When I was 19 I went to art school in New York.
The first week there, I was standing outside a greasy-spoon café in my London mod clothes: purple pullover, hound’s-tooth trousers, chisel-toe shoes.
A squad of about twenty uniformed policemen passed by, they began yelling at me: “Hey look at the fucking faggot.”
Now London cops aren’t perfect, but they don’t shout insults at you in the street.
And this was New York, the most civilised part of America.
A few months later, my mate Elliot was driving to Florida for spring break.
He took his friend, Brian, and their girlfriends, Becky and Vicky, in his red VW Beetle.
To get from New York to Florida, you have to pass through Georgia.
This was not a good idea for a VW full of hippies with NY plates.
For safety, they tried to stay in the middle of several other cars.
But it didn’t help, the red light appeared in the rear-view mirror and the siren sounded.
Elliot pulled over and stayed in the car with his hands on the steering wheel.
A state-trooper approached the car from either side, wide-brim hats and mirror glasses.
Elliot and Brian were sitting in the front, they both had long hair and tie-died T shirts..
The cop looked them over and eventually said: “Are you-all boys or girls?”
Elliot said: “We’re boys officer, those are our girlfriends in the back.”
The cop said: “Y’all are from Jew York, huh? Well you were exceeding the speed limit.”
Elliot said: “But we were going the same speed as all the other cars, officer.”
The cop slowly said: “Y’all calling me a liar, boy?”
Elliot said: “No officer.”
The cop said: “Well you have two choices: you can go to court, the judge gets here on Mondays, so you’ll be in jail over the weekend. Or you can pay the $50 fine now.”
Naturally Elliot paid, just to get out of Georgia.
Six months later, Elliot was on a Vietnam war protest march in Manhattan
A cop yelled at Elliot: “Ya dirty, filthy hippies. Why don’t you take a bath and get a job?”
Elliot is from Brooklyn, so he yelled back: “Yeah, if I had a lower IQ I coulda dropped outa college and joined the police.”
At which point the cop hit him as hard as he could across the shin with his night stick.
Elliot limped for weeks.
The day we graduated, all the parents came to the college.
The father of one of the guys was a policeman.
I asked him what he thought about all the NYPD cops standing back and letting construction workers from the World Trade Centre come and beat up the protestors.
He said: “Yeah, great wasn’t it. Too bad the cops couldn’t get involved. I’d have liked to have busted a few heads.”
And he carried on drinking beer and laughing.
I excused myself and left, his son looked embarrassed and I didn’t want a row with his dad.
The interesting thing, in light of current events, is that none of that police violence was racial, it was all directed against hippies.
In America, the police are an armed para-military force.
This, in their minds, gives them the right to attack whoever they don’t like with the full force at their disposal.
Now I know, being a policeman is a tough, scary job.
I don’t expect the police to behave like outdoor butlers.
George Orwell was as a policeman, and he explained it as follows:
“In order for us to sleep peacefully in our beds at night, strong men stand ready to do violence on our behalf.”
London cops aren’t perfect, but they’re saner than any country I’ve been to.