It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
In yellow and black quad skates and a self-made T-shirt that reads "You Are On Looted Land," Cynamon Gonzales drops into an empty pool, and her friends from the Gay Commie Skate Crew cheer.
As the 28-year-old glides over waves of concrete, Metallica blasts from a portable speaker. The squad join in, spinning on their skates, dancing, hugging, and laughing. The sound of a fall—a groan and the sharp scrape of knee and elbow pads—occasionally pierces an otherwise joyful chorus as the blazing Florida sun sets on St. Petersburg Skatepark.
Tonight, a new skater has joined the ranks, and the crew helps her lace up. They take turns showing her the basics. Some in the crew are more adept skaters than others, performing 360 spins with one-legged jumps and transitions, but there's no judgment here. Falling is celebrated with the same love as landing a trick. When a couple of skaters can't make it out of the bowl, the crew forms a human chain to help pull them up.
The members of the Gay Commie Skate Crew, ranging from 18 to 40 years old, come from all walks of life: They're teachers, tattoo artists, aestheticians, and service industry workers.
Gonzales has brought an extra T-shirt as a gift for another member of the crew, and passes out stickers that read "You're Skating On Native Land," with a painting of herself wearing her Native American regalia on roller skates.
Gonzales comes from the Mescalero people, one of three sub-tribes in the Mescalero Apache Tribe who are now based on a reservation in New Mexico, and the Dené people, a group of First Nations whose territory once stretched from northern Canada to the Southwestern U.S. She recognizes St. Petersburg was inhabited by her fellow Natives, referred to as the Tocobaga, before Europeans colonized Florida.
One of Gonzales' favorite questions to ask fellow skaters from around the country is: "Whose land are you skating on?"
It's an especially apt question this season. Fall is a time of resistance for Native people. The Indigenous Peoples Day of Rage was October 11, the day before Columbus Day. Its founders, Florida Indigenous Rights and Environmental Equality, hope to combat the colonial narrative that Columbus was a hero, advocating that the national holiday in his honor be replaced with Indigenous Peoples Day.
Thanksgiving, of course, is an obvious time of mourning and struggle for Native people.
For Gonzales, the root of all violence and discrimination toward Natives comes from the theft of their lands and the persecution of their cultures. Returning land to Natives is what Gonzales cares about most. The movement has new energy through #LandBack, which has had recent wins, including the July 9 Supreme Court decision that recognized 3 million acres of land, nearly half of Oklahoma, should be returned to Native people.
But Gonzales knows there's still a lot of work to be done. And that work comes with an emotional toll. That's where skating comes in.
Skating to heal
As a child, Gonzales grew up learning the dances of her people from her parents. She felt free in those moments of uplifting movement.
Now, skating ignites the same liberatory joy. When she's had a rough day, Gonzales focuses her energy on four wheels and lets loose with her comrades.
"I'm letting go of all of these feelings, all of these emotions," she says. "It's a form of healing, much like dancing was."
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Her close friend and fellow Native, Alyssa Gallegos, gets the same feeling from skating. Gallegos prefers aggressive inline skates as opposed to traditional roller skates, which allow them to move faster and perform tricks, stalls, and grinds. Gallegos descends from the Dené and Blackfoot Indians and identifies as two-spirit.
Before colonization, gender was fluid among many Native communities, and there was no stern pressure to identify as "woman" or "man." It was natural to live as what we now refer to as nonbinary.
Tonight, Gallegos is practicing their tricks in a small half-pipe with a fellow aggressive inline skater. Their T-shirt reads "Illegal Immigration Began in 1492," with the words encircling a picture of a European settler's ship.
While the crew's ultimate aim is to have a good time and practice skating, their strongly held political convictions have purpose here, too.
The crew's formation in August came from a desire to unite against racism, misogyny, colonization, and all the ills born from those systems of oppression. Many in the group have been involved in the uprising in support of Black lives and against police brutality. Most of them identify as queer and some strain of leftist; thus, "gay" and "commie" were the chosen descriptors for their skate crew.
"If people are going to label us anyway for standing up for what's right, then we might as well embrace it," Gonzales says. "It's really unavoidable because we're constantly confronted by people who don't like us simply for who we are."
As night falls on the skate session, the sky darkens to purple, the skatepark lights click on, and I see what Gonzales means.
An argument breaks out between her and some male skaters who refuse to stop sitting with their legs dangling off a half-pipe, even after she's asked them to move three times. After swerving to miss them, Gonzales falls to her knees and gets up, frustrated.
She stands and shouts, "Why couldn't you just move?"
