SWAT Team Deployed at Kaufmann Park

What's the middle-class Lakewood kid to do with his energy and time? Either it's wallow alone in the muddle. Or it's call a S.W.A.T. team huddle. The Lakewood kids huddled in the thick of the swarming mob gathered around Kaufman Park have answered that question. When seeing the swarming kids from afar, it is difficult to realize that within the swarm there really is a Lakewood S.W.A.T. team ramping up a rough and tumble positive identification of youth with the good of the city. They are doing so on their own creative, energetic and unsanctioned DIY terms, of course, the way youth has been doing it for ages. Sure, there will be bumps along the way, but let's probe for positive potentials.

In socio-economic terms the youths hanging out in the parking lot of the Seventh Day Adventist Church on any given evening are representative of "the situational working class." They might be smoking cigarettes. Out of school, free from the dress code, they sometimes wear the long T-shirts of the hood. More often than not, they are making more noise than the average Lakewood adult would care to indulge.

Neither the eyes nor ears of the passerby are likely to be charmed by this rag-tag mass of youth. However, against all odds, they actually possess a sense of self-organizing civics roughly consonant with the Lakewood legacy. Their cultivation of urban space is both acute and restorative in ways that the un-inquiring observer will miss every time.

The S.W.A.T. huddle of kids without jobs is a telling image of working class America. The economic and social realities of a de-industrialized nation impinge on the S.W.A.T. huddle. As civic traditions are generally squeezed from the American pop-cultural conscience, along with the middle class that advanced them, these Gen Y youth are responding as best the can without guidance to the chaotic world in which they've found themselves. On a basic human level, they are creating a civic/tribal structure that engenders measures of respect for each other within open, public space.

In the S.W.A.T huddle the kids possess a nimble tribal sense of civic morality. As America's middle class implodes, this group of Lakewood kids is tuning itself to a new politically flexible, culturally pluralist middle that allows for give and take relationships in civic space. They have the flexible cultural capacity to make a space into a place. Is anyone paying attention?

Litter is under attack when the S.W.A.T. team is at work. To hang onto their place, the S.W.A.T. team makes it a practice to tend to the area's
substantial litter problem. Quite literally, this S.W.A.T. team is picking up the pieces of a world in chaos. As they pick up the pieces together, burrito wrappers meet the psychic scar tissue of youth, creating a unique sense of safety in good company.

In this urban space they've created a sense of place that "feels more like home, it's like our home," according to Josh Hain. It's a DIY third place, a new home for Lakewood's unfolding civic legacy. The S.W.A.T. team is thus the story of youth dangling from the vanishing middle, attempting within this particular place to re-stitch the wounds of a social order that have been largely raped and pillaged.

The S.W.A.T. team is tight, bright and conscious of the need to maintain harmony and DIY intelligence in Lakewood. Thirsty for contact and communication with neighbors in Lakewood, they have a lesson to teach us, if we're willing to listen.

"We're the S.W.A.T. team - Special Winning Attitude Team," says punctured rapper Kyle Rains, who calls the rough civic tune with authority and verve. These guys are the Kaufmann Park regulars.

Maybe you have seen them, or even called the police on them. Did you know their message is all about respect? Respect for yourself, your neighbor, and your 'hood' in the 'Wood'. How the message of respect for yourself and others informs the interface between the S.W.A.T team dudes and the young girls drawn to the park remains an important subject for future Lakewood Observer inquiries.

Nonetheless, this rugged picture of emergent community norms among youths hanging in the situational working class 'hood' is not an easy sell to cowards, racists and squares. The story of the S.W.A.T. team is definitely worth telling from the S.W.A.T. team's perspective, because their voices speak for an effort to create a set of rules under stressful life conditions wherein the dominant moral code is tottering and social chaos is increasing.

It is telling, but not in obvious ways, that they turned to a church in a time of trouble. When transient groups of teenagers, who lacked respect for DIY community norms appeared on their scene, the S.W.A.T. crew nearly lost their place to hang. As active and intelligent problem-solvers, they negotiated with the Reverend at the Seventh Day Adventist Church and obtained permission to meet-up in the church's private lot. There they ride bikes, skateboard, hang out and goof off. In exchange, they keep the lot free of litter and do what they can to minimize litter in the park and surrounding lot.

"The trash cans are always overflowing at Kaufmann Park. We're always filling them," Kyle says pointing towards the park from the church parking lot.

Sure enough, paper bags and fast food wrappers pile on top the can, swaying in the breeze. Either there aren't enough cans or they aren't
emptied at a frequency matching this S.W.A.T. team's efficiency and dedication to place-making.

Kyle Rains and Dan Ulrich lead this self-organizing collective. Under their leadership, the S.W.A.T crew has established a clean, safe place where Kaufmann Park regulars can hang out without parental oversight, while attempting to minimize unlawful chaos-making within the park's vicinity. Because they believe in themselves as young Lakewood neighbors of good conscience, they believe they can police themselves.

