I lived in Berkeley in the sixties, when it seemed like Berkeley was the center of the political world. Every wave of social change seemed to originate there, then spread outward. It was a time when people thought up inventive ways to sabotage the agents of power: the university, the cops, the military, the government. And these agents enjoyed using their strength to put the saboteurs back down.
Once, riding my bike home from the university, I came upon a double row of cop cars, packed nose to tail, that stretched on for twelve blocks. The police inside were ready to pour onto the university grounds and beat and arrest anyone in their path. Another time I rode the bus into Oakland and saw tanks surrounding the draft-board building and sitting quietly in the side streets at the edge of a ghetto.
It seemed the whole country was going crazy; there was no rest from the reality of marches, assassinations, arrests, trials, and protests. Friends who had become too scared or exhausted were leaving for Sweden, Canada, Mexico. Those of us who stayed risked getting beaten up by cops as we walked to work.
Years later, my car was rear-ended while sitting at a stoplight in Oakland. No one was hurt, but my car was totaled. A cop waited with me for the tow truck, and we talked.
He told me how his friends on the force had loved the sixties. For them, the unrest had meant a lot of overtime, and 1968 had been the year they made a lot of money, the year their kids got everything they wanted for Christmas.
My husband and I were at a free summer jazz concert in a city park when I took notice of a cop controlling the crowd. He was ordinary enough: blue shirt, protruding beer belly, aviator sunglasses, not a handsome bone in his body. He was walking up the aisle, directing dancing people back into their seats. As soon as he had passed, they would pop back into the aisle and resume dancing. When he had cleared one aisle, he would go down another and begin again. He remained patient and firm. I was transfixed.
I turned to my husband (whose distaste for police was no secret to me) and told him that I had been thinking of becoming a cop. I asked him if he could live with the idea. He said it would be hard, but that he could.
Now, five years later, I wear a blue shirt, a heavy patent-leather gun belt, and men’s trousers. I’m trained in riot baton, sexual-assault protocol, interrogation, illicit-drug recognition, residential-crime prevention, CPR, delivering babies — the list is endless. On a given call, I may be asked to adopt one of many roles: therapist, authority figure, asshole, mother. I’ve cradled lost autistic children on my lap and wrestled with a man sixty pounds heavier than I during an arrest.
I don’t regret taking an 80 percent pay cut from my previous job (a scary choice for a woman in her mid-forties). I don’t even mind that because I wear a uniform people assume I am dumb, a redneck, unsophisticated, and uneducated (I have two master’s degrees, one of them in classical studies). I just wish my husband hadn’t stopped loving me because I followed my heart.
My neighbor was a cop. For him, the world was divided into three groups: the “perps,” the victims (sometimes called citizens), and the cops. Cops worked together, ate together, drank together, and protected each other.
It was the sixties, and the police were part of the political controversy of the times. Depending on your age and color, cops were either tough brutes or defenders of freedom. But I was nonjudgmental, apolitical, and curious about police work. And I knew how to befriend people: ask their help and listen to their stories.
The stories came slowly and quietly as we sat in my back yard on a hot Sunday afternoon, the Fourth of July, drinking beer and grilling burgers.
Will told of the beatings cops would give any teenager who ran from them, whether it was on foot or by car. Thorough, painful, measured cuffings ensured that the kids (and anybody else watching) wouldn’t make the uniforms chase after them again.
Over homemade cake decorated with a flag made from strawberries, whipped cream, and blueberries, Will also told about incidents of which he did not approve: petty shakedowns and bribes and sleeping on duty in the squad car.
And he spoke of fellow officers who, on Friday nights, would go “coon hunting” down the back alleys of the city; officers who would chase black youths through the ghetto neighborhoods into abandoned factories or blind alleys; cops who, with unregistered guns, would add to the statistics on teenage gang killings.
Robert T. Schmitt
Bradley Beach, New Jersey
Here in Germany, when you move to a new town, you must register within seven days of arrival. My German friends find it hard to believe me when I tell them we don’t do that in America. “But how do they keep track of everyone?” they ask.
In Germany, everyone must sweep the gutter in front of his or her house once a week. You may not make loud noises — no lawn mowing or vacuuming or children playing — during “quiet hours.” Nor may you mow your lawn or wash your car on Sunday. Stores may not stay open past 6:30 P.M. and must close at 2:00 P.M. on Saturday. They may not open at all on Sunday, except bakeries (so families can get their cakes for Kaffee und Kuchen time with the family) and florists (so you can get flowers to take to the cemetery). You must have the chimney sweep come twice a year to check your chimney; he shows up automatically and bills you. You must pay a tax on each radio and TV you own. If you come upon an accident on the autobahn, you are required by law to stop and render assistance.
