'Bridge Kids' dare to be different despite public reaction
Part One of Two
By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   Throughout history there have been those that have marched to a different drummer. Einstein, Mozart, Van Gogh, and more recently, Elvis, Andy Warhol, Madonna, Ozzy Osborne ... All have left their marks on history.
   The "bridge kids" that hang out at Covered Bridge Park are too young to have changed the course of history, though some seem to have made their mark with local police. They are the Neo-Nazis, Skinheads, Freaks, Punks, Skaters, and even Thugs.
   "We're that 1 percent that doesn't fit in," they say. "Some of us don't have a classification."
   They range in age from 13 to 30. Some dress in black from head to toe. They adorn themselves with spiked dog collars, 9-inch guttering nail chokers, chains, beads, shirts with pointed messages, earrings, nose rings, tattoos, multi-colored hair -- anything to stand out. Some are "A" students, some are in the military, some are accomplished artists and musicians.
   To the police, most of them are trouble-makers. In July, Elizabethton Police Department began paying off-duty officers overtime to hang out at Covered Bridge Park to deal with what they say are increased incidents of vandalism, antisocial behavior -- and perhaps the biggest bone of contention -- unpermitted use of the park's gazebo.
   The kids say that while there have been incidents of vandalism, the majority of them are not responsible. Rather it's the occasionals and not the regulars who are causing the problems.
   They say they are the victims of bad publicity and asked to express their views about "hanging out" in the park. Because most are juveniles, their names have been omitted from this article.
   Gathered under the shade trees near the park fountain on recent sunny afternoons, at first glance, it looked as though the media had wandered into a freak show. Other park visitors kept a safe distance -- all except undercover officers monitoring the kids' activities.
   "We're tired of the cops harassing us because we're different. There could be a 40-year-old man sitting there in the gazebo but as soon as we head over there, they give us a ticket," one of them said.
   When asked why they hang out at the park, the chief complaint is "there's nothing to do."
   "If I'm not at work or asleep I'm usually down here. I don't have a phone, I don't have cable, I don't like sitting in the house. I like to be out in the open. That's why I come down here, because all my friends are here," one juvenile male said.
   They believe the police need to be more tolerant.
   "We could be here hanging out having a good time, or we could be out doing drugs. This is the one place where we can hang out and not get in trouble," they say.
   "But the senior citizens in this area are the political influence. And they don't like seeing us down here. We're bad for tourism because the Covered Bridge is the only tourist attraction this city has.
   "They accuse us of destroying this park. The only thing that comes to my mind was there was some nail polish on the benches. We came down here and took it off. It's just an excuse to get rid of us.
   "There have been some people down here for years vandalizing things, but that's not us. We don't vandalize," one of them said.
   The kids say police mistake their body-slamming greetings for violence and their two-finger handshake as a sign of gang activity.
   "We do it in fun. We don't hurt each other. We're all young -- we wrestle around. There's nothing better to do. ... They're not used to seeing people shake hands or hug every time they see each other, which, we're pretty close friends," they say.
   Police reports indicate antisocial behavior on the part of the kids, such as cursing or yelling obscenities at other park-goers.
   "If someone mistook us for cussing at them, it was probably just misdirected. We yell at each other, just messing around. We talk to anybody who will come up and talk to us. We have old people that come down here regularly and talk to us," they say.
   One elderly lady who lives in the apartments across from the park, "She comes down here almost every day. She made us brownies one day. Man, those were good brownies," they said.
   "We say 'Hi' to people. We're not rude. We keep to ourselves. We don't start any trouble, except occasionally amongst ourselves we exchange words, and most of the time that gets sorted out pretty fast," one of the girls said. "Most of us have jobs. We are taxpayers. So we have just as much right to be in this place as anybody else."
   Reminiscent of the long-haired hippies of the '60s, the bridge kids feel they are being discriminated against because of the way they look. They also believe the older generation wants them out of the way because they disturb their "retirement community."
   "This area is a retirement home and there's no room for the youth of America. We are coming up. We are going to be at power. The older people are dying off. Congress members -- the older ones -- are dying every day. The new people, the young people, this generation, will rule. We will come up.
   "It's imprinted generation, after generation, after generation. And we're a different generation. We don't believe in their thinking. We all have different personalities and minds and we all speak our own ways. We all have different beliefs, too, and they don't like it," the kids say.
   "They say we walk out in front of cars and smack them on the trunk. That just doesn't happen," one of them said.
   They say the police and city officials want them out of the park.
   "If they can't write enough tickets and cost us enough money, they're going to try to run us off. Several people have heard them say that -- that if they can't get us out of here, they're going to make it so expensive we won't be able to afford to stay," one of the young males said.
   They accuse police of discriminately enforcing the law.
   "One day a bunch of us had gotten $70 tickets for sitting in the gazebo. The police came down here later and were talking to us again, and we asked them why they don't say anything to the other people that sit in the gazebo and they said they choose who to ticket," one of them said. The others agreed.
   One of the bridge kids recently was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after being in the gazebo.
