In a recent Williamsport Sun-Gazette piece, Kevin June, one of the leading voices at Riverdale among the residents, is quoted as saying that “the cops were more than kind to us from day one,” and that the gas industry “supports a lot of families who make a good living here.” What the second claim makes clear is that we among Kevin’s guests encamped at Riverdale to defend his fundamental right to be safe and secure in his home did so without prejudice to his beliefs or opinions. And that is manifestly true. As I have written in an earlier piece in this series, another Riverdale resident whom I’ll continue to call “Evan” drives truck for “the gas” and was among the most creative and resourceful members of the community that began to take hold over those 12 days. I think Evan might cheerily disagree with Kevin about how awesome a living the gas offers—but no doubt someone’s making moola on the boom.
It is, it has to be said, both true and false that “the gas industry supports a lot of families.” It may—in the short haul of the gas boom—turn a pretty penny. But on the long haul, not just of the inevitable bust, but of the environmental nightmare that’s going to follow, those same families are going to be vulnerable to the consequences we all will be: cancer, asthma, endocrine system problems, infections, and the icky results of exposure to the radioactive elements made available by the drill-to-export lifespan of horizontal slickwater hydraulic fracturing. Whew! Probably a great time to spend some of that frack-industry take-home pay on good health insurance and have your kids educated in a health-care profession; they’ll be busy.
To be sure, the police exacted no violence against us at Riverdale. These too are working folks, and I certainly don’t take it for granted that they’re all gung-ho about fracking or it’s collateral damage in the form of the production of refugees. What I will argue, however, contrary to my friend Kevin, is that “kind” doesn’t uniformly describes Jersey Shore’s finest. Indeed, something on the order of “Holy Fuck!” might come closer.
I also need to make something else clear: the following story may appear to be only tangentially connected to the raid—and in some sense that is true. My story is about an incident that occurred during the raid—towards its conclusion—and it’s not about arrests, harassment, or violence—at least not at the hands of the police. But it is a story that, I think, illustrates something deeply and importantly true about the charge of a contemporary police force, namely, that however it may be advertised that they exist as a force to protect the communities of people whom they serve, the truth is that in a society as profoundly corrupted and co-opted by the corporatization of its government, police exist not to protect people, but property. And that, I’ll argue, forms an essential part of the story of the police raid on Riverdale since it makes clear that, had it come to that, the police would not have acted in the interest of Aqua America’s protesters—and that, I think, bodes very badly for a nation that aspires to be a democracy.
First, a bit of back story: Skip Leonard, the previous owner of the Riverdale property has a nasty disposition. Cranky too. Indeed, so cranky that on the first day of the guest-occupation he drove by on his bright red tractor and waved menacingly at us claiming that we weren’t allowing him right-of-way to the property. He was, of course screeching all this while we were bustling the barricades out of his way—but it was clear he’d just as soon of mowed us down.
In another instance, Mr. Leonard—who I am tempted to call “Side-Show Skip” since his role in the story of Riverdale overall isn’t really top-billing compared to the far-bigger britches worn by Aqua America—assaulted one of our community members, ripping her camera out of her hands and hurling it into a watery ditch. Needless to say, she was very shaken by this experience. But the crucial point was that when she tried to report it to the police, she was not offered an incident number. Oversight? We might have thought so. But the story gets better—or worse, depending on how we want to see the role of “to protect and serve.”
In yet another instance, Mr. Side-Show Skip did, in fact, mow down our barricades—leaving quite the mess, a mess that included the destruction of a stop sign. Had folks not got out of the way of his evident wrath they too might have suffered the fate of that stop sign. But in this case, Mr. Leonard did us a favor—unwitting to be sure—but a favor nonetheless. With the help of “Evan” who put to service materials stripped from his now abandoned home, we not only rebuilt bigger and far better barricades—we painted them in pinks and blues and greens and yellows, and we decorated them with the titles of all residents jobs and professions. And we be-speckled them with children’s handprints. In a moment of particular cheer, I even painted a flower in the corner of one barricade—a flower that I had embroidered on the baby-blankets of each of my four children. All thanks to Mr. Leonard, whose actions—whose plain old nastiness—served to galvanize our resolve in a way that probably nothing else could. So, thanks for that Side-Show Skip.
