The Riot

This is Yet Another of those bizarre and kind of improbable stories that came into my possession because once again, I just happened to be in a certain place at a certain time.

The high school soccer season is only during the spring, and so every fall, I play on the city travel team. We practice three days a week, in the public park right down the street from my school, because it’s relatively central to all the girls coming from other schools.

Usually, I get there and the back lot is deserted. I’ll change clothes in the car, which is both convenient and private, because Blue Dragon is not only the size of a small house, but also has tinted windows. Then I wander over to the soccer field and put my cleats on and wait for everyone else to get there.

This time, though, the parking lot is almost full, and so even though Blue Dragon is like a small house, I have to change sitting on the floor because I don’t like the feeling that anyone might possibly be able to see me. Nearly every spot is taken, and there’s a huge crowd of boys standing around in the fire lane, laughing and smoking.

Ordinarily, I’d be anxious or disoriented or sort of confused, if this exact same thing hadn’t already just happened on Monday. I’d gotten to practice and the back lot had been completely full of boys, and there’d been a big stupid brawl, which was one of those kinds where everyone makes a lot of noise and no one ever really hurts each other because they have no idea how to actually fight, and so they swing these giant, clumsy haymakers that never connect, and mostly just wind up looking off-balance and totally stupid.

What I’m saying is, even though I realize that the forecast calls for assault, I am wildly unconcerned.

When I’m done changing awkwardly on the floor of my car, I pad across the parking lot in my socks, over to where Caitlin is sitting with her windows rolled up even though it’s ninety-five degrees out. This is because Caitlin is scared of things—of bad grades and making mistakes and of boys, but particularly of boys with an unhealthy enthusiasm for fighting in the park.

Jinx, who is scared of zero things is flopped down in the grass by the picnic table, yanking on her shin-guards. She waves me over, but eighteen-year-old-Brenna is finally starting to develop a slightly more active concern for other people, so I stop at the edge of the parking lot and eventually manage to coax Caitlin out the car. I do this by rolling my eyes a lot and making flippant faces and pointing around at various boys and telling her various embarrassing things about them.

(Also, even though teenage-Brenna is finally starting to be more conscientious and socially engaged and also friendlier, she can still be just the smallest touch totally judge-y and caustic. Just a tad.)

The three of us sit on the picnic table and wait, and the boys in the parking lot smoke and stare at us and wait, and more keep showing up all the time.

A few more girls from my team join us at the table. #4 arrives with a dark, angry-looking boy called Odd, followed by Dweezil and Rooster in Dweezil’s Blazer, and we wait.

When something does happen, it’s very sudden. A bony, unfamiliar sophomore clips this big, thuggish guy named Romeo under the chin. They do the usual dance—staggering around on the grass, falling down and getting up again. Around them, the other boys are having the time of their lives, grabbing handfuls of each other’s shirts and shouting a lot.

Caitlin squeals, covering her eyes and turning her face against my shoulder. Jinx is laughing a jittering, staccato laugh that reminds me of Woody Woodpecker and giving me a hard time for going to such a stupid school.

When Officer Duchess shows up, no one is very surprised. Officer Duchess is short and authoritative, and even though she can sometimes be kind of prickly, I like her because she never ever yells at me for violating the dress code. She’s a real police officer, but spends a lot of time hanging around on school grounds because she has a euphemistic title that I can’t remember right now, but it sounds like Community Outreach Liaison.

She adjusts her belt and comes stalking out across the soccer field, looking tiny and fierce. “Buster—Buster, stop it! What do you think you’re doing?”

The smaller boy glances at her. “You leave it alone, Miss Duchess,” he calls. “It’s got nothing to do with you.”

She just sighs and grabs his arm, yanking him behind her. “Buster, this is my job.”

With her free hand, she pushes Romeo away. Both boys are breathing hard, looking mutinous, but kind of self-conscious. Romeo is bigger, but also distinctly worse for wear, bleeding from the mouth. Everyone else has stopped shouting and is just standing around, and some are already wandering back to their cars. Everything is slowing down.

And then this:

I’m not certain what happened next. Officer Duchess might have called backup, I don’t know. All I know is that three or four or five cops came running down the hill, shouting, “Break it up! Break it up!” and pushing their way into the crowd.

Then it became chaos in the worst way. Officer Duchess reached out to hold Romeo still and Buster dodged around her and popped Romeo in the face and everything turned crazy […] and it was all arms and legs and shouting, and then one of the officers who was standing a little ways off moved forward quickly, raising his nightstick above his head.

