Giving stick to incipient police violence


Policeman wielding nightstickI have never been arrested (yet), but I have been asked politely to accompany a police officer to the local station to sort out what he called a misunderstanding, and it is that bright crystalline afternoon, on a beach, that I wish to recount here.

I had been strolling along the beach with two college friends, one of whom had never had a drop of drink in his life, and the other who had, that day, too many. He was in a cheerful mood, addressing raffish remarks to passersby, until one passerby was an officer of the law, who stopped us and inquired as to sobriety.

We sober gentlemen reported ourselves so, and we made excuses for our companion, who stood swaying gently as we explained that he was not altogether what you would call sober, but we were escorting him safely back to a place of rest, and we were not driving, or armed, or contemplating any other flouting of the law other than intoxication on the beach, which, however, applied to only a third of us, all things considered.

The police officer was a youngish man, sturdy and tanned, and while he seemed slightly amused, he was not very amused, and his thoughts became clear when he asked our unsober friend what he had in his pockets, and our friend replied, in a much clearer firmer voice than you would expect from an intoxicated young man replying to a question from a policeman, Why don't you reach in there and find out, copper?

He said the word copper with a particular flourish, just like he was in a movie and he was a gangster making a terse remark about an officer of the law, and perhaps it was this little extra emphasis that tipped the cop from slightly amused to come with me, boys, which he said, tersely, and which we did, dragging our friend.

The police station was only a block inland from the beach, and it looked more like a lifeguard shack than a regular police station, but inside there were other policemen, and a booking sergeant, and a drunk tank, and posters of wanted men on the walls, and the jangle of handcuffs on belts, and I saw, for the first time in my life, a nightstick, sitting on the booking counter in front of the grim sergeant.

Now, a nightstick doesn't sound fearsome — I think it's the word stick that dilutes the word, stick being a cousin of twig — but when you see one up close you have a lot of respect for the inherent and incipient violence of the thing. I stared at it for a while, contemplating how a burly policeman with his feet set could deliver a terrible cracking blow to a head or a shoulder or an arm flung across your face to protect your eyes and brains.

Well, the misunderstanding was cleared up fairly quickly, and stern admonitions were issued, and vows and promises sworn, and every time our unsober friend opened his mouth to make some witty remark he got an elbow sharp as a stick in the ribs, so much so that he said his ribs hurt for days afterwards, and soon enough we had been bundled back onto the beach and were slogging through the sand with our friend, who began to sing.

For years afterwards my sober friend and I told this story with glee, because there is a comic element to it, but curiously now what comes back to me first when I think of that brilliant crystalline afternoon is not the foolish remark, or the calm of the policeman, or the sadness of the drunk tank, but that nightstick on the counter.

We have hammered each other with sticks for a million years now, and even now that we have invented the most astounding and devious weaponry, we still lean on sticks and rocks when we lose our tempers and wish to bash out the brains of our cousins.

All my life I have spoken against violence in some forms and loved it in others, and now that I near 60 I despair of ever rooting it out from my own heart; and every day, I tell you, every day, I wonder deep in my soul if we will ever evolve to the point where we have finally lost the urge altogether, and settle our arguments with chess, or laughter, or games of darts.

When I was younger I was absolutely sure that there would come a day when to see a nightstick you would have to visit a museum; now that the night is ever so much closer for me, I am not so sure. Will you tell me, can you tell me, that this will come to pass? That however many of us are convinced, that is how much closer it is? 


Brian Doyle headshotBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the essay collection Grace Notes.

Policeman wielding nightstick image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Brian Doyle, police brutality



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Existing comments

This is a story of youthful hubris, a snubbing of authority, a realisation of the power of violence and our submission, even reverence, for some forms of it. Maybe also a dawning awareness that we progress only by painful, concerted effort and not by playing games. And even then there's probably some young, drunk fellow waiting in the wings!
Pam | 01 May 2013

Isn't it wonderful that we don't need extravagant or pompous prose, big words or convoluted sentence construction, in order to produce great writing. Thanks Brian.
Frank | 01 May 2013

I presume that this experience happened in the USA, Brian as I believe you live in Portland, which, incidentally, seems to be one of the safer big cities there. Your friend was, I presume, white & it was a middle class beach he was being foolish at? Were he black or Hispanic and the confrontation with the police have been in Chicago; LA or parts of the South; he may well have been shot from the relative comfort and safety of a squad car. The written report may, or may not, then have been a work of fiction. I think we must always acknowledge we are capable of violence. That does not mean physically enacting it. The ability to be violent needs to be acknowledged & then channeled into sport (also hopefully not uber violent) or a way of settling disputes without violence.
Edward F | 01 May 2013

I feel you brother
danny | 01 May 2013

You kidding? This is a country where police can commit murder with complete impunity. If nightsticks are ever phased out it will be because they've found something even nastier to replace them with - like tasers.
cabrogal | 02 May 2013

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