Poetry and police

Riding BART to Berkeley, I found someone's leftover Chronicle, and the news is that a bunch of San Francisco policemen beat an unarmed man to death on Sunday night.

That's mighty unusual — not cops beating someone, certainly, not cops beating someone to death, but reading about it in the newspaper? That's unusual, as only a fraction of cop-crimes make the news.

The Police Department won't say a word about what happened to Aaron Williams, the man they killed, except that he was a suspect in the burglary of a pet store. That's a capital offense, now? SFPD officers went to his home "to question him," says the Chronicle, and they 'questioned him' to death.

According to several witnesses, the moment Williams stepped out of his flat, a policeman slammed him against a car, and as many as a dozen policemen and women then proceeded to beat the life out of him.

Witnesses said Williams, a black man, cried for help as he fought with a group of officers that included whites, a black, and an Asian-American…

Policing is now an equal opportunity line of work. Everyone gets a club and a turn at bat.

"They were still punching and kicking him when he was completely subdued," said George Falley, a 46-year-old janitor who watched the beating from a few feet away. "After he was hit with the club, he was out. He's bleeding from the head area. The way they kicked him when he was handcuffed — that was the terrible thing — in the forehead area, the ribs, the stomach, the shoulders, the upper body when he was on the ground." […]

"It was gross. There were so many cops on him and that one cop kicking him," said Cecilia Lynch, 33, a management consultant who lives across the street from Williams' flat […]

"It was pretty disturbing to see," said Shannon Robins, 26, who works in the Academy of Sciences' exhibit department. "I think the police were obviously freaking out." […]

Williams' sister, Kimberly, said, "They kept hitting him on the back of the head. I tried to get them to stop, but they pushed me away. One cop said, 'He's okay,' and they threw him in the paddy wagon. It was shameful what they did." […]

A neighbor, who declined to be named, said he could see police "beating someone. He was hollering for help, saying, 'I need help. I need help.' It didn't make no sense to beat a man like that. It's like a Rodney King deal to me," said the man. "There was nothing I could do. If I went out where there were seven carloads of police and a paddy wagon, what would they have done to me?"

That's an excellent question. They might have 'questioned' you into unconsciousness, and then arrested you for interfering with police work. Leaving your name out of the paper was doubtless a good idea.

The terse official version of the incident that appears on the coroner's register contrasts sharply with that given by family members and other witnesses.

Although the register does not describe the struggle, it says that Williams was placed in a police wagon and taken to the Richmond District police station. There, the officer driving the wagon noticed that Williams' breathing was labored. When officers attempted to remove him from the wagon he was "unresponsive." Paramedics were summoned and unsuccessfully attempted to resuscitate him.

"No apparent trauma was noted," the report in the register says.

"No apparent trauma was noted." I laughed out loud reading that on BART, but it wasn't a happy laugh.

Being a police officer is the perfect job if you're a psychopath, or a thug, or a murderer. After killing someone, you get to write the official report of the death, so despite all those blows to the head, "no apparent trauma was noted."

Bryan Bowser, Williams' 33-year-old cousin and a maintenance mechanic from Alameda, said when he viewed the body at the coroner's office, the side of Williams' jaw was swollen, one eye "looked crushed in, there was blood on his lips, blood in his nose and blood in his mouth, which was partially open. They had his neck covered so we couldn't see it. There's no question he was beat up. … I think he was dead before they drove him away. They made no attempt to take him to the hospital. Instead they took him to the police station."

Rest assured, good citizens, that these same police officers or their good drinking buddies are now piecing together the clues, scrutinizing the evidence, interviewing the witnesses, determined to bring keep the perps to from justice.

"The homicide detail is looking into the death, with the cause still to be determined," said Deputy Police Chief Fred Lau. "There won't be any official statement until the medical examiner determines the cause of death."

Cops beat 'suspects' and anyone they feel like beating, more often than teenagers have pimples. If that's news to you, you're hopelessly out of touch.

What earns my fury is knowing, absolutely knowing with no doubt, that these cops will get away with killing Aaron Williams. A few officers might be suspended, probably with pay, and it's vaguely possible that someone might be fired (and promptly hired by the police department in one of the city's suburbs — that's what always happens), but the odds are a million to one against anyone wearing a badge facing prosecution, and two-million to one against a conviction. (See my 2022 addendum, below.)

