What have you meekly acquiesced to, and then regretted it? (This series began with “Crossing the Line“.)
(Part 4 of a series)
by P. Orin Zack
“And finally,” Sue Winston said, scanning the agenda on her screen, “we have a request for a zoning change. Jones Construction has…”
A sudden movement from the rear of the council chamber stole the sound from her voice. Still jumpy after last week’s face-off with a line of armored riot cops, Sue glanced up, looked past Wendell Jones’ smarmy face, and towards a familiar-looking woman in the last row. Whoever it was held her coat open with one hand, while she reached deep inside with the other. It was the sort of move that having a brother on the riot squad makes you wary of: suspicious behavior, potentially lethal. Just then, the chill holding her spine hostage trembled under the realization that it was Natalie Knox, the city librarian who had triggered the recent confrontation and mass arrests at Jones’ construction site. She’d seemed friendly enough that night, but…
“…Jones, um,” she fumbled, distracted by the vivid memory of Knox being thrust roughly into the street by two armored riot cops. “JonesCo wants the site rezoned so they can build the larger of the two convention hotel designs his firm presented to the city last year.”
“Is, uh, is something wrong, Ms. Winsome?” The grating sibilance in her left ear came from Buster Flange, the city council’s token racist, or at least that’s how he insisted on representing himself to any reporter who would listen. Actually, his politics were pretty tame, but he never passed up a chance to push people’s buttons.
Sue closed her eyes briefly to steel herself before looking at him. “Do you sit up nights and practice being offensive,” she said, “or do the voices in your head coach you through it?”
“I think I should be insulted,” he said gravely, “but really, I was concerned about you. What just happened?”
Sue glanced at Natalie Knox again. Instead of leveling a gun at her, the librarian was unrolling a sign. “Nothing,” she said. “Nerves, I guess.”
Jones made a big production out of clearing his throat into the mike. “Are you two fine public servants finished wasting my time yet? I came here to make my case. This meeting of yours is already behind schedule, and I don’t have all day.”
She nodded her reluctant acquiescence, and then glanced self-consciously, first at Flange, and then at the ever-sedate Effie Nordquist Chan to her right, the three of whom comprised City Council’s Land Use Committee. “Of course, Mr. Jones. Go ahead. Have your say.”
“Thank you. To begin with, this city stands to gain a fortune in taxes and secondary purchases by the job creators that will flock to events and conferences at my new convention complex. In fact, once we’ve finished redeveloping that section of Kearney Hill, I’m certain that—.”
“The hell you will. It’s not your property!”
Sue didn’t have to look up this time. The voice was unmistakably that of Natalie Knox, and it was raised in the same defiant tone that she had taken in the moments before a fellow member of the Occupy replaced her, Wobbly-style, at the speaker’s spot that morning. This time, however, instead of being hustled towards the city’s new ‘Civilian Management’ van by two officers in black armor and face-shields, she was standing in the back row holding a sign that read ‘Svanstrom’s Blue Army: Hoodlums for Hire’.
Jones crossed his arms and turned to glare at his accuser. “Really, Ms. Knox. And here I thought that the ability to read was prerequisite for being a city librarian.”
A flurry of invective converged on Jones from various directions, and he replied in kind, but before Sue had a chance to react, Buster Flange leapt into the fray. “It’s like I said before, Ms. Winsome,” he said, affecting a pronounced Louisiana drawl, “a pretty girl like you is just not cut out to be in charge of important city business. Hell, you can’t even keep your own friends in order.”
Sue seized the gavel and struck the sound block until the din began to subside. “Okay everyone — and that includes you, Buster — can we please keep this civil?”
Jones smirked, and nodded towards the uniformed police officer standing near the entrance. “Maybe you should have the disturbance cleared from the room so we can conduct business here.”
Someone else in the back row, a woman in pink coveralls, called out, “You’re the disturbance, Jones! The Occupy had permission to use that site!”
