I Had a Knife and a Record, Too

Photograph Source: Daniel – CC BY 2.0

A friend and I were sitting at a picnic table behind a pizza joint in Berkeley, CA. The year was 1980 and it was evening. We were each eating a slice of pepperoni, talking and joking. After we finished, my buddy lit up the rest of a joint (pot was illegal in California then). While we were smoking it, four cops snuck up on us, surrounding us with their guns drawn and pointed at us. The closest gun barrel was about four feet from my head. I swallowed what remained of the joint and waited. Two cops grabbed us and threw us up against a wall, searching us and telling us not to move. The other two cops remained where they were, their guns still pointing at us and their fingers on the triggers. I was wondering what the hell was going on. I had run-ins with the police before, but never had they kept their guns on me for this long. A couple cop cars showed up. We were cuffed and thrown in the back of the cruisers. They took us to the police substation on the University of California campus. In the station, they fingerprinted us and threw us each in a holding cell. My friend kept asking what we were being arrested for and the cops kept telling him to shut up. Eventually, we were told we were being held on suspicion of armed robbery.

I broke out laughing. One of the cops told me to stop, but I couldn’t. The absurdity of the charge was just too much. They knew it as well as we did. After all, we weren’t strangers from each other. After the arresting cops left to go cause more trouble, the officer at the station told us that the armed robbers matched our description. I asked him what that description was. He responded, telling my friend and I that the robbers were described as two slender long-haired white guys in their twenties wearing jeans and jean jackets. Now, this was Berkeley in 1980. That description matched dozens if not hundreds of people in Berkeley in any given day or night. An hour later, we were let go. Neither of us ever heard a thing about the bust again.

I had a knife in my pocket when the cops searched us. It was returned to me when I was let go. Unlike Jacob Blake in Kenosha, WI. it was not used as an excuse to shoot me in the back or maybe even planted after the fact. Like the knife Blake is accused of owning, it was a folding knife, had a blade about four inches long and was never opened in the presence of the police. There was no reason to arrest either of us and there was certainly no reason for the police to point their loaded guns at us at point blank range. But that’s what cops do.

That little episode was one more piece of evidence that not only are police symptoms of a greater problem in US society, they are also quite often the problem itself. Berkeley cops swaggered down Telegraph Avenue every day and evening as if they were Wyatt and Virgil Earp strutting down the dirt street in Tombstone. They harassed anyone they felt like harassing and beat on those when they thought they could get away with it. They bullied disabled street people and threatened those of us who defended the bullied with violence and jail time. Some harassed and intimidated merchants who supported the street culture. All of them used their power to go after Berkeley residents and visitors if for no other reason than to remind us of their position in the hierarchy of power.

This scenario is not much different in any other US city. Cops act like they own the streets and daily challenge those who have little money or power. Most citizens go along with the theater of abuse played out on those with the least power. Some do so out of fear, some because they figure they might need the police on their side someday, and some because the police act out the fantasies of power and violence they entertain; fantasies encouraged by many politicians and media characters. Anyone who acts surprised when another person is brutalized or killed by police in today’s USA has worked especially hard to ignore the reality of the country they live in. Make no mistake, people who support the police by rationalizing police overkill and abusive nature know exactly what they are supporting. Officer Friendly is not even a myth anymore. Officer Friendly does not exist. He has been replaced by Officer Stormtrooper. Even the cop not going to police a protest or engage in an assault wears at least as much armor as many soldiers in armies around the globe. Their weaponry rivals that of a squad of Marines attacking a village in the dark of night. Their current use of that weaponry mimics those Marines. Officer McGruff isn’t necessarily coming to fight crime. In fact, he may be coming to fight you, whether you did anything illegal or not.

I support calls to abolish the police as they currently exist. However, the question of what replaces them is what concerns me. If police departments were abolished, certain acts now called crimes—especially those considered victimless crimes—would no longer be crimes. Monies spent on militarizing police departments could be spent on housing, education and healthcare, for example. Even then, the ultimate question would be who hires the police and reviews their performance. Abolishing them without an answer to this question provides an opening to the establishment of private militias in the pay of the wealthy, something like those sheriffs and deputies who roamed the Wild West. While this would remove the current pretense that the police serve us all, it would most likely unleash even greater violence against those already victimized by police.

One answer—perhaps the most reasonable and democratic—would be for communities to elect those that would replace the current police departments. Furthermore, it makes sense to require those policing a neighborhood to live in or near that area. Ultimately, though, as long as economic and racial inequality exists and is enforced by law, those hired to enforce that law will see their role as defending the class that makes the laws, not those living under them, even when the crimes being committed (domestic abuse, drug possession and sales, etc.) occur in communities of any and all incomes. Although some police would still abuse their power, the fact that they would be directly answerable to the community they work in could at least ensure they would answer for that abuse.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com