Nothing New by Jim Ross

roll of camera film, sitting off to the left on table

In fall 1970, I walked miles daily from the mixed-race “commune” where I lived, across town to Howard University, where I’d begun grad school, and to the schools in the Howard neighborhood, where I earned my keep as a substitute teacher. One October afternoon, I wandered from campus down Georgia Avenue into 7th Street, toward the old O (Owe) Street Market.

My plan was to take pictures of the market and of the Kennedy Playground across the street. Bobby Kennedy spurred the idea of building a playground on that spot and came for opening day in June 1964, six months after the President’s assassination. One of the kids told Bobby, “I’m sorry about your brother.” Like no other, the playground had two retired Air Force training jets, an Army tank, a tugboat, two street cars, and an 1876 steam locomotive in addition to the usual swings and slides.

I carried my camera in a brown paper bag because I was a stranger in this neighborhood and didn’t want to invite theft. As I reached O Street, a police car whipped around the corner and two white cops jumped from the car, leaving its doors wide open.

“What’ve you got in that bag?” one barked as they came at me.

“A camera,” I said.

“Likely story,” he said. “Let’s see.”

I opened the bag, took out the camera, and held it out by its strap, figuring that would satisfy and the inquisition would end.

“What’s inside the camera?” he asked.

“The same thing that’s inside any camera, film.”

“Likely story,” he said. “Open it.”

“Open it? But that’ll expose the film.”

“Ask me if I care,” he said.

“Okay, d’you care?”

 “Open the damn camera,” he ordered, “now.”

I opened the camera.

The cops tore the camera from my hands, inspected it as if it were a nuclear device, and saw there was nothing else inside.

“What’re you doing in this neighborhood?” the second cop asked.

“I’m in grad school at Howard.”

“Does he look Negro to you?” the first cop grinned to the second, pointing toward me.

“I wouldn’t want to say no right off,” said the second cop, “but I’m not ready to say yes either.”

“Prove it,” the first cop ordered, aiming at me with the barrel of his index finger.

“Prove what?”

“Are you trying my patience? Prove you’re a student at Howard.”

“My ID is in my pants pocket. You want me to take it out?”

“Show me your ID,” said the cop.

I reached into my pocket. The first cop flinched. I kept my hand in my pocket until he relaxed his trigger hand. I took out my Howard photo ID and held it up. The first cop snapped it from my fingers, stared at it, and brusquely handed it back.

The second cop said, “I don’t like your face. I don’t ever want to see you again in this neighborhood. You understand?”

I nodded.

“I couldn’t hear you,” said the second cop. “Am I making myself perfectly clear?”


My housemates had mixed reactions to my close encounter.

Paddy, a tow-haired Irishman AWOL from the British Navy, said, “You should’ve told them to fuck off and taken their pictures.”

Barbara, an artist and civil rights activist, said, “Count your blessings. You got off easy.”

Lynn, with her droopy beagle eyes, advised, “Drug dealers have taken over Kennedy Playground. A brown paper bag is probable cause.”

Paddy interjected, “With any luck, they’d’ve treated you to a body cavity search.”

Barbara added, “If you had my skin tone, you never would’ve seen that camera again.”

Janis peered over her John Lennon eyeglasses, “But you’re okay, right?”

The consensus: chill.

“I got arrested last month for selling my art at an open-air market. I had a license. There was only one reason to arrest me: it was a beautiful sunny day and I was Black,” said Barbara.

“You got off though, right?” asked Paddy. “Because cops make me paranoid, especially when I been smoking.”

“Paddy, that’s not paranoia; that’s because you know that, somewhere, there’s somebody still trying to find you,” said Lynn.

“I got off,” said Barbara, “because my friend Leon knew somebody who knew somebody.”

“What were you arrested for,” asked Janis.

“Being Black is, in itself, probable cause,” answered Barbara.

“Boys having fun,” Lynn shook her head. “We need to get inside their heads and figure out what makes them tick. Then maybe we can get them to work for us instead of against us.”


The block where we lived consisted mostly of 1920s townhouses occupied by Black families. At the bottom of the hill, ours and the one across the street were sprawling but decrepit early 20th century farm-style houses. The seven members of Aquarius House across the street were white and born under Aquarius. Two doors up on our side, the four members of another Black-and-white commune, Pig Patrol, claimed their raison d’etre was monitoring, documenting, and reporting on brutality and abuse by D.C. police. At the top of the hill across the street, there was a small apartment building, nearly all of whose residents were Black. And on our side at the top of the hill was a wing of Bancroft Elementary School.

