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Is legitimacy a viable solution for San Francisco’s Hill Bomb skate event?

A skateboarder "bombs" a hill in the Mission District as hundreds of young people gather to skateboard and celebrate along Dolores Street on Oct. 31, 2022. | Source: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In early July 2016, when the wildcat skateboarding event now known as the Dolores Hill Bomb descended on several blocks adjacent to Dolores Park in San Francisco, streams of skateboarders hurdled down the hill for more than 10 minutes as onlookers cheered and police blocked traffic or lurked nearby. 

The event was, by most accounts, loosely planned. Every year since then, those same two blocks of Dolores Street have drawn skateboarders, crowds and the resulting ills of graffiti and violence aimed in part at police. But the mass arrest of more than 100 people by police at this July’s event—most of them minors—marked the most robust police response. One officer was injured that day, and most of those detained were cited and released on suspicion of unlawful gathering. 

More details of what happened July 8 are expected to be released by police at a Wednesday night hearing before the Police Commission. The meeting is likely to draw parents and skateboarders who have reacted with outrage at what they called police overreaction. 

Police called what happened a riot and an unlawful gathering. 

But some city leaders are already starting to think about how to make sure such a confrontation between cops and young people is not repeated by floating the idea of legitimizing the unpermitted flash-mob-like event. Some skateboarders and the district supervisor, Rafael Mandelman, say they are not opposed to the idea. But without an official organizer to apply for permits and liaise with city authorities, the event—whose very nature is about breaking the rules—may never get an official stamp of approval.

Police Commissioner Kevin Benedicto says that if the event were planned and organized, police, neighbors and participants could know what to expect. 

“There’s broad consensus that the event needs to happen more safely in the future,” Benedicto said. “There is a model of events that are in this very area that you know are going to happen.”

But permitting such an event would require a good deal of planning and organization, said Police Commissioner Debra Walker, who backs the idea. There are also legal hurdles to think about.

These images describe the events at the Dolores hill bomb, which included police responses to what they called a riot.
Youth on skateboards pass the line of San Francisco police officers in riot gear on Dolores Street during the annual Dolores "Hill Bomb" event on Saturday. | Source: Kyle Martin for The Standard

Chief among them: Skateboarding is technically illegal at night in the city, and anyone under 18 is required to wear a helmet, she said. 

“There's a lot of weird rules on the books that the chief says don’t get enforced,” she said. 

Mandelman, whose district includes Dolores Park, said the biggest hurdle is who would lead the event, which has been convened via word-of-mouth and social media. 

“I think the first step to make that happen is for someone to want to throw this,” Mandelman said. “Figuring out who would do that may be challenging. It's an idea worth considering.”

But Mandelman, who has not condemned how police handled the event, told SFGate that he doesn't believe the event can be done safely

Some skateboarders support the idea of a sanctioned event, but are wary because they say officials have rarely dealt fairly with skaters in the city that helped birth the sport. 

“I think this is a moment where SF can go two directions; it can embrace skateboarding … or it can clash with it,” said Ryen Motzek, owner of the DLX Skateshop and head of the Mission Merchants Association

Whatever plans come about, skaters should be included, Motzek said. 

Gabriel Rosson, a 20-year-old skateboarder who rode down Dolores Street last year and had friends arrested last week, said the idea of planning the event in the future would be better than repeating the mayhem. 

“If you just plan it out, we can avoid shooting a bunch of people with rubber bullets,” he said. “ I wouldn't be against it.” 

Sophia Chumley, whose son Eriberto Jimenez, 16, was arrested at the Dolores Hill event, speaks at the San Francisco Police Commission hearing on July 12, 2023. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

The police department says its officers fired a number of less lethal rounds commonly known as foam bullets, but that they have yet to receive any reports of injuries. 

Still, there is hardly consensus in the skateboarding community or the city at large that sanctioning events like the Hill Bomb is a good idea.  

Stephen Torres, a city entertainment commissioner, is all for permitting and planning events, but said a city like San Francisco is a place of spontaneity where protests, art and skateboarding will continue to happen without legal sanction. 

Some people will never go that route, yet the city still needs to prepare, he said, pointing out that yearly events such as the annual Dyke March, which has gone forward without permits, he noted. Police and other officials anticipate such events and plan accordingly. 

“We have to be realistic that there is a long history of organic events,” he said.

Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at jonah@sfstandard.com

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