There was a loud crack and Romeo crumpled suddenly, making a soft muffled noise, pressing his face into the grass.

I see this before it happens—just one uncanny second before it happens. But in that second, half of my brain thinks that it’s happened already, and that I can almost see the future.

The officer with the baton is standing a few feet away and the only reason I notice him at all is because he’s standing so still. He takes two steps and raises his baton and I watch with my mouth open. When the baton connects, it makes a dry, breaking sound—very audible—the kind that shivers down your spine, and then Romeo collapses.

Officer Duchess is in the middle of handcuffing Buster, and she starts yelling for everyone to just calm down, to leave Romeo alone, she’ll get him in a minute so don’t touch him, just let her get to him in a minute. It doesn’t make a difference. Another officer cuffs Romeo and tries to drag him to his feet, but he just falls down again, pressing his face into the grass. He’s sobbing in hoarse, breathless gasps. They keep trying to pick him up by his handcuffs, and he just keeps falling.

“Stop it!” Jinx screams beside me. Her voice is shrill when most of the time, she never sounds shrill, and that’s how I know for sure that something is actually wrong and I’m not just confused or dreaming it. She has me by the neck of my T-shirt, yanking it sideways off my shoulder and shrieking, “Stop—just stop!” over and over.

I realize belatedly that I’m wringing my hands like an actress in one of those silent films where everyone wears a lot of black eye-makeup, and force myself to stop. I stare out at the mob in the parking lot, fourteen or fifteen police officers now, squad cars everywhere, more than a hundred kids—maybe more than two hundred—and everything a screaming, seething mess.

“Pigs!” Rooster was standing on the roof of Dweezil’s Blazer, cupping his hands around his mouth. “You $%&@ing fascist m*****f*****s!”

Then the others began to shout too, while officers waded between them, trying to impose some order. All around, the voices were blending together and everything was bad, bad, bad. In the parking lot, an officer was slamming some guy up against Mitzi’s car again and again. She waved her hands in their yellow keeper’s gloves and wailed about her doors.

“You asshole piggies,” Odd was yelling, grinning like he enjoyed the whole thing. “You $%&@ing Nazis!”

#4 was standing by himself beside Odd’s car, looking uncertain. On top of the Blazer, Dweezil and a girl I didn’t recognize had joined Rooster and the three of them were shouting over the crowd. It was like nothing was real.

The police set up roadblocks so they could ticket people as they filed out of the park. #4 and Odd sat on the curb and watched us practice until they were allowed to leave.

In the paper today, they called it a riot. That’s funny. If it had been a real riot, I suspect that being twelve feet away from it would not have been far enough. Instead, I could sit on the picnic table, right in the middle of it, watch it spool out, tangle up at my feet. Sit right in the middle of it, invincible, because no matter how loud they shout, no matter how fast the bodies are moving, no matter how bad it gets, it has nothing to do with me.

When I write this last part down, though, it’s almost like I’m not even talking about myself—my own actual state. It’s more like I might be channeling #4, who, during this entire bad, unwieldy scene, is standing on the curb by himself, holding his cigarette like someone would hold a pen and staring off into the chaos like he’s not really seeing it. I recognize his expression immediately, because it’s the exact same look he had at the homecoming dance last year, like he’s wishing really hard that he were someplace else.

The police begin to separate the clusters of boys, shoving them into squad cars. They set up roadblocks so they can ticket people as they file out of the park, and the crowd gradually begins to thin. Odd joins #4 on the curb and they sit and smoke and watch us practice, waiting for their turn to collect their citation and leave.

Our coach is entirely freaked out (not without cause). He doesn’t know what to do with us, so we wind up spending the next two hours doing nine million formations and passing drills. Everyone keeps making fun of me for going to the thug school.

“What’s wrong with you?” Amy says, as I pass the ball to her way too hard and she chases after it.


When what I want to say is, I think we just saw a boy get his kneecap broken and you’re asking me if something’s wrong. I want to say, How can you stand there and act like nothing just happened? I think that maybe something just happened. I mean, didn’t something just happen?

I want to say, Is this really okay? Any of it?

But I don’t.


For discussion: have you ever been in close proximity to something dramatic, but not actually been involved? Was it vivid and immediate, or did you have some weird kind of disconnect? Have you ever seen something happen and then wondered if it was real? Have you ever seen anyone fight anyone else? (Have you ever gone to—dare I say it—the thug school?)

Also, just to clarify: I don’t want to give even the slightest impression that I condone fighting in the park, because I absolutely do not.

