JEFF THORBURN PORTFOLIO
Make a few moves in your adult life and you’ll inevitably end up with friends and family all over the place. Such...
And so the aging skateboard legend assumed the appearance we had come to know him by, buttoning his shirt tight to the collar and putting on his two hats. And seriously did he read or at least summarize a portion of the apology he had written to us, which I can summarize for you now: he has changed, words are not actions, he will keep changing, he denies hate, embraces love. He reminds us how long it’s been since the Bad Thing he said, denies that saying the Bad Thing defines him, apologizes, expresses regret, apologizes again, declares love to everyone reading. It is general, it is vague, and written in handwriting totally on-brand for Jason Jessee.
For anyone who hasn’t seen them here are the specifically hideous words Jason Jessee spoke during a 1994 interview with Iron Horse Magazine. “My mom fucked a nigger and me and my sisters found out about it—and I’m older than the nigger!” Here are some others: “I live in Santa Cruz. There’s a lot of militant lesbians here and raw faggots.” In the past, those of us who didn’t subscribe to Iron Horse Magazine in the mid-nineteen-nineties might have missed this little bundle of hideous language. But every day, these days, seems to teach a new lesson in the limited lung capacity of yesterday’s secrets. Everything floats to the surface. Nothing is secret.
But how about sacred? Since that interview, Jason Jessee has formed some swastikas out of steel and pinned some swastikas onto denim jackets. He’s had his photo taken wearing motorcycling gloves dominated by a big, hand-sized swastika on each. He’s made friends with the sort of people who visit his Instagram page to say he’s their hero and complain how PC culture has run amok, or to defend the swastika’s heritage and suggest that maybe Jason Jessee is the real victim here. Doesn’t Jason Jessee deserve an apology for being called a racist?
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I’m summarizing all this because like a lot of you I find this situation depressingly familiar. “My example speaks louder than words,” wrote Jessee.
But can we agree, readers, that words are not farts? Words do not gather against our interests and then slip squealing out of our bodies in ways we only partially control. And the clean distinction between words and actions is a little too convenient, philosophically speaking. We have a whole class of speech acts that are themselves mechanisms for changing relationships and power dynamics in the world: promises, insults, marriage pronouncements, christenings of children, and, of course, apologies.
But Jason Jessee’s letter doesn’t actually become an apology until its post-script, when he says he “Truly regrets” his actions that hurt or offended anyone. For most of the letter, he’s looking less for forgiveness than to be excused. One clean path to being excused is to admit having done the Bad Thing and then call into question its actual badness. This is why apologies that focus on “any offense caused” or “anyone’s hurt feelings,” or that hinge on a conditional “if” tend to feel insincere: they cast doubt on the obvious badness of the speaker’s behavior. To his credit, Jessee’s appears to recognize that he’s done an actual Bad Thing. However, he also insists that the rest of his life, his “example” and the love in his heart, should outweigh the Bad Thing. Because many of us don’t know Jason Jessee personally and have no way to know his actions beyond on-screen hijinks and, now, the swastikas and hideous language from the 24-year-old interview, these arguments serve as a version of the common non-apologist’s appeal to a private self that transcends and even rebukes the Bad Thing: “anyone who really knows me knows I’m not really Bad.”
By comparison, to ask forgiveness is to accept blame and moral responsibility for the Bad Thing without excuse or pointing to some mitigating circumstance. It’s the promise that behind and before that act came a legitimate, concentrated moral reckoning. And there is a chance, still, that being “indefinitely suspended” from most of his sponsors will result in Jason Jessee showing us that he’s reckoning with his Bad Things. That will mean more interviews and video clips. It will go on and he’ll either learn or not, it will be his journey, and I frankly don’t care too much about Jason Jessee anymore, and you probably shouldn’t either.
The real issue at hand here is not Jason Jessee but the system that was complicit in putting him into his current role despite knowing the Bad Things in his past. The big problem is the prevailing silence and empty emoticons that defined the skate industry’s response to his apology. Those who spoke did so obliquely, and few I talked to were willing to go on the record with any comment remotely specific to Jessee. Ryan Lay was, for a time, the only known skater who commented. “I really would prefer not to be the only person addressing this,” he eventually wrote to the public, “but a lot of people in the skate community are really upset and rightfully so. They basically feel like the industry has let them down.”
Jim Thiebaud posted his own apology for the role he played in the complicit-ness, and reached out to me to say emphatically, “Bigotry and hatred don’t belong in skateboarding. Period.” Hearing his voice, hearing Bob Denike’s voice and Andrew Cannon’s voice, it was clear that those first few days after the story broke were tough on them.