“She does have a point, Mr. Jones,” Sue said.
“And I have a signed contract that says the building site was mine the moment that rabble vacated it — which they did. You ought to know. You were there.”
“You’re right, I was there. So I’m perfectly aware that they didn’t leave of their own accord.”
“More like forcibly evicted for you by Mayor Svanstrom’s mercenary army,” Knox said, ruffling her sign. “There’s nothing in the city code that permits private use of the police force.”
“Nor, unfortunately,” Sue replied conversationally, “is there anything in the city code that prohibits it. I do appreciate your position, Ms. Knox, but until the court rules on the validity of JonesCo’s claim to that land, we have to at least entertain his request to have it rezoned.”
Natalie Knox dropped her sign on her chair and stepped into the aisle. “On the contrary, Councilwoman Winston,” she said. “Unless the court rules in his favor, Mr. Jones has no standing to request the rezoning. Otherwise anyone could come in here and ask the city to rezone their neighbor’s property.” She took a few steps towards the dais. “Wendell Jones is here asking the city to take unilateral action against another landowner, something that is clearly outside the purview of this body. This isn’t Michigan, after all, and he’s no Emergency Manager. He’s already undertaken a questionable action regarding that building site in court. If you permit this action to proceed, you will all be in violation of your oaths of office and will therefore be unfit for office.”
Just as Knox was finishing, the woman in pink joined her in the aisle. “And if we let you do it, if we stand mute and allow him to ride roughshod over our rights, we’d be in violation of our duty as citizens. That’s a line we will not cross. We refuse to be silent any longer.”
In response, several others around the room suddenly stood up and called out “K2!”
“Kaytu?” Buster Flange echoed in a bad imitation cockney. “What in the bloody ‘ell is that supposed to mean?”
Knox smiled. “My grandson, Councilman Flange. A ten-year-old with a better grasp of the responsibilities of citizenship than you appear to have.”
“And the reason most of us are here,” added the woman in pink.
“While I appreciate your solidarity,” Sue said, her tone signaling a return to her role as chair, “I do have to ask that you all sit down and let us continue with council business.”
“Not a chance,” Knox said. “I wouldn’t want to disappoint my grandson.”
The others called out a hearty “K2” to punctuate the thought.
Resigned to her duty, Sue directed the officer to have the standees removed from the room. He opened the door and waved several other officers into the room, one of which was Sue’s brother Peter, who had been assigned City Hall duty in the wake of his insubordination at the building site. While the other officers fanned out towards the standees, Peter walked directly to Natalie Knox and her pink-clad compatriot.
Effie eyed them curiously for a moment, and then got up to confer with Sue. “Should Peter be doing that?” she said. “I mean, he’s already in enough trouble for siding with those homeless people. He is a police officer after all.”
Sue glanced at her brother before replying, and realized, as she watched him greet Natalie, that he looked more at peace with himself than he’d been for a long time. “My brother,” she said, “is not just a police officer. He’s also a human being, and judging by what you just said, he’s a damn sight more compassionate than you’re being right now.”
Effie looked scandalized. “Now you’re just being rude.”
“The Occupy community isn’t homeless, Effie. Sure, some of the people there don’t have anywhere else to go, but that community is a home. What it doesn’t have is a place to be.”
A sudden noise caught Sue’s attention. The rear door had opened again, and a city hall aide was striding quickly toward her. Effie took the opportunity to retreat to her chair. The aide walked around the dais and whispered something to Sue. They conferred briefly, she thanked him, and he turned to leave. She gaveled twice more and the room fell silent. “I’ve just been informed that there’s an incident in progress at Mr. Jones’ building site.”
Jones, who’d been happily watching the officers once again doing his dirty work, turned ashen. “Oh?”
“Yeah,” she said, annoyed. “It seems your foreman has ordered his crew to bulldoze what’s left of the Occupy from the site you wanted rezoned.”
While Jones stifled a reaction, across the room, several of the standees pushed free from the officers.
