Can I be any more disgusted than I am this morning? The events of the past ten days in Ferguson, Missouri have so disheartened me that I have a very difficult time in believing this country can ever rise to the potential our founding fathers envisioned.
What is even more disturbing is that the cause of these events has been brewing for decades and still there is little improvement in turning down the temperature of anger among the disenfranchised; certainly not enough for our leaders to restore faith in our political and justice systems. As I see it, the root cause is the perception some people have that anyone who appears to be different that they are is “other” than them and apparently should justifiably be treated differently.
Unfortunately, the “some” people are usually white and the “others,” usually black or brown. This is not to say that bigotry does not exist among these demographic and ethnic groups as well. It does, but not nearly to the extent that it exists between the white leadership, or should I say “overlord-ship,” and the their “minions,” the vast majority of whom are black. When the bigotry of those in power is accompanied by a show of force that includes police in riot gear and military-grade weaponry, I feel I am experiencing déjà vu all over again!
I doubt that the young black people of Ferguson remember or know of the times when white people marched along side them during the civil rights riots of the ‘60s. Those white people got to experience what it’s like to be “other.” They stepped into the shoes of their black brothers and sisters, and we all know about walking a mile in another’s shoes… especially when that mile is “defended” by Darth Vaders with rubber bullets, real bullets, billy clubs, tear gas and armored vehicles.
A very large number of these “other” white people were hippies. Women in their tie-dyed blouses and skirts and men with their long, unkempt hair looked different, looked “other.” Ask any old hippie what it was like to hitchhike across the country. Ask them how many times they were hassled just for looking different. Ask them how many times they were arrested for exercising their civil rights only to be hit over the head and thrown into jail. Ask them how quickly they were charged with a crime, unlike the turtle-like pace of arresting Officer Wilson and charging him with a crime.
Arresting Officer Wilson and charging him with a crime does not imply guilt. That is for a jury to decide. However the mere arrest and charge of the officer would do so much to end the violent protests in Ferguson. If a news photographer covering the protests can be arrested, charged, and taken to jail for “not obeying a police order” then certainly there is enough probable cause to arrest, charge, and jail officer Wilson until his day in court when the whole truth will hopefully be unveiled.
However, I do not hold the African American community of Ferguson blameless for the situation in which they find themselves, a community that is 70 percent black and governed by a white mayor who ran unopposed, a police department of 50 men and women, only three of whom are black, a city council that includes just one African American, and a school board that is 100 percent white. Why?
A mayor appoints a police chief who is confirmed by the city council. The chief of police hires policemen. Unfortunately the chief does not have the smarts to hire policemen who reflect the demographics of the community they are supposed to protect and serve. How did this happen?
Ferguson, MO has a total population of approximately 21,000 people, 15,000 of them are 18 or older and therefore eligible to vote. Yet in last April’s mayoral election, only 1,350 votes were cast, and in the last city council election of 2013, there were only 1,500 votes cast. True, this is an embarrassingly small turnout even for municipal elections that are deliberately scheduled to not coincide with any major state or national elections.
Nevertheless, of that small turnout, only 6 percent of eligible black voters turned out. Yes, vested interests with big pockets play a role, but where are the community organizers who can bring these eligible black voters to the polls so they can change the dynamics of their own community?
I strongly oppose the militarization of police forces throughout the country. I strongly oppose the shuffling of feet and twiddling of thumbs in bringing charges against Officer Wilson. But I also strongly admonish the African American community of Ferguson for not using the power of their numbers to change their own political landscape.
I also understand the anger and frustration of being regarded as “other.” Being “other” implies inferiority, danger, fear; it implies you are regarded as less than human and therefore a legitimate target. I am a white male, yet I remember that by the time I graduated college, most of my hometown’s police force was comprised of all the rednecks and troublemakers in high school who were always being suspended or expelled, yet happened to be the sons of the “good ‘ol boy” crowd; maybe graduated from a “good ‘ol boy” police academy, and damn, once you have that uniform and badge on, you have that “good ‘ol boy” power to be used at your whim!
When my hair had grown out and was tied back in a pony tail, I would sometimes visit my folks who lived in a very red neck county in Florida. I’d borrow their car to visit friends or buy groceries. Inevitably, I would get pulled over as soon as a cop saw me. When I would ask the cop why, he would find some reason… sometimes just saying I didn’t look like someone who should be driving such a nice car!
So I do know what it is like to feel “other.” I have stepped into the shoes of the black residents of Ferguson. I do understand their frustration and anger. And I must admit that by getting a crew cut and dressing neatly, I could easily join the ranks of the “some,” and make my “otherness” invisible, a distinct advantage! Black and brown people do not have that luxury. But as a reminder to my old hippie friends and a lesson for my younger friends, I include this excerpt from my book, Hunga Dunga. After reading it I hope you can more than imagine what it is like to be on the streets of Ferguson, MO facing an army of police, state troopers and the National Guard. Yes, I can more than imagine being Other.
