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Riot Gear

Short fiction by Wil C. Fry

Written: April 12, 2014

Copyright 2014 by Wil C. Fry. All Right Reserved.


IN THE CHIEF’S OFFICE

    “The riot gear has been distributed,” reported Assistant Chief Mark Rodriguez warily. “We’re waiting for your go-ahead. And a pep talk, if you feel like it.”
    Chief of Police Henry Dunkirk didn't respond for a moment, his glittering blue eyes focused on the array of clear glass displays across his mahogany desk. Finally, he raised his head and saw Rodriguez.
    “You say everything’s ready?”
    Rodriguez nodded, realizing his wariness had been justified. Dunkirk was clearly thinking along unfamiliar lines.
    “Having doubts, Chief?”
    Dunkirk, who’d made his name seven years earlier for viciously shutting down a series of city-wide protests-turned-riots, cleared his throat. “Is Simmons nearby?” he asked quietly, his eyes flitting back to the screens.
    “I can get her here in two minutes,” Rodriguez replied. When he saw Dunkirk's tiny nod, he hurried away.
    Ninety seconds later, Rodriguez reentered the room with Deputy Police Chief Marcia Simmons in tow. Knowing the Chief's moods, he pulled the door closed behind him.
    Dunkirk looked up, this time all doubt gone from his face. He'd clearly made a decision. “I don't want what I’m about to say leaving this room,” he said firmly and waited while Rodriguez and Simmons soaked that in.
    “This,” he continued, tapping one of his screens so the back side lit up with a brightly sunlit digital photograph, “is a snapshot from twenty minutes ago, at Highland Avenue and Ranklin Street. Right at the largest concentration of protesters.”
    Simmons’ eyes widened. Rodriguez said, hesitatingly, feeling like he was missing something, “People holding signs? Yelling? Yes?”
    “That's my son,” Dunkirk said, knowing that Simmons had already recognized the young man. She'd let Henry Jr. ride along in her patrol car a few years ago when he was still in high school and she still patrolled the streets.
    Rodriguez took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. This wouldn't be the protest-domination they'd trained for.


ON THE STREETS

    “Don't print my name, lady,” Hank Dunkirk Jr. insisted to the tiny but plucky reporter next to him. She clutched her audio recorder tightly while holding up her other arm to ward off the jostling crowd. “It’s not about me being the Chief’s son.”
    “Isn't that exactly what it’s about?” she responded, her voice raised. “ ‘Police Chief’s Son Protests Police Shootings’?” — she imagined the headline aloud. “It certainly makes good copy.”
    “If you want quotes, you can read my website,” he said, his manner indicating he had already used the same words a dozen times this morning. “Use a search engine.”
    “So what is it about, then? You’re just another protestor upset about police shooting unarmed people? I get that, but it’s not believable. You were raised by Chief Dunkirk. You've even attended the local police training courses.”
    Hank sighed. His roommate had warned him it would be like this, told him to stay home and write his musings online. Avoid arrest. Avoid negative publicity for his father. Avoid souring what had always been a good relationship.
    “No ma'am,” he said firmly. “This isn't about two unarmed civilians that our local police officers shot to death two weeks ago. That incident was merely the straw that broke the camel's back.
    “This is about, number one, the ever-increasing militarization of our city and state police forces. They get the funds, gear, and training with our approval because of the fear of terrorists, because of high-profile bank robberies, because of occasional dealings with organized crime, and then they use that gear and training against every day citizens while serving a search warrant on a child abuse case that has yet to be proven.”
    “But—” she began. He cut her off
    “Number two, this is about the manner in which these — increasingly common — incidents are handled: investigated by the same law enforcement agencies that commit them, although under the auspices of ‘Internal Affairs’ or some other name for a body that’s supposed to oversee police but actually is made up of police officers. How many times have these shootings turned out to be ‘justified’? Every time? Almost.
    “Number three, this is about returning the police to their assigned position — that of community protector, not community overseers or killers of random civilians. The police don't have to be our enemy; they're supposed to be our friends. And they were at one time.”
    The reporter, a little more interested now, queried, “But isn't a protest like this just likely to draw them out? Doesn't it ensure that they'll continue to be your enemy?”
    “That's their choice to make,” Hank said grimly. “There's no requirement that they come out here. But they will.”
    He wiped sweat from his brow. The protest organizers could have picked a cooler day for this, he thought.
    “Sure it's their choice, technically,” the reporter said. “But surely you'll admit you're baiting them a little?”
    “Is the recorder still running?” He winked at her. “If it is bait — and I'm not saying it is — then the police just have to be smarter than usual. They don't have to take the bait. Police don't have to respond with unnecessary violence to a protest about unnecessary police violence.”


