The Golden Buddha
It wasn’t even real gold. It was iron pyrite, fool’s gold. Stephen Hu tested it with his teeth and left a mark. Besides, he wasn’t superstitious. He didn’t believe the Buddhist monk who he’d stolen it from, who, calling Stephen a fool as he walked away, told him not to fornicate with the idol in the same room. It was bad luck, and misfortune will fall upon you, shouted the monk. The man was just trying to save face, as he’d just been robbed, Stephen believed.
He wasn’t sure why the Buddha attracted him so much. It had this weird, powerful weight to it. It looked dazzling in natural light, and it was solid, heavy. He took it with him on the flight back to Oakland from China, along with the two young women. They were going to work in the massage parlor. Hu kept the idol hidden, as for some reason he didn’t want them to know about it.
It had been a frustrating trip. The young women were not particularly good looking. They wouldn’t fetch much if they were ever sold, but the lights in the massage parlor were dim, and most of their patrons were not overly picky, grateful as they were for any warm place to wet their dongs. One of the women had a good figure, but Stephen couldn’t imagine fucking her. He had a lovely wife besides. Maybe she would appreciate the idol. But Stephen wouldn’t tell her how he had obtained it. She did not look kindly upon strong-arm robbery, even if it happened overseas. Stephen wasn’t stupid enough to pull such a prank in America, as it was his gang’s modus operandi to steer as far clear from the glaring attentions of the law as possible.
Unfortunately for Mr. Hu and the other employees at the massage parlor on Webster Street that was exactly the attention that was showered upon them only a few hours after Stephen’s return. The police had sent someone in undercover, and, after this person left, the place was raided. Stephen, who had set the Buddha on the front desk reception area, was going to jail under suspicion of human trafficking and pimping. The gang wasn’t strong enough to afford a lawyer or post his or any of his compatriots’ bail, so it was likely that he was going away for a while. It was as if the golden Buddha had known what kind of place it had been taken to.
So Stephen Hu was going to jail, but not before he said an interesting thing as he was being led out of the building.
“It’s bad luck,” he said to the burly African-American officer who he’d seen pocket the Buddha. “I mean just look at me.”
“Ain’t no such thing,” came the genial reply.
“I’m telling you, leave it here. I didn’t believe it either.”
“Get outta here.”
“Come on, Mr. Hu,” said the arresting officer, pushing him forward.
The officer who’d taken the idol turned towards the next suspect they had handcuffed, who was being taken out of the back rooms into the reception area, and he didn’t give his theft of the Buddha a second thought. It had almost been a reflex. Freebies were a fact of the job, and Mr. Hu’s warning had just been an attempt to make his presence felt.
When he left the massage parlor Officer Jacobs put the Buddha on the dashboard of his cruiser, and thought it looked handsome there. He drove back to the station wondering if it was worth enough to sell. It sure looked like real gold.
The boys got a kick out of it when he told a crowd of them in the parking lot where he had found the thing. It was a conquest from the underworld that Officer Jacobs and his fellows battled daily, along with the protestors. The first iteration of the camp on the downtown plaza, which the protestors had re-christened Oscar Grant Plaza after one particularly infamous case of extra-judicial killing, had been taken down just a couple days earlier. But the protestors hadn’t gone away. They gathered in massive groups, shouted slogans, broke windows, sprayed graffiti, and tussled with the riot squad. They were proving themselves to be quite determined, and there was a lot of them. They were on everybody’s minds these days.
Officer Jacobs’ shift was finished, and he was going home to be with his wife and daughter. When he came through the front door they were happy to see him, and glad that he’d come home another day safe and free of scandal, twin specters he and his compatriots courted every day.
He slept well that night. The next afternoon he brought the idol with him to work, and put it back on the cruiser’s dashboard.
He made some stops and cruised downtown and Chinatown, his beat. At around 9:00 pm he parked on 14th and Broadway, across from the Plaza, so he could pick up a soda. He walked through the light nighttime foot traffic on Broadway with one hand on his nightstick. He noticed a crowd gathering where the encampment had been.