   "They said he jumped up and started yelling and waving his arms around violently. All he did was turn around and yell, "Hey, Josh!" and waved at him. They handcuffed him and took him off -- no warning, no nothing."
   According to city ordinance, gazebo use is by permit only. One 16-year-old girl said she called the city to see if the group could rent the gazebo. She said she was denied a permit.
   The kids said they were told two different things about using the gazebo. "We asked Officer (Jerry) Bradley about it down here one day. He's about the only one down here that will talk to us decently. He went and asked his supervisor and he came back a couple days later and told us here's the way it is: The gazebo is for public use unless someone has a permit, and that supersedes us being there, so in that case we have to get out.
   "Two days later, with no warning whatsoever, we all get tickets for it. We told the officer who was ticketing us that Jerry Bradley asked his supervisor. He says, 'Well, I outrank Bradley and it's up to me whether or not to ticket you.' He said he was going to do what he wanted to do because he was the officer on duty," the kids said.
   Another juvenile recently was cited for littering.
   "They said he threw a Coke bottle into the fountain. We looked around for the Coke bottle because we knew he didn't throw it in there, but there was no Coke bottle. This girl asked to see the Coke bottle and the officer threatened her with disorderly conduct charges," one of them said.
   They cite other incidents of "police harassment."
   One kid said he taped his old Birkenstock sandals with Duck tape because they were his favorite shoes and were falling apart. To dress them up, he said, he put thumb tacks in them. He said one of the city officers made him take the tacks out and told him that if he saw him wearing them again he would charge him with going armed.
   When the park closes at 11 p.m., some of the kids say they go across the street and sit. They said one of their friends asked an officer if she could walk across the street to the fountain after 11 p.m. and fill up her water bottle. "They said no, they'd give her a ticket," they said.
   "They said we totally destroyed a concrete bench. And they complain about wax on the benches (from skateboarders). None of these benches have been waxed in at least two years," one of the Skaters said.
   One juvenile recently was arrested at the park and charged with possession of drug paraphernalia. Now, the kids say, they're all unfairly labeled as drug users.
   One 17-year-old Neo-Nazi said, "I don't know about these other people, but I don't do any drugs; I don't drink; I don't do Ecstasy. Apparently they think we all do it. I myself am absolutely drug free, as are most that hang out here.
   "There are people who do it, but it's unfair for them to label us all drug users. Drugs are for people who are weaker than the people who don't do them. It's stupid. I've seen friends die because of it. Why do the same thing?"
   A 17-year-old Skater who recently traded in his long spiked hair for a Mohawk, uses his skateboard for transportation. He recently rode his 4-foot "long board" from his home in Roan Mountain to the park. "If you have a mohawk or a nose ring, you're automatically a bad guy," he said.
   Asked why they dress the way they do, 19-year-old Kelly Swiderski, said, "For the same reason you dress the way you do."
   "Everybody's different, nobody's the same," another said.
   Swiderski enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in May and will be leaving for boot camp in September. Asked why she enlisted, she said, "to get away from this town." Also, "I've always wanted to be in the military."
   To qualify, she said, you have to have a clean record and good grades. "They only take like six females from Johnson City a year to go in," and she made the grade. She plans to go into Operational Communications.
   "I was going to be an MP (military police) but I didn't score enough on my test to be a cop. I've always wanted to be a cop," she said.
   Daniel Hillman, 18, one of the "Freaks," is a member of the U.S. Army Reserve. When he's not in uniform, he paints his nails, wears mascara on his face, and dresses in flamboyant attire.
   "The thing about being a freak is it secludes you from just anybody else. You can be your own person. I don't really care about people looking at me and making fun of me, even though they do.
   "Just because we look funny doesn't mean we're bad people. We're basically all good people. People judge us because we look funny. It's terrible and I hate it, but it's not going to make us change," Hillman said.
   He joined the Reserves he said, "because I cannot stand being away from home. I love my parents." Plus, "It will provide a lot of job opportunities, free medical, free college, and that's pretty cool. Those are good choices to make in my life. It will do me good later on down the road."
   The Neo-Nazis said they dress the way they do because it's an extension of what they believe. "It's not what you watch on TV or read in books. It's a completely different story," one 17-year-old said.
   "The idea of Nazism was built for the working man. It was to take the people out of power who were monopolizing everything and giving the country back to the people. It's not entirely racial.
   "A lot of what we believe is distorted quite often through the media. I just believe in pride in your heritage and not rolling over and letting other people care for you through services like welfare. I believe in equal rights: No work, no pay."
   Another said, "It's OK for them to have a 'Black Pride' month and a black college fund, a black magazine, but if a white person stands up and says 'White Pride,' he's considered a racial extremist.
   "Any segregation commits racism, which, we're being segregated right now," he said.
   "What it comes down to is anybody that will respect us, we'll respect them back. Even if they don't respect us, we'll try to show them a little bit.
   "And all these extra manhours that the cops are putting in, the only thing that's changed about what we do down here is we don't sit in the gazebo anymore. So if that was their big goal, I guess it was money well-spent."