Under the Green Desk Lamp…
As mentioned in a recent update article, this week’s post is another re-share of a previous article that is still tragically relevant.
This piece is a short story, published for the first time in full on this blog. It’s about a Police Officer’s experience at a protest, and the conflict he experiences. Suffice it to say that in light of the riots for police reform currently sweeping the globe, its due time for a good many officers to look inside and ask themselves what their values really are.
Of Pipers and Pigs
A Short Story by Brad OH Inc.
The thin metal barricades were all that separated us from them. Judging by the press of people facing us, it was anybody’s guess how long that alone would be sufficient. I gazed down the line—right and left—to the determined men and women by my side. They stood resolutely shoulder to shoulder, as was their duty, and the resolve on their faces did much to conceal the doubt in their eyes.
I saw my own uncertainty mirrored in theirs. It wasn’t so much a question of whether the barricade would hold—such tides had an inconceivable ability to lay waste to even the most thorough plans of men—but how they would react when it did give. The answer would be different for each of them.
With a turn of my head, I brought my attention to the people before me. They were a mixed lot. They wore all manner of clothing, having come here from every walk of life. I saw furious men in fancy suits, raving college kids with gaudy t-shirts, topless folk with body paint…and cameras—so many cameras all aimed at me and my colleagues. They were as eager to judge our course of action as we were to settle upon it.
The railing, which reached to my midsection, swayed violently against the upheaval. It threatened now to collapse in against us, then to topple over upon them. Many of the onlookers were angry—the sort of anger that occurs only in those who have known great comfort, and now perceive it being denied to them. I felt their breath against my face.
One man loomed up right before me, pushing and shoving as if vying for position on the floor of some mad rock show. Jerking and wheeling, he made his way to the fence, holding up a blindingly bright sign and seeming to scream in tongues. The letters were too close to form words, but danced before me like the disjointed stars of some unfamiliar constellation. What does he want?
A sudden surge brought the mass forward, and the metal joints of the fence screeched in distress. Instinctively, I threw my weight forward to counter the assault, and felt my efforts validated by those beside me working in perfect unison.
Amongst the crowd, some fought harder. Like dogs chasing cars, their desire for action far exceeded their comprehension of the potential results. Others retreated quickly, slipping backwards and leaving in their wake only curses, insults, and more of their kind to fill their place.
Accusations flared in their eyes, confusing me, as I was usually looked to for comfort. Wasn’t that the idea?
Upon my left breast, my fingers drifted absently across my badge, as they did so often in moments like this. It felt the same as ever—the familiar surface that read like brail ever since the day it was first given to me. Each bump and scratch brought back the words of the oath I’d taken so long ago. They would never be forgotten.
So much has changed since then.
Shouts clawed at me from beyond the barricade, but were muffled by voices resounding in my head from much, much further away in time and space.
“What are you going to do about it?” my father had asked me.
I didn’t know, and kept my silence.
“Are you afraid?”
Yes, I knew. “No.”
There was blood on my face, my shirt…my hands.
“It’s all right to be,” he said, leaning down. He was a large man, and wore a rough old wool sweater as he set me upon his lap. “Smart men know when to be afraid.” He always knew how to comfort me.
“But everybody’s blaming someone else. Evan even blames me.” My whining was piteous, but at that age the strength of another is the surest route to vulnerability in yourself.
“That’s the way of the world,” he replied with a knowing sigh. Even in my hardest days, he expected me to find the answers for myself. There was no learning in being told what to do.
“But if no one really knows what happened, how can I know what’s right?” I pleaded, hoping for any bit of inspiration to help me resolve the insignificant playground conflicts which then seemed to be the focal point of all the world’s stress.
Then I saw it. Looking up over my shoulder, I watched the wisdom fade away. The certainty and resolve I’d come to depend on flowed like ice melting in spring, and the sun of confusion shone upon his face, illuminating the deep lines and off-coloured spots of the long years he’d seen. His eyes glassed over, as with a deep recollection he would not share. “I don’t know.” He’d answered.
“I’ll figure it out,” I’d assured him, wrapping my small arms around his shoulders, and losing myself in his familiar scent.
My fingers moved back down from my badge as my gaze wandered out to my left, chasing the sudden sounds of struggle. Farther down the fence, I saw a large throbbing black shape as several officers pushed together. A shouted chant was rising up and spreading from the area, but the words were lost to me.
At the heart of the mob, I could make out Jason, my oldest friend on the force. His uniform was splashed with paint, and he was yelling loudly, pointing at one of the men in front.
Ahead of me the crowd continued to heave and push, frantic to go someplace they didn’t know, and perhaps had only dreamed of. A sudden yell brought me back to the struggle, and I saw them dragging away the protestor Jason had indicated. The man kicked and lashed out; fighting desperately to be free from what he’d so passionately sought mere moments before.
