Basquiat being “stopped-and-frisked” outside the Barbican Centre, Banksy, 2017

"I still fully expect to be harassed if not arrested with every encounter …"

Every child of the sixties learned to distrust the cops. We were at constant risk of arrest, whether from simple possession or even simpler teenage passion, the cops seen as at best spoil sports and at worst voyeurs and vindictives. We maintained vigilance, a practice which left some life-long paranoids. We'd each seen plenty of swaggering cops playing the tough guy but only very rarely encountered a compassionate one. We each expected to be run in for some inadvertent infraction before we'd graduated high school, as we practiced a clandestine, fatalistic form of civil disobedience as a simple matter of existence. We weren't bad kids, but we were at continual risk of arrest, prosecution, and incarceration. These experiences formed a conviction that the Poelease were not, as Jack Web's Dragnet insisted, present "to protect and serve," but to harass and punish, an occupying force representing the forces of hypocritical Republicans. It mattered who you knew.

A friend and I were once arrested for the presumed crime of wading in a park fountain we'd both been wading in since we were small children, the arresting officer impatiently explaining that only little kids were supposed to wade in it.
The officer would not let us sit in his cruiser to be taken downtown, but told us to drive our own car to the station for questioning and booking, an absurd proposition. We complied, figuring that only worse could come from indignant disobedience. Our parents were contacted. My mom gave the desk sergeant an earful and we were released. I hoped that the arresting officer received some unwanted punishment of his own for acting so absurdly, but I doubt that he did. Had it been two o'clock in the morning, well after curfew, and he'd smelled beer breath, he might have made a credible case, even in our minds, but we thought of ourselves as careful petty criminals, and never would have so exposed ourselves. The officer seemed to suspect that we must be guilty of something, a most certainly accurate presumption, but damned if either my friend or I would lift a little finger to help the SOB prove it. We'd been weened on gangster films. We knew the score.

The Poelease were genuine SOBs. The Staties seemed gentlemen cops, cruising dark highways, serving real needs, but the Townies were genuinely jerks. One in particular seemed to think of himself as invisible, though every kid dragging the gut on any given night knew exactly where Officer Bernie was at any particular moment. He specialized in busting beer drinkers, which put him in opposition to the town's gentry, since essentially every one of their kids was at least a closet juicer. An empty can casually discarded beneath a carseat was enough to produce a real ruckus, with more fortunate cruisers mourning in quiet gratitude that it wasn't them that time as they headed for the turnaround at the end of the gut. A few kids were genuine toughs, but they seemed to operate with absolute impunity, committing genuine felonies with little fear of discovery. The petty offenses seemed most vigorously prosecuted. I ran away from home at seventeen, a mere jaunt, but was sentenced to a lengthy probation featuring primitive humiliating counseling, designed, I suspected, to finally put the fear of a wrathful god into me. It amplified the utter absurdity of the system instead.

I'd fortunately never had an itchy cop draw his service weapon on me. I'd volunteered with the local state prison, so I'd met some genuine criminals, murderers, even. Second story men filled with colorful stories. Bunco artists lacking enough artistry to avoid prosecution. Even a counterfeiter, so I understood genuine criminality, and I easily recognized that a surreptitious parking beneath a cottonwood along a shadowy farm road hardly amounted to a real infraction. I figured the guy holding the bright flashlight just wanted to get a peek at some action, just like my girlfriend and I had. A lame excuse later and we would be on our way, suddenly acting like decent church-going kids rather than the aberrant horn dogs we were. Most of our encounters with Poelease came with Send In The Clowns on the soundtrack.

None of us were lynched, but we could easily imagine any situation getting out of hand if including a cop with a perennially itchy trigger finger. We'd share over-bold stories of our close encounters the following morning at school, thinking ourselves particularly clever and cool, like little braggarts in the yard at juvie. A few of us did end up in juvie, but none for the pedestrian infractions the rest of us daily committed. Far, far away, greater injustices prevailed. Cops kept The Others in line under strict orders from some racist believing he was preserving some over-proud traditions, but the absence of genuine oppression didn't prevent any of us from retaining the authentic impression that the Poelease were never on our side. We still cringe when a patrolman looks our way. Even should they slow to provide genuine assistance, deeply imbedded instincts send us frantically trying to recall what casual discard beneath one of our car's seats might turn into real trouble. I still fully expect to be harassed if not arrested with every encounter, and I sincerely try to turn invisible whenever encountering the Poelease. Nothing to see here. Just keep moving.

©2020 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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