Immediately next door, a Black family from the South moved in with a five-year-old girl, Lucy, and a seven-year-old boy, Edgar. When our dirt-floor basement became storage for 32 boxes of used clothing from the Free Store, we gave our neighbors clothing for Mom, Dad, and the kids. Weeks later, I noticed 13 boxes of clothing were missing. Without convening a meeting or conferring with her housemates, Lynn called the police, who were a regular presence on our street. I wasn’t around when they came. Later, Edgar cried as he explained how the officers told him I’d said the boy had stolen the 13 boxes; but he replied to them, “Mister’s my friend, he couldna said I did it, and he wouldna snitched to the po-leece either.” Edgar and I got past that, I think, but I never quite forgave the police for telling Edgar that I claimed he was the thief.


In February, while everyone was out, someone broke in through a ground-floor window and stole the turntable, speakers, strobe light, and records from our living room. Technically, they belonged to Lynn, but were enjoyed as community property. We didn’t initially call the police. A couple of days later, Lynn observed her strobe light swirling in the second-story window of the townhouse diagonally across the street. That was the bedroom of the niece of Janis’s boyfriend. Paddy offered, “I’ll call the cops and deal with them when they get here.”

“That’s our strobe light in that window. And we can hear our records being played on our stereo that was stolen two days ago,” Paddy told the two first contingent of cops.

“Did you actually see them to confirm that they’re yours?” one of them asked.

“My eyes can see my strobe light and my ears can hear my records,” interrupted Lynn.

“But that’s not definitive. We can’t do anything unless you say, ‘I saw the record player and the records with my own eyes and they’re mine and she stole them.’”

“But to say that I’d have to be invited into her house,” said Paddy, “and she doesn’t even like me.”

“You’re on track,” said the other cop, “except you don’t need to wait for an invitation.”

“What do you have in mind?” asked Paddy.

“See the window with the strobe light? You need to climb in that window.”

“What if somebody sees?” asked Paddy.

A second cop car arrived.

“We can make sure nobody sees,” said one of the cops.

“But I’m not fifteen feet tall,” said Paddy.

“We’ll give you a boost.”

A third cop car arrived.

After they boosted Paddy, he pinched a steel drainpipe with his hands and feet, shimmied the rest of the way up to the open window, and maneuvered in. Then he disappeared for a minute, stuck his head out the window, and yelled, “It’s our stuff.” He then shimmied back down and the cops caught him as he dropped the last five feet.

“We need to clear the streets,” said the lead cop, “so she doesn’t suspect anything when she gets home.”

Within minutes, the three cop cars had moved to nearby streets. Two cops hid in the alley. Most people got out of sight. I sat on the swing on Pig Patrol’s front porch, right across the street from the stakeout. The niece turned the corner and began walking down the hill, then suddenly stopped. Had she sensed something was wrong? Maybe she freaked at not seeing any cop cars. Instead of turning and running, she ducked into the apartment building.

Suspecting correctly I was the only one who saw her, I walked across the street and told one of the hidden cops, “She got smart and ducked into the apartments.”

Paddy joined me on Pig Patrol’s swing and watched. The cops bagged the thief and we got our stuff back. I can’t remember anyone having to go to court. I remember hearing she went into drug treatment. Her uncle stopped coming by to see Janis.

“Good work,” one of the cops told Paddy. “If you’d ever be interested in becoming a police officer, give me a ring.” He handed Paddy his card.

Lynn announced she was going to start riding along with the police.


For the next couple of months, our house served as a crash-pad for a growing number of visitors, especially as we approached the Vietnam Out Now Rally on April 24, 1971. When the day arrived, Janis and I joined a half million friends on the National Mall. After hours of singing, feasting, tree climbing, and celebrating newfound power, the rally dispersed precipitously—at least our section did—after police threw tear gas, even though there was no evidence of rioting. People stampeded over temporary encampments to escape fumes. Some fell, were helped up. Others, trampled, screamed, stunned. The big challenge: scaling five-foot-high green barricades penning us in. Most women, especially those in long skirts, needed shoulder boosts; so did some men. Lots of arms and legs scraped, cut, bruised. I felt like a desperado. After that chaotic dispersal, for the next week we sat on tenterhooks, hoping the May Day acts of civil disobedience would stay peaceful.


The Mayday Tribe announced that, since the government had refused to stop the war, they would, according to The Washington Post, “halt the machinery of government by a massive act of civil disobedience.”

On May 1, as 35,000 rocked-out protesters encamped by the Washington Monument planning the next day’s actions, helicopters swooped down low to terrorize and scatter. Anticipating this, protesters launched large helium-filled balloons tethered by cables and repelled the helicopters.

