Open Every Cell: the Carceral Spectre and Sonic Bridges of Kareem Campbell
Words by José Vadi
Chad Muska is on my phone telling me he is turning down his Skateboard Hall of Fame nomination in support of Kareem Campbell’s induction instead, and my mind drifts immediately back to my parent’s living room in southern California, watching dubbed VHS copies of both skater’s infamous videos, Fulfill the Dream by Shorty’s Skateboards and World Industries’ Trilogy.
Muska was the summer of 1998. His pro model shoe for éS Footwear (and Osiris Footwear knockoffs) with its secret tongue pocket turned marijuana from a prop in a Snoop music video into a funky, odd-sized zip lock that got my friends suspended and turned tinfoil into pipes at sessions. His curated board sponsor Shorty’s was beneath most skaters’ feet and most non-skaters’ tops, one of the first real skate brands whose clothing was worn by non-skaters. Kareem too had this privilege with his briefly lived but extremely impactful Axion Footwear, the girls at my junior high rocking the white Mariano’s until they were handed down to their little brothers or boyfriends. Skateboarding was taking over the culture before the 900 ignited the catapult sending the industry into its most lucrative periods since an ’80s Hosoi kicked God in the chin floating in the ether between SoCal coping and the Milky Way mid-Christ air.
In addition to turning every curb into molted dollar store candle wax altars, skateboarding’s most disruptive quality was kids commandeering the living room console to obsessively watch skate videos. Entering the culture in the fall of 1996, my immediate holy trinity of foundational skate videos were Welcome to Hell, Mouse and Trilogy. I quickly discovered Spike Jonze had been on loan to the MTV masses; a particular generation will always associate him with Video Days and Rubbish Heap, while the generation after, like me, will admire his ‘Buddy Holly’ and ‘Cannonball’ or Dinosaur Jr. music videos before Mouse hit skate shops in 1996.
What didn’t occur to me was that my parents could also hear the unlicensed soul, punk, hip hop and beyond soundtracks booming from the living room to their safe space then-known as the kitchen table. They initially viewed skateboarding as a materially destructive potentially, cop-attracting activity that I shouldn’t be doing.
Certain videos were more appreciated than others. I’d try to almost dj the situation and create sonic and visual bridges between myself and my family through these destined-to-be cult classics. If a New York specific segment came on, like the 411VM section on Riverside Park or the NYC-montage in Transworld’s Interface and The Reason, I’d show my Pops who, despite leaving East Harlem by the early 1970s could still tell me what neighborhood and near which major intersection and/or subway stop the spot was located. My mother employed her knowledge of Los Angeles to call out spots, like the Cal State LA ledges in Goldfish or the concrete slabs of Inland Empire glory that is Chaffey High School.
Music is where our bridge found footing. They didn’t mind me turning up those videos that had soundtracks more affixed to their ear: soul, R&B, ’60s/’70s rock. Sometimes they even told me the artist of the song before I took the time to pause the credits and figure it out. Jeremy Wray slow-mo massive handrail grinds with John Lennon screaming “Alright!” at the end of Plan B’s The Revolution, or Brian Anderson’s anti-thought control Pink Floyd sound tracked introduction to skateboarding — these were appreciated but not nearly as sung along to as War’s “Magic Mountain”, Cymande’s “Brothers on the Slide”, or Mary J. Blige’s “I Love You” — just a handful of the classics featured on heavy rotation gems, Trilogy and Mouse. They understood why Spike Jonze for example used Curtis Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go” for the Brothas from Different Mothas sketch and laughed at the inventiveness behind the Chaplin sketch featuring Eric Koston turning Torrance into a silent film set. It sparked conversations about what Mayfield meant by the hell below, and the context of his tunes during an era of Shaft, WattStax, Stevie Wonder, and how the 70s were really the 60s for BIPOC communities in America.
One afternoon, after watching Kareem Campbell’s Trilogy part probably for the third consecutive viewing that night, and probably the twentieth viewing that week, my mom laughed after his slow-motion nollie hardflip over the picnic table, saying “I like that line; it’s clever.”