This particular incident is just really hard to talk about coherently, because it still gives me a barrage of very mixed feelings that I don’t quite know how to describe. Mostly because there really was a lot of hitting and shoving and manhandling of people who appeared fully compliant, and three of the officers spent way too long trying to make Romeo walk, even when it seemed pretty clear that he couldn’t.

Anyway, even now, I’m just not convinced that the situation was dealt with all that well. (Except for Officer Duchess, who unquestionably did the A-plus-best job she could have under the circumstances.)

But no, I don’t think that fighting in the park is okay. In fact, I think it’s pretty stupid.

11 thoughts on “The Riot

  1. My family and I were trying to get home from a camping trip once and there was a flash flood. There were boulders and trees and a quarter of a mile of mud on the road. There were twenty or so cars lined up on the road trying to figure out how to get around. We noticed this guy on an ATV with a bundle in front of him, just sort of driving around aimlessly through the mud, and then we noticed that he was covered in mud, and then we noticed that the thing in front of him was a kid.

    We dragged them into our camping trailer and provided towels and blankets and hot water bottles and hot chocolate and a space heater and spent the next hour trying to keep the kid out of hypothermia, because they’d been caught in the flood and almost killed when it bashed them into the canyon walls. It felt incredibly unreal. There was this guy sitting on our couch wearing my cousin’s clothes with bruises and a wild-animal look in his eyes like he thought we were going to attack him, and this kid crouched on our floor wearing my clothes and cuddling with the dog for warmth, and mud everywhere. They barely knew what was going on. I think an hour later when their family came to get them, they *still* weren’t quite sure what was going on.

    So maybe my sense of disconnect came from theirs. Or maybe it was the weird incongruity of these two guys who had just almost died sitting in our camping trailer where, the night before, we’d been playing cards and eating Jiffy Pop. But it was really, really hard to believe that any of it was actually happening.

    Until after they left. After they left I went back outside to check on the status of the road, and there were these two teenagers wandering around holding their cell phones up in the air and whining because they didn’t have coverage and this was stupid and why did they have to come this way anyway, and THEN it felt real because I kind of wanted to strangle them.

    • Oh, wow. That is surreal! (I’m still really bad at snapping out of it enough to take charge in bad situations that involve strangers—probably at least partly because I’m kind of scared of strangers—so yay for your family doing the necessary thing.)

      maybe my sense of disconnect came from theirs. Or maybe it was the weird incongruity of these two guys who had just almost died sitting in our camping trailer

      This is something that I spend a lot of time thinking about—trying to figure out how much of something is coming from outside me, and how much is just my own understanding of a situation creating this sort of limited reality in my head. Because it really is strange, but sometimes the more you understand about a situation, the harder it can be to make an actual decision.

      THEN it felt real because I kind of wanted to strangle them.

      Amen! Maybe all it takes is seeing someone absolutely fail to grasp a situation to make the reality of it really start to crystallize.

      (Also, I will be getting your book in the mail tomorrow! The reason it is not done already is because the amount I hate going to the post office is kind of cataclysmic, even though I really have no reason to feel that way.)

      • (Because post offices are a drag! No worries. As long as I get it before I head back to college, which is not for a while, all is well. Although, if it gets here when I am absent, my mother and sister will abduct it and never give it back to me. And then I’ll have to stage a daring rescue mission over Thanksgiving break. Which would probably be epic, so no worries.)

  2. I had a lot of things happen like that in my house. My parents would get super drunk and scream and my mom would throw things at my dad and it never felt real. I spent the better part of my childhood feeling disconnected from the world around me, like it was all happening to someone else.
    Even as an adult who has totally overcome the more traumatic parts of my childhood, I still always have that reaction to bad situations.The worse the situation, the more I disconnect from it, so it\’s always like I\’m standing outside of it, watching it happen to someone else. Sometimes I wonder if everyone is like that, or if I don\’t feel tragedies as much as I\’m supposed to. It takes me a long time to process stuff. Anyway, sorry for being a downer. I love your blog. You always have such interesting stories. It\’s not like any other blog I\’ve ever come across. It\’s always super interesting!!! Thanks for the story!

    • I know exactly what you mean. Even when really bad things happen, I am totally disconnected, and I know this has to do with my childhood.

    • The worse the situation, the more I disconnect from it

      I’m this same way, honestly—which doesn’t always yield a great ability to react appropriately in an emergency, but at least it never leaves me hysterical or incoherent, so I figure I must fall somewhere in the middle on the usefulness scale.

      Sometimes I wonder if everyone is like that, or if I don\’t feel tragedies as much as I\’m supposed to. It takes me a long time to process stuff.