Saul, being more practical than I, was more concerned with the Free Press concert happening that Saturday. It was supposed to be a love-in/anti-war gathering. Right there on that expanse of beach between Pacific Ocean Park and where Venice proper started. The line up consisted of Spirit, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Taj Mahal, interspersed with anti-war speeches. For a change, we would be on the stage itself and not on scaffolds. Still, it was just more go-go dancing. And we’d be doing it for free just like all the other entertainers. Saul said the exposure would be good for us and the Free Press would mention our name.
Saturday morning I awoke to the sounds of people walking, running, roller skating past the studio. Hardly unusual except for the numbers of them. I peeked through my window and saw a steady stream of bare chests, tie-dyed halter tops, beach towels, ice-chests, picnic baskets, banners and signs. The concert didn’t start til one, but the crowds were arriving early.
My gang arrived around eleven. We warmed up with sun exercises and calisthenics. Then we each took a half a tab of acid and headed for the beach a block away. It wasn’t Woodstock, but it was as dense. The stage was about twenty feet from the boardwalk and faced the ocean. A small crew was finishing up and a skinny, balding, bearded guy was doing a sound check. On the far right were the pilings of the pier and the skeleton of the rollercoaster silhouetted by the blazing sun. On the far left was a massive, partially buried pipe. The part that stuck out of the sand was a good three feet high. It ran from god knows where in the bowels of Venice or Santa Monica to spill god knows what into the ocean. In the hundred yards or so between the pipe and the pier, the boardwalk and the ocean, were thousands of people arranging blankets, putting on lotion, smoking pot, tripping out.
It was a real family affair. Nuclear and otherwise. Lots of kids of all ages. Young hippie moms breast-feeding their newborns. Young hippie dads sporting their tots on their shoulders. Lots of short-haired liberals who sympathized with the drop-outs, but hadn’t yet themselves. Who maybe wanted to, but couldn’t.
They were the people who had complied with two of Leary’s suggestions. They had turned on. They had tuned in. But the dropping out was left to the hippies, the flower children. These were the stoned, young, left-wing members of the establishment, who enjoyed the fringe element of the freaks. Who counted on them to bring fun, color, and diversity into the culture. And who would fight passionately for their right to express themselves as free spirits. They knew that by securing the rights of the fringe, they were securing their own.
These were the young blue-collar and white-collar workers who relished the uninhibited cavorting but who were too shy to cavort themselves. These were the modern politicos who wanted the freaks to be the scene while they worked behind the scenes. These were the peacemakers, environmentalists and civil rights activists who worked within the system. These were the true revolutionaries who were the salt of the new earth we were going to make. The pillars of the future society that would bring in the Aquarian Age. The freaks, the hippies, the flower children had already dropped out and were leaving the earth’s atmosphere, creating lifestyles, language, fashions and issues that would, they hoped, become part of the mainstream culture in following years.
It was a wonderful day. Everyone was on a high. Spirit really got everyone on their feet. Dancing. Swaying. Gettin’ down! The speeches were empowering and solidified the crowd’s resolve against the war. They knew that the threat from the outside was now and forever a lie. They knew that the country had better start thinking in a new way. And they knew that these rallies were meant to attract the media and make people pay attention. They needed a venue where their opposition could be clearly seen and loudly heard. So they rose to the occasion and hooted and whistled and hollered at the top of their lungs in response to buzz words that echoed through the loudspeakers. But the crowd was there as much for the music as they were to make a statement. They were there to have a good time and have some fun.
The vibes everywhere were great, and though I and the other dancers had dispersed among the crowd, there was no need to work it. So when the next band walked on stage and began tuning up, I started back toward the stage and hoped the rest of the crew weren’t too stoned by now to find their way back. I was flashing my badge at one of the security guys in front of the stage. That’s when I saw them.
All along the boardwalk, from the pier to the sewer pipe, stood an impenetrable wall of LA’s finest decked out in full riot gear.
Where had they come from? All of a sudden like that? Didn’t anyone see them approaching? Was it possible an entire stadium-load of people could collectively be so oblivious to their arrival?
I followed the wall of chest-shielded, head-helmeted, face-masked robots. They just stood there at the ready, most holding clubs, some lightly bouncing them in their open palms. Legs slightly apart, solidly grounded, black leather chaps catching the glare of the sun, they looked like a thick wrought iron fence. I looked to the right and saw the crowd begin to notice the fence extending quickly along the length of the pipe almost all the way to the surf. A wave of bad vibes crashed upon the crowd.