IN THE CHIEF’S OFFICE

    “I can see why you don't want this leaving the room,” Rodriguez said in a measured tone. “But may I speak freely?”
    “Of course.”
    “Sir, is it really a good idea to change our tactics because of this? No, wait. Sir, you've built your reputation on ‘keeping the peace at all costs’ and ‘no exceptions, no matter what’. You signed your name to the arrest affidavit for your own brother two years ago, and you know I ticketed some of my best friends because I believe in your cause.”
    Dunkirk nodded, smiling wryly at the memory. He remembered having to wrestle his older brother to the ground when the warrant was served.
    “That's not it, Mark,” he replied. “Tactics isn't mission. The mission is still correct, but tactics can change to accomplish the same goal in a better way.”
    “Everyone's ready to go, right now,” Simmons reminded both of them. “Should I issue stand-down orders?”
    “Here's the thing,” Dunkirk said. “Remember several years ago when a bunch of Senators and U.S. Representatives changed their tunes on gay marriage when they found out their own children were gay?”
    Rodriguez nodded. His own daughter was married to a woman. Simmons, a lesbian herself, smiled at the memory.
    “Okay, so I see my son in these photos and videos. I'm guessing some reporter actually realized it at some point, because he's at the forefront of more photos than could be an accident. So far, they're being careful not to name him, or point out that the Police Chief's son is out there. But they know I'm looking at this stuff.”
    He paused, as if making a decision all over again, then went on: “The mission is still to keep the peace at all costs. And we're still not making exceptions — I certainly won't do it for my son; he knows better. He knows the risks of being out there in my city.
    “So I looked him up, found his website.” Dunkirk pointed to another screen, which he didn't bother to reverse-activate for them. “He has links to several studies on clashes between police and protesters, how they start, how they end. There are some good points here.”
    Simmons cleared her throat.
    “Calm down, Simmons,” he told her. “Do you want to win this thing or not?”
    “Win, Chief? Is it about winning? We just arrest these guys, right? Then the streets are clear and the city's back to normal.”
    “Just listen to my plan and see what you think,” Dunkirk said with a sly smile. “And yes, it’s always about winning.”


IN THE LOCKER ROOM

    Sgt. McGinnis checked his clip for the sixth time. As before, it was fully loaded with 12 rounds of .40-caliber ammunition. He slid it back into the Glock's grip and heard the satisfying click. He rose nervously from the bench in front of his locker, then thought better of it and sat back down. Jitters. Always the jitters. He kind of hoped one of the hippie protesters would throw something at him. Just give me an excuse, he thought.
    “You okay, McGinnis?”
    McGinnis looked up to see Erin — actually Sgt. Avis, he reminded himself — walking toward him with a relaxed smile. How was she always so calm?
    “I'm good, sergeant,” he replied, looking down at the concrete floor. “They going to let us move soon?”
    “I hear that Dunkirk's got Rodriguez and Simmons in his office now, issuing final orders,” she said, sitting next to him. “I imagine they'll be down here in a second for a go-get-em speech.”
    Two dozen other uniformed police officers wandered in and out of the room, trading foul jokes, snacking, or listening to music coming from earbuds. One stood framed in sunlight at the open emergency fire exit, smoking. Nearly every officer scheduled for duty today was already near the various protest locations, cruising in patrol cars just far enough from the sign-holders. Everyone in this room had been called in for overtime.
    McGinnis pulled the Velcro straps on his Kevlar vest, loosening it for comfort. Beside him on the bench were the visored helmet, baton, and riot shield he'd just been issued.


