Tales From The Thin Blue Line 28

Protests, like Occupy Wall Street, have been happening long before the financial domination of big banks. People deign to take time from the important business of living life so that they can point out the bad behavior of the few who have gained power in society. While many people argue the effectiveness of protests, there is an undeniable (and profitable) side business that comes with each uprising. The selling of drugs, for instance, becomes as lucrative as firecrackers on the Fourth of July. How do I know? Because I used to attend similar roundups years ago. Oh, I wasn’t protesting or advocating for anything. No, I was an undercover narcotics cop who was assigned to check things out for – gasp! – the government.

Occupy Wall Street borrowed from a tried and not-so-true protest style that was made bigger than ever – not in size or effectiveness, but rather in public attention and notoriety –during the Vietnam War. What a time that was. My assignment – which was only on a few occasions (thank goodness) – was to infiltrate and gather intelligence from the protest leaders and their mob of followers.

By the time I did my assignments – from 1971 to 1973 – undercover work had been well established in covering the protest movements of the era. Some young officers across the country carried out deep undercover assignments where they actually attended university classes and lived in university housing. Officers learned anti-government plans fostered by people – some students– who were at ideological odds with the majority of those in elected offices at the time.

Some have come back into view in recent years, as anyone who follows the news is aware.

The deep undercover officers were given the “important” assignments, which usually turned out to be nothing. I talked to more than one of the city’s undercover officers after they returned to regular duty, most of whom agreed it was an overall waste of time.

But the FBI, on the other hand, got the big stuff- the stuff that really counted.

There was a core group of people with strong, and strongly expressed, opinions about the war in Vietnam and Presidents Johnson and Nixon (is this old news rubble or what?). As far as the real threat- the threat of terrorism, or a violent, revolutionary takeover of the US- it was a laugh. But it had to be checked, and the powers that be figured out the level of threat that these people proposed to the country, which was hardly any threat at all.

I’m speaking of the young-uns and handful of wacky old timers who gathered at government buildings and the like that did little more than make noise. The less-than-a-handful of damaged sites and dead bodies they produced – an era that quickly ended – had been overrated and over feared. That’s what I heard from other officers, and again, this is what I saw.

But there was some fun to be had by the pre-OWS protestors: Drugs! And sex! And more drugs! And more sex! By the time I was doing those assignments – which were only a few by the early 1970s – that was virtually the only reason most of the people attended the protests. Finding one-night-stands and dope was the main goal. Many of the drug-using college students relied heavily on the marches and protests to make “friends” with drug suppliers, and vice versa. Many drug suppliers grew their hair long, and wore beards and hippie clothing of the day just to fit in with the “customers” better.

Mostly people sat around waiting for their deliveries, and did all manner of trash talk about all manner of subjects. They’d drink alcohol and smoke pot all day long and crash at the sites that were open 24/7. I, personally, was bored out of my mind keeping an eye out for drug dealers, and an ear open for big talk from faux revolutionaries. The most common talk was about how they were going to “rip this place apart” – meaning the US of A – and somehow make it into the Utopia that they had been dreaming of.

One time, some college students and their street associates set up a political discussion in a large basement room in one of the larger campus buildings. The university shall remain unnamed, but it did have some of the best college basketball programs in the country at the time, and even won an NCAA basketball tournament a couple of generations ago.

The inside word was that revolutionaries and overall anarchic leaders were going to perform street theater and teach the attendees about how life should truly be organized and lived by the people. The police department caught word, and sent my partner and I to take notes. Actually, we were there to make drug connections, because that was the only true law breaking that might be going on.

As the theater began, several young men wearing field jackets and hats ran into the room, making zooming sounds like airplanes and throwing small paper airplanes at the people sitting there. A paper airplane hit me in the face, and I laughed. A young man told me that, “dead people don’t laugh”: I had just been a victim of a bomb-dropping airplane. He then said, “It takes time to learn street theater,” so he “understood my inappropriate reaction.”

Others from his group took turns shouting out a single anti-war sentence. The person next to him followed, then the person next to him, and so on. It was very dramatic. Shortly after that everyone stood and began intermingling, talking about the war and the unfairness of the “system.” Some started to leave. A line formed in back at a table where a couple of guys were surreptitiously swapping marijuana joints and nickel bags for money. My partner and I quickly got in line but they were sold out before we got there.

Oh, and the protest gathering was summarily dismissed in a loud, officious voice by one of the paper airplane bomber people. He said that one day it would be real – that Americans would be killed by our enemies everywhere- even in our own country.

At least one thing said that night was the truth.

The upper command officers of the police department demanded that undercover officers continue monitoring the rapidly shrinking gatherings. Our bosses told us to go there, and if things shaped up the same every time – where absolutely nothing criminal was going on, we could leave. And that’s what happened until shortly thereafter we were never assigned to a social or war protest again.

In truth, college protesting on campuses – or anywhere else, for that matter – took a major hit when the four students at Kent State University were shot and killed by the National Guard on May 4th, 1970.

I was long retired when the Occupy Wall Street crowds began to gather in September of 2011, first in Manhattan, and then, well…Manhattan was the only real one. A few others elsewhere were known about because of the news media, but they never made much noise. I made friendly bets with some neighbors that OWS would fizzle out. They were shameless sucker bets, as it quickly became apparent. At least I didn’t take their money.

But there was a new twist to the coverage: News crews swamped the site and were shocked at how ridiculous the protests actually were – and they actually reported the real story. The news people watched “protestors” openly scavenge for drugs, have public sex, and then pass out, drugged and dirty, on the grounds of public buildings as if it were the second coming of Woodstock- using a true economic problem as an excuse to get high and be “apart of something.” However, OWS had more interlopers committing crimes, primarily rape and theft, which made the protests a bigger threat than that of its predecessors.

No one gave cogent, informed answers about the issues they were protesting. That’s exactly how it was forty years earlier when I wasted my time, er, when I swept through throngs of scary people who were plotting the end of the world as we know it.

Rob Riley

This is number 28 in an ongoing series from Rob.

He spent thirty-two years as a Milwaukee police officer: seven years doing undercover narcotics investigations and twenty-two years as a major crimes detective. Writing and reading have been lifelong passions, and he began by writing short stories more than thirty years ago.

Rob is published by Orange Hat Press

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