Justice, fair play and freedom, respect for authority – these are words we hear often when growing up, The classic American upbringing teaches us to respect authority, starting with our parents and then extending to our teachers and then to the local street crossing “safetys” and, finally, to the nice local police officer.
For some, a stint or career in the Military can extend this ongoing hierarchy, which stresses the need to obey those who are above you in rank and experience.
However, there can come a time in our lives when we find that much of this structure is not what it seems. We might notice that the actions do not line up with the words. This is one story, and I do have others, of when I learned that hard lesson – that trusted authorities would often not be honest to their oaths and creeds.
It was the spring of my junior year in High School – and with Memorial Day Weekend coming up, our friends all got together and rented a block of motel rooms in Atlantic City. This was the traditional start of the summer season for many teens in the Philadelphia area. The Big Idea was to bring your girlfriend down to the Jersey Shore and have a weekend of partying! Being as this was the late 1960′s, such partying was more likely to include recreational drugs (pot, etc.) than drink….but the idea was the same – blow off steam from the school year and prepare for a Summer of Love.
My brother, who is a year older than I, was also down at the beach with a number of his friends. One of them, Steve, was from a wealthy family who owned a nice house in a nearby town. Steve was a tall and peacefull soft spoken teen with long blond hair down past his shoulders and a clean-faced look. We might call it the “California Surfer” look today, however back at that time any longhair was looked at with strange gazes.
We all got together for a night of revelry and then each retired to our motels, however my brother, Steve and a couple other friends stayed up late into the night. Finally their party ended and Steve said goodbye and decided to walk down the beach to his summer home. This was close to dawm and so the beach was deserted.
As he walked alone down the beach he was confronted with an Atlantic City Police officer. The officer noticed Steves long hair and his state of mind (stoned) right away, and pulled out his nightstick and gave Steve a good whack. Steve sensed mortal danger (and he was right!) and therefore attempted to move away from the officer in the only direction he could – that was into the surf! Steve stood out in the surf for a few moments until he was finally talked in by the Police Officer. He was then immedidately handcuffed and beated to a pulp by the Officer of the Law! He was then brought to the local hospital with multiple broken bones, including one arm and one leg!
Steves parents were well-to-do WASPS from the Main Line of Philadelphia and were enraged by the situation, so they filed a lawsuit against the Atlantic City Police for Brutality. The trial was scheduled for early October.
For whatever reason, I decided to make the trip to Atlantic City and attend the trial. Steve had been beaten so badly that he was still in casts at the trial. I watched the story unfold as Steve sat on the witness chair and recounted the events of the evening. Then the Police Officer who had beat him got up on the stand. He flatly denied beating Steve with his nightstick and flashlight (which is what Steve had claimed). When asked how Steve could have possibly sustained such massive injuries, the Officer stated “He must have broken his bones on small pilings that were in the surf when he waded in”. The story was so far out that we all gasped at hearing it. Yet he stuck to it, and up to the witness stand paraded Officer after Officer who outright lied and claimed that the Policeman in question would never do such a thing, etc. etc.
The judge – I dont think there was a jury – declared the Officer and Police Department to be Not Guity and admonished Steve for his reckless behavior on the night of the arrest.
Something snapped in me right then! I came away with the realization that I could never again trust authority or the government to do the right thing by either me or a fellow citizen. While I am 100% certain that many good people populate the ranks of authority, the “thin blue line” as well as the other trappings of power and corruption often make it impossible to acheive anything approaching Justice.
Another lesson which I learned from this and other similar situations – is the classic cliche “you can’t fight City Hall”. For most of us, avoidance of the justice system is the best bet!