“Just hold your position,” directed one of the other uniformed men beside me. “They’ve got it under control.” I’d never met him before.
The scene was dispersing now—most officers returning to their former positions as Jason and three others carried the man away. He was docile now, smiling innocently at the flashing cameras as my friends dragged his dead weight along. Passing behind me as they went, Jason whispered, “’Right and true’, buddy.”
I felt a subtle smile force its way across my lips. “Right and true,” I mouthed, but he was beyond hearing now. With the departure of my three colleagues, the line shifted as the remaining officers spread out, widening their stances to cover the gaps. I followed suit.
“Fucking pigs!” someone yelled. It made no difference who. Tension stiffened the limbs of those standing beside me as my own spine straightened with indignation. Did they come here today just to pick fights? Many looked as if they had.
But anger was not the only emotion worn by the people before me. They yelled and chanted. They shook the railing and they held up crude signs with uncertain meanings. But as they looked back at us, I could see in them the same fear I concealed in myself, the brooding question as to how this situation would end—what an ending to it would even mean.
The anxiety on their brows told me they knew their danger as well as I did, and were entirely aware that their absent friend was not the exception—that the same could happen as easily to any one of them. Gazing upon their strange looks of apprehension stiffened with resolution, I found myself wondering if their greatest fear was not that they might be arrested today, or that the barricade would break and their flood sweep over our breakwaters. It struck me that perhaps their real concern was that nothing at all would happen; that the tide would pass, and things would remain unchanged, and that they’d need to be back here again some other day.
Each face held a secret judgement, and again my fingers flashed briefly over my cold metal badge, assuring me that I was on the right side of the line. But ‘right’ is a funny word, and with my experience, I knew how to read its presence. Beyond all the anger, beyond the anxieties and fears, beyond the trepidation and dissent, I saw the ‘right’ in every one of them—an absolute certainty, as if they held some truth which I lacked. They believed in their cause absolutely.
It’s a strange thing, that two sides can line up so neatly, and stand in opposition to men who they may have peacefully passed on the street only a day before, yet both be so thoroughly convinced of the sole truth of their own position.
Right and true… I reflected, and I remembered Jason standing proud beside me the day we’d been given our badges. He beamed as the applause took hold of him, while I stood straight and calm by his side. We’d finally made it.
Later that night, we’d sat together in solemn reflection—drinking beers and speaking of the future.
“So, now what?” I’d wondered.
“Now we finally get to begin.” Jason responded as if the path we’d been seeking was laid out before us—forever free of forks or detours.
“Yeah… begin.” I acquiesced.
“Listen,” Jason put his hand on my shoulder. He was three years older than I, and had been a mentor to me as we’d come up through training together. “We’re officers of the law now. No matter where we find ourselves, we’ve got to remember that ‘right’ is on our side.”
I smiled, certain he was correct. Still, there was unease in me, remembering conversations from long ago… people long gone. “What if ‘right’ isn’t always clear?”
Jason took a long pull from his pint glass, emptying it down to suds as he rolled his eyes. “Jesus,” he’d said. “It’s your first day as a cop, and you’re already having doubts about yourself? Shape up man; you’ve reached the Promised Land. That badge you got today—that means ‘right’. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll remember that. What’s got you so down anyway?”
It wasn’t an easy thing to describe, especially in the face of my friend’s confidence. I sat awkwardly, taking noncommittal sips from my glass as Jason stared straight through me. His focus was astounding when he was intent on a subject. “I guess the whole time I was fighting for this, I felt like it would come with some solution. They got me ready for the job, trained me physically and mentally. Yet today, when they pinned it to my shirt, it seemed so heavy.
“Now all the expectations are on me, but I’m still the same person. The same doubts, the same uncertainties, the same ability to see different sides of an argument. I thought it would come with answers…I don’t know—I just expected to be more sure of the truth is all.”
“You’re never going to find any truth outside yourself buddy,” Jason grinned as he spoke, revelling in his perceived wisdom. “But you’ve come this far because you know enough truth already. You wouldn’t be here otherwise. Remember all those clowns who started with us. Where are they now? You have a great honour here man; your duty is to serve the people, to do what’s right. That’s the only truth you need.”
“You’re right,” I agreed, finishing my beer.
“Right and true!” Jason smiled.
A deep roar shattered my reverie, returning me to my post. The crowd was shifting, as if the masses were a single great beast breathing in for the charge. It swelled, pushing against the fence, testing it…seeking the breaking point.
