March 25, 2003

in their starched white shirts

when i got to the protest on thursday it was already late. there were a ton of
cops in riot gear at fifth and market -- maybe one or two hundred, and busloads
of them kept arriving and getting shipped away.

protesting has always struck me as a bit absurd, and this day was certainly no
exception. when there is an obvious target, when you are trying to shut down a
draft board or a meeting of suits discussing corporate globalisation in a
penthouse, then it's clear what you're trying to do, and the cops protecting
them are clearly on their side ('just doing their job', yes, but a job not worth

but when there's a crowd of protesters and a fortified line of cops, at a
_completely arbitrary_ line of demarcation, the whole thing just seems so silly.

the best you can hope for is for thousands of protesters to crowd the street and
absolutely refuse to move or be moved. then the government has a problem -- and
you increase the pressure and refuse to disperse until the city government
completely divorces itself from the war efforts of the state and federal
government. then you have begun something.

but even if you could get thousands of hardcore, dedicated protesters, you still
have the other hundreds of thousands of san franciscans, ranging from
indifferent to hostile. add to that a thousand or more antagonised police
officers, 'just doing their job', and you see this is a tall order.

so, i tried to investigate the last of these: the antagonised and antagonistic
cops. i tried to see if the line between 'protester' and 'cop' could be erased
or at least lightened. i wanted to know which of the cops were truly what has
been called 'pigs': thuggish, violent and fundamentally insensitive to social
concerns. i wanted to see if i could relate to any of them as human beings and
find out their feelings.

i found a few officers who seemed genuinely concerned about the rights of the
protesters: one even said 'please' every time he asked people to clear an area.
next time i will take down names.

the majority of them didn't show feelings either way. they were soldiers and did
their jobs, with stony expressions.

those left, and there were definitely more of them than the outwardly
'concerned' ones, were sadly the kind who get off on telling people what to do.
now their job is to make you move, and really, unless they openly revolt, that's
what they have to do. but you can just tell when someone really enjoys laying
their hands on you, pushing you and telling you what to do.

a lady went hysterical. she started screaming to the line of cops about how
people were dying, and kept asking them 'let her see her friends!' who, i guess,
had been arrested earlier. she was yelling graphically about children getting
hit by bombs, their body parts flying around, their blood spilling on the
sidewalk in front of their mothers. the cops stared straight ahead, and sighed
occasionally. one of the cops quitely asked another cop what was wrong with her,
and she (the cop) replied, too bored to actually be sarcastic, 'i guess she's
upset about the horrors of war, or something like that.'

it did seem, even to me, that she was exaggerating her tears. but then she
collapsed. some of us went over to help her, gave her water, and tried to get
her to stand. less than a minute afterwards, the cops decided to clear that
area. she was somewhere between supine and fetal, immobile on the sidewalk. the
cops began marching toward her. we asked that they wait a second, until we could
help her. they continued marching, we said 'wait, she needs help' and one male
cop piped in, 'Oh, just drag her away!' which, understandably, caused vocal
protest among us (we are protesters, remember).

kristen has written:

'I'll tell you, though, I walked up Market from Civic Center to Montgomery at
11:00 at night in a low-cut tanktop and no one leered or whistled or made a
comment or bothered me at all. But this cop stood right up in my face and winked
and said a few things I wished he hadn't and was the only one that night who
made me feel like a whore.'

i remember the night i was walking home alone at about 11:00 along pine street,
in the hood of hookers and bums, and how i stood shaking in my shoes as the cop
i had just entreated to quit kicking a homeless guy shined his light in my face

and told me in no uncertain terms to go home and mind my own business. i
eventually stopped shaking and got his badge number and he stopped kicking the
guy, but i never reported him.

despite all this, still i wanted to find a human basis with the cops, because on
a human basis is where all this has to start.

i found myself alone in front of an entire line of cops, all staring straight
ahead. i asked them if i could talk to them, if i could ask them questions. even
when i addressed them by name, most of them just continued to stare and refused
to acknowledge me. i had prepared to make an honest analysis, to put aside my
prejudice that it's always the cops who are to blame and the protesters are
always innocent. but my frustration began to rise since they wouldn't even look
at me when i spoke to them. they were not in immediate danger and could have
spoken to me, or at least _said_ that they didn't wish to speak. finally one of
them broke his silence to tell me gruffly that he didn't want to (wasn't allowed
to?) talk.

i said, 'jeez, i was just asking a question'. one officer, an officer damonte,
looked interested. 'What was your question,' he asked. i repeated that i wanted
to know exactly what we were doing that was illegal and why we had to disperse,
to which he replied that the chief of police had declared it an illegal assembly
because we didn't have a permit. fair enough.

he seemed engaging so i went over and asked him if he wanted to talk. he said
maybe. i was encouraged that i might actually be able to talk to someone.

