A Cop in Riot Gear

A Cop in Riot Gear
November 2011 

Four-channel video piece comprised of found footage, to be played concurrently with a reading of the following short story: 

There are certain cops who seem built for their uniforms. They move like tanks. I move like a downhill bicycle. You can tell I’m not a natural. I try hard to look menacing, but I care deeply about people. As much as I like being in control, my emotions don’t just shut off.  So I practice feeling heartless. I force myself to enjoy a six-pack of beer, lay down in the bathtub, close my eyes and think about horrible things. I practice my stance and my glare. I try to put on my boots the way I see them do it in the locker room. I wish I was more like a tank.

They gave me the task of videotaping any activity that takes place on the south side of the park, two blocks from the tent city. Not a lot goes down over there, but unprovoked violence could happen at any moment, so my camera is in position at all times. Really, I spend a lot of time sitting down, waiting for passerbys. Waves of nerves wash over me. I don’t want to give off the impression that I’m kicking back on the job-- but I also don’t want to block the sidewalk for pedestrians. Curious onlookers with cameras around their necks ask me questions like “How long are they staying here?” and “What do they want?” I’ve received no instruction on how to answer these questions, so I usually tell them about the Glass-Steagall Act. That conversation never lasts very long.

The first time I saw the boy with the literal flower in his hair, I was filming a group of loud, important looking occupiers. They were discussing big plans and gesticulating wildly, the way you do when you’re with someone who just gets it. Their conversation was a cascade of shared thoughts sung together in unison. The boy with the literal flower lingered behind, and no one said anything to him. As they passed, I stood out of the way. They quieted their voices but otherwise ignored my presence.

A moment later, I realized the boy had stopped by my side. I could hear him breathing. He too was watching them disappear down the street. They hadn’t noticed his absence. His facial hair was light and patchy. I loved his ostentatious sideburns. They led straight up to the flower in his hair, small and white. Maybe it was a weed. It was nestled between his ear and the unwashed brown locks of his flowing hair. He slowly, deliberately looked up into my eyes, and smiled. In my mind it feels like this exchange took at least six seconds, but it might have been as little as two.

Can I see your camera? It took me a moment to disengage from his eyes. He was looking at the camera in my hand. Oh, this? I barely said. By the time I began actually turning it towards him, so he could see the screen, he was on his way without a word. Was that a joke? I really would have shown him the camera. Why hadn’t he waited? But now he was gone. I zoomed in on him as he jogged to catch up.

He has this airiness to him. He’s lean like a fox, aerodynamic. His clothes are a patchwork of threadbare rags that mean freedom. I love free spirits, because they’re the most afraid. Unchained by love, life can feel like a tight-rope walk across the Grand Canyon. When you let me put a pair of handcuffs on you, I’m saying ‘I’m not going to let you fall, not tonight.’

On a perimeter check of the park, I found the same flowers the boy had put in his hair. My heart was pounding as I tore one off and shoved it in the pocket of my police issue flak jacket. As I got dressed for work the following day, I found the flower and placed it above my right ear, concealed beneath my helmet. If I see him again, I’ll take off my helmet and show him the flower. I think he’ll appreciate this small gesture. Without even saying anything, it says, “You and I are two sides of the same coin.”

Heroes like me aren’t free. Men more powerful than us make the rules, and I’m okay with that. One day I’ll die, and I’ll be remembered for being a friendly beat cop who excelled at maintaining order. I’ll never qualify for leadership roles. Sometimes my voice squeaks. I never captained a football team or belonged to a brotherhood of men, and I’m bad at untangling complex issues. When you see everyone’s side to a story, it’s impossible to prioritize one human’s happiness over another’s.

That’s why I like orders. I’m good at following them, and I’m good at giving them out. I live for the looks on the faces of men who crave powerlessness. My heart floods with warm fluids. It makes me happy to be of service. Does the boy with the literal flower in his hair understand how we can make each other happy? He visited me in a dream last night.

I’ve been waiting for you to tell me what to do.
You have?
Many nights in this tent, I thought of you, but I couldn’t see your face.
I was afraid you wouldn’t like me. Don’t you hate the police?
It doesn’t matter. I can see what’s special about your soul. That big, soft, purple thing that’s invisible to everyone else. I trust you to take control.

This morning, I saw him dashing across the street, alone. My heart skipped a beat. He was aglow in the late afternoon sun. He had a big smile on his face, and when he turned around and caught my eye, I knew we belonged in each others’ lives. We fit together perfectly. Excuse me sir, I said, but you just jaywalked. Did I? He seemed to be asking what I was going to do about it. He knew what I wanted to do about it. I wanted to place him in handcuffs and then just hold him for hours.

I can’t talk to you. They’re going to think I’m a provocateur.
I understand what you mean. Your power arises from the strength of your performance.

I passed him the video camera.

Can you hold this please? This is for you. Now hit record.

Then I pepper sprayed myself in the face.