It took me a moment to realize she was referring to the bar delivered by Nasir Jones aka Nas when he raps “I’d open every cell in Attica / send ‘em to Africa” painting his visual of what a world he ruled would look like, somewhat preceding Wyclef Jean’s “If I Were President” while spinning off Kurtis Blow and Scarface’s glowing global lights. Nas’ line is delivered without thew sound of Kareem’s beautifully flicked board, his catch and subsequent landing closing Nas’ line before a skate-only sound of Kareem’s final trick, a switch hardflip over that same table, crowning him King Reemo as the height of his game. Kareem’s part in Trilogy enabled my parents to see the socially conscious dimension of hip hop and how it related to The Last Poets albums they started playing when I turned ten.
Tales of the World crew skating Lockwood detail getting the pass from local gangs affiliated with Fabian Alomar’s family, but what to speak of the state sponsored violence of 1990s Los Angeles? These classic videos of the World era that put so many BIPOC skaters on the map were produced during the punitive three-strikes era for violent offenders driven by California’s then-Governor Pete Wilson. Trilogy as a production succeeded amidst a Los Angeles still reeling from the Los Angeles Riots years earlier, and a California grappling with anti-immigrant legislation like Gov. Wilson’s Proposition 187, which attempted to create a state-administered citizenship system that denied immigrants basic social services, stripping them of health care, access to education, and ultimately deemed unconstitutional.
The decade closed with the infamous Rampart scandal, exposing a violent, corrupt anti-gang task force Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) patrolling Rampart Village and neighboring areas. CRASH framed civilians and gang members alike in gang-related killings, committing perjury under oath to double-down on their false charges. The scandal resulted in over 100 civil cases filed against the LAPD and over $125 Million in punitive damages. Like the recently exposed units in Compton with white supremacist ties, CRASH had their own tattoos for their corrupt unit, full on gang shit funded by tax payer’s dollars.
The extent of the scandal is immeasurable two decades later, but what is known is that much of CRASH’s dirt was done near the greater Silver Lake, Echo Park and East Hollywood — areas of Los Angeles that Kareem and the World and Girl crews helped put on the map for skateboarders worldwide. As Nas says at the top of his raps, sound tracking Kareem’s USC line, “Imagine smoking weed in the streets without cops harassin’ / Imagine going to court with no trial.”
By Trilogy’s release in 1996, incarceration rates were increasing for Black communities, not only for three-strikes related charges, but predominantly for nonviolent crimes and drug offenses — despite the concurrent rise of violent crimes within white populations during the same ten-year period from 1985 to 1995.
“During the 10-year period, the number of black inmates serving time for drug offenses rose by an estimated 117,400, while the number of white inmates in for drug offenses rose by 64,900. Overall, the increasing number of drug offenders accounted for 42% of the total growth among black inmates and 26% of the growth among white inmates. In contrast, violent offenders accounted for the largest source of growth among white inmates up 102,900 in 10 years totaling 42% of the overall increase among white inmates. The number of black inmates serving time for violent offenses rose by about the same amount (103,800) but accounted for 37% of the total increase in black inmates.” – U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin: Prisoners in 1996 (published June 1997)
These rates illuminate how Kareem and company created and documented some of the most amazing street skateboarding in the culture’s history at its most punitive era against Black citizens in Los Angeles by the city’s police forces.
Natas Kaupas wearing a Public Enemy shirt whilst inventing street skateboarding in his now iconic 1989 Transworld Pro Spotlight photos captured by J. Grant Brittain. : these photos inspired many white skaters to be down with hip hop, to recognize the irony of a skateboarder being labeled a Public Enemy, to explicitly back Chuck D’s burgeoning brainchild and implicitly say that Black Lives Matter. The scope of a cop in the crosshairs, Natas’ potentially bootleg P.E shirt and logo still speaks volumes in the wake of the skate industry’s responses (or lack thereof) to BLM and calls for greater equity and conversations centered around white privilege.
When a brown kid starts skateboarding in any era – for me, 1996 – they are entering a policed world that presumes their guilt, accelerated now by the four wheels propelling them, sometimes illegally, down city streets, schoolyards, back alleys. We enter society always as the Other and dismantle the systemic racism behind the idea of a skateboarder with every push, every pair of Dickies against dark skin above white wheels and neon wood, every pack of BIPOC kids bombing the streets, from spot to spot. Skateboarding is rebellion incarnate but mobbing spots with a pack of kids that looks like you feel closer to the physical reclamation of so-called public space. The excitement and terror fuelling this feeling is akin to wearing two Public Enemy shirts without the benefit of being a Natas in the eyes of the police — and bearing twice the targets on our backs. I felt the specter of police violence constantly. Cops separating me and white friends when we’d get kicked out of spots. The carceral specter was more present than an invisible hand but the choke felt just the same.
