This Is What It’s Like To Be A Black Surfer In Los Angeles
“This jackass pulled me over and fucking cocked his shotgun and pointed it right through my window at my face.”
Ryan Harris is a zany, candid, and infectiously optimistic surfboard shaper who calls Los Angeles home.
I met Ryan about half-a-year ago when he DMed about doing a Joyride on one of his Earth Technologies surfboards. His request was eagerly accepted, both to fulfill my foam addiction and because I wanted to see if a “zero-waste” surfboard could perform at a high level. (Unfortunately, that Joyride was postponed due to the whole covid situation. It will be completed ASAP).
Yesterday, I reached out to Ryan for reasons totally unrelated to surfboards. I reached out to Ryan because he happens to be African American surfer living in Los Angeles.
Frankly, I was unsure of whether or not it was appropriate to approach Ryan for this piece primarily on the basis of his race. The jury’s still out on that one, but if Ryan was offended in any way by my interview request, he didn’t express it. In fact, he was incredibly gracious with his time and the stories he chose to share.
If nothing else, I hope that this interview offers some perspective for the many non-BIPOC surfers who read our site. It certainly did for me.
Stab: Hey Ryan, how are you?
Ryan Harris: Good. LA is nuts right now.
Yeah, man. I’ve seen it. Looks absolutely crazy.
Riots and looting. I am just shocked. They told us today that small businesses should have a curfew of 4 pm. And they said looters are running around Torrance. That’s where my shop’s at. Luckily we’re a little off the beaten path. I’m not worried about it, but fuck what a year, dude.
I don’t know what exactly is the “right” way to approach this, so I’m just going to be honest. We decided to reach out because you are an African American in the surfing community—and specifically in LA—and we wanted to get an understanding of this whole situation from your perspective.
No worries man. I mean, you’re right—I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years, and there’s practically nobody in the manufacturing industry that looks like me. I’m one of very few black guys in this space.
I just so happen to be really good friends with Sal Masekela, who has this big platform. Personally, I’m not going to go on social media and a rant and talk about it, because people know me and they know exactly how I feel about it. They know that I’ve been pulled over a million fucking times with surfboards in my truck. Because I don’t “look like” I should have surfboards in my truck. I’ve been pulled over a lot since I’ve been in LA. Pulled over a lot when I was in Oregon and lived up there. I have all kinds of previous stories that most people don’t have to deal with. And that’s—that sucks.
I’ve got stories from my family history—shit that happened 60 years ago that my dad didn’t think I could handle. When I turned 35, he finally told me, and then something similar happened in my lifetime and I’m like, ‘Well fuck, we sure made a lot of progress. Not.’
So yeah, it basically just fucking blows, and then the looting on top of it all…it’s just like, dude, really, come on people. There’s a better way.
What would you recommend?
The Golden Rule, man. Treat people the way you want to be treated. It’s that simple. It’s really that simple.
Also, don’t be mean to cops. Or at least all cops. My sister’s a cop, my brother’s a cop, and showing compassion can go a long way.
Have you had mostly positive experiences with the police?
Ha, I wouldn’t say that. I’ve never been beaten or anything, but…here’s a story.
My really good buddy, a white guy, got me into glassing a long time ago. His dad was the chief of police, and I was driving a new truck that I’d just bought—a chromed-out F-150—to my bartending job. So I’m driving to work one evening and my music is blasting. I’ve got my bartending outfit on, my name tag, and it’s literally a 10-minute drive. I’ve gone six blocks from my place, and something just told me to look up from my rearview. Of course, there’s a cop behind me with his lights on.
He’s all, ‘Hey, pull over the car. You pull it over, pull it over, pull it over you black mother fucker, pull it over.’
And I got instantly nervous, started more or less freaking out. I was like, ‘Fuck, I’m in trouble. I didn’t even do anything.’
And dude, this jackass pulled me over and fucking cocked his shotgun and pointed it right through my window at my face. And I was like, ‘Dude, dude, dude, dude, dude, I’m on my way to work. I don’t know what I did. I’ll turn the music down. I’m sorry. I’m on my way to work.’
He’s all, ‘License and registration.’
I was like, ‘Okay, I’m reaching for my license and registration.’ I’m also praying for my life. Like please don’t do anything crazy.
So I gave him my info and he went back to his car. I guess they didn’t pull up any warrants, because he came back without the gun. And basically before he could even say, ‘You’re free to go,’ I was like, ‘Um, can I ask what this is regarding?’
