Born smack dab in the middle of St. Louis, Missouri, Randy Ploesser is everybody’s somewhat reluctant go-to dude for all things skateboarding and St. Louis. He’s got a complicated relationship with his hometown, preferring it and his idealism to California and living near the skateboard industry, even as he’s aware of its warts and all. Couple that with St. Louis’ extended time in the national spotlight following the killing of Michael Brown and its aftermath, and it was time to catch up with Ploesser about living near protests, St. Louis and why people live where they live.
When did you hear about the Mike Brown killing? Did you have any inkling it’d be one of the defining events of the year?
I was on the way back from a vacation, I remember it being a weird thing to come back home to. It seems like the sort of thing to happen in St. Louis fairly often and not warrant much attention, so it was surprising how much of a flashpoint it became for the national media. I think it’s obvious that at least some people here and in other similar American cities wanted to address the issues that this situation brought up. It could be seen as negative attention, which is the kind St. Louis usually finds in the national media when it’s not sports, but hopefully the impact will be positive.
Overall, I think that it’s good that it is getting its due, but no, I didn’t expect it to become what it has, it’s bizarre but I wouldn’t call it surreal. It’s hyper-real. It’s like a light was turned on and the world can see all the cracks and dirt most people here know about almost instinctively try but to completely ignore and avoid.
What’s it like to have that sort of protest going down in your city?
It’s exciting, stressful, and depressing at the same time. Recently it was pretty scary. Ferguson obviously had a rough night when the grand jury decision was announced. I live right off of South Grand Avenue in South City and while it’s 20-25 minutes driving from Ferguson, it got pretty smashed up that night. I was on the street when the protests were going on after the highway was shut down and there was a time where it felt like anything could happen.
I had to go home to take cover before tear gas started flying and to make sure my house wasn’t getting vandalized. There was a subtle sense of dread that’s hard to describe. People acted and drove differently. Police sirens and helicopters are a familiar sound in the city but they became ominous. I think it’s really taking its toll on people and also revealing a lot of true colors as well.
And while that’s the juicy part of it, for the most part things are pretty much normal in St. Louis at large. I think a lot of people are creating fear and paranoia out of bored, sheltered ignorance. Running out and loading up on guns and supplies like the apocalypse is happening. Like any spectacle you see people just sort of playing the role they feel like they should or want to play.
When I was walking back to my house I saw a group of teenagers dressed in what I would describe as Mad Max cosplay outfits shooting-off bottle rockets. Then I got home and flicked on the live news to see them filming, up close, another group of dumbasses I walked by smashing out the window of a pawn shop. The dude reaches in with a big smile on his face and grabs what? A crossbow. He grabs a crossbow and then as the news is filming him from 5 feet away he runs down the street all goofy with this crossbow and disappears. I’m just like, “Are these people fucking serious?”
”When things get dark I cant help but think, “Really Randall? You love this stagnant, backwards, racist shithole?”
Then the cops are no better. From what I’ve seen, depending on how they decide they should handle that evening, they usually intimidate and corral the peaceful protesters, community leaders, people from the neighborhood – basically all the people with good intentions into one area while all the derelicts go do whatever they want away from the main stage. This is the South Side I’m talking about mostly. I can’t attest to seeing much with my own eyes in Ferguson and it’s a much more intense situation there.
It is really conflicting. I feel like I do a lot of thankless PR for St. Louis, not being such a bad place and what’s more, actually really sick in its own way. It’s not like living here has done anything for my skateboarding career—quite the opposite—to where I feel like I have rep it super hard. I just know that it’s home and I want St. Louis to be appreciated for its many redeeming qualities.
So when I see the area I’ve lived in and watched grow and develop over the past six years get nearly smashed to bits, all the second guessing I’ve had about choosing to live in St. Louis is really amplified and it’s hard to handle. That’s the selfish part. I know that ultimately all this will be good for the city and help promote changing the things that make St. Louis less than desirable to live in and to the outside world. But when things get dark I cant help but think, “Really Randall? You love this stagnant, backwards, racist shithole? You wanted to move back here? You wanted to stay here?” Believe me, I must.
Were you scared being at home? Were you prepared to protect yourself or your house?
It’s funny because as sketchy as St. Louis can be, I’m so familiar with it, that I’m rarely not at ease. I think being scared at your own home is characteristic of people who live in the suburbs and let the news freak them out, but I was pretty nervous at times. I didn’t really expect any violence towards homes as a result of the protest and although I was aware that people might take advantage of the chaos to make off with some stuff, I didn’t hear any accounts of anything like that towards residences. I didn’t do anything to prepare, I sat on my porch when things were really heated and watched it all go. I saw teargas flying down Grand avenue 100 yards from my doorstep. I don’t own a gun, but I have slingshots and my roommate has a couple of samurai swords. Our strategy might be a little antiquated but that is as “prepared” as we felt we needed to be I guess.
”I guess anyone crazy enough to try to attempt a skateboarding career outside of LA these days is bound to be recognized by where they live and skate”
What’s the tie that binds you to St. Louis? Family and friends, no doubt, what about your skateboard career?