“Well, sir,” she continued, “your equipment operators have refused the order.”
“They can’t do that!” he snapped.
A round of vocal support united the standing occupiers in the room while the police attempted to corral them again.
Jones muttered “Those worthless cretins” and reached for his cell phone. Unease swept the council chamber while he tried to have a private conversation in the midst of chaos. “Yeah, it’s me. Look, I can’t have you losing control of the situation down there. You did? Good, so then what’s the problem? Bring in another— they what?” His arm went slack for a moment and he gaped at the phone. “Signs?” he snapped. “They made signs? How many people are in the protest? Yeah, including the civilians. Good. In that case, they’re violating Svanstrom’s rule. Just call the police. This is just like last time. I’ll call you back.”
Sue rose and stood with her hands splayed on the table, taking in the surreal scene before her: paired police and occupiers scattered across the periphery, Jones making like he had a private phone booth in the middle of the room, and her brother Peter, standing there beside Natalie Knox with a peculiar look on his face. She saw him say a few words to the librarian, and then he flashed Sue a mischievous grin. Unsure what to make of it, she sat back down and topped off her water glass.
Knox turned to say a few words to the woman in pink, and then the two of them brushed past Jones and took the mike. “May we please address the room?” she said, and waited for the din to settle.
Sue shrugged. “Sure. You might as well.”
“I’m Natalie Knox. Some of you probably recognize me from the library, but I’m also part of the Occupy community. Last week I was arrested and forcibly removed from the building site that Mr. Jones is so interested in. Our crime was speaking as one, in violation of the ludicrous rule that Mr. Jones just mentioned, a rule that was used to target whoever he told Mayor Svanstrom to have the police go after.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Jones grumbled, “so you feel picked on. So what?”
Sue slapped the table. “Let her speak.”
“Thank you. Anyway, Councilwoman Winston was at the Occupy that morning. She’d come down the night before to warn us about a dawn raid, and decided to stand with us. When the riot police arrived, her own brother was assigned to take her in. The police waited for one of us to speak, knowing that anyone who participated in the People’s Mike would be in violation of that rule. When I greeted them, they were ordered to arrest us all. But Peter Winston refused the order. He refused to arrest his sister. And the thing is, none of the other officers would do it either.
Buster Flange chuckled. “I might have known it,” he said quietly with an inexplicable lack of affectation. “You live a charmed life, my dear.”
“Althea Gordon, here,” she said, indicating the woman in pink, “is a welder, and was instrumental in retaking the site after the arrests.”
Jones gave them both a scornful look and turned his back.
Gordon leaned towards the mike. “Officer Winston just told us something relevant to the zoning request, and we’d like everyone to hear it. He said that Jones has also been busy at the state capitol, scamming people into leaving their homes so he can demolish an entire neighborhood and then build substandard apartment blocks and strip malls on it. He’s even enlisted the aid of a well-meaning church group to do his dirty work. If there was such a thing as an ethics board for developers, he’d have his license revoked.”
Jones wheeled back around, an ugly sneer crossing his face.
Sue waved the comment aside. “Can we keep to the matter at hand, Ms. Gordon?”
“Ethics board!” Jones snapped. “If there’s anyone here that’s ethically challenged, it’s the two of you and that hoard of low-life scum you represent.”
Sue slammed the gavel. “Mr. Jones!”
The officers glanced at one another, unsure of what she expected them to do. Peter Winston, who was still standing where the two women had been earlier, raised a finger. “You could have him held in contempt, Sue. He was violating council rules, after all.”
She thought about it for a moment, and then held up both hands for calm. “I think we’ve finally gotten close to the meat of this dispute, and I’d like hear it out. But judging from what we’ve just seen, this might not be the best place to do that.”
“Oh?” Natalie Knox said, once more beside Peter Winston. “What did you have in mind?”
“Well, considering the situation that’s brewing at the building site, I think we should adjourn to there, and open the discussion to whoever wants a say.”