ON THE STREETS — Protesters

    As he chanted along with the other protesters — and conversed by rote with the woman beside him, Hank kept a watchful eye on the patrol cars that kept crawling by a few blocks away. None of them ever came closer than a block.
    Maybe they won't do it this time, he mused. Maybe Dad finally got wise.
    It had been obvious to Hank seven years ago that riots had only begun because police confronted peaceful protesters — they'd had a permit back then, just like this group did today. Sure, a few had crossed the line — some of them were standing in the street instead of the sidewalks and designated park areas, and some had blocked or harassed customers of the local businesses. But he knew it all would have died down within hours if the police had just watched.
    Nobody had thrown anything, lit anything, damaged anything — until armored and armed teams of faceless military-style police officers had advanced on them without warning. Unless you considered it a warning that they had showed up.
    “I could be wrong,” he said suddenly, as one chant ended. He switched his sign's post from one hand to the next. “I hope I'm wrong. Maybe they'll let us have our say and be on our way. That's all I want anyway, is the change of attitude on their part.”
    The reporter, still grasping her recorder, looked up at him. If it was true, her story wouldn't be quite as interesting, but the human side of her agreed with most of what he'd said. She'd been to this rodeo before — in other cities — and knew how it worked. She would hold up her press card frantically when the police moved forward, but they'd knock her down anyway — and that would go into the story too, further fanning the flames.
    “But it's kind of a catch-22, isn't it?” she asked him. “If they do nothing, they look weak. Next election, business owners in this area — and voters looking at crime stats — pressure the mayor to get a more hard-ass police chief. If they show up, they look like bullies and it keeps the cycle going either way.”
    Hank shook his head. “They already look like bullies; that's the issue here. They went in guns-a-blazing when these two parents didn't answer the door soon enough. Turns out they were changing a nasty diaper. Now we've got a baby without parents.
    “If it was an isolated incident no one would be out here holding signs and shouting, but it happens in every major city with startling regularity. And if the cops behind each of these incidents were always brought to justice by their own departments — if the powers-that-be made examples of them every time — then no one would be out here holding signs and shouting. But almost every time, internal reviews show they were ‘following procedure’. And no one ever changes these procedures.”
    He sighed. “The cycle has to stop.”
    Wasn't someone assigned to pass out water bottles? he wondered. He didn't see anyone nearby with any kind of beverage. The whole thing won't last an hour more if it stays this hot and no one has anything to drink.
    “Uh oh,” the reporter said.
    Hank's attention snapped back to the scene around him. The patrol cars weren't moving anymore; they'd taken up positions. From his vantage point at a major intersection — and because he was taller than average — he could see in four directions that official vehicles were blocking traffic on every side, surrounding the bulk of the protest group. Beyond the initial vehicles, others were arriving — vans, SUVs, S.W.A.T. trucks, and more patrol cars.
    “You may want to make it obvious that you're not part of this,” Hank told the woman beside him. “If you're standing here when they move in...”
    She smiled. “We've got photographers in the buildings.” She pointed at a couple of windows above them. “One of them is watching just you and me.”


ON THE STREETS — Police

    “God, I hope I made myself clear,” Chief Dunkirk muttered as he got out of his car.
    “I think we got it,” Rodriguez said with a smile. “Most of don't agree with you, but we know how to follow orders.”
    “You damn well better,” Dunkirk spat back gruffly. “If this whole thing goes sour somehow, it'll turn out worse than our original plan.”