Family and friends, yes. That is undeniable. It’s different now than it used to be. I only “lived” in St. Louis before and would be on the road for skate events and filming over half of the year. The cost of living is low here and if skating wasn’t coming through I could make enough off of odd jobs to keep it moving. As an Amateur skater I did most of my traveling through rigging flights through sponsors and footing a lot of the bill with my own money. I only made enough off of skateboarding alone for a year or so as a Pro to really just do whatever I wanted and stay productive.
Now I have a house and a part time job to help afford the bills and it’s really hard to leave as often without screwing myself financially. Of course, the vast majority of the population lives that way, so it’s not like I consider it super unfortunate. I’ve been traveling almost nonstop the better half of my life whether skateboarding foots the bill or not, so I’ve been sort of testing myself to see how much I can live a “normal” lifestyle, kind of. My “dream” of sorts was to make skateboarding work as a career—or at least a job—while still living and traveling from home, and it worked for a while. It would be nice to return to that for a while before the ship totally sails. I have to thank Send Help skateboards, Lakai, Krux, Bones wheels and bearings,
Jessup, Four Hands brewing co. and Infinity skateshop for continuing to support me too.
Why is it that certain skaters get so identified with certain cities? It can’t be as banal as simply, “because they skated there a lot,” right?
Ha, it might be? I guess anyone crazy enough to try to attempt a skateboarding career outside of LA these days is bound to be recognized by where they live and skate. There is nothing I love more than seeing people skate where they live.
Do you feel any sort of responsibility to stick it out in St. Louis?
Yes and no. I thought I could do more for St. Louis by being here than living elsewhere and that’s part of the reason I moved home. I do what I can, but it’s not like I have a magic wand to wave at the city because I’m a professional skateboarder and have them build us amazing skateparks and improve the situation here.
I think a lot of people look to me – because I’m well known – to make stuff happen and do stuff for the skate scene, or start a rad shop or indoor park or something like a Steve Nesser, or other pros who hold down a scene with that kind of stuff. And while I’m relentlessly reminded that I have the perfect platform for something like that I don’t know if I’m totally cut out for the head honcho role. I don’t get any ego stroke from the attention from being a professional skateboarder and any residual renown is just part of the deal. Honestly, talking to friends who own the most amazing shops and parks in cities that are not unlike St. Louis about the business makes the prospect of ownership pretty terrifying.
That being said, I do have some ideas that I think would be great for here. I can’t rule out taking on a role of that kind of responsibility to the skate scene in the future sometime, It would just have to be really well executed to legitimize bothering to do anything in the first place.
”I know this from my experience skateboarding. You are a target as a skateboarder and you know what that feels like. Every single skateboarder knows this because they’ve dealt with this their entire lives in every city and suburb in the USA”
Do you think there’s anything that should be mentioned or noted about Ferguson that people might not consider unless they live there or are locals?
With how widespread and dissected the incident and the issues that relate to it have gotten, I don’t think there has been many stones left unturned, but the city dynamic and how different St. Louis county is from St. Louis city is something non-locals could possibly not understand.
The police in the county tend to be overzealous and heavy handed. I know this from my experience skateboarding. You are a target as a skateboarder and you know what that feels like. Every single skateboarder knows this because they’ve dealt with this their entire lives in every city and suburb in the USA.
Living in the city, I’m rarely worried about the police. I don’t worry about getting pulled over for no reason, I don’t worry about being overly harassed or incriminated for skateboarding or any other victimless “criminal” offenses. It’s a small, liberal bubble in comparison with the wealth and sprawl of St. Louis county and the police seem to have better things to do than create crime because of real crime that deserves attention and enforcement. I think this is where it became not only a race issue but a police issue because the tendencies of so many police departments in suburban St. Louis and other cities to be overbearing.
This is not to say that this kind of thing doesn’t happen in the city. I just think that is something that people really need to take into consideration when trying to understand St. Louis and this event from the outside.
Has there been a lot more racial tension in the air since the event?
There is more tension, but it’s not much different than before. St. Louis has been segregated since segregation has been an issue in American cities. All the bad things that you hear about structural racism and public housing failures and terrible schools and all the other shitty things that keep people oppressed has happened and is still happening in St. Louis despite efforts to curtail it.
I live in the city in a diverse area, I have friends of all ethnicities and backgrounds and i’ve also had the good fortune and drive to travel the world and gain a worldview, so this sort of thing doesn’t necessarily challenge my ideals as much as it has a lot of other people who haven’t come to terms with these things. I’m lucky for that because a worldview is something that many people either don’t have the means for, or choose not to pursue.
What do you think St. Louis and the rest of the world can learn from the loss?
With all due respect, American police should begin to behave like police in many other developed nations and chill the fuck out with the shooting and weird war toys. The media could stop turning life into a 24 hour circus of shame and speculation for social media to continue to boil down into a shitty, degraded stew of bullshit.. and uh..hopefully people can learn treat each other with kindness, respect, and dignity someday… Oh yeah, try giving not being racist a shot, it really doesn’t hurt you or anyone else to try. Put that in your notes to take home.
Ok, I have nothing. Clearly I’m not an expert, a teacher, or a moral authority. I’m just a guy who skateboards sometimes from the place all of this happened and it has been a pretty exhausting experience. I wish for the best to the people it has affected in a much more direct way than myself, and to protesters, civilians, and police alike. I hope that history proves this to be a turning point towards a better city and a more enlightened age. I think it’s pretty obvious that all people would rather not deal with this kind of shit again.