That doesn't mean that challenges to the good order of the S.W.A.T. crew never occur. The S.W.A.T. crew swears the 'regulars' aren't there to
cause trouble. As Josh Hain explains, "Ever since the kids from Madison Park have been coming here, they've been getting [everyone] kicked out."

It's all about perception, Kyle explains. Race matters, too, when many of the kids from Madison Park are black. "When I give someone a friendly handshake they assume we're in a gang."

For ages, adults have felt threatened by the high energy horseplay of youth. As perceptions about race and class register on the radar screens
of adult passersby, assumptions are often made about the quality of life in a city. These assumptions are often wildly inaccurate about the human
quality of life each of these energetic and intelligent youth are actually developing in their hangout.

"When kids get loud, it's automatically [assumed to be] violent [by adults]," says Matt Dawes.

When enough of the children engaged in the horseplay are dark in complexion, people are quick to make assumptions that gang violence and drug dealing are fast becoming the dysfunctional community norm.

While these hazards are real in any unsupervised urban place, the truth, in this particular engagement, veers from these assumptions. When the S.W.A.T. kids hang at Kaufmann or in the Church parking lot they understand the need for reciprocity in creating a community place. "If you want to keep a place," Ulrich says through a cloud of exhaled cigarette smoke, "you respect it. It's amazing how far respect will go."

On keeping up with the trash duty, Ulrich explains that sometimes when the irregular crowd tries to leave a mess, he and Kyle "have to stand around and tell them to pick up their trash." With Kyle as the brawn and Ulrich as the brains of their operation, they create and maintain a functional distance between the group and the saboteurs, the young and the old.

It must be noted that Lakewood's amenities are very porous, attracting youth from east, south and west. This must be registered as a concern. For it is to be expected that violence and gang related activity can easily rise as "large groups come and go" through Lakewood.

In the face of migratory chaos-making and neglect for the needs and interests of middle and lower class youth, these S.W.A.T. boys have set
up shop. With considerable intelligence, they have organized a haven of relative stability and mutual support in a world that seems increasingly
hostile to their needs.

"Most of us are middle and lower middle class", explains Josh Hain. Many
of these kids face the challenges of divorce, home foreclosure and unemployment on the home front. Despite, or perhaps because of this, they have created a place where respect and tolerance rule the day.

As group leader, Kyle pushes the S.W.A.T team to achieve increasing
levels of group tolerance. "I'm open. Most people aren't open to other social groups. I'm a social chameleon."

Class and racial dynamics tell part of the territorial tale wherein tensions sometimes occur between the Madison clicks and S.W.A.T. boys. Kyle attempts to toe a winning line with creative leadership. When hanging with the S.W.A.T. crew, Kyle assumes his most creative leadership role by simply keeping the hangout clean and on the right side of street legal.

In mastering the simplest things first, Kyle has discovered at the simplest level of friction that litter plays an important part in the differentiation process, which can land good neighbors in his crew and bad neighbors outside it. For Kyle, it's all about keeping the city clear on simple and complex terms of engagement.

Other careless crews, either new to Lakewood or from outside the city, are all too often litter thugs, who disrespect the place and the efforts S.W.A.T. team is making to sustain their hang.

With S.W.A.T. team there are only a few rules required for a youth to enter into the diverse mix of the self- organizing civic network. Don't yell, litter, drink alcohol, smoke weed, fight, or engage in any other behavior in
such a manner that disrespects the place and elicits police intervention.

From time to time there have been reports of drinking in the park. S.W.A.T. team members credits themselves with keeping a lid on alcohol and drug consumption. According to Tyrone Dobbis, "During the summer there were
only four arrests- for drinking [in the park]" while S.W.A.T. was present. When asked about drug dealing in the park, and whether the presence of hard-core drugs had been detected, Kyle responded that "nobody in Lakewood knows what crack is, other than the pavement."

While the scent of marijuana might occasionally pepper the air, these S.W.A.T. dudes attribute such disrespect for the rules of the place to other, transient groups.

Actual violence beyond horse-play is surprisingly low, given that on any
night the number of youths hanging out in the Kaufmann Park vicinity ranges anywhere from 10 to 40.

"We play fight. I've seen one real fight up here and that was a spill-over of some [stuff] that started at school." says Kyle.

Even with violence, drug use and chaotic behavior kept to a minimum, it's not surprising that adult perception still rules the day.

"What I've noticed about some in Lakewood [is] they'll do anything to keep a kid down." says Matt Dawes.

Dawes' perception that Lakewood is not in tune with the social needs youth is reinforced by economic pressures that create a hyper-individualism of fierce resource competition. Unfortunately, attention to the needs of the underclass is easily left in the dust as America's industrial strength declines in a geopolitical rat race to the bottom.

