Editor’s Note: In the wake of several instances of police brutality and the militarization of law enforcement in the U.S., as reported in the news recently, we decided to revisit Steven Bird’s essay about brutality of a similar sort here on the Central Coast, this from our own Morro Bay Police Department. Abusive police actions are not just a big city problem. This essay originally appeared in the July, 2008, print edition of The Rogue Voice.
By Steven Bird
You can’t see the open ocean from inside the harbor behind the windblown peninsula of sand dunes. You don’t see it until you’re already making way into the humping turbulence of the bar at the harbor entrance — between the rock jetties — and there it is, the shining sea spread like eternity opened to receive you. You head her into the swell both hands tight on the tiller surrendering your connections to dense land, afloat, at the mercy of the sparkling vicious loving void, indefinite rhythms, foam, angles of sun…yet all seems secretly well. And perhaps this is how we are received in death. Or maybe, the way we enter into living. Ah well. There it is.
The boat rocks gently, tied against the north T-pier.
Take care of the boat and the boat’ll take care of you. Been fishing hard all week and, well, stink accumulates — soon as I’m done cleaning the boat and squaring the gear away for the next go-round I’m out of here. 8:30 already. Hate to say it but my ass is dragging. Would’ve been done an hour ago except for the four Fish and Game cops waiting over at the receiver dock when I unloaded my fish. They’re checking every day lately. More of them than there are fishermen, really. You barely have time to fish you’re so busy being boarded and checked out — Coast Guard, Fish and Game, Homeland Defense, MPA cops…as if commercial fishing, regardless how innocuous the method, is somehow a nefarious activity…and these guys aren’t your old-fashion, pipe-smoking, friendly ranger game wardens in green Smokey Bear suits. Nossir. They’re the new breed: slit-lipped, stone-faced, black and blue S.W.A.T. uniforms, pants tucked into their boots, guns that look like Uzzis, radios, belts, bulletproof vests…all business. Held me up for an hour while they checked the fish, the boat, my paperwork…just like they did yesterday, and the day before that. Oh, I know their names; they know mine, they’ve talked to me a hundred times but always act like they never saw me before, demanding to see the same paperwork…I guess it’s a way to create jobs. But it smells like warfare. I don’t know who’s really behind it, or what it’s for, but it feels like I’m going down, no question.
‘My pickup truck is well used and unavoidably rusty, the bed filled with fishing junk, and I know this makes me a target for the cops who profile scruffy characters driving older vehicles.’
A chill breeze courses from the northwest; flags on the moored boats snap in full salute.
The Harbor Folly cruises by, a fake riverboat, artificial stem wheel churning the oily bay. Tourists sipping wine on the top deck, realizing that this is no tropical cruise, pull sweaters over their Hawaiian shirts. I bet they wish they’d worn long pants. (Utopian Cali is a land of denial and delusions. Weather Denial is a tradition. And a favorite delusion is that coastal California has a climate similar to Hawaii.) The usual crowd strolls the pier and embarcadero, mostly apple-shaped women from Fresno and Bakersfield, laconic husbands in tow. A local mermaid wiggles through the pokey couples, a different species, almost. Just folks enjoying themselves ordered and behaved.
You don’t see people raising hell in this town. People come here to fuck in the motels and dawdle through the bayside shops—you know, the usual beach town tourist stuff. It’s 8:45 p.m., I’m just about finished with the boat.
A patrol car slides down the embarcadero. Up on the pier a fat kid sporting a black T-shirt advertising MEGADEATH throws French fries into an agitated mob of seagulls. Another squad car slips by the kite shop at the entrance to the pier.
Nine o’clock straight up, and the cops are getting busy…looks like the town’s entire fleet of patrol cars swarming the waterfront street, cruising like bat rays, chrome flashing shifting shapes. I wonder what’s going down.
The atmosphere distorts the light coming into the world—the dying red sun flattens against the seaward dunes beyond the harbor. Gulls call from a purple sky, lift on the hysterical breeze, heads tilting, alert for scraps.