Back to the police raid: Toward the end of the day’s fateful festivities, people milling about, all of us, I think, pretty numb and exhausted, I noted that Mr. Leonard had returned for a second time to smugly inspect his booty—the property he did not own. He was standing and gesticulating before a rather bored looking officer edging towards his police cruiser—parked a bit down the road from the main de-escalating action. I readied my camera and started shooting pictures—as is my want. I was close enough to hear Mr. Leonard complain bitterly that he was the real victim, that he had wanted to bring his family and friends to the park for picnics—and could not because of the trespassers (that is, guests), that he was compelled to sell the park because of the irrational demands of a zoning board that he should (and no doubt should have years earlier) attend to the fact that he was making rent off people on a flood plane by raising the cement platforms for the trailers—it was just all so unfair.
Receiving little response from the officer, Side-show Skip turned his venom once again in my direction—but with an exotic new twist. Just as the officer began to walk away, Mr. Leonard said to me quite directly:
“Stop taking pictures.”
Me—firmly, but in no way yelling: “No.” I took a picture.
Mr. Leonard: “If you don’t stop taking pictures, I am going to shove that fucking camera up your fucking ass.”
Me: “Are you threatening me, Mr. Leonard?”
Mr. Leonard: “Yes, I am threatening you!”
Now comes the completely mind-blowing part: I walked to the police car of the officer who could not have failed to hear this exchange, he had just closed his car door—after walking away from the words “Yes, I am threatening you.” I told him that I wanted to make a report, and I asked him—rhetorically—if he had heard the exchange.
Police officer: “I didn’t hear anything.”
Me: (flabbergasted): “I must have misheard you, sir. I would like to make a report, and I would like an incident number.”
Police officer one: “I didn’t hear anything; maybe the officer over there did. Go over there.”
Me: (talking to myself) “What. The. Fuck?”
Me: “I was sent over by the officer in that squad car over there (gesturing—politely). I’d like to make a report concerning the fact that Mr. Leonard just directly threatened me, and I’d like an incident number, please.”
Police officer two: “I didn’t hear anything.”
Me: “OK….but Mr. Leonard is right there, and he just threatened me using the specific words “Yes, I am threatening you.” I would like to make a report, and I would like an incident number.”
Police officer two: “You are not going to make a report, and you are not going to get an incident number.”
Me: (thinking I had entered some bizarre scene from a very bad B-SciFi “film”): “You must not quite understand, sir. I would like to make a report, and I would like an incident number.”
Police officer two (in menacing, it’s you who is going to get arrested way-grouchy tone): “no.”
Wow. Just….wow. Does this kind of shit really happen? Did it? Yes.
Of course, I should have gotten the officer’s names—I could kick myself for that. And there was but one witness to this exchange—and unknown smiling guy in black polo shirt who looked like some company representative busy filming me taking pictures of Mr. Leonard (and whose picture is in the relevant set, The Raiding of Riverdale, Two). But there’s no audio—and the main action was still going on down the street. And it happened just the same. However much Mr. Leonard’s antics are more a side-show, however otherwise OK were the police, I think it illustrates something fundamentally significant about this day: I have no idea what it would have taken for the police officer to react appropriately to Side-Show Skip’s direct threat. Perhaps Skip would have had to plant my face in the ground, or slug me, or rip my camera out of my hands (I’d be god-damned if anyone got my camera)—or I don’t know what.