There won't be anything approaching justice for those blue-shielded bastards, and no matter how often the same scenario repeats itself, the police will never be tamed of their savage ways or brought under any meaningful community control.

This is what American police do. The only violation of protocol here is that the beating happened in front of witnesses.

In a few days or weeks, SFPD's "no comment" will evolve into a series of rehearsed lies with reliable catchphrases like "self-defense," "measured response," and the bravery required to "protect the community."

Almost certainly, we'll hear about the dead man's criminal record, and be told he was high on cocaine or heroin or angel dust, and thus had the strength of a dozen men.

Maybe they'll say he had a gun, or they thought he had a gun. Maybe they'll 'find' a gun at the scene of the crime. Maybe he was 'threatening' police with that invisible gun, even after they'd handcuffed him and beaten him comatose.

Quite possibly, a few of those cops will qualify for disability pay, because they twisted their ankles kicking Williams skull in.

Addendum, 2022: If you're in the mood for it and have a strong stomach, here's Human Rights Watch's 1998 brief on the San Francisco Police Department, which includes a few paragraphs about the killing of Aaron Williams.

As expected, zero cops were prosecuted, and zero cops were disciplined. One cop was fired, for unrelated reasons. His name is Marc Andaya, and as of 2018, he was a lieutenant for the Contra Costa County Sheriffs Department, where his total pay excluding benefits was $146,214.90.

 ♦ ♦ ♦

There was so much to be done at Judith's house, I ended up working 12½ hours. I cleaned Judith's kitchen, and the john, and the hallway, living room, and especially the guest room, because she has company coming tomorrow. It was a lot of work and took a lot of time because she's a slob like me. Nobody's done serious clean-up duty at Judith's house for a long, long time.

My arms were sore before starting, thanks to yesterday's scrubbing, and they were sorer after a few hours standing on a wobbly high chair, scraping mildew off the bathroom ceiling. Work is work, though. I need the money, and it was only painful because I'm so very out of shape.

Haven't known her long, but Judith seems easy to talk to, and she's read my zine — that's how we met — so while I washed dishes we talked about Sarah-Katherine. When I got to the part where Sarah-Katherine had recited poetry for me, Judith laughed and said it was obvious that I'm smitten, and she offered her services as a poet for a reply.

Judith is a poet, if I haven't mentioned it. The real thing, published and professional, so this was not an offer to be snickered at. She asked me several more questions about Sarah-Katherine, about her eyes, about her voice, places we went, what she wore, what went wrong when we were together in Seattle, and what went right. These were things I haven't written about, and questions I'd usually decline to answer, but she wanted to write an acrostic for Sarah-Katherine.

What's an acrostic? A poem of some kind, I guess, where the first letter on each line adds up to something, in this case spelling out Sarah-Katherine's name.

When she'd heard enough of my sappy romantic recollections, Judith disappeared for a while as I swept and mopped the kitchen floor. When she came back, careful not to step where the floor was wet, she had a poem that sounded more intense than the infatuation I've admitted to myself, or to Sarah-Katherine. It seriously was good. Maybe too good. 'Take my breath away' good.

"You can tell her you wrote it," Judith said, after I'd whispered wow and read it a second time. And I'm a schmuck, so I considered telling that lie. After all, it's a poem full of my feelings, retold more romantically than I've been inclined. Lies stink, though, and always lead to more lies, so Sarah-Katherine will be receiving a very nice poem written in her honor, but with no pretense that it's from me.

And the poem? Sorry, it reveals more about Sarah-Katherine, or about the woman I imagine her to be, than she'd want the world to know. She's entitled to some privacy.

You want to read love poems? Go mop a poet's kitchen floor.

From Pathetic Life #13
Tuesday, June 6, 1995

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.


  1. Nice to see Pathetic Life return. In honor of the occasion, I'm returning to the Poem of the Week. Problem is, my memory is half-shot and I don't recall what poems I've included in the comments section. So I'll just do the best I can, and error on the side of including great poems twice rather than not at all.


    (in two parts)
    by T. S. Eliot

    Let us go then, you and I,
    When the evening is spread out against the sky
    Like a patient etherized upon a table;
    Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
    The muttering retreats
    Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
    And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
    Streets that follow like a tedious argument
    Of insidious intent
    To lead you to an overwhelming question ...
    Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
    Let us go and make our visit.