Security pressure at Lakewood High School is a beef with S.W.A.T. team.
After the school day is over, when crowds of kids are dispersed, administrators assume the boys to be security threats, they complain. Under increased security pressure, they feel that their needs to socialize on an informal basis can no longer be satisfied on school turf. At the same
time, video surveillance at the high school and parks increases feelings of paranoia. These kids feel that they are being watched.

While the S.W.A.T. team feels the pressures of the police state encroaching on their freedom to assemble, they are responding in ways that are remarkably positive in light of the conditions and resources at their disposal. Rather than pursuing a path of prison bound chaos making by acting out in Kaufmann Park, they are attempting to establish a sense of order in a sea of social and economic chaos.

What the S.W.A.T. team has created is a space where learning takes place
without the school. Here, at the head of Arthur Avenue, they learn from
and take care of each other. It's a hard knocks brotherhood. In a space lacking walls, ceilings and curriculum they've created their own structure. A sense of hope for the future binds them in creating a new rough-hewn
community norm. They are the next generation; they care about the future.

In doing their job, Lakewood police officers have sometimes noticed that the S.W.A.T. boys are, in effect, "good kids." Savvy officers allow the "good kids" to remain in the park after the trouble makers have been booted.

The S.W.A.T. team consists of relative newcomers to Lakewood. Of the
nine boys present for the inquiry, only one has a generational history in Lakewood. The other boys have arrived here over the past four to seven years. They come from Avon Lake, Boston Heights, Broadview Heights, Cleveland and Parma.

If these "good kids" on the hang represent the future of our inner-ring melting pot, things are looking brighter than the un-inquiring observer might first assume. These working class kids are organically intelligent. They've struggled to make meaning of a world that seems so determined to hold out on them and leave them to the dogs. This is a group of kids who care, not only about each other, but about the world around them.

At school, most feel alienated. Ulrich explains, "I'm smart, just not school smart." It's a problem that public education has been dealing with for decades. As a system, public education finds historic roots in preparing an industrial workforce. As this system has been adjusted to meet the needs of a de-industrializing economy, the very core once served by public education is left in the dust.

Indeed, if the recently launched 'Lakewood Cares' is successful in its attempt to provide support, training and employment opportunities for Lakewood's' "situational working class," S.W.A.T. kids will then have to re-evaluate their critique of the disconnect experienced on the educational front. Such initiatives cannot work from the top down. Students must step up to the plate. They must enliven the programs with their own good order, like they have attempted to do in Kaufman Park. They must show the community and themselves that their success and that of the city are

In the hang there is already a grudging respect for the work of Lakewood
City Schools. There are even positive signs that members of the S.W.A.T.
team are seriously applying themselves on the path of learning.

Matt Toeller, a LHS student and S.W.A.T. kid, is excited about the upcoming school year. Look past his punk imago and you'll find a child
passionate about learning the languages of his buried European roots.
He's beginning with German 1 this year. Matt is a huge fan of war. In fact, he and many of the boys site the legendary military history teacher Terry Walker for giving the "best class I've ever had."

Craig Martin, who moved from Avon Lake four years ago, has not had an
easy time adapting to the standardized education template. He now looks
forward to taking advantage of the new electronic education options afforded by the Lakewood Academy. Eventually, he sees himself working in the technology field, putting his growing skill-set to work. However,
Craig will not be attending the physical Lakewood City Academy, a one floor section the Old Building. He's chosen cyber learning on-line.

According to Rick Wair, "The Lakewood City Academy is by definition, a
community school sponsored by the Lakewood Board of Education. Practically speaking, Lakewood City Academy has the "flexibility" to create an educational program and schedule that will better meet the
educational learning styles and personal needs of a group of students that sometimes did not have their needs met in a traditional school setting."

Clearly the program is already showing its value, keeping a student like
Craig on track, motivated, and with a sense of hope in the future. This is a tall order for formal education. But this tall order is clearly complimented by the informal education in DIY civics that occurs around
Kaufman Park. Kyle calls it a "school without learning".

The S.W.A.T. kids are learning as they go. They represent Lakewood's
diamonds in the rough, possessing a latent capacity to move this city in a positive direction. Amplifying and attracting this new, melting pot culture in a practice that combines a sense of civic pride and duty, respect for the people and place, an organic sense of the working class, and group survival through community begins right here. If "Lakewood Cares" is true to its name, these are the kids that we want to help on formal and informal paths of neighborhood, person and school. It's Lakewood time to listen and engage our youth. We all must realize that we inhabit the city together. We must see ourselves, black and white, pierced and punctured, in the Special Winning Attitude Team.
Read More on Slife of Life
Volume 1, Issue 9, Posted 09.29 AM / 16th November 2005.