On May 2, before dawn, the administration revoked the protest permit and D.C. police invaded the protesters’ campsite, fired tear gas, mowed down tents, and forced campers out. Many protesters jumped town; about 10,000 found refuge and stayed.

During the night of May 2/3, while protesters slept or planned the next day’s actions, the administration brought in 10,000 Federal troops, including 4,000 paratroopers, and stationed them strategically. These backed up 7,000 D.C. police officers and National Guardsmen already in place. Meantime, the Yippies engaged in hit-and-run tactics to snarl traffic and bring the city to a halt.

On May 3, in pre-dawn raids, the police arrested anyone who looked like they might be a protester. By 8 a.m., they had arrested over 7,000 people, including construction workers, on suspicion of being protesters. Arrestees were held in makeshift holding pens without food, water, beds, or sanitary facilities.

On another front, police herded protesters and onlookers to the Georgetown University campus to isolate them. Over the university gates, they lobbed tear gas and a second gas that made people vomit. On Georgetown’s lower athletic field, sleeping protesters abruptly awoke after police helicopters dropped tear gas. Police announced they had subjugated the sleeping protesters.

On May 5, after protesters gathered on the U.S. Capitol grounds attempted to shut down Congress, another 1,146 were arrested. That brought the total to 12,614 arrested in conjunction with May Day protests, the largest “mass arrest” in U.S. history. Only 79 were convicted.


Pig Patrol’s members threw up their hands after trying to monitor and document the egregious violations by the D.C. police in inciting demonstrators to engage in defensive acts of violence and in pervasively violating the right of free assembly—the right to protest—guaranteed by the Constitution.

As May Day devolved into random actions, somebody broke into our house and stole our TV and the same stereo system that was recently recovered. Lynn called the police, who had been stretched thin, but came and dutifully took report. Then, a week later, someone broke in and took our toaster, blender, and other minor appliances. This time we didn’t bother the police. The next week someone went through the house with a fine tooth comb. By now, I had moved to the attic, where I hid my camera in the laundry hamper and my cash in a coffee cup under a sock. Even my camera and cash were taken. Somebody took their time or knew exactly what they were after. Again, we didn’t call the cops. And when somebody took our front door off its hinges and walked off with it, we wondered, was there any point? After I moved out, somebody started ripping and running with the window shutters.


Nine months later, I was driving an old, red-white-and-blue VW bus when the D.C. police pulled me over for not using my turn signal. I forked over my driver’s license. Asked for the registration, I confessed it had expired. The cop asked why I hadn’t gotten it renewed. I said I worked for the D.C. department of education as a substitute teacher and hadn’t been paid in three months. Moreover, when I complained to the school system, they said I would have to come in to fill out an emergency check request form. When I arrived, they told me the forms were out of stock.

“What do you teach?” the cop asked.

“I’m certified in social studies, but I teach whatever they need at every level.”

“Social studies, eh? I’ll let you off if you can name two of the four Julio-Claudian emperors.”

“Julius, Claudius, Caligula, and Nero.”

“Ding ding ding, we have a winner,” said the cop. “I’ve got to issue you a warning, but please renew your registration as soon as you can scrape up the money.”


Within the year, I stopped living in communes, thereby reducing my exposure to calamity. A year and a half later, when the Vietnam War ended, my seven years of anti-war activism ceased. I scored my first job with benefits and began settling down. Ironically, in the final years of the war, under the law-and-order Nixon administration, massive efforts were implemented nationwide to re-think policing and reform police departments. This happened largely in response to claims of excessive police violence and use of force in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Community policing emerged as an alternative to the standard brand.

For several years, I worked at the periphery of these reform efforts. I co-authored a police applicant selection manual reflecting innovative thinking about the roles of police, who should be hired into policing, and the criteria to be used in their hire. I also directed a national evaluation of police management training programs, usually taught off-site as week-long institutes. I interacted with the trainers, who often came from outside policing, and with the police manager trainees, who often viewed themselves as reformers. They knew they had to change the police culture for real reform to stick. I observed the training process and hung out with trainers and trainees after hours. I gave a talk at the FBI Academy during a gathering of state directors of law enforcement training and education and even worked on field testing innovations to measure the impact of training on police manager behavior. 

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, none of my work was published due to shifts in priorities from the Carter to the Reagan administration. I was disheartened the work wasn’t released and, even more, that Federal support for reforms in policing was evidently so politicized and fragile. When it became nearly impossible to secure funds for police or corrections work, I switched tracks and embraced public health for the balance of my career.