Jones took a step towards the dais. “You wouldn’t dare!”
* * *
“Hey, you guys!” someone yelled as Susan Winston led a small crowd around the construction trailer parked along the edge of the building site, “city hall just got here.”
A few seconds later, two citizen journalists converged on them, video gear at the ready. Predictably, Buster Flange trotted ahead to give them some interview fodder, but they spurned him and continued on out into the street, where Wendell Jones was just getting out of his limo.
“Upstaged again,” Buster grumbled.
It didn’t seem possible, but to Sue, the chaos surrounding her now was even more surreal than the scene that had just played out back at the council chamber. A vacant bulldozer was parked at the entrance to the site, and two other pieces of equipment sat abandoned beside it. A line of men and women in JonesCo overalls were walking back and forth in front of the machines, holding signs and chanting slogans. Beyond them, she could see the metal sculpture that Althea Gordon had made from the fences that had been placed to seal the site after the arrests, except that it now had an immense banner stretched across it that read ‘99% and Growing’. To her right the police who had been called stood around chatting, while to her left, several groups of a dozen or so people were doing and saying various things in unison, while still others were taunting the police about not arresting them.
“Okay, then,” she said, glancing every which way, “I suppose the first person to speak with is the foreman.”
“That’d be him over there,” Althea Gordon replied, pointing at a rather annoyed-looking man glaring at the picketers from beside the bulldozer. “Name’s Carl Morgan.”
Jones was heading towards him, so Sue trotted over as quickly as she could. “Excuse me,” she said, “I understand you’re the foreman?”
“For whatever good it does me, yeah.”
“I’m Councilwoman Sue Winston, Mr. Morgan, and we’re hearing JonesCo’s request for a zoning change today. What were your orders, sir, if you don’t mind me asking.”
He shrugged. “To clear the site so we can start work on the complex. Why?”
“Well, there is some question about whether JonesCo owns it.”
“Oh yeah? That’s news to me. Not that it matters if I can’t get my crew back to work and the police won’t do anything. No offense, ma’am, but this city’s a joke.”
Just as Jones arrived, she turned and walked towards the picket line. Natalie Knox had gotten there first, and was chatting with one of the fired picketers when Sue and the others arrived.
“Hi Sue,” she said, “this is Rafael M’bordo. He was running the bulldozer, and says he was the first one to refuse the order. Rafael, this is Sue Winston.”
He lowered his sign, and they shook hands briefly. “My son told me about you. He said he coached you on General Assembly procedures last week when you came to warn the encampment about the raid.”
“That young man in the orange vest?”
He nodded. “Borrowed it without permission, too. I really didn’t understand why he spent so much time down here until I was asked to level the place today.”
Before Rafael had a chance to respond, a melee broke out behind them. Members of two of the groups taunting the police were fighting it out, and the others were standing around cheering them on. But as soon as two police officers ran over to break up the fight, they abruptly stopped and the combined group surrounded the officers, all of them demanding to know why they were willing to stop the fight, but wouldn’t lift a finger to prevent Jones’ thugs from illegally evicting the Occupy community from the space they’d been given.
Buster, who had been frantically trying to watch everything at once, gaped at the scene for a full thirty seconds before pushing his way into the circle. “Hey! Hey! Hey!” he called, waving his hands and trying to get the crowd to stop yelling at the officers. “This is no way to treat two men who spend their lives protecting yours.”
“Sure they do,” someone tossed back at him. “That’s why they play commando and beat us bloody whenever Jones yanks the mayor’s chain.”
“Ok, look,” Buster said solemnly, “here’s your chance to have your say. Susan Winston and I are here from city council to talk to you about who owns the site, and whether JonesCo should be allowed to build a convention center here.” He gestured in her direction. “Could you folks open the circle there and let her in?”