Do I want to register each time I move? No. Do I want to be told when and where and how to clean? Probably not. But after two years of living in Germany, I find myself appreciating the benefits of law and order. The quiet hours allow for sleep and family time. (I remember living in D.C. next door to a rock critic who would blast music between midnight and 4:00 A.M.) The store hours protect the small-business owner and encourage family time. (In the United States, we shop twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week — ignoring the fact that the workers’ odd hours cut into their family time.) The chimney-sweep law ensures that chimneys are clean and safe, and that the emissions don’t harm the environment more than necessary. (I remember the chimney fire that gutted a neighbor’s house.) German television and radio stations are guaranteed revenue from taxes, so they don’t have to interrupt programming with commercials. (I’ve noticed less consumerism here than in the U.S. — might there be a connection?) And though I don’t know for sure, I suspect that fewer people here die from lack of assistance at an accident.
It was the anniversary of Franco’s death. An American living in Spain, I was aware of the Fascist dictator’s history: aided by the Nazis, he took over the country in 1939 and remained in power until his death in 1975. But I was unaware of the anniversary when I walked onto the subway platform near my boarding house in Madrid. There, three young men with short hair, dressed head to foot in Nazi regalia, were waiting for the next train.
Their black uniforms were ironed, their red swastika armbands crisp, their boots and buckles and buttons polished like heirlooms. One of them smoked a cigarette and tried to look bored, like a soldier.
I was going to meet my friend Robert in the plaza. The young Nazis entered the same train I did and got off at the same destination. As we climbed the stairs to the stone courtyard, the Nazis drifted off to join a large group of similarly dressed youths to the left. In front of me was a crowd holding signs with anarchist slogans. To my right was a large gathering of communists.
I found Robert in neutral territory, surrounded by the three groups. We decided to get out of there as soon as possible, but the demonstrating factions were already provoking one another. It looked ugly.
We were eyeing potential escape routes when we heard the whistles. That was all the warning we got. Suddenly, what had been a menacing stalemate among youths who had conflicting ideas about the past became a confrontation with the present-day forces of law and order.
Robert ran for the subway and disappeared. I saw an opening and bolted toward it. Behind me, a line of uniformed men swung clubs like reapers at the harvest.
Once clear of the plaza, I found another Metro station and took a circuitous route back home. When my landlady asked about my day, I told her about the riot.
She said, “When we had Franco, these things never happened.”
It was 1954, and my girlfriend and I were driving on Route 60 near Barboursville, West Virginia, in my black 1947 Packard. My girlfriend was sitting next to me, so close that I wasn’t paying much attention to my driving. That is, until I looked up and saw the most-feared policeman in the county, Officer Jack Milam, standing in the middle of the intersection directing traffic. As I breezed by him at sixty miles per hour, I noticed his hallmark — a two-inch stogie hanging out the side of his mouth.
In the rearview mirror, I saw him waving and blowing his whistle, but by the time I stopped I had gone out of sight around a bend. I didn’t know what to do. I was so scared I decided I’d back up to the intersection rather than wait for him to come to me. When I reached the intersection, he was still standing there. He came over to the car and let loose: “Don’t you know it’s against the law to back up around a blind curve? Don’t you read our traffic signs? You were going sixty in a thirty-five zone, across a bridge and through an intersection with a yellow caution light!”
“I didn’t see the sign,” I meekly replied.
“How could you see the sign?” he said. “You weren’t even looking out the front window! Give me your driver’s license and registration!”
I found the license but had no idea what the registration even looked like. Finally my girlfriend asked, “Is this it?” and handed me a card that she had used to blot her lipstick.
“Take that lipstick off!” Officer Milam roared.
My hand was shaking as I used my fingernail to scrape off the lipstick so he could read the name and registration number.
“Get out of the car,” he ordered.
We walked to the rear of the car and he chewed my ass out. When he was finished, he stunned me by saying, “Do you think a warning will make you remember to read our traffic signs?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Then get out of here,” he said, and he handed me the ticket. As I got in the car I heard him yell, “And tell your girlfriend to sit on her side of the car!”
That was forty years ago. I still carry that warning ticket in my billfold; I’ve never gotten another.
Winter Park, Florida
Shortly after our nineteen-year-old son told us he was gay, he participated in a protest against the high price of AZT, a drug used by many AIDS patients. He and the other protesters marched peacefully in front of the drug manufacturer’s office building, chanting slogans. Soon, perhaps because of the large number of protesters, the highway patrol was called in.
“The crowd needs to disperse,” a highway patrolman shouted into his bullhorn. “Everyone please begin to leave.”
My son did as he was told, heading back toward the street with hundreds of others.