He entered De Lauer’s Newsstand, a liquor store that sold a healthy selection of newspapers and magazines. This was a rough block, rife with gangs and muggings. De Lauer’s, open into the night, had seen much blood spilled on its floor over the years. Jacobs had a good relationship with the owner, who was standing at the counter. They bantered back and forth, talked about the protesters, whose chants down the street were growing louder. At a certain point Jacobs heard on his radio that the crowd was on the move.
He paid for his soda and left the newsstand.
“Fucking cocksuckers!” he cried out upon seeing them, moving East on 14th Street, surround and break the windows of his cruiser. He took out his nightstick and ran towards them, shouting, taking little heed, at first, towards self-preservation, as he saw, with horror, that a skinny little kid, wearing all black and with long curly locks of blond hair, had taken the Buddha from the dashboard of his car.
“ONE, TWO, THREE… FUCK THE POLICE! ONE, TWO, THREE… FUCK THE POLICE!”
Leon Randley, the protester in question, glowing with satisfaction, held it up for the crowd to see.
“Look what I fucking found,” he cried out. “It’s a Buddha. It was on the pig’s dashboard.”
“Well it’s ours now.”
“It’s fucking mine! Fuck you guys,” Leon laughed.
“You little fucking shit!” Officer Jacobs’ shouts were all but drowned out by the crowd.
“ONE, TWO, THREE! FUCK THE POLICE! ONE, TWO, THREE! FUCK THE POLICE!”
The black-clad, blond-haired protester grinned at Officer Jacobs, then disappeared into the crowd, which was probably about 500 strong and took up most of the block.
How Officer Jacobs detested them. Where the fuck do they come from? He couldn’t imagine so many dumbfucks living in Oakland at once.
More police officers, several motorbikes and cruisers, materialized at the scene, and Officer Jacobs joined them. He knew one of the officers, one Andy Maronne.
“They stole the Buddha,” he said.
“ONE, TWO, THREE… FUCK THE POLICE!”
He could barely be heard over the crowd.
“They stole the what?”
“Remember the Buddha I took from the brothel last night? I brought it with me to work. Some little punk took it out of my car.”
“Well that sure ain’t right.”
“The little motherfucker. Are we massing? I want to get the pissant back.”
“Not right now. The riot squad’s waiting for them at a bank on Lakeshore. We have strict orders not to engage unless they pull some shit like they did the other night.”
“Well the motherfuckers totaled my cruiser. Shouldn’t that be enough?”
“Just wait for the cavalry to arrive. Sad to say we’re playing defense tonight.”
They spoke into each other’s ears, and the protesters moved on from the crushed cruiser.
“Oh please let me come with you,” Jacobs said. “I’ll ride shotgun.”
“You probably have some paperwork to complete.”
“It can wait. I want my fucking Buddha back.”
“That bad, huh?”
“Okay, climb on in. Let’s see what we can do.”
The two men got into Andy Maronne’s cruiser, turned onto 14th Street and began to follow the Occupy protesters from a safe distance.
“We’re already set up at Lakeshore,” said Maronne. “SWAT team, overtime folks from Hayward and Berkeley, CHP. The whole shebang.”
“We let these little shits ride all over us. We oughta take our fucking city back!”
They fell silent. The radio was alive with cross channel talk and updates. There were three motorcycle officers flanking Maronne’s cruiser. More cops were visible at the intersections down the streets they passed, stalking the crowd as it made its way to the lake. Jacobs tried to keep his eyes on the boy who had the idol, but it was hard because of the distance they kept and because of the motion of the crowd. Every now and again the young man would appear, only to disappear moments later.
At one point a protester broke the window of a restaurant they were passing. Jacobs could have sworn it was the little shit who had the idol.
“ONE, TWO, THREE! FUCK THE POLICE! ONE, TWO, THREE! FUCK THE POLICE!”