My parents knew the stats and the streets, growing up in Mexico by way of La Puente and Santurce, Puerto Rico by way of East Harlem — two hoods on either side of the states, knowing the threat of first impressions with kids like me and law enforcement. This lead to a mix of model minority like expectations and just sheer overly-hammered common sense, knowing even before skateboarding my privileges were different.
With skateboarding, the bleached hair, massive pants and beyond PG graphics of a post-Love Child skate era were culturally antithetical to long term goals of exemplar immigrant families, incorporated. In their eyes, the idea of voluntarily wearing a shirt that said AMERICAN ZERO was a privilege I’d never have despite being born in the states. I remember then their questioning of Independent Truck’s use of the iron cross logo, or even Flip Skateboards “Hate Kill Destroy” t-shirts with similar iconography. Camo pants normalized militarization. The idea of buying things you’d voluntarily destroy like decks and trucks and hardware and shoes and private property ticket violations to boot was insane, a middle finger to the working class where earned goods were polished, maintained for longevity and repeated use.
Muska’s actions allow us skateboarders who remember Kareem’s crooked grind cover with the red-black-and-green color text to reflect on the “What Ifs” surrounding Kareem’s career. Should he have gotten SOTY that year? Did Kareem face racism from bank lenders or cops not ready to see a Black man successfully skateboarding with a gold chain medallion bearing his company’s logo? The Menace montage in Trilogy alone is referenced more than some SOTY’s careers. This skit, and his mid-part letter to Shiloh, position Kareem as the workingman’s kingpin with a heart of gold and Hennessey at the helm of both Menace and World. Shiloh’s emancipation later in the video creates one of the more serious recognitions of the ongoing incarceration of Black Californians within skateboarding. The fact that Shiloh indeed filmed tricks in his Trilogy part the day he was released from jail demonstrates that fine line walked between incarceration and turning skateboarding into a profession, not a crime.
For BIPOC skaters, Kareem and World meant as much as Atiba Jefferson shooting Misled Youth era Sturt-biting angles and darkroom attempts, or Paul Rodriguez Jr.’s ascension to GOAT status and company owner. It’s the same pride of knowing Jovantae Turner’s light work is the work by which we measure a 360 flips’ excellence. Seeing yourself in skateboarding matters, and these skaters were some of its biggest architects.
I think about all of this in the wake of Muska’s decision, and Kareem respectfully turning it down, saying his time too will come, and that Muska deserves his shine in 2020. I think of all of this realizing as noted by the Skating is Hard podcast that there hasn’t been a Black skater inducted until 2019 despite the Skateboard Hall of Fame’s two decades plus existence. I think of all of this every time I step on a skateboard at Rockridge Curbs in Oakland, California, a neighborhood built on segregation, where housing announcements in 1909 proclaimed “No negroes, no Chinese, no Japanese can build or lease in Rock Ridge Park.”
I think of all of this in the wake of my mom’s recent email, checking in and slightly reminiscing, before noting, “You have no idea how much I worried about you while you were out skating. But, I kept telling myself that I needed to give you the space to make your own mistakes and that whatever we had taught you would somehow surface and allow you to survive.”
It’s July 2020 and three LAPD officers were just charged with “falsifying records and obstructing justice by claiming without evidence that people they stopped were gang members or associates” — nearly two decades after the RAMPART scandal, Nas becoming a household name and Kareem originating his video game character in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.
The specter of illegitimate incarceration and the carceral middlemen between freedom and jail lurks around every session, as much as the colors on our shirts and the parts of towns where those colors mean trouble for any type of armed actors, and like my mother I too am lucky more trouble didn’t find our way – from the sets in Lockwood, the Nazi sympathizers in Huntington Beach, the everyday opportunists in the Inland Empire – there is an element to surviving as a BIPOC skater those who saw themselves as mirrored reflections of Muska will never understand. I hate the cliché of the journey being the point not the destination — tell that to someone in an overcrowded 1990s prison. Kareem was right decades before skateboarding was ready to listen – You gotta break out and I gotta break out – from the invisible biases to the literal abusive behavior, the forces threatening to imprison our edits, our stories, our letters from ever being received.