I have to drive through the dragnet to get home. Though legally operative, my pickup truck is well used and unavoidably rusty, the bed filled with fishing junk, and I know this makes me a target for the cops who profile scruffy characters driving older vehicles. I’m extra cautious, don’t want to give them the slightest excuse—I pull up to the one stop sign I have to get through on my way out of the kill zone, and stop, while signaling a left turn.
A patrol car pulls up to the stop facing me. Another unit pulls up behind me.
The farthest thing from my mind is the idea of running the stop sign. Only a moron would run the stop with the cops right there watching. I know that there is a three-second interval that one must be stopped for. I give it a five-count just to be sure. Light a smoke—and okay, here we go—put the rig in gear and proceed through, around the corner and up the hill leading away from the bay—
God I am hungry—
The unit facing me at the stop lights up and comes after me. The cruiser behind me lights up too, swerves by in full-tilt pursuit of somebody else while I pull over to the curb.
The searchlight trained on the rear window lights up the cab bright as an operating room. I roll the window down….
‘The cop rips at me like a jackal trying to extract a turtle from its shell.’
“Good evening sir, see your license and registration please.”
Young guy, shaved head, seems friendly, “perky” you might say—he leans in close, sniffing while I hand him my license and insurance proof. “Sir have you had anything to drink tonight?”
“I don’t drink. Just got off my boat from fishing—and, ah, by the way, uh, what’d you stop me for?”
He stiffens, “Sir you ran that stop back there.” He pins me with his eyes making sure I’m on the hook, turns and marches back to his car with my papers to check for warrants. While he’s back there he writes me a ticket for running the stop—
He hands it too me, wants me to sign it—“Waitaminit! You and I both know I didn’t run that stop sign…I know you’re fishing for drunks and need an excuse to make the stop, I’m cool with that…you can see I haven’t been drinking…so why do you have to write me a bogus ticket, anyway?”
He counters, presents an inarguable logic—“I stopped a guy going 100 miles an hour last night. How would you like it if I hadn’t got him off the road…?”
I can’t stop myself—“What has that got to do with our situation? And you lying?” I hear myself saying, trying to remain pragmatic, and believing I will prevail because Truth is on my side.
“You don’t like the police…do you? I think you have a problem with the police,” he tells me. His hand in the window frame squeezing the top of my door is tight and wary and ready to spring.
“No,” I say, “I don’t have a problem with the police. But I do have a problem with you abusing your function as a civil servant.
One hand clenches, unclenches, close to his gun.
I’ve heard stories recently about a cop in town who entertains a fondness for squirting his mace can in folk’s faces at the slightest perceived provocation…. In addition to hungry, dirty, tired, on another level I’m feeling profiled, disenfranchised, disappointed, disrespected, desperate, mad and about to go off like a fuck you machine gun and martyr myself for the cause.
My family, my friends, they probably wouldn’t want me to martyr myself…their mournful angelic faces attend me.
But the inertia of events is too compelling, too intriguing, too exhilarating, I have broken free of my mooring—“This is bullshit.” And I can’t stop the emphasis—“Fuck you. I’m not signin’ this.”
“ALLRIGHT SIR GET OUT OF THE VEHICLE!” He yells at me taking a step back releasing the safety snap on his holster.
“I don’t think so,” I say, holding the ticket book out the window, blithely opening my fingers—it hits the pavement with a sad rustling sound. I don’t know what I plan to do now….