Leon, merging back into the crowd and slipping the crowbar back into the front pocket of his hoodie, found himself examining the Buddha. He wondered if it were real gold, and what it was doing on the cop’s dashboard. It had been a black cop, not an Asian, yet it was an Asian idol. Leon felt like he had accomplished something. Maybe it would bring them better luck than they’d had thus far. They could use it as a talking stick at the General Assemblies. Everyone would be proud that he’d stolen it from a cop. Well, almost everyone. Not every participant wholeheartedly endorsed direct confrontation, even though a lot of the time it was the police who struck first. The law was a powerful force; it felt liberating to break it. Ever since the march on the port they’d felt like they could run this town if they wanted to. They had something magical here. Everyone involved felt empowered, energized and important, like their opinions on the misery afflicting the young, the poor, minorities, actually mattered. Like they could make a difference if they really tried. Occupy Oakland was the bad boy of the Occupy movements. They caused havoc every time they convened. Politicians, businesspeople, cops, none of them were friends of the movement.
The chant leader, Melvin, a black kid from West Oakland, shouted into his megaphone: “WE. ARE. THE NINETY-NINE PERCENT! WE. ARE. THE NINETY-NINE PERCENT!”
They reached the lake. They were going to circle it to Grand Avenue, then take Grand all the way to the Chase branch on Lakeshore where Ms. Lucy’s eviction notice had been served. She was an old lady, and the Foreclosure Defense working group was holding an occupation at her townhouse. It was just the kind of sympathetic story that rang true in these days of toxic mortgages and worsened poverty. Ms. Lucy was her own best advocate, though she wasn’t here tonight. No, only the youngsters were making this particular trip, but they were bound and determined to leave a mark.
Leon walked next to Melvin. Melvin was a real prize for them, being a black kid. Occupy Oakland took up the mantle of the oppressed, but there was no denying the somewhat mono-ethnic makeup of the group, especially since they’d voted to keep the name Occupy Oakland. There had been a vote on whether or not to re-christen their movement De-Colonize Oakland. Many, largely white protesters, had voted against it. The vote failed, and some minority activists never came back — none of Occupy Oakland’s assemblies had been the same since.
“ONE, TWO, THREE! FUCK THE POLICE! ONE, TWO, THREE! FUCK THE POLICE!”
Gosh, what beautiful words they were speaking, Leon reflected.
They marched down the middle of the streets, overtaking traffic. There was both sympathetic honking, and unhappy, yet perhaps intimidated glowering.
The march crossed under the I-580 overpass about fifteen minutes later, North of Lake Merritt. This neighborhood was more swank than downtown, with coffee shops, yoga studios, and a Trader Joe’s. The Chase branch they were targeting was a couple blocks up from I-580. But, as Leon, Melvin and the rest of them soon saw, their action was not to proceed without complication. There was a thick line of riot officers blocking the street before them.
The protesters, still chanting, came to a stop, and there was some confusion. While protests benefit from their romantic quality and a general sensation of empowerment, adaptation and decision-making are not particular strong suits. No one was quite sure what to do.
They kept chanting:
“WE. ARE. THE NINETY-NINE PERCENT! ONE. TWO. THREE. FUCK THE POLICE!”
Officers Jacobs and Maronne pulled up about a block behind the majority of the group. Officer Jacobs got out and pulled out his nightstick. He was a big man, 250 pounds, six foot four, but he was afraid to get too close to the group. He could see the kid who had stolen the Buddha. Determined not to come home empty-handed, and, perhaps, never to bring the idol to work again, he began to size up the situation.
“THIS IS AN UNLAWFUL ASSEMBLY,” a riot police officer was yelling through his own megaphone. “YOU HAVE FIVE MINUTES TO DISPERSE OR YOU WILL BE SUBJECT TO ARREST!”
The crowd heard the warning, but the energy, electric and self-confident, was such that it didn’t seem to show signs of breaking up on its own. Most of those here were seasoned Occupiers. This was not their first time facing down the law. Sometimes they even won. Would the cops really arrest all 500 of them? Only if something egregious happened; at the moment that seemed a distinct possibility.
Some of them were throwing things at the riot squad: bottles, rocks. They kept chanting.