My graduate degree from Howard University proved to be a two-edged sword. Sometimes, it was cause for derision cloaked in humor. The father of a friend, who bristled at his son’s becoming a police officer, referred to Howard as my “alma mammy.” Some people looked at me funny and said, “You mean Harvard, not Howard, right?” In pursuing research support, I lost some contracts because of my Howard degree; other times it helped. More than once, at our first face-to-face meeting, a funding agency’s representative said, “You don’t look Black.” I routinely said, “I’m not,” except once when, feeling threatened, I said, “Would you feel better if I came wearing my dashiki?”


For years, I had no reason to interact with police. However, as our children grew up, they occasionally entered circumstances that caused police to intercept them. The actions taken by police seemed generally appropriate.

That changed one chilly night when my son Lawson and his then-girlfriend, Marla, both in their mid-20s, left a restaurant and walked to an adjacent, dimly-lit parking garage. Out of the shadows someone jumped her from behind and restrained her using a bear hug. Taller than her assailant, Marla power-lifted her shoulders, broke his hold, pivoted, and thrusting both hands at his chest threw him against the wall.

Dusting himself off, the assailant said, “Lady, you’re under arrest. You just assaulted a police officer.”

In her mind, in my son’s mind, she was defending herself against a mugger.

“You need to leave the premises and go home. We’re taking her in,” a cop told Lawson.

“After what you just did, I don’t trust you. I’m not going anywhere.”

After the cops again urged him to leave, and Lawson persisted in refusing, they motioned to a back-up car containing one male and one female cop, and tried to cuff my son, who resisted. They then kicked him behind his knees, so he landed on his knees hard, and threw him onto his face. In cuffs, Lawson and Marla were transported in separate cars.

At the jailhouse, the still-handcuffed Marla was lifted by the cuffs behind her back and dropped defenselessly on her face. When she used the jail’s phone to call her mother and spoke a non-English language, the matron abruptly terminated the call. Meantime, my son was being asked to sign a document, but hesitated signing something he didn’t understand. He was taken to the commissioner who said, “I don’t care if you don’t understand what it says, either you sign right now, or I’m going to have you cuffed to a bar on the floor beneath your chair, so you’ll have to bend over the whole time, and the blood will rush to your head.” Lawson refused to sign and the commissioner ordered him cuffed as threatened.

Once released, it was difficult at first for Marla to find a competent lawyer who would accept her case. “Assaulting a police officer is a felony. You could go to prison for three years,” said a jittery attorney who refused her case.

When their cases went to court, only the mugger cop appeared. Before the hearing started, my son’s lawyer walked over to the wall against which the mugger cop leaned and said, “You have a record of excessive use of force a mile long. If you want to fight this, I promise you, I will put your name and face on the front page of the Washington Post.”

The mugger cop stuttered. “I thought she might’ve been about to get violent,” said the cop. “I was just trying to prevent her . . . becoming violent. I don’t know what went wrong. Things got out of control. . . I don’t want trouble.”

In effect, the mugger cop claimed his jumping Marla from behind and restraining her in a bear-hug was a pre-emptive strike. That didn’t even touch on what the police had done to Lawson. The lawyer walked to the front of the courtroom and spoke with the two young prosecutors. From the last row, we could hear the prosecutors say, “Whatever you’d like to propose is fine with us.”

The lawyer proposed that my son and his girlfriend be given probation before judgement, during which time they would perform community service and take anger management. After successfully completing probation, any record of their offenses would be expunged.

I wanted to stand up and say, “Fuck that! You need to prosecute the cop for excessive use of force. He’s the one you need to send to anger management. Hell no, you should take his badge.” Showing uncharacteristic restraint, I said nothing. Months later, the kids finished the terms of probation. My son said anger management was “really good, they taught us to meditate.” He was almost disappointed when their community service—picking up poop in the park under the supervision of a former professional football player—was over: “I almost felt like a celebrity.” Marla didn’t share his feelings. When they returned to court, the judge agreed they met the terms of their probation and ordered all records of their offenses expunged.

We all heaved a sigh of relief that it was over; however, some of us felt it was just another case of the cops getting off without penalty even though it was their excessive use of force that created the very crime for which Marla had been prosecuted. None of it ever should have happened. Perhaps my commune housemate Lynn had it right: just a case of boys having fun at someone else’s expense. Regardless, it was nothing new.


Meet the Contributor

jim ross in woods

Jim Ross jumped into creative pursuits in 2015 after a rewarding career in public health research. With a graduate degree from Howard University, since retiring he’s published nonfiction, poetry, and photography in 150 journals on four continents. These include Columbia Journal, Ilanot Review, Kestrel, Lunch Ticket, Manchester Review, New World Writing, The Atlantic, Typehouse. One piece led to a role in documentary limited series. Jim and his wife split their time between city and mountains.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Cloune 1×2 Plus

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