Reckonings are, by their nature, difficult things. Far easier to go the route of The Nine Club, who responded to a DM by explaining how they “try to avoid all that negative crap. Jason is a great skateboarder and person who said some really dumb stuff back in the mid ‘90s…no need to revisit it.”
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The United States is a nation founded on land stolen from indigenous non-whites, and wealth built from the slave labor of African blacks. Modern skateboarding is an industry and culture founded on the exploits of a dozen surfers and skaters in the 1970s and the writer/photographer who made them into legends. This is the gospel according to Craig Stecyk, whose writing on the Z-Boys you probably have not read, but have definitely seen quoted. For instance: “Yesterday’s heroes, the mangled messages left molding by the all-fronts media blitz and tomorrow’s tragedies are all meaningless to the contemporary skater.” Here, in a typically florid and alliterative sentence, is the entire mythos of the skate outlaw and their rolling, eternal now. No looking back, and no looking forward either.
But I’m not sure many skateboarders realize just how small and insular the US skateboard industry really is. The slightest look behind the curtain reveals about 120 people, 150 max, cramped into a cozy pyramid; everyone knows everyone else. Nor might the average skater realize just how concentrated the power is at this pyramid’s top. In 2012 I was surprised to receive an email from Dave Carnie, a writer I’ll argue is second only to Stecyk in terms of importance to skateboarding. It seemed that Carnie had read my profile of Andrew Reynolds and wondered about doing something on Steve Berra. I’d have to be careful, he warned, because he’d have to give Berra final review of whatever I wrote. When I said, basically, hold on you’re Dave Fucking Carnie, he explained how Berra had the power to yank advertising and thus was not someone to fuck with. He admitted that this was not very punk rock, but unfortunately he had to consider the reality of the situation.
The next time you wonder why there is no such thing as hard-hitting skate journalism, consider Dave Carnie, the most radical and subversive writer in the history of skateboarding. Consider a world in which someone so overtly narcissistic and fragile as Berra is granted control over how he’s covered. Or consider other real-world practices that are missing from skateboarding—things like labor unions, or organizations that might offer any other kind of protections for pros and amateurs. Consider how fragile is the existence of all those skaters hustling for some small space inside the pyramid. A single injury—like Jason Jessee’s broken leg in 1991—and they’re done.
Consider how frightening this must be, knowing how profoundly replaceable you are. And considering all this, it begins to make sense that no skaters, or writers, or other industry figures were interested or brave enough even to comment on Jason Jessee’s swastikas. Skateboarding’s history of blacklisting is fairly short, officially, but the lessons are stark. Anyone, everyone can be replaced.
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It’s a good thing skateboarding has discovered the world’s most powerful remedy, isn’t it? Marvel as the pro skater dismisses the haters and moves fluidly on from “all that negative crap.” Watch them practice gratitude daily on the apps. Feel the love of each moment. As Jessee says, “I have zero hatred or negativity in my heart for anybody or anything, only love.” How could this be wrong? And anyway, isn’t the swastika itself ambiguous in its meaning? Doesn’t the symbol predate all that negative crap the Nazis attached to it? Everyone knows what it means and stands for, but there’s always some bit of thumbnail Sanskrit scholarship that can get you off the hook if you don’t want to say it.
Read his original articles and it’s clear that Craig Stecyk was as interested in morality and its misuse as he was in foundational hero myths. In particular, his “Surf Nazis and Other Objectionable Material” dives hard into this contested realm of “actually.” Stecyk writes of Greg Noll’s 1964 film, Search for Surf, describing a scene wherein a group of smiling blonde surfer boys take a wheeled flexi-flyer to La Jolla’s storm drain, one of them in full Nazi regalia. First, Stecyk rationalizes: “Whose fathers’ footlocker didn’t sport at least a samurai sword, a captured battle flag or a German officer’s coat?” Then he equates the “misunderstood” Nazi uniform with “hot rodding, low riding, and motorcycling,” all of which east-coast “mavens of ‘appropriateness'” fear for equally wrong reasons. The only crime on display, Stecyk says, was how “the arbiters of the ‘social norm’ overreacted to these decidedly non-ideologically based pranks.”
Keep in mind that the film in question is from 1964, a year in which many black American citizens were still not allowed to vote. State anti-miscegenation laws stood until 1967’s Loving v. Virginia, US Supreme Court. This scene happened in pre-civil rights USA; these charming blonde boys put on Nazi uniforms non-ideologically nearly 20 years after their fathers brought them home as trophies—or for whatever other reason—from Europe’s blood-lands.