Leon held up the idol: “I stole this from a fucking cop car!” he called out. “If they want me they’re gonna have to take me!”
There was some cheering and applause in response to this. Adrenaline and testosterone were running high. The police weren’t likely to let them hit the bank, but maybe something even more dramatic would come out of this.
“Where you going?” Officer Maronne called after Officer Jacobs, who did not turn around to answer him.
Swinging his nightstick Jacobs approached the group, keeping a solid eye on the longhaired anarchist.
More bottles and rocks arced through the night at the riot squad.
“ONE. TWO. THREE. FUCK THE POLICE!”
“THIS IS AN UNLAWFUL ASSEMBLY! YOU HAVE TWO MINUTES TO DISPERSE OR YOU WILL FACE ARREST!”
“I fucking hate these little punks,” Jacobs muttered to himself. He was counting down the seconds before the onset of bedlam. He promised himself he would be at the forefront of the charge.
“OINK OINK OINK!” some of the protesters heckled him.
Jacobs stared coolly at them.
“Come on then,” one of them said. “We ain’t done nothing wrong.”
“You fucking totaled my radio car.”
“THIS IS AN UNLAWFUL ASSEMBLY! IF YOU DO NOT DISPERSE IMMEDIATELY YOU WILL BE SUBJECT TO ARREST!”
“Bring it on, pigs!” Melvin yelled into his megaphone. He was ready to go to jail tonight. The National Lawyers Guild would have their backs. The police might cut the corners of law, and maybe they would pay for it later. It was all about confrontation, and boy had he and the rest of them mastered the art of it.
It was safe to say the situation was coming to a head. Soon would come the crowd-dispersal weaponry: flashbang grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets, bean bags fired from weapons that looked like shotguns. The police were always well armed. Like the protests, theirs was a blunt instrument, but effective.
Officer Jacobs stood in the center of the street, waiting for it to begin.
At long last the first tear gas canister came flying into the crowd, and the riot police, wearing gas masks, charged.
There was a collective scream at the line of militarized officers coming toward them, and a good majority of protesters fell back and took flight down Lakeshore Avenue. Those that stayed behind were overwhelmed, trod underfoot, and arrested. Melvin, choosing to stand his ground, was one of those, and, just like that, the chanting was done.
Leon was one of those that ran.
Jacobs moved sideways like a football player (he had played some in high school) to block the punk’s escape route, and, wielding his nightstick, he arrived right at him and struck the skinny little kid in his shin and, with a shout of pain escaping Leon’s throat, knocked him to the ground.
Officer Maronne got out of his cruiser and ran towards his compatriot, who kept raising and bringing down his nightstick, viciously, looking for the soft parts.
“Little fucking punk,” Jacobs said. “Steal from me, you piece of shit?! I’ll teach you to steal from me. What the fuck you thinking about?”
Leon curled into a ball and allowed the strikes to fall. They stopped when Officer Maronne grabbed Jacobs’ nightstick arm and told him “Stop! He’s not worth a brutality charge!”
“Damn right he is!” Jacobs shouted back, and pushed Officer Maronne away.
Maronne fell back a couple steps, and Officer Jacobs grabbed Leon by the collar of his shirt and pulled him up.
“Where it at shitbird?”
He reached into Leon’s pockets and, finding a crowbar, looked at it a moment, then chucked it away. He found a hard spot in the boy’s hip pocket.
“Is that it? Is that it?”
He reached into Leon’s pocket and pulled out the Buddha.
“Eureka!” he laughed.
The crowd was disorganized. The riot police were regrouping for a second charge while the protesters fled in chaos, breaking things as they went. This would be all over the papers the next day.
“I saw this little bitch, Maronne,” Officer Jacobs said. “I saw him break my window and steal my Buddha. I got it right here. See? It’s my proof.”
The tear gas, blowing downwind, caused Officer Jacobs to wipe his eyes and cough into his sleeve.
“I believe you,” said Maronne, “but if you beat that kid any more I’m gonna write on it.”
Jacobs waved him away with scorn, then turned back to Leon, threw him back on the ground, took out his cuffs, and pulled the young man’s wrists together.
