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  • That One Capitol Police Officer

    Posted on October 18th, 2006 Brian No comments

    Traffic light, Don't Walk, and a One Way sign You know the one. If you’ve ever taken the Metro to Capitol South, you know exactly who he is. He always seems to be stationed right there on the corner of 1st and C SE. You know him because he’s harassed you for jaywalking.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not some sort of maverick, some sort of jaywalking outlaw. I admit: I do it, although only at corners at which I know exactly how the lights work. Like on the intersection of 13th and K NW. There is a left-turn arrow there for the northbound traffic, and so the pedestrian signals on the west side – the side I am almost always on – show “Walk” some twenty seconds after the east-west traffic has actually stopped. If there is nobody turning left onto K Street, then it is safe to violate the signal. If there are people turning left, then it is a bad idea. I even have a nasty tendency to verbally scold other pedestrians who ignore the signal and block a vehicle that is trying to turn left.

    The intersection, guarded by the particular pompus fellow who is my subject here, is flanked by signals for pedestrians and traffic in all directions, despite the fact that two of those directions are blocked by vehicle barriers. They can be raised and lowered to permit traffic on the street, but of course their default position is up, and cars are rare. Thus, if you cross at the right places, it is all but impossible to be run down by a reckless driver intent on hit-and-run without either the explicit cooperation of the officers controlling the barriers or the vehicle obliterating itself on a barrier.

    And still this officer harasses pedestrians for jaywalking. Why? He’s a power-addict. I’ve seen him do it many times, and today I was caught in the middle of a gaggle of people at whom he directed his wrath. It works like this: He sees somebody crossing against the signal, and he hollers at them – his words splitting the air in a perfect, obviously rehearsed Voice of Authority – to “Watch the light, sir” or “Wait for the signal, ma’am.” He is always polite at this point, but seemingly oblivious to the absurdity of waiting for a signal at an intersection through which no traffic can possibly pass.

    As my Italian instructor would say, trappola! If anyone is foolish enough to point out the obvious; if someone perhaps fails to hear him call out; if one absent-mindedly ignores the voice: believing that the current act of merely crossing the street could in no way garner the attention of anybody at all, let alone an officer of the law, and so the bellow must be directed at somebody else; if anyone dares to question his authority in any way, even implicitly or accidentally, the trap is sprung.

    He zeros in. His arms gesticulate wildly, pointing at signs and lights and corners and empty space, almost exactly like a traffic cop on K Street but without the cars whizzing past. His jugular is throbbing with righteous anger and his double (triple?) chin flaps in some sort of bizzare syncopation with the movement of his lips. His voice is raised to the point of but not quite yelling – projecting, maybe, as an actor on stage might – berating, “Get back on that corner! Wait for the signal! Respect my authority!”

    Walking FeetThe exact words here are fictional. In the confusion of the sudden moment, it is impossible to remember or even determine what is being said. Despite this (maybe because of it: his waving arms and Authority-laden bellows), the victim somehow comprehends and spins dizzily back to the starting corner like a top spun loose onto gravel, bouncing back onto the curb and staying there, like the top again, but now caught in a smooth depression on the surface of the table. The officer is quiet now, though still breathing heavily from his ejaculation, glaring fiercly at the object of his ire.

    Then the light changes, signalling to the absent traffic, and they pass one another, and the victim is gone. His thirst for recognition of his power has been satiated for now, but it will return. Invoking the letter of the law, where the spirit of the same would be inapplicable, in his mind makes criminals of some aribtrary passers-by who would otherwise ignore him utterly, thus making them subject to his will and power, if only briefly. I understand it as: How else is he going to feel important being stationed at a shitty little post on a quiet little street on Capitol Hill.

    Today, as one of several members of a group he decided to accost, I gave him my attention, nodded politely, and continued on my way.

    (Traffic sign from Charlie Brewer, used under a CC BY-SA license; and feet from original by loufi, used under a CC BY license, and re-distributed under my normal terms for this site.)

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