Until the age of eighteen I believed that the cops were here to keep us safe. Then I spent the night in Los Angeles and had my first encounter with the LAPD. My boyfriend, Miguel, was a DJ and we’d been at a rave in the desert until dawn. I had a pregnancy scare and spent the night dancing sober. He’d been helping a friend hustle ecstasy and there were extra pills, eight hundred dollars in twenties and about one hundred empty vials stashed away in the tiny bungalow. It was late afternoon and my boyfriend spun me a sweet ambient set in the hopes of lulling me to sleep. It worked. The music thumped softly in the background, the deep resonating bass spreading soothing comfort through my exhausted cells like a hot bath. When I awoke someone was shaking me and shining a flashlight into my eyes.
“WHAT ARE YOU ON? WHAT ARE YOU ON? WHAT ARE YOU ON?” the looming figure demanded.
“I’m. On. Nothing.” I stammered.
“I’ve been trying to wake you up for ten minutes. WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU ON?”
There was an LAPD officer standing in the center of my boyfriend’s one-room studio apartment. My bewildered mouth hung open as I looked to my boyfriend who stood helplessly behind his turntables.
“Your music is keeping your disabled senior citizen neighbor awake. This is noise pollution!”
The neighbors didn’t like the noise and had called the cops at dusk on a Sunday evening. The cop had scaled the walls of the garden and walked into Miguel’s tiny unlocked studio. It was 1999, pre 9/11, when cops weren’t yet permitted to violate First Amendment rights and hide behind the guise of terrorism. The officer moved the flashlight from my eyes and looked around in disgust at the dusty crates of records and the predictable sculptures fashioned from parts of used-up toys and television sets, the telltale signature of a malcontent youth.
“If you have nothing to hide, then let me search this bedroom. We know you are on drugs.”
The officer led us in a confusing dance. There was some truth and then there were some lies, a threat and then an ultimatum, a threat and an ultimatum. I would later realize that I had been interrogated, right there on my boyfriend’s day bed in East LA.
“Our dispatchers called the house but you were playing games with us, taking the phone off the hook,” said the officer. “Let me search this room or I’ll have no choice but to put you under arrest.”
We hadn’t been playing any games with the cops! We’d been sleeping and the phone had never rung. My timid boyfriend opened his mouth to respond and I could see him beginning to fold. He was going to let the officer search and I interrupted him. “WE DO NOT CONSENT TO A SEARCH OF THIS PROPERTY! YOU HAVE ENTERED WITHOUT A WARRANT.”
I had no idea if the magical incantation I had learned working with animal rights groups would work and fresh tears began to stream down my face, hot and steamy, and my voice wavered.
“WE DO NOT CONSENT TO THIS SEARCH!” I insisted again.
The officer huffed, then demand, “What are you hiding?”
“We aren’t hiding nothing! We are exercising our rights… You could come back with a warrant,” said my boyfriend, now finding some courage.
The officer looked from between us with contempt and made a clacking sound with the handcuffs that hung from his belt. The light glinted off his handcuffs and I saw the shine of sadism in his eyes. He smiled.
“Well then I guess I have no choice but to put you under arrest,” he said smugly. He slipped the cuffs onto Miguel’s skinny wrists and pushed them tightly.
“WHAT IS HE BEING ARRESTED FOR?” I shouted, snot streaming down my chin.
“Disturbing the peace,” said the officer who was now smiling broadly. He took my trembling boyfriend outside and stuffed him into the back of the squad car. The butterfly tattoo on his smooth bicep was scratched on the door frame and began to bleed onto the tiny black camisole he wore.
I panicked and began searching the room for evidence of our criminal behavior, tore the room apart trying to find the pills, the money, the vials, trying to find phone numbers. Who to call? His mother? She was dying of Hep C. His best friend? I couldn’t see anything. Everything loomed huge and tall. The strange new city. The strange behavior of the police. The strange new problems.
Moments later, a helicopter flew over the house and the police officer informed us he had “Real business to attend to.” He let my boyfriend go. “But I’ll be watching you, Mr. Martínez. We all will,” he said menacingly, and soon after we cried in one anther’s arms. I had been so afraid. Afraid of my sweet femme boy going to LA County lock up. Afraid of someone seeing his panties. Afraid of being punished for our transgressions.
That was over thirteen years ago. Since then I have been to many protests, led actions of civil disobedience in the halls of Congress, and stood chest to chest with the DC police dressed to the nines in riot gear. I’ve experienced the brutal force of the LAPD and cited my rights when I was petrified but sure I was doing the right thing. I have cried and found courage in the face of real physical danger, but today the most terrifying cops live in my head.
I have long been aware of these voices and at different times in my life I’ve given them different names. “The bad bad voices. The bad bad feelings. The monsters.” And then a dear friend of mine who has been doing a lot of work with the Theatre of the Oppressed told me about an exercise called “The Cops In Your Head.” The participants choose one of the many voices that tell them why they can’t do something and then they play the role of that voice, for example “You’re too old,” or “You don’t speak English well enough,” or in my case “You’re too stupid and incompetent.” Then you play the cop in a great theatrical performance, and exercise the demons by regurgitating all the poisonous beliefs that you have been fed and swallowed. The second step is choosing someone to argue with your cop and if you’re lucky the person arguing with you makes you realize just how crazy, fucked up and wrong your cop is.
This week I began going to school full time and I’ve had to contend with many cops. The noisiest cop says that I can’t do it, that my mental health won’t hold up. That people like me don’t deserve to go to school. I am ill prepared. I am just not smart enough. I won’t make it.
So I am trying to hear the voices of all the cops, to let them air their fears and give them space to cry. I’m also trying to squint through the mess to see where the bad cops came from. Perhaps if I validate their existence and try to soothe them they will stop pulling at my dress.
Last night my drawing professor taught the class how to use our pencils and simple arithmetic to check and recheck our work. “Draw it big, fast and loose, then readjust. Get the rough shape, then adjust. Only then can you begin to worry about the details. Don’t be lazy. You have tools, use them,” she said. “Stand back and away from your work and look at it from a distance. When you’re right here up close, you won’t be able to see what’s wrong. Use your pencil as a tool to measure. Hold your pencil out straight in front of you, and don’t worry if you look stupid but you have to hold the pencil in the same place to measure each time or it won’t work. Oh, and don’t listen to all those voices in your head that say you suck. They’re of no use to you and I guarantee you the twenty people standing next to you hear them too.”
I couldn’t help but smile because in one five minute lecture this brilliant woman had handed all of us the formula to living a good life as an artist. And now I just have to figure out what systems of measurement I will use as my metaphorical pencil and do my best to remember to stand up, take a look at my work from a distance and try not to lose perspective.