(he warned me later that he would sue me if i misquoted him. i told him i wasn't
a journalist. the following is to the best of my memory. the event was several
days ago, and the following wording is not exact. i have reconstructed it as
best i could to convey the flow of the conversation and the ideas he was
expressing, every one of which is accurate.

- What do you think of the war?
- I think it's _great_. I fought in two of them.

i learned that he had helped invade panama in 1989.

- Did you see any of the civilians our forces killed?
- We didn't kill any civilians.

i asked him where in panama city he was, and he said that actually, he was just
at the airport. he told me the name of it. 'Look it up', he added.

- How do you know we didn't kill any civilians?
- We didn't kill any civilians. Any civilians that did die were the fault of
Noriega and the army for not laying down their arms.
- Do you lay down your arms when we are invaded by the Russians?
- We were never invaded by the Russians.
- Yes, I know that. I was speaking hypothetically. Would you lay down your arms
if we were invaded?
- I might.
- It depends who did it. Maybe if it was the Italians. I like their culture.

so i asked him if he was just fucking around with me and wasting my time, and
would he please take this seriously. he smiled mischievously.

- No other army in the history has ever tried as hard as ours does to minimise
civilian casualties.

i readily agreed. it's true.

he asked where my family was from and i said iran, and that we left because jews
were persecuted.

- How _interesting_! [patronisingly]

i readily agreed. it's true. that's why i said it.

he brought up the rights of women and minorities in iran and iraq. we jived
about that for a bit.

(me) - Do you know how much damage we did to their society when we bombed in 1991?
(him) - We didn't bomb them.
- Huh?
- Are you saying we bombed Iran?
- Iran? No, Iraq. Are you talking about Iran?
- Look, if we're gonna _do this_, I'm gonna need you to _stay on the ball_. OK?

and here it became clear to me that officer damonte was not interested in a
dialogue, after all, but in mocking me.

i learned that he had been a history major, like me. i told him, for his
personal enrichment, that the u.s. had killed hundreds or perhaps thousands of
civilians in its invasion of panama city but that no one really knows the
number, because no one has really cared enough about it to count.

an officer urged him to stop talking to me, but he said, 'Why? I'm just engaging
in some civil conversation. Helps to pass the time.'

he asked me what i did and where i lived. i said i lived in berkeley, and was a
physicist at lbl. 'You hyp-o-crite!' he said, slowly, pointing a finger at me,
not angry but simply mocking. the other cops around were listening to every word
-- i was the only protester around except for one -- and i believe that he loved
showing off in front of them.

- I don't actually make bombs. Even a librarian ...
- You hiiiiiiiipocrite!
- Look, I ...
- You hiiiiiiiipocrite!
- It's my job. But I'm not happy that they make bombs at the same lab.
- Ha.
- I have to work right? Do you expect me to starve?
- Isn't that _exactly_ what you expect me to do?

this was the strongest point officer damonte made. and it was probably the only
heartfelt and intelligent thing he said.

actually, that's exactly what i don't expect: that the cops will lay down their
guns and lose their jobs*. but a lot of protesters do. that's why i tried this
whole thing to begin with, talking to them and seeing how they felt about

* though it's what i think is necessary if we ever can get a serious social
revolution going, obviously.

and frankly, officer damonte wasn't doing his side a favor with his sarcastic,
over-the-top efforts to bait me.

- I'm against the war, and you're for it. So it's not the same thing.
- Look, to tell you the truth [coming close to me, grinning], I don't really
care about the war.
- But you just said you supported it!
- [dismissive]

orders came to march on. i asked him if he wanted to continue talking, and he
said, Sure, let's have coffee some time. Really? i asked, like a kid who's been
tricked by an adult 20 times but still somehow believes him when the 21st time
comes around.