Again I threw my shoulder against it, and again my fellow officers were there in unison. We stood as one resolute blockade, convincing ourselves together that the direction of the few could outweigh the determination of the many. Then the beast exhaled, the chants rose up again, and the moment had passed.
Straightening up, I gazed about me—the instant of reprieve allowing me to look out over the sea of humanity and take in the entirety of the scene.
They stretched back as far as I could see. There were people of every imaginable ethnicity, all ages and backgrounds. They all stood packed together in a sprawling, sweaty mass. Some were pressed so close to others they seemed barely able to speak or move, but remained as a number—one amongst many—and that was enough for them.
The square was packed from end to end; the traffic had been redirected well in advance. Somewhere in the distance I heard the beating of drums and tambourines, banging and clanging not with the heavy rhythm of an army on the move, but sounding more like a folk festival; a strange, displaced cultural jamboree tearing down the ritualistic order of our city.
In odd corners and assorted empty pockets amid the human sea, tents had been erected, and here and there circles of protestors danced with looks of joy on their faces, as if oblivious to the chaos around them.
Many held signs, each made by hand and bearing its own unique interpretation of the mob’s intent. I read them skeptically, trying to glean some idea of what exactly that intention was.
Some bore only curt slogans about change, while others featured well known logos and images of public figures, each altered and contorted to share their intended messages.
One logo I spied was instantly familiar. It came attached to my family’s healthcare receipts—the ones which got accepted at any rate. Another one, though it was partially covered with bright red lettering, I recognized to represent the corporation in charge of my pension. I’d heard they weren’t doing so well.
High up all around the square, the same logos—pristine and fresh—looked down accusingly at the scene. Each promised its own deliverance from the daily grind: ‘Fresh Food at Cheap Prices’, ‘Cars to Suit Your Class’… special offers to ‘Buy $100 Now for $120 Later’. Many of the biggest billboards bore bank logos so common amongst the signs of the crowd that it was easy to forget their actual origins.
A scuffle to the right stole my attention, and looking, I saw a ragged protestor in a dull fleece sweater trying to wrestle his sign back from the hands of two of my colleagues. Though torn and bent, on it I could distinguish the defaced countenance of the man who signed my paycheques.
Right and true. The words echoed in my ears, seeming as naturally fitted to one another as polar ends of a magnet…as ‘Us and Them’. I was surprised to feel my fists wrapping themselves around the metal railing before me. It had none of the old etchings of my badge, yet still my fingers clung to its sleek bars as my mind raced.
The uncertainty in the faces squaring off against each other was the only visible balance. I stared at the people beside me, then at those in front of me. Each group stood upon their respective side of the metal barricade, looking to one another as if to ensure the plan hadn’t changed. Everyone had come here with some expectation, but all stood patiently now, just wondering how it was going to end.
The railing jerked under my hands.
Right and true were sundered by doubt, and the smooth surface of the shifting rail assured me that I was as guideless as the rest—left to draw my own conclusions…though there was still the badge. All lined up beside me, my fellow officers remained strong, doing their duty. Each had undoubtedly reached this position with intentions similar to my own. What are they thinking now?
A sudden urge took me, and I felt my body turn. There was a hand upon my shoulder, though I couldn’t tell if it belonged to an officer or protestor as my vision turned away from the bustling mass behind me and settled upon the ornate building now in front. It stood on our side of the barricade, fenced entirely by my friends and colleagues as suited men passed in and out unhindered.
Your duty is to serve the people, to do what’s right. That’s the only truth you need. Jason’s words rang through my mind as a tremor passed down my spine. I turned back around, and set my shoulders squarely in line with the fence.
The chants and screams were growing louder now, and the heads of the people beyond me drifted side to side wildly as the crowd surged about like boats unmoored against a rising storm.
My right hand drifted towards my chest once more, closing around the cold metal over my heart. My left remained upon the railing as it jockeyed wildly about, threatening to fail at any moment. Which way will I face when it does?
Right and true. I felt all things at once now: the barricade before me, the badge upon me, the gun at my side, and the surging mob pushing towards me. The fence bounced and jostled—the frail division line between us ready at any moment to collapse upon itself. Then we’ll all stand together.
I imagined the protestors struggling over the wreckage of the barricade, pondered the responses of my fellow officers…and of myself. ‘Right’ was a hollow spot in my chest, and ‘true’ was but a taunting memory. There was a lump in my throat I could not swallow, and I found my thoughts settling ultimately upon my own family at home, wondering what they’d expect of me.
Still the fence held, though I knew that whether here and now, or later and elsewhere, it had to break in the end. There were questions to be answered, and when the tides of society shifted, there was no barrier sufficient to stand against the flood.
I straightened my back and waited, knowing I had a decision to make.
-Brad OH Inc.