He charges the door—it’s locked, but the window’s rolled down—he can’t get the door open so he reaches through the window, grabs me and he’s trying to rip me out of the truck through the window—I resist, struggle, kick the ashtray out of the dashboard—he’s got his arm around my throat trying to pull my head and shoulders through, bending me while twisting my head, he’s trying to break my neck—I’m holding on to the door frame—he frees one hand to pull something from a holder on his service belt—
At pointblank range a cool mist wets my face, eyes, mouth, soothing, like rain, or a gentle friend applying a healing unguent—something explodes—an agonizing red curtain falls—a molten death mask clings to my face—my face is burning—the cop rips at me like a jackal trying to extract a turtle from its shell—the nice hooded sweatshirt Ariel gave me for Christmas catches on something, tears open—the ridges along my spine saw against the window frame on the ride through—I hook my knees over the door—he jerks harder—I straighten my legs, come loose right when he jerks—he loses his balance, stumbles backwards and we go down on the pavement together. We lay in odd juxtaposition. I’m blind. He’s got me in a choke hold. His heart’s pounding against my back. H’e’s afraid. Relax…he’s tensing…here comes the flip…the pavement…. He is wheezing with fear—his knee grinding into the center of my back—furious fingers dig the back of my head—he’s forcing my face into the asphalt…merciless gravel teeth of blacktop…. The pavement under my face tastes warm, wet, salty.
Lights. Peripheral RED WHITE BLUE flashes, doors opening, metal jangling, radios, shouts, shoes scraping—sounds like two units…must be four cops…here they come…the boots—my buddy already has my top half covered, they work on what’s exposed—feet, legs, knees, thighs, lower ribs, they keep kicking me in the kidneys—there is a curious rhythm to the kicking, the guys are in sync—one cop chanting….
ASSHOLE ASSHOLE ASSHOLE…A couple of the other cops take up the chant, they’ve got the rhythm going—kicking and chanting—and it’s going down. The kicks produce a numbness, I feel the weight of the boots’ impacts but not the pain, and 0 that there would be pain to shield me from this sickness of heart, this raging and howling desolation of spirit more terrifying than pain—I pray—I pray…0 God…help me…help me make it through the kicking…if l can just make it through the kicking…if I can just make it through…0 God where is the thundering iron shield of your love…?
The cop on my back yells “GIVE ME YOUR ARM!” He’s got a hold of it, I don’t feel myself resisting, but that is not enough, he wants me to give it to him while he is in the process of trying to twist it off—a flurry of kicks comes hard and fast—the rhythm again….
They bend my arms to an impossible angle and put the cuffs on. Now the cop sitting on me starts yelling, “GET UP! SIR?…GET UP! SIR?…YOU GONNA GET UP MOTHERFUCKER…?” But he’s sitting on me. I can’t respond. His body turns to stone…he throws an astounding punch to the side of my head—I can’t protect my ear from the blow—the watery burst inside my head heralds a vision of verdant fields of changing shapes…like flowers within flowers, within flowers…there is a faint buzz…a bee…a bee coming to pollinate the flowers…the volume increases to a despairing roar setting the synaptic flowers atremble in the forlorn gardens.
I regain consciousness down at county. I’m alive. Somebody is trying to take my thumb print, but I can’t make my body work to do what the moving mouth is requesting. Moving Mouth punches me in the face—the cops pile on me—must be three or four cops—they’re hitting each other in the frenzy to get me—the souls have vacated their flesh—their eyes glisten, fierce, delighted—0 sorrow of their eyes—couple of detectives come running from their desks—savage smiles—they get their licks in—shirts and ties mixed with the uniforms—they break something—I hear laughter—something inside of me is broken—I don’t feel it like regular pain.
They throw me in a small concrete holding cell.
I lay on the rigid floor in the void gray cell. A subtle vibration resonates through the concrete. Machinery throbs somewhere. The walls and ceiling are the color of fog. The floor is the same gun barrel blue as the sea after a storm. I like the cool floor, let it receive my watery cheek. My swollen eyes shed a continuous flow of tears from the mace. I sight down the silver rivulet beginning to form a lonely stream flowing away from my face seeking a path of least resistance, this way, that way, as nuances of concrete surface dictate, until the tear stream becomes lost in the shining expanse. There are no walls, no edges, only clean distance. Light comes from all angles. The surface shimmers, turned to water. Ocean of serenity, joyous sun, I commit myself to you. I embrace the shining sea surrendering. I head my boat into the wind and swell. §
Steven Bird writes from his home in Morro Bay where he can avoid the clutches of rogue cops.