Here is how he describes what happened next: “A patrolman came toward me, his stick held tightly in both hands, and pushed against me hard. I will never forget the hatred in his face.” The club struck my son in the mouth and eye.
Though my son filed charges against the highway patrolman, they were dropped for insufficient evidence.
Now my son is angry at my husband and me. “You taught me to respect authority,” he says. “You were wrong.”
We sat in my office: a frightened Ph.D. antiwar deserter and me, the stockade commander, fresh out of college, where I had avoided the draft by completing ROTC.
The furnishings were spartan and olive-drab; the bruises around his eyes and the cut on his forehead were bright and shiny. His pain was obvious as he told me of the beatings and rapes he had endured in my stockade.
It wasn’t news to me. I knew we had a problem: two days earlier another inmate had slashed his wrists after a similar attack. Frustrated and angry, I demanded to know the names of the perpetrators.
“They’re black,” he said, which narrowed it down to 75 percent of the prison population.
“If we don’t stop them,” I said, “they will just continue to abuse others. I have to know who they are.”
He responded slowly: “They’ve suffered so much already.”
Silently, I despised his social conscience, his naive understanding of justice, his martyr complex.
But today, twenty-five years later, as chaplain in a fourteen-hundred-man state prison, I wish I could tell him how he changed my life.
When I was a teenager in the fifties, I and a number of my friends occasionally engaged in criminal behavior. As white kids, we were considered mischievous youths rather than threats to public order. We avoided the cops as if it were a game of hide-and-seek. Our crimes were typically minor, like vandalism or breaking into the high school for a midnight swim. But there were times when we broke the law in cruel and vicious ways.
One night about eight of us, drunk on vodka and orange juice, were walking down a quiet side street, cursing and banging on garbage pails. We encountered three girls a bit older than us and made lewd remarks when they passed. One of them gave us the finger and said, “Up yours.” We concluded that she was a whore, and a couple of guys threw her into the bushes and began to fondle her breasts. There were screams. Suddenly, the police were there.
We were not rapists and I’m sure that even if the police hadn’t arrived, our drunken actions wouldn’t have gone further. (They were horrible enough and I am ashamed to think of my involvement.) But it was clear we had violated this girl, and, at the very least, we should have been carted off to the local precinct house, our parents notified. Charges could have been filed.
Instead, the girls were sent on their way and one of the cops delivered this diatribe: “I worked in Harlem, and I never seen any niggers act like you asshole punks. Where’d you grow up, in the jungle? Get the fuck out of here.”
New York, New York
The stress builds up in me until it’s unbearable. Sometimes I can’t even sit still in my cell. I’d like to think about something else, but it’s like trying to ignore having your foot caught in a bear trap.
I was arrested for stealing a car. Now the district attorney is trying to give me twenty-five-years-to-life under California’s new “three strikes and you’re out” law. On a sentence like that, the average stay in prison is about forty years. If convicted, I’ll be seventy-three when I’m paroled in 2034.
The man in the next cell is also being charged under the new law. He had one-eighth of a gram of speed in his pocket — barely a usable amount — but now he, too, is facing twenty-five-to-life. His two prior strikes were for second-degree burglaries; one of them was on his juvenile record. Late at night I can hear him beating the wall of his cell in frustration.
Another defendant faces the same sentence for possession of two PCP cigarettes. His first strike was for burglary: stealing a lawn mower out of a garage. His second was for assault: throwing a rock at a tow truck that was driving away with his car. The other day I asked if he had any kids. It was as if I had punched him in the stomach. He bowed his head and, after a lengthy silence, excused himself and went to his cell.
We aren’t the only ones. My public defender says there are ten new cases every week in this county alone; statewide, there are thousands. Only a handful are for violent crimes.
I go to court with a group of twelve other three-strikes defendants, all of us shackled hand and foot. Most of our trials are being pushed back until after the election. The consensus among us is that our cases are being delayed to hide the fact that many of us face life sentences for petty crimes. If people realized this, they might not support the new law, or the governor.
The stress of facing a three-strikes sentence is hard for other people to imagine. We all handle it in different ways. Many of us have to go to the doctor for medication to deal with it.
One three-strikes defendant recently cut his throat with a razor blade. Someone mopping the floor nearby saw him lying in a pool of his own blood and called the guards. Somehow they managed to save the man’s life.
I don’t know how Governor Pete Wilson will feel about that. After all, it’s going to take a lot of taxpayer money to sew that man’s throat up and keep him alive long enough to sentence him to life in prison.
San Jose, California
Sholow, Arizona, summer of 1968, and we were stranded. I was traveling with three musicians, all members of the rock band I lived with then. Our old car had gasped its final breath at a service station on the edge of town. I was nineteen years old and too naive to understand that some people were threatened by young women in long dresses with flowers in their hair, and by young men with beards and ponytails.