A lot of other people had drifted over during all this, so what they ended up with looked more like an ad hoc amphitheater surrounding not only the group from city hall, but Jones and a couple of citizen journalists with streaming video gear as well. A local news crew tried to get in, but they were crowded out and had to satisfy themselves with a long lens and a directional mike.
Sue looked around for a few moments, nodding silent greetings at several people she’d met on her first visit to the encampment, and then turned to address one of the officers. “I know this has to be uncomfortable for you, but I’d like you to tell the people here why you didn’t arrest the construction workers on the picket line.”
“It’s simple, ma’am. We didn’t get an order from Mayor Svanstrom.”
“But I thought the new rule applied to everyone equally.”
“No, ma’am. If it did, we’d have to shut down every church and school in the city for things like praying and pledging to the flag.”
“So it’s been enforced somewhat arbitrarily, then.”
The other officer spoke up. “A better word might be ‘targeted’, Ms. Winston. The force was being used as a weapon against the people. Against specific people.”
“People such as these?” Buster asked, looking around him.
Sue thought for a moment. “How did that make you feel, officer?”
He smiled and shook his head in amusement. “How do you think your brother felt when he was ordered to arrest you?”
“Trapped, I guess. But he refused to obey.”
“I didn’t know it then, but the CO was betting on that. He didn’t agree with the Mayor’s order, either, but he couldn’t afford to fight that battle, so he did the next best thing: undermined it. He told Peter to face off with you, knowing that your brother wouldn’t do it. Assigning him to city hall duty wasn’t punishment, Councilwoman Winston.”
She shook her head in confusion.
“He’s been down there so he could undermine the mayor’s plans. And apparently today, he saw his chance to act. But last week — it wasn’t as personal for the rest of us. That’s why it had to be Peter. And what he did that day affected the rest of us, made us all realize that next time it could be someone in our own family. That’s why we stood down today.”
One of the people surrounding them stepped forward and extended a hand to the officer. “Thanks. We appreciate it. Well, at least I do.”
“Well I don’t!” The booming voice belonged to Wendell Jones, who was pushing his way into the center of the gathering, leaving more than a few people on the ground. The others stepped aside, leaving Jones standing in the middle of a gap in the circle that faced the entrance to the site. “The two of you can turn in your badges and join my former employees at the soup kitchen, or wherever else you want, as long as it isn’t here.”
When he’d finished blathering and was standing right in front of her, she smiled and, in her best southern accent, said, “I believe it’s about time I took your advice, Mr. Jones.” He was about to reply when she turned to the two officers. “Would you two please escort this disturbance out of the council chamber?”
There was a good bit of cheering after that, but when it finally settled down, a familiar voice behind her called out, “Mike check!”
Sue turned to face Natalie Knox, grinning broadly.
“Our community is at a crossroads today,” the librarian said. “Like the group in the capitol did this past week, we need to look at the reason we needed this space. I think it’s because all levels of government in this country are based on geography. We came together in common cause, because we’re all part of the ninety-nine percent, but we’re represented based on where we live, and not who we are and what we do. We need to be heard. But because the members of our community come from all over the area, we don’t have a voice.”
Buster twinkled his fingers, and was recognized. “I’d like to offer a solution.”
“City Council is one way you can have a voice, but even though there are enough of you to warrant a district, there isn’t one for you. I’d like to help you change how this city is run. I’d like to help to create a virtual district, one that represents this distributed community, so that you can have a voice. It’s not much, but it’s a start.”
Several people signaled for attention; the one that was selected was at the edge of the crowd. He was too short for Sue to see, but she recognized his voice.
“A very wise woman once told me,” he said, “that if you’re silent, you don’t count. If doing this will get us heard, I say go for it.”
“Kid has a point,” Buster confided to Sue. “Any idea who he is?”
“Sure. That young man was responsible for the re-taking of this site after the mass arrests. He’s Natalie Knox’s grandson, Kendrik. Calls himself K2.”
[Continued in “Kendrik House“]
Copyright 2013 by P. Orin Zack