skateboarders," says Kelley. "That question would be better addressed to [police chief] Phil Keith. The police are responsible to the city to uphold the laws and that's what we expect them to do."

But Arnett, Keith's spokesman, referred questions about skateboarding laws back to the city law department. As for why skateboards might be confiscated, Arnett said the question was "vague."

Kelley says he is unaware of any skateboard confiscations. "I don't have any personal knowledge that that (confiscation) has been done," says Kelley. "There is no provision to confiscate skateboards in the city code. If the only violation is using skateboards in the wrong area, then there shouldn't be confiscation. If a skateboard was used as a weapon or in another crime, it would be appropriate to take it."

Malone is working with city attorney Ron Mills in hopes of making the laws clearer to everyone involved. "At this point I'm counting on Ron Mills and the law department to get these rules out at police roll calls," says Malone. "I think we should educate police officers about the laws and I think we should supply copies of the ordinances to places where they sell skateboards. I don't want to just say, 'you can't skate here.' In all fairness to these kids, I want to be able to say, 'you can't skate here, but you can skate here.' "