The mechanic said we’d have to stay overnight but warned us to lay low after dark. We slept on the seats of abandoned cars in the back lot of the service station. In the middle of the night, we awoke to loud voices, revved engines, and shattering glass. Peeking over the dashboards, we saw two pickup trucks crowded with cowboys looking for trouble. We stayed hidden in the junked cars and eventually the trucks drove away.
The next morning, we were visited by the sheriff, whose name was Marshall Schneider. I thought he was a marshal, like in Gunsmoke. He laughed at the misunderstanding. He was there to give us some friendly advice: finish up our business and head on out. There’d been some ugly goings-on during the night from people who didn’t want hippies in their town. Late that afternoon, he checked back in on us only to find that we were still stranded, hungry, and scared. He bought us a meal, had our car towed to his house, and stayed with us until we could have money wired from Santa Fe. He listened to our stories and accepted promo shots of the band with genuine appreciation. I never forgot him.
Twenty-five years later, on my way to San Diego, I stopped in Sholow to gas up the car. As I paid the attendant, I asked him how long he’d lived in Sholow. Then I asked if he’d known Marshall Schneider.
“Marshall Schneider,” he said, “yeah, he was sheriff here. He moved away a long time ago, but I still remember him. He was a good man.”
Jet grows weed and lives in a cottage in the woods. He’s thirty years old but looks twenty-two. He says he doesn’t touch alcohol or caffeine because they age him. Since we met six months ago, we’ve spent some nights together and plenty of afternoons smoking weed and listening to music. We’re not lovers; we’re confidants.
I imagine Jet has women like me all over the state: women who are attracted to his blue eyes and boyish smile and near-chronic politeness. He’s the type who holds the door for you, asks questions, listens to your stories, and remembers the smallest details of what you said.
Jet tells me what it’s like out in Humboldt. His patch is as far back in the woods as he can get. If he leaves his house at dawn on his mountain bike — dressed in camouflage and carrying a ferocious-looking knife at his hip — he has time to tend the plants and return home by midnight. One day, he accidentally passed another patch in the woods. He had his shotgun roped to his back, which is probably why the patch’s owner didn’t shoot him. Jet yelled, “I’ll never be back!” and pedaled away as fast as he could through the trees and shadows.
Jet says the rats that far back in the woods will kill you if they catch you sleeping. He builds a wall out of huckleberry bushes and mud to protect himself. But what scares him the most are the raiders. They’ll trail you for weeks while you’re watering and caring for your plants, and then, when harvest time comes, they’ll steal your crop from you.
San Francisco, California
If you lived in Laguna Beach, California, in the sixties, you know that in those days cops would routinely pull you over just for driving a Volkswagen or having long hair.
During the time I lived there, my husband was on probation, and being on probation meant you had no protection against unlawful search and seizure. There was a pair of cops who routinely searched probationers’ homes just to see what they could turn up, which in our case was a coffee can of marijuana seeds in the cupboard.
What shocked me even more than the actual search was that when these two came into our room and busted us, it was obvious that they were really enjoying it. Both of them were flushed and excited, as if they were having sex. In consideration for my advanced pregnancy, they handcuffed me with my hands in front, but I will never forget those red, engorged faces.
Newbury Park, California
I grew up in a tidy apartment in New York. My mother brought order to my life. There were menus to be followed for each evening of the week: meatloaf on Monday, tuna casserole on Tuesday, chicken on Wednesday, and so on. She made sure I had school clothes and play clothes and dress clothes, spring coats with matching hats and winter coats with muffs. To keep me busy there were Brownies and then Girl Scouts, dance lessons, piano, and chores like making the beds and washing and drying the dishes.
“Why dry dishes?” I’d ask. “The air will dry them by itself.” Mom would frown, wiping her hands on her flowered apron. She didn’t respond, but I knew what the answer was anyway: “That’s how it’s done.”
Forty-odd years later, I’ve moved her from Florida to Massachusetts so I can oversee her care. She was eating food gone bad — rotting lettuce, decayed cantaloupes — insisting it was all fresh. She threw nothing out. She was always putting things away — her wedding ring in the refrigerator, her money in a drawer — and then spending entire days searching for them. She was sending ten-dollar checks to any charity that asked, including one to Publishers’ Clearing House. Her apartment, however, remained absolutely tidy.
But now her mind grows messier daily. “Who are you?” she asks me. She thinks my son is my brother. I play Sinatra songs for her; “Your father has such a great voice,” she says. In the middle of a meal, she asks when we’re going to eat. The nurse shows me a CAT scan of her brain and points to a dark outline of dead cells. “That’s what causes the confusion,” she says. I want to clean up that dark shadow, put it away. But where would it go? Where is its place?