But members of Jersey Shore’s finest witnessed the whole thing, denied they heard what they heard, refused to take a report though it’s their job, and refused to issue an incident number—also, their job. No part of this is consistent with “to protect and serve” and the clear message is that they were not there to protect me—or any of the protesters. They were there to “uphold the law,” namely the law that allows for the forced evacuation of the guests of a mobile home park when their presence becomes an inconvenience and/or bad public relations for the corporation that can afford to hire private security as the overture for their appearance.
That another officer came over to me later to tell me I could go to the station and file a report is nothing but an attempt to mollify. And I’m not having it. The appearance of the police is paid for through tax dollars, so tax dollars paid for the police to insure both corporate thuggery and the refusal of officers to protect the public. Telling me later I can go elsewhere to make a report only adds insult to injury.
I am that tax-paying public.
Any of us could be.
The very idea that a police force can be appropriated to the selective protection of the ostensive properties of those with the power to replace the police with private “crisis response” security teams—replete with guns—should have us shitting ourselves. But then again—this is the face of the not-so-new corporate fascism where the machinery of the state—including its effective military—is deployed to protect the interests of the state—interests identical with the interests of its investors, Aqua America, PVR, Range Resources—Chesapeake, Cabot, Williams Production Appalachia, Chief, Shell….
And all this brings me to my central trope—how the gentle Kevin June did not mean to break my heart.
I was, to understate it by a mile, shaken. Still am. Shaken in my gut less by what Side-Show Skip got away with, and more by what the police refused to do. How could this happen?
I was zombie-bone-tired. Just fuckin’ beat to death by way too much to sort. I sat down and just stared into what was first a mobile home park, and then a community of resistance to a profit-driven water-orgy. I stared at what was Fred’s (an 81ish year old veteran of 27 years park residence) home—stripped and gutted and now waiting for a bulldozer. I stared at the community garden, nubile and barely to seedling, and I watched intently—got up to gaze—at my friend, Kevin June. He was picking things up—our things—to make sure they didn’t disappear. I knew this, and I kept trying to get him to look at me.
To see me.
Neither of us could cross that orange plastic line drawn for us by the insanity of a corporation…who is preparing to remove “fresh” water from an impaired and suffering river…and poison it forever in order to produce that stunning earthquake called the “frack”… in order to get natural gas out of shale in one last pathetic, desperate “play” for really huge profits… in an industry that will be dead by the end of the century…an industry entirely willing to destroy a necessary condition of life itself in order to make this last dirty, pornographic buck…so the mugs of guys like Aqua America’s Nicholas DeBenedictis can adorn creepy corporate boardroom walls.
Kevin June didn’t mean to break my heart. But he could do little else than try to scurry up the sleeping bags and backpacks and t-shirts and canned goods and hammers left by a community expelled not so much by police as by a society that has come to value property over people, profits over human welfare, a society bought and sold out to instrumental reason over the pursuit of the good. At that moment, across that orange divide, Kevin June epitomized both the decency we all saw as a cornerstone principle for our work in the park, and a concession that the park itself was lost. My day ended when Kevin June could not look up, could not dare to look in my direction.
That is the power of a gag order, and that is what makes all such orders a perversity.
What I knew at that moment was that Aqua America was not merely in a position to dictate the terms of Kevin June’s gaze, but of my own. A corporation with humble origins in water delivery now lords over the fact of increasing scarcity. With less and less drinkable water, we will pay more and more for it—and Aqua America will help to insure that we will pay this “more” by guaranteeing that there will be less. And there will be less. Water destroyed for fracking isn’t water—it’s “produced water,” and what’s produced are the conditions of death—something of which we’ll be as terrified as the fear produced by the diagnosis of cancer—so we’ll pay for the privilege of drinking water bottled in the plastics made from more extraction.
This is insanity.
Kevin June didn’t mean to break my heart.
The prison Aqua America has now made of Riverdale incarcerates not just the families and their children behind chain link; it chains every one of us to the fact that what is essential to life has become the province of those who peddle “life” as if it were just another commodity.
But it’s not.
Wendy Lynne Lee | Professor of Philosophy, Bloomsburg University