The negative energy was palpable. It cut through the crowd quickly like a scythe through grass. The panic in the air was razor sharp. You could feel people working hard to keep their acts together. Trying to be calm. Buddies continuing to drink their beer and assuming forced poses of macho nonchalance. Boyfriends telling their girlfriends to be calm. Mothers calmly gathering up their kids. Dads calmly, but firmly, persuading them it was time to go. But the kids knew something was wrong. Like a dog sensing an earthquake. Like a gull sensing a hurricane.
One of the anti-war speakers grabbed the microphone. She tried to keep the crowd, now on the very edge, from falling off. She tried reason. She tried humor. She tried sarcasm. Someone from the Free Press was talking with a riot squad honcho. The cop had his arms impatiently akimbo, while the Free Press guy used his hands and arms freely, gesturing first toward the crowd, then to the police, then back to the crowd, trying to communicate reason over mayhem. The colorful shirt he wore made him look like a sailor flagging semaphore. I could tell he wasn’t getting anywhere when he threw his hands into the air. In the meantime, the crowd was becoming more anxious and vocal. A verbal assault on the cops was gaining momentum from the braver souls, while others were, as inconspicuously as possible, trying to make their way off the beach. An empty pop bottle soared over my head toward the boardwalk and before it fell short of its mark, I saw the head honcho look toward his men, nod slightly, and yell, “Clear the area. Now!”
Suddenly it was chaos. Clubs cracking skulls. Kids screaming and being trampled by both the cops and the crowd. Some people putting up a fight. Guys trying to rip the masks from the cops’ faces to get something to punch at. Feisty women kicking and biting their assailants. Kids trying to hang on to, but then violently bucked off, the bronco legs of police who were trying to pummel their dads. Lots of bleeding. Lots of pleading. Lots of stoned, dazed acid-heads trying to get a grip. People running every which way trying to escape. Many were backed up to the ocean and more than a few began swimming out into the water beyond the reach of the incessant swinging clubs. The rest scrambled blindly trying to reach the pier or zigzag through the police to the boardwalk. A typhoon of colors. A tornado of demons. A torrent of pathetic faces, their expressions disfigured by anger and fear and panic. A tsunami of nightmares in the blazing California sun.
I ducked under the stage and when the first row of cops charged the beach, made a run for the boardwalk and ran as fast as I could toward my studio. I looked behind me. Close at my heels were another forty or so people and a half block behind them about 10 of the storm troopers. I fiddled with the keys and got the door to my studio opened just in time, but not in enough time to prevent the crowd from rushing in behind me. When we were all inside, we locked the door and started piling everything we could against it. As we pushed the piano into place we could see the silhouettes of clubs on the other side of the painted plate glass windows.
The silhouettes got nearer and darker and crashed through the glass sending shards and slivers everywhere. One of the cops lobbed in a canister. The gas quickly permeated the air. People were screaming. The cops batted the remaining glass out of their way and entered through the windows. The people inside were either blindly confused and tearfully running right into their clutches, or lying in a frozen crumple on the floor.
At the first sound of the breaking glass, I ran to the very rear of the studio, lifted the madras wall hanging and scurried out the little back door onto the pier. I made my way as furtively as I could to the Tilt-a-Whirl. To the car that had the loose seat cushion. The seat was hollow and I used to hide my stash there sometimes when I had a paranoically large amount. I scrunched in and fiddled with the cushion until it fell back into place. About a half hour later, I heard two cops walking around, talking, turning over barrels and crates. Then silence. I stayed in my hiding place until late that night.
I had never before referred to cops as “pigs” even though at the time it was a perfectly politically correct thing to do. We are all divine. I always tried to remind myself of that. I made a habit of saying it to myself when I got mad. The same way other people counted to 10, that’s how I said we are all divine.
We are all divine. We are all divine. We are all divine. We are all divine.
I worked hard not to slur anybody. But this night, I learned the meaning of the word “pig” and knew many things would have to change before I stopped using it.
I sneaked back to the studio but was afraid to turn on any lights. I leaned my mattress against the wall and stuffed a narrow piece of foam under it. There, in that little cave, I huddled until dawn, wondering how the world would react when it learned of my early retirement from The Dance.
It didn’t take much light of day to see that practically everything was destroyed. The piano, the stereo, the few furnishings. All my records lay smashed and strewn across the floor. If I stared at them without blinking, I could imagine they were part of the design of the tile. I threw a few pieces of clothing in my backpack, walked to the highway, stuck one thumb north and the other thumb south. That’s how I ended up spending the night in Laguna with Josie.