'Sure', he said, pal-like, 'Give me a call sometime'. i asked him for his
number. he said i knew his name, i could look him up. i said that if he really
wanted to have coffee, he would give me his number.

- You don't actually want to have coffee, do you?
- [snickering] Nah. Not really.

they didn't leave. i ventured,

- Think of all the kids getting hit by bombs as we speak.
- I don't care. They're not my kids.

that was maybe the least intelligent, and hopefully least heartfelt, thing that
officer damonte said.

i took some time to think. i came back by telling him, and so that all his
coworkers could hear, that i had no respect for him in his office as police
officer, nor as a person. that, in my eyes he had no legitimacy to wear that
uniform, which is 'supposedly' a symbol of dedication to a higher and more noble
ideal of society. that it was disgraceful for him to masquerade as a public
servant. earlier, police officers had laid their hands on me and physically
moved me. i told him that, though they were going to tell me what to do, and
even make me do it, i had no respect for his 'right' to do so.

i urge you, if officer damonte ever tells you what to do, repeat his statement
to him about how he supports a war, even though it kills children, because
they're not his kids. ask him to defend or retract it. and make it clear that
you have no respect for the 'rights' bestowed upon him by his police academy
training if he refuses to retract it.

now he came really close. he was much larger than i was, and he maximised the
affect of looming intimidatingly over me.

- I don't care if you respect me. You know why? I'm a _mercenary_.


- Actually, I'm kind of an anarchist [sic]. I don't really think we should even
have laws. You know why? Because, [slowly, looming over me] in _my_ ideal
society, guys like _you_ [looking me up and down briefly] would be MEAT for guys
like _me_.

at some point, (maybe it was earlier) a fellow officer came over and whispered
in his ear. officer damonte said out loud, for my benefit, 'I don't care if he's
recording me.' (which i wasn't). then he threatened me with a suit if i
misquoted him.

he constructed this argument, in a patronising baby-talk voice, about his 'sick,
70-year old mother, with bad hips'* who couldn't get through market street that
day, because of us protesters, and that therefore his respect for me, as a
person, was, '[whispered] zeeeeroooo....'

* i don't actually believe that she existed, mostly because of the pouty
baby-talk way he talked about her, which was probably just a parody of the way
crybaby leftists talk about the elderly, the disadvantaged and the oppressed; or
in the case of this crybaby leftist, about little children getting blown to
pieces by our bombs and people in positions of public power saying 'I think's
it's great' and 'I don't care, they're not my kids'. still, i accepted this as
an interesting intellectual argument.

i reminded him that it was the cops who had closed down market street and were
making people go around, not the protesters. (and you should've seen how they
yelled at and intimidated the confused people who really were trying to get home
on market street; yelling threateningly at a guy with a respirator in a
wheelchair, who had just been told he should go that way by a different group of
cops; responding to people's entreaties of 'but i live right here!' with 'too

but ok, he had a point, that she would've had to walk through a crowd of less
than happy people. i tried to say that it wasn't the same thing as bombing
innocent people, supporting the effort, _and_ making insensitive comments about

i was too tired to put it this way, but, if iraq was bombing american civilians,
wouldn't we regard iraqi protesters who blocked the streets of baghdad in
protest as heroes? or would we call them hypocrites for supposedly blocking
'sick, 70-year old women with bad hips' from getting home?

how would we respond to a report of an iraqi police officer telling a dissenter
that he doesn't care about a child murdered by saddam hussein, because it's not
his kid?

near the end was this:

(me) - You're loving this aren't you?
(him) - Yup! I'm getting overtime for this. $54 an hour!

i went home totally demoralised. it almost would've been better if officer
damonte had believed the insensitive things he said. but i don't really think he
held those views. he was trying to bait me, to mock me and have fun with me and
look good in front of his friends. and that was far more demoralising: that i
had come out there to show my grief and outrage about a really serious thing,
and that he had managed to completely trivialise it, smirk at me, and make me
feel stupid for even trying.

officer damonte was not 'just doing his job'. he decided to employ aggressive
psychological warfare where none was necessary. and loved every minute of it.

Posted by at 05:01 AM