“Come on,” he said to Maronne, bringing Leon back to the cruiser. “Let’s go home.”
Maronne followed behind him, shaking his head, and got into his car as Jacobs threw Leon into the back.
The police had succeeded in dispersing the crowd, some members of which were now running through the park back to Grand Ave., and some of whom were running the other way down Lakeshore. While there were hoops and hollers, some windows broken, and some pedestrians caught in the melee, the worst was probably over. They were not re-convening anywhere, as the riot police continued to stalk them.
Maronne drove down Grand Avenue, siren and lights blaring. Officer Jacobs held the golden Buddha in his palm and looked at it. Was it really bad luck? Maybe he shouldn’t have tried so hard to get it back. Surely things had not turned out well for him while he’d had it in his possession. He hadn’t quite felt himself since he’d seen it taken.
Leon didn’t say anything while they drove to the police station. He knew he had the right to remain silent.
The cop’s word would stand in court — Jacobs had seen Leon break into the cruiser. But Leon had taken an extra-judicial beating. That might be enough to cause the police officer pause from telling the full story.
Maronne put his cruiser in park back at headquarters, and watched Officer Jacobs take the protester into the building, guiding him roughly by the scruff of his neck. Maronne wasn’t sure how he felt about what he’d witnessed. It seemed possible that both Jacobs and the protester would come to regret what they’d done.
Officer Jacobs, in drawing up the police report concerning the destruction of the cruiser, and his specific mention of the blond-haired protester who he’d seen do at least part of the deed, left out a key bit of what might have been evidence: the golden Buddha. For some reason he didn’t want to draw attention to it. He didn’t bring it into work any more, and in fact he became kind of afraid of it, as it stayed on his dresser in the bedroom, watching he and his wife sleep and make love. He was afraid of what it might do to him, stricken with bad luck as he so clearly had become.
Indeed, his bad luck endured: a few weeks after the fateful night Officer Jacobs was hit with a court summons. The punk had friends, law students, who thought they had a strong case for police brutality. Jacobs had really fucked the boy up. He had been spitting up blood and been forced to spend time in the hospital. Officer Jacobs recognized a pattern: while the boy had held the idol he’d been subject to the heel of the much larger police officer’s boot; while Officer Jacobs held it his cruiser had been destroyed and he’d been hit with a brutality charge.
One day, it was early summer, he took the idol from his dresser and drove out to the Berkeley marina, a park on the shores of San Francisco Bay where people walk dogs and fly kites.
He threw the Buddha into the bay. He watched the splash it made, and wondered if that would fix the problems that had cropped up in his life.
Unfortunately the charges against him didn’t go away. The protester was suing the city. Eventually they went to court, and the little punk fingered him in person as the man who had caused his injuries. Leon would never be able to safely eat spicy food again. The city paid the protester, and the brutality complaint was tagged to Officer Jacobs, all but ensuring that he would never make rank. Beat up a little black kid and no one gives a shit, but touch a white person, even an Occupy Oakland protester, and you could expect ramifications.
But the bad luck Jacobs endured ultimately was nothing compared to that visited upon Occupy Oakland, as their numbers dwindled and their constant skirmishes with the powers that be left them feeling isolated and under siege. Leon himself, unemployed and penniless, moved back into his parents’ house in Torrance, and the vicious infighting that was characteristic of the General Assemblies tore the group apart, until, perhaps six months after the march on the bank on Lakeshore, they had become but a shell of what they had been, abandoned by the general populace, and despised by local businesspeople. Their day had, apparently, passed, but no one who participated would ever aforget that first march on the port, when they numbered at least 10,000 strong.
For the police it was something of a hollow victory: they had not gotten out unscathed, as Officer Jacobs was far from the only officer to be hit with excessive force accusations. And it had come along so sudden, without warning: it was disturbing. Would they ever come back? Would they learn from their mistakes and try again? Theirs was a generation politicized and angry but not completely helpless. Maybe next time around they wouldn’t be so easily beaten. Maybe.