To Protect and Serve

Waving both raised middle fingers above his head, the skinny young protestor widens his stance like a fearless bantamweight fighter. Wearing his pants so low on his bony hips you can see the NBA brand printed on his underwear waistband, he taunts about a dozen members of the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) that stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the middle of Mulberry Street in downtown Scranton, Pennsylvania.

“Fuck you, cop,” the kid says, his puny voice emboldened with rage. “Fuck you, cop.”

A half block from where President Joe Biden just finished a re-election campaign rally and launched a fake homecoming tour in his birthplace, the kid joins about 50 peaceful protesters facing off against a line of all-white male staties standing tall in their trademark big-brimmed hats waiting for whatever might come their way. Two helmeted state troopers sit chewing gum on massive steeds that shit in the street, calm yet ready to gallop into any crowd if spurred on by their human masters.

“They’re abusing the horses,” the kid says, turning to me with a pitiful look. “They’re abusing the horses.”

No horse should have to face a screaming crowd in a crowded city block. But people are animals, too, and too many commando-minded cops have no problem abusing us.

“You like me, don’t you, cop,” says the protest’s sole antagonist, his wise-ass grin loaded with homophobic subtlety. “You’re looking at me. You must like me.”

A bruiser of a state police sergeant stands staring at his foe. The officer’s thick shoulders tense against a tight gray uniform shirt, his frame squared against the onslaught of insults. Built like a portable deer meat locker, the officer glares in tense silence. Hooking his thumbs into his gun belt he sets his jaw beneath the thin black chinstrap of his hat.

“Fuck you, cop,” says the firebrand with the marijuana leaf printed on the front of the black baseball cap he wears sideways on his head. “Fuck you, cop.”

The nametag pinned to the burly sergeant’s chest looks like it says “Block.” When I later inquire about the officer, a PSP public affairs spokesman in Harrisburg says nobody by that name works for PSP. Okay, maybe I read his name wrong. So let’s call him Sgt. Bad Day as in, “Are you having a bad day, officer?”

No matter which side of the Walther PDP duty handgun the Sarge woke up on, the cop has no good reason to cop an attitude with me. Dangling from my neck on a blue lanyard, my official plastic press pass says “BIDEN/HARRIS” and “PRESS & MEDIA.” Like it or not, and many political hacks at the Biden rally don’t like it one bit, the Secret Service, the White House and Biden’s re-election campaign cleared me with flying colors to cover the event.

As I move to snap another picture and take another video with my phone, Sgt. Bad Day shadows my steps. I pose no threat when I walk away from police and toward a Department of Public Works truck Scranton officials parked to close the street. Sgt. Bad Day orders me away from the garbage truck.

“I’m with the press,” I say.

“I know,” he says in a robotic artificial intelligence voice. “That’s not for the press.”

As I try to open up polite conversation he cuts me off. Bulky Sgt. Bad Day steps closer. Sensing he might grab me by the arm, I create distance by stepping out of reach. I know a threatening presence when I feel one. Escalating a non-existent conflict until he created one, Biden’s bouncer keeps walking me back in line by pushing his weight around.

I’ve been here before.

A Santa Maria cop in California assaulted me while I covered Michael Jackson’s 2004 not guilty plea for my local newspaper. When the late pervert pop legend’s fans swarmed his motorcade, I held up my official state photo ID even before I saw the uniformed city police officer coming at me. As he lunged and shoved me in the chest with both hands, I decreased the impact by stepping backwards. When he came at me again, not wanting to get arrested I jogged away from the scene. The former Santa Maria police chief later told me his officer claimed I moved toward him in a threatening manner.

Before I relocated back to Northeastern Pennsylvania almost two years later, the same police chief told me he knew I was telling the truth but decided to take no disciplinary action against the officer. Instead, the city’s top cop protected and served a bad cop.

Twenty years later, despite a continuing national epidemic of police brutality, I remain a model citizen and professional member of the press. Last week in my hometown during a presidential visit I again did my job the best I could.

Despite the young rabble-rouser’s rude, lewd gestures and fighting words, he, like me, stood in solidarity with our Constitutional right to assemble and redress grievances against our government. In case Sgt. Bad Day still misunderstands the lessons of our American Revolution, that freedom is called the First Amendment.

I have some experience in this arena. After cops arrested and charged me with a felony in 1991 for doing local journalism, I won a national journalism award for my service to a free press.

Except for Sgt. Bad Day who kept checking his watch, the state police officers who stood between the protestors and the president handled their duties professionally. I did what I was told and went were I was “allowed.” So did the peaceful protestors who trailed President Biden and his entourage through the city.

A PSP spokesman later said police made no arrests.

But I had not witnessed such an excessive mini-police state and show of armed force in a very long time. Overkill cop control is not democracy in our much touted land of the free. Armed government domination is the iron fist of an authoritarian regime.

My father, Shamus, served 34 years as a member of the Pennsylvania State Police, the oldest state police organization in the United States. He retired as a detective and one of the most highly decorated officers in the history of what he called “the job.”

Once when I was 17, I waited anxiously with my mother to hear if he got killed in the line of duty. Thankfully, the shot an escaped federal prisoner fired at his face missed when my ex-professional boxer father “slipped” the bullet when the gun came up inches from his head. Even after their shootout, my father treated his potential killer with respect, buying him a Coke and giving him cigarettes.

Over the years I sometimes thought about my dad’s attitude when, as a 4th degree black belt aikijujutsu instructor and Taihojutsu (Japanese police arrest techniques) black belt, I trained with and helped teach police and other law enforcement professionals techniques that might save face as well as lives. Under the watchful eye of my military veteran federal air marshal teacher, I stressed to all students, especially to police, that respect can sooth the savage beast. De-escalation means minimizing conflict, not acting bullheaded or wielding the power of the gun and badge with the zeal of a control freak.

I once told a training partner to smile as he employed a technique that can snap a wrist, break an elbow or dislocate a shoulder if exercised with recklessness or malice. Done properly with continuing practice the technique easily restrains an attacker. Most cops don’t train in restraint techniques. Most cops don’t practice restraint. Most cops who can’t control their emotions and try to rely on brute strength can’t even restrain themselves.

Police don’t have to cross over and join the protest line. But each time I observe sloppy, awkward and unprofessional police conduct I realize how much more we must demand from law enforcement so police will get smarter and more skilled. As pro-Palestinian protests against genocide increase nationwide, out-of-control cops run amok laying heavy hands on nonviolent anti-war college and university students, as well as journalists and others advocating human rights.

Violence begets violence.

Israel and its American government sugar daddies set the stage for their war with Hamas decades ago.

Whether you’re shooting a firearm or playing the piano, training is everything. Too many untrained cops can’t control themselves let alone play chopsticks on black and white keys.

Too many weak-minded cops also won’t like my advice.

Protecting and serving means shielding everybody — even a scrawny rebel yelling obscenities in your face. Free speech in America includes hate speech. Freedom is supposed to make system enforcers uncomfortable. Good cops understand integrity, fairness and dedication is required to keep the peace and uphold the law.

So from the bottom of my press pass, unlike my foul-mouthed inside agitator comrade, I offer this heartfelt message to Sgt. Bad Day who helped teach me how much more police officers like him need to learn about true public service:

“Thank you, cop,” I say. “Thank you, cop.”