ON THE STREETS — Protesters & Police

    “Looks like they didn't take you seriously enough,” the reporter said to Hank.
    “I see that.” None of the police officers exiting their vehicles were in riot gear. “What... Are they just going to ask us politely to disperse?”
    The protesters, now chanting one of the lines from some of their signs, "Please don't shoot me, J.P.D!", watched as two uniformed and armed police officers pulled a large object from the back of an SUV. It was an ice chest.
    Hank snorted. “Let's see what new anti-citizen weapon they've concocted now.”
    The two officers, sweating like everyone else under the bright Midwestern sun, each grabbed a handle of the ice chest and began carrying it toward the chanting, sign-waving group. Behind them walked Chief Henry Dunkirk, still wearing his suit but now with a badge hanging around his neck on a chain. The rest of the police crowd hung back near the line of official vehicles.
    A wave of tension swept through the crowd as the officers approached. But the three men stopped about fifteen feet from Hank and the reporter and set down the cooler. Chief Dunkirk spread his arms slowly, palms out and empty, as the two uniformed officers backed away — Hank read their name badges: McGinnis and Avis. Then he saw the Chief bend and flip up the lid of the cooler, which appeared to be filled with bottled water. A wispy cloud of condensation wafted out of the container.
    “If you're thirsty,” he said, while the voices of the crowd died away, “maybe this will help. It's a warm day. We're bringing out more.”
    Someone shouted from the crowd, “It's a trick!”
    Hank turned and yelled back over the murmurs: “It's just water!” Then he turned to his father, who had obviously chosen this spot because of the extra television cameras. “What's the story, Chief?” He studiously avoided the word “Dad”; not everyone in the crowd knew his relationship to the head of the J.P.D.
    “We're here to ‘protect and serve’. This is the ‘serve’ part.” As he spoke, two other officers were visible behind him, bringing another ice chest toward a different clump of protesters.
    “Shit, I'll take some,” came a voice from the crowd, and a hefty woman shouldered her way out toward the cooler. A few others followed her. They returned, passing out armloads of water bottles.
    “And what's with the blockade?” Hank asked his father loudly, pointing with his free hand toward the row of police cruisers down the street.
    “That's the ‘protect’ part”, Chief Dunkirk said, his strong voice ringing out across the now-quiet crowd. “This can be a busy street; there's no sense in letting unaware drivers come through here right now — someone might get hurt.”
    Another murmur, then a shout: “But you'll keep on shooting unarmed citizens in their homes?”, followed by a twitter of laughter.
    The Chief kept up his poker face; he'd clearly planned responses to these questions. “As you know, that is being investigated right now”. He raised his voice a little to be heard over the sound of dozens more protestors acquiring water from the second and third ice chests. “I've ordered the investigators to treat these cases with extreme care, including questioning standard tactics and procedures. And I've asked for recommendations to avoid similar incidents in the future.”
    Hank could feel some of the adrenaline settling out of the people around him, many of whom had come with an expectation of getting arrested or beaten, or both. His peripheral vision told him that some signs had already been lowered, and others were sagging. He let his own sign rotate forward and rest on the sidewalk.
    “That's what they always say”, came another shout. Not everyone was ready to back down.
    Hank expected his father to argue the point, since the little speech had actually been quite unique. Instead he was surprised by his father's next words:
    “Perhaps. But here's something you haven't heard before. I'm convinced that things can change, and that they need to. I have some power to change the way the police department operates, and in areas where I don't have the authority, I can at least join my voice with yours at future meetings of the City Council.” He paused to let that sink in.
    In the background, further down the block, more officers were still delivering more cold water. Someone handed a bottle to Hank, which he quickly drank from. He still had a feeling this was all a publicity stunt.
    “If you don't believe any of that,” Dunkirk continued, believe this: “I'd like to meet personally with some of you — preferably indoors, with or without the press.” He held up his hands for quiet, then went on. “Choose up to a dozen representatives among yourselves, and one week from today, at 5 p.m., we'll meet at Police Headquarters. Bring suggestions for policy/procedure changes. Bring whatever you want. We'll talk about it as long as you want. ‘There's no point in having a police department if it can't be on the same side as the average citizen of this town’. Thank you, and enjoy the rest of your day.” He turned and walked away.
    Hank recognized that last bit as a quote from his website and couldn't help but smile. He then realized that his father had at least checked out some of what he'd had to say.
    “Now what? Look over there,” said the reporter. Hank was a little surprised that she was still beside him, but was kind of glad — she was cute. He followed her pointing finger.
    Delivery trucks were starting to show up beyond the lines of police vehicles. One was from a local supermarket chain, and others were from local franchise restaurants. “Catering?” he said incredulously.
    Even as he said it, he watched employees of the various businesses hopping out of the trucks and extracting trays of sandwiches, chips, fresh fruit and vegetables, burgers, and more. Within minutes, they'd set up folding tables near the protestors and began laying out a feast. Several of the police vehicles moved away, disappearing down the streets. Only enough remained to keep the main roads blocked to incoming traffic.

Inspired by news accounts of the 2014 protests in Albuquerque, N.M., and a thousand other similar stories in our world's recent history.

The story initially included the following closing paragraph, which was removed just before publication:

Hank rubbed his eyes groggily, awaking to see the interior of a large holding cell, filled with his friends. He gingerly touched his swollen cheek and began taking stock of other bumps and bruises. It suddenly sunk in that the friendly show by police had just been a dream.




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