This is where skateboarding began; it doesn’t require a master’s degree in the internet to find any of it. Of course if you don’t want to look, you won’t find it. If you don’t want to see Jake Phelps getting hyped by a swastika, you don’t have to. If you’d rather celebrate Stecyk’s ubiquitous bit on the minds of 11-year-olds than pay $3.99 to read him rambling about outsider art and the fascism of anti-fascists, it’s easy. And no one, up until recently, would blame you if you’d rather go googly-eyed at Jason Jessee’s Frontside Airs than hear Denver Dan say of his friend, “When his mom fucked a black dude, he said, ‘mom, that’s fucked. When she dies I’m gonna dig up her bones and surgically implant them in my belly and shit them out. And then we’ll be even. I owe her nothing.'” Denver Dan said this on film back in 2006 for, Pray For Me, The Jason Jessee Story, a documentary that I imagine his sponsors might have thought to consider before they started writing Jessee a new round of industry paychecks.
Speak to industry figures on the phone and two things are clear. One, they claim to have had no idea about this stuff. Two, this is just not the Jason they know and love. Their friend Jessee could not also be this person.
It might be a totally retrograde and simplistic and naïve understanding of racism, but it’s comforting to people who define themselves wholly by love. It also offers a convenient escape. Rather than take Jason Jessee’s recent collision with his dark past as an opportunity to work against the systemic forces that convinced him it was okay to rock swastikas in the first place, the industry can simply bottle it up as something “in the past” and of it. Recall Stecyk and live in the now, instead. Live inside love.
Never mind that two-thirds of the contemporary skate industry is dedicated to re-packaging the past through re-issues of old boards, shoes, and brands. Under the blissed-out rhetoric and ad hoc worldview is a familiar and stubborn status quo. It inhales our silent complacency like oxygen, and its exhale is poison.
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Forty years after Stecyk wrote the foundations of skateboarding legend, the big question is this: is skateboarding a primitive force, or is it a progressive one? Or more than that: will skateboarding continue to perpetuate the old American power dynamics of few and many, of white supremacy and brown otherness, or will it work to dismantle them? Does it PMA its way into cozy selfishness or play a more difficult and labor-intensive role in the world beyond itself?
They’re not rhetorical questions. The Jason Jessee apology puppet show is a good reminder that the US skate industry doesn’t have our best interest in mind. As it currently exists, built by surfers, it’s a machine programmed to capitalize on nostalgia and hero-worship. Its representatives are men with dubious histories who have in many cases done historically Bad Things. After nearly thirty years of spending my money on skateboarding, of paying to engage in an activity and belong to a culture defined in large part by its ugliest and most violent legends, it’s pretty clear to me that, inside of skateboarding, our best answer is a primitive progressiveness.
It’s to say to Craig Stecyk: you don’t speak for me and you’re done speaking for skateboarding. It’s to say to Jason Jessee: I hope you find the help and support to remain healthy and grow toward a new understanding of racism in America—and also, fuck you. And to the narcissists, the power-mongers, the skaters who beat their girlfriends, who abuse and drug and rape: fuck y’all. And to the few remaining California old guard who continue to own and oversee a workplace that enforces silence and disempowers the people working in the industry? Fuck you the worst. This isn’t about playing the PC police. It is direct democracy.
It’s been forty long years since Craig Stecyk’s wrote his articles, and still we’re quivering in the shadows of these old, creaky, defective gods. Forty years of wandering and barely any distance travelled. There’s some historical precedent for that, at least. As the crow flies, the distance from Egypt to the banks of Jordan is one the Israelites could have covered in days. What took them so long? One reading goes like this: the generation that led them into the desert had lived its whole life under the old system of slavery and was unprepared for the responsibilities of freedom. In order to be free the Israelites needed to wait those forty years for them to die off.
It is 2018. Next time you’re out skating, have a look around. What do you see, today, but a land of milk and honey—Jewish and black and brown and transgendered skaters, girls wearing hijab and queer boys kissing on the steps, and so many of them skating better than Jason Jessee ever did or could. That’s skateboarding today, that’s our new industry, and that’s what matters. And fuck off, Nazi scum, if you disagree.
Kyle Beachy is an Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Roosevelt University, in Chicago. He was eleven when he began skateboarding, is now nearly forty, and will be dead or immobilized before he stops. See more from Kyle on Twitter or Instagram.