‘Off the pigs?’

A personal story of a perspective changed

They say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but this is one old dog who may have just learned one.

I grew up without much affection for cops—first in a town back in the Midwest where the class divisions between rich and poor were pretty rigid, where the drunken rich kids would get rides home from the cops while kids of my ilk were put in jail for the same offenses. It was part of the code among my hoodlum friends to disrespect the police. We fancied ourselves outsiders and outlaws, so in the comic-book world we were creating for ourselves to live in, that meant the cops were our foes.

And, in my hometown, that sometimes turned out to be the case. Our age and our lack of connection with the more privileged classes made it a damned near certainty that we’d be hassled or rousted just about every weekend during the years when I was a teenage punk. Our attitudes probably didn’t help in that regard, what with all the bravado and sullen defiance we liked to strut around with.

When I was a little older—a college radical in the ’60s, down in the East Bay—I found a whole new batch of reasons to hate the cops. By that time, I was calling them “the fuzz,” or “the heat,” or “the man,” or “the pigs.” They were the Blue Meanies, and they often earned the disdain those of us in the peace movement had for them.

Then there were all those redneck small-town cops like the ones down south who killed the three civil rights workers—Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney—and hundreds more racist cops just like them from coast to coast.

Those bad cops were no urban myth. Once, up in Oregon, I watched from a restaurant window as cops stopped a transient hippie and made him spread the contents of his backpack out on the ground, then unroll his sleeping bag while they questioned him until all of his stuff was soaked in that Northwest rain. Then they left, laughing.

I gave that kid a lift to the next town. He was literally fighting back tears at the humiliation he been subjected to, and the prospect of spending the night in a wet sleeping bag.

Then there were the well-publicized incidents like the police riot at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in ’68, and the brutal hamfistedness of Alameda County Sheriff’s Deputies during the time of People’s Park in Berkeley.

And if real life wasn’t enough, there were all those books I was reading in my classes, and the movies I was seeing when time allowed. Literature—from Steinbeck to Farrell to Kesey and beyond—is awash in images of bad cops and oppressive authority figures. Movies, especially ’60s movies, were populated by bad cops in that decade where anti-heroes dominated movie screens in films like Cool Hand Luke and Bonnie and Clyde, where the “bad guys” were usually more sympathetic than the forces trying to run them down.

So my anti-cop biases tended to get cemented during that formative decade, and my anti-establishment views helped keep those biases in place for a very long time, especially as I saw, all too often, the spokesmen for law enforcement line up behind some of the more notoriously reactionary politicians.

Then, too, there were those media-saturated images like the Rodney King police beating in Los Angeles, and the brutal story of the Haitian man in New York City, brutalized by a broomstick while in police custody.

Such stories are still surfacing, stories like the recent police overreaction in L.A. as police unleashed baton-violence and rubber-bullet barrages at peaceful Mexican and Mexican-American protesters during an immigration/amnesty rally.

So, when this old dog went for a ride with Officer Fanopoulos of the Oroville Police Department a little over a week ago, all that baggage and all that prejudice came along for the ride. Nor am I the only specimen left on the planet who carries such prejudice. New generations have been schooled in it by the anti-cop lyrics of rap and hip hop, and by movies that often romanticize lawbreaking.

It’s a lot of cultural and historical baggage for honest, decent, and well-trained cops to bear, along with the heavy weight of responsibility they carry on their shoulders each shift they work. Officers like Fanopoulos, Stott and Houston have to buck prejudices like mine nightly, doing vitally important work despite long hours, poor pay, lousy benefits, and communities that sometimes fail to offer them the gratitude and support they so richly earn and deserve.

What I saw during the brief hours of my ride-along was a return to those thrilling days of yesteryear when this old dog was a very young pup, reading comic books where heroes were not beyond imagining, before cynicism and disillusionment began to color my world, and many other people’s worlds, as well.

There are heroes among us, and though they may not wear capes and leap tall buildings in a single bound, they are willing to go out each night to deal with people most of us would rather not deal with, to lay hands upon the sick and the troubled among us, and to bring words of concern and even love to those people, many of whom have been abandoned by families, by friends, and by a society that fails to treat them with compassion, kindness, or the kinds of services they so desperately need.

So, instead, these young officers must be policemen, social workers, ministers, and friends, tending to a population whose needs they are little equipped or empowered to address.

And still they go out, night after night, armored by a desire to be of help, resisting the temptations that might draw them to higher paying and less risky work, finding rewards in the help they administer and the lives they may touch along the way.

So maybe this old dog didn’t learn anything new, after all. Maybe I just relearned a lesson I’d forgotten from elementary school: The policeman is your friend.

And, on the mean streets of Oroville, he just might be the only friend you’ll find.