At this point, he’s not yelling anymore. He’s like, ‘Oh, you fit the description of…a robbery.’
And I was like, ‘What was it, a black guy in a truck with a hat?’ And he’s like, ‘Uh, uh…’
He didn’t say anything. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m on my way to work. I bartend at CPKs. It’s literally a mile from here. You just saw based on my license where I freaking live. I’m in my residential neighborhood. What do you mean I fit the description? What’s that description?’
He wouldn’t say shit. I was like, ‘Dude, I need your badge number.’ And then he started sweating. And I literally got so fucking angry that I was more or less yelling at him. Because he finally realized that he was just being a fucking idiot.
That was like 13 years ago. Shit like this happens all the time.
It’s so fucked up.
It’s bullshit. And then I told my buddy about this—the one whose dad is the chief of police—and he’s like, ‘They’re profiling. All cops do it. All cops do it. Process of elimination.’
I was like, ‘Yeah, does that make it right?’ I was scared to fucking death. I thought he was gonna shoot me. And he was more or less justifying it. And this is a buddy of mine!
He only felt that way because he doesn’t get the raw end of their profiling.
Exactly! There’s another story that happened in Malibu that was even gnarlier. This is back when I was still a backyard shaper—Podunk was my label.
Anyway, a couple of my pros were in Malibu, they lived up in Point Dume. I’m up there doing paint pen artwork on this guy’s quiver, and he’s having a barbecue and we were throwing them back. I was tipsy. One of them was like, ‘Oh yeah, let’s go get more beer.’
This is at like nine o’clock at night.
We go to this, whatever, market or gas stations get more beer. We come back, and he takes this little side street down to an empty lot and starts fucking spinning cookies. Just doing donuts like an idiot. And sure enough, there’s a fucking squad car down there.
He flips on the lights. Pulls us over. ‘What are you doing? Why are you driving like a moron?’
My buddy, the driver, is hammered. I’m in the passenger seat, minding my own business as a male cop and a female cop approach. The female cop comes up to me and asks me for my license. I’m like, ‘Why? I didn’t do anything. I’m just chilling.’
She’s like, ‘Um, well have you been drinking?
I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been drinking and I’m fucking 27′ or whatever the hell is I was. And she was like, ‘Well then I need your ID.’ So I give her my ID.
And then a long story short, they took us both out of the car put us in the back of a squad car. They give him a sobriety test, which he failed. But because we live literally two minutes away, the officer offers to drive his car up there and let him go.
And meanwhile, I’m going, ‘Wait, why am I in the back of a cop car?’
They’re like, ‘Oh, well you have a warrant.’
I was like, ‘What are you talking about? Like for a parking ticket or some, some unpaid something? Because I got a citation but I paid it. And the papers are in my glove box and my truck is at his place.’
And they’re like, ‘Oh well, you know, we’re just going to take you in and it’ll get cleared up in the system.’
So my ass got arrested, they refused to let my buddy or anybody get the paperwork from my truck, which would have cleared it up. And they brought me to the county jail for the night, but the clerk was like, ‘Oh no, you know, it’s after midnight. It should clear up in the morning.’
Dude, I got shipped off to the fucking twin towers in downtown LA where I was stuck for two fucking days before I saw a judge. And there were, like, race riots popping off on the fucking upper floors, which was just absolutely nuts.
Like, dude, I should have sued the shit out of them. But I’m not about that. It’s just bullshit.
I’m so sorry to hear that.
Yeah. That was, that was legit. I was scared because I was like, dude, this is how people get lost in the system. Just getting lost in fucking jail and rocked for some bullshit. And yeah, it turns out they were completely wrong.
When I finally got a judge, he was like, ‘Well, where’s the paperwork?
I was like—and I started yelling at court—I was like, ‘Dude, they wouldn’t let me get it. It’s in my truck. I have it.’ And it was expired registration. It had expired, but I’d paid it. Shit was in my glove box.
So yeah, that’s just stupid examples. But my dad taught me this when I was young. He said that, unfortunately, as a dark-skinned person, you really have got to have all your ducks in a row. You know, everything’s gotta be legit. Cross your T’s. Dot your I’s. And even then, that’s not enough sometimes.
What about in surfing itself? Any weird experiences in the water?
Well, nowadays most people around here know me. But before that, when I was new to surfing in LA, I’d often get a look or tone of, ‘What are you doing here? Black people don’t surf.’
That’s not a scary thing. That’s just an annoying thing, you know? But it’s all part of the same issue.
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