    In the room the women come and go
    Talking of Michelangelo.

    The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
    The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
    Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
    Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
    Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
    Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
    And seeing that it was a soft October night,
    Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

    And indeed there will be time
    For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
    Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
    There will be time, there will be time
    To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
    There will be time to murder and create,
    And time for all the works and days of hands
    That lift and drop a question on your plate;
    Time for you and time for me,
    And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
    And for a hundred visions and revisions,
    Before the taking of a toast and tea.

    In the room the women come and go
    Talking of Michelangelo.

    And indeed there will be time
    To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
    Time to turn back and descend the stair,
    With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
    (They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
    My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
    My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
    (They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
    Do I dare
    Disturb the universe?
    In a minute there is time
    For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

    For I have known them all already, known them all:
    Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
    I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
    I know the voices dying with a dying fall
    Beneath the music from a farther room.
    So how should I presume?

    And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
    The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
    And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
    When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
    Then how should I begin
    To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
    And how should I presume?

    And I have known the arms already, known them all—
    Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
    (But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
    Is it perfume from a dress
    That makes me so digress?
    Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
    And should I then presume?
    And how should I begin?

    1. Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
      And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
      Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? ...

      I should have been a pair of ragged claws
      Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

      And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
      Smoothed by long fingers,
      Asleep ... tired ... or it malingers,
      Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
      Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
      Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
      But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
      Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
      I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
      I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
      And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
      And in short, I was afraid.

      And would it have been worth it, after all,
      After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
      Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
      Would it have been worth while,
      To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
      To have squeezed the universe into a ball
      To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
      To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
      Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
      If one, settling a pillow by her head
      Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
      That is not it, at all.”

      And would it have been worth it, after all,
      Would it have been worth while,
      After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
      After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
      And this, and so much more?—
      It is impossible to say just what I mean!
      But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
      Would it have been worth while
      If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
      And turning toward the window, should say:
      “That is not it at all,
      That is not what I meant, at all.”

      No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
      Am an attendant lord, one that will do
      To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
      Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
      Deferential, glad to be of use,
      Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
      Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
      At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
      Almost, at times, the Fool.

      I grow old ... I grow old ...
      I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

      Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
      I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
      I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

      I do not think that they will sing to me.

      I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
      Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
      When the wind blows the water white and black.
      We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
      By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
      Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

    2. My brain is poetry-proof, usually won't let the written word inside unless it's structured as sentences, preferably in paragraphs. Poetry isn't, so it bounces off instead of soaking in, unless the poem is really really good (which is rare) *and* I'm in the right receptive mindset (which is rarer), with all distractions sealed away and me slightly abstract or outside my head.

      As I don't much drink or do drugs, that free-floating mindset comes most reliably when I'm near falling asleep. Fortunately, I sleep shitty, waking up every two hours overnight to pee, so "near falling asleep" can happen 2-3 times nightly. Still, you've submitted a longish poem, and after two nights I'm only about 2/3 through it.

      I *am* reading it, though. It took a stanza and a half before I figgured out, hey, this stuff rhymes, which helps, but I was enjoying it even before that. So this is me, checking in, midway through, but it *is* good and I *am* looking forward to getting back to it tonight.

      It's been keeping me from Ferlinghetti, though. I got A Coney Island of the Mind from the library, but I'm spending my late-nights with this T S Eliot guy instead. It's uncouth of me to mention, but I'm glad that T S has capitol letters on his keyboard, unlike e e cummings' defective Olivetti, which I've always found distracting.

    3. Eliot wrote Prufrock when he was 22 -- started it while still in college. He never wrote a better poem: in truth, he never came close, but in fairness nobody else did either. One of the compelling questions about Prufrock is, "How the hell did Eliot know?" Growing old, growing cynical, growing tired. He was 22. How can you know human pathological psychology so young, and write about so compellingly?

      It's one of the mysteries of 20th century literature, usually brushed off by academics and dilettantes as trivial. I've never believed the question of Eliot's early understanding of human failure was trivial. This is a work of both human frailty and human imagination.


    4. Hey, that one's familiar to me, and good. You must've recommended it at some point; I don't read much poetry and can't imagine I'd be lucky enough to discover it myself.


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