One of them replies, "You fell, get over it."
Another makes an obscene sexual comment to Gonzales.
The moment is tense.
While Gonzales argues with them, other members of the crew gather around as if to signal to the guys that the Gay Commie Skate Crew won't be backing down, and that these leg danglers "messed with the wrong group of girls," as one of the crew says.
They move closer, forming a half circle around one of the guys.
For a moment, it feels like there might be a fight. Instead, he apologizes, and the situation is defused.
I'm standing in the background trying not to interfere, impressed by their collective power. When the skater rides off and the gay commies get ready to leave for the night, I ask Gonzales if this happens often. She says this was the most intense scenario, but explained they often go skating early in the morning to avoid late night run-ins with misogynists altogether. Doing so, they're hoping to avoid violence.
"In Indigenous culture, many tribes were matriarchies. It was all about the women," Gonzales says, acknowledging how women and femme skaters are often met with disrespect that puts them in potentially vulnerable situations.
The altercation tonight feels like a violation, in part, because skating is meant to be an escape from the right-wingers who threaten and harass members of the crew at demonstrations and protests. In September, a pro-police vigilante in St. Petersburg pushed a woman to the ground and pointed his gun at peaceful protesters.
The crew here is trying to uplift a different set of values.
"We recognize that the Earth is the original mother," Gonzales says. "And we have deep respect for those who give us life. That's lost in colonial culture."
Reclaiming Native ancestry through activism
Back in June, Gonzales and Gallegos discovered Florida Indigenous Rights and Environmental Equality (FIREE) while attending a press conference that addressed the arrest of a Native protester, Jason Stuart Flores. A member of FIREE, Flores was charged with a felony and three misdemeanors after being hit by a car while he prayed at the end of a Black Lives Matter march in Tampa. The white male driver was released without questioning by the police. Flores' charges were eventually dropped in September by the state attorney, much to the chagrin of Tampa's police chief.
See also: During Civil Rights Era, Native American Communities in the South Armed Themselves Against the Klan
At the event, Gonzales and Gallegos met FIREE co-founder Sheridan Murphy, an Indigenous freedom fighter who first began organizing in 1980 during the reclaiming of the Black Hills National Forest, which was named "Camp Yellow Thunder" by the Natives who ran it. Murphy explained FIREE does many things, including political education, standing up against police brutality, and fighting for environmental justice.
But first and foremost, FIREE is about finding their own roots and healing the relationship between themselves and mother earth.
"That really spoke to me," Gallegos said. "There's so much grief and loss in finding my Native ancestry. But when you meet people who have gone through that same struggle, it helps you understand it's never too late to learn about what's missing inside of you."
Growing up, Gallegos was called hurtful racial slurs: wetback, spic, beaner. For a lot of their life they didn't like the way they looked because of the bullying. But over the years they grew to realize that it's beautiful to be Indigenous.
Gonzales "pretty much came out of the womb" knowing who she was as an Indigenous person, and she feels lucky for those early-life experiences. Her parents were heavily involved in Indigenous activism and education; she was just 8 years old when she attended her first protest for Native rights.
Gonzales and Gallegos joined FIREE to be more involved in the struggle for Indigenous liberation in Florida and address issues Natives face across the country.
At a vigil in Tampa following the decision to acquit the officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor, Gallegos spoke about missing and murdered Indigenous women. I was there that day, too. Their voice quivered, but they were steadfast and powerful as they spoke to the crowd about the abuse of their people and the lack of care about women disappearing from reservations and elsewhere across America.
"Our women are being taken and killed, and the United States government does not care," Gallegos cried into the megaphone. "They only care about money. They do not value human life."
When Gallegos finished, their fellow Natives and Black Lives Matter demonstrators rushed to hug and console them.
A report from Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women shows the murder rates of Native women are more than 10 times the national average. Homicide is the third leading cause of death among Native women 10-24 years of age, and the fifth leading cause of death for Native women between 25 and 34 years of age.
Natives are also referred to as "the forgotten minority" when it comes to police shootings. In 2017, the Center For Disease Control found that Native people are killed by police at a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States.
For Gonzales, this violence and discrimination connects to the very beginning of colonization in America when Native land was stolen by European settlers.
Native dances, she says, are often based around offering prayers to "the creator," thus, giving your worries to the natural and spiritual plane.
As Gonzales skates, she expresses her prayers for harmony to the creator.
"When I'm out there, I can just let all of the problems we're facing fall off of me," Gonzales says.
"Myself, us as a nation, and mother earth need ways to heal. Now more than ever."