      This is how I am too, and how I’ve been my whole life (at least, as far as I can tell). I wonder about people a lot, how they become who they are and what makes someone relate to the world in certain ways. And even though I love mapping out potential causes, I still come back to temperament on a lot of things. As in, maybe I am simply the Type of Person who has to limit input when something gets overwhelming?

      Also, you really don’t have to worry about being a downer around here—one of my favorite things about doing the high school posts is the way people have been so willing to share their experiences, and I think it’s really valuable for everyone reading through the comments to see the way people’s lives are different from their own, and also sometimes the same.

  3. This comes to mind, because it’s recent and I still haven’t quite forgiven myself for it: when I was in Yellow Stone National Park. I was walking down the narrow little boardwalk with my mom. It was too hot, and the whole place buzzed with nervous energy for me. I was staring at all of the hats that had been blown off of people’s heads and into the hot springs. Then it went something like this: a little girl screamed about two feet in front of me. Not the kind of shriek that kids have when you chase them. A real, true-to-god SCREAM. Her mother grabbed her arms and forced her to the ground. The mother was yelling at her very, very quickly in Chinese, and the way she spat the words out, I didn’t need to be able to understand them. The girl clapped her hands over her eyes and yelled “NO!” I stood there, hands fisted at my sides, so still I wasn’t sure I was really there. I was just sort of numb. I stood there, and watched that, and I didn’t do anything, because there was this invisible glass wall between me and them, like a window or a TV screen. Except if I’d reached out, my hand would have gone straight through it.

    • I didn’t do anything, because there was this invisible glass wall between me and them, like a window or a TV screen.

      I absolutely feel this most acutely when I’m watching strangers fight or treat their kids roughly. In fact, this story *vividly* brings back something that happened when I was about twelve—I was standing outside the car at a gas station late at night, and this really young woman came out dragging her daughter (?) by the arm, shaking her and shouting at her, and I was just so shocked by the whole thing, and all I could think was that it was way too late for this kid to still be up.

      I was staring at them, and the woman turned and saw me and just lost it. She started screaming at me in a way that made me pretty sure she was either drunk or high, shrieking “What are you looking at?” over and over. And it was so weird, because I knew I shouldn’t say anything—that I should just look away—but I couldn’t. I stood there staring at her and when she kept screaming at me to tell her what I was looking at, I answered in this weird, flat way like I was in a dream, “I’m looking at you.”

  4. If this is surreal to read about, I can only imagine how it was to experience.

    I can’t say I went to the thug school because I really went to a bratty rich kid school which set a lot of records for underage drinking convictions. However, it was strange because I got in just on the high tide of an incredible wave of–softening, I guess, or maybe you could call it gentrification of a sort. When I was in middle school, references to the high school were all crusading PTA board initiatives, or former juniors being dragged in for assemblies with their new wheelchairs and their scared-straight stories about overdoses on hard drugs. When I got to high school, all the kids above us would whine about the freedoms they’d just had taken away, and fights in the hallways and lockdowns for locker searches with the drug-sniffing dogs were weekly occurrences. But over my four years, things calmed down so severely that I doubt any of the brashly naive freshman entering when I was a senior would believe that the cafeteria was, less than five years previously, not a place where you could suffer much more than the grave injustice of having your cell phone taken away, and more likely to see, say, the cops called in to break up food fights that broke windows.

    The year after I graduated, though, I spent a lot of time thinking about alternate universes that might’ve happened, because of an incident involving the high school that I would’ve been in had I lived a mile further down the road. It wasn’t generally considered a thug school either, but they had a district divided into two parts by a mostly arbitrary geographic split, so naturally the students of the high schools (Hills & Valley) enjoyed hating each other. Anyway, in the fall 9 members of the one school’s football team beat up 2 kids from the other’s at a Halloween party, left them by the side of the road, landed them both in the hospital, and then went on to win the state championship. All of which happened when I was in a different state, but it was still pretty weird to see it dominating the headlines on my Twitter feed and then being able to switch tabs and see I had mutual friends with half the kids whose names were released on Facebook.

    More to the spirit of the question, though, when I started this answer I couldn’t think of a single example of a moment as strange as that yet utterly unconnected to me, but now a dozen are popping up–aside from the fights that had to be constantly ducked to get to class back when I was a freshman (or the very clear memory of being out sick for a week when I was a sophomore and talking on the phone to my friends who’d just gotten out of class and they watched one girl suddenly throw another up on the hood of a moving car in the parking lot), or the small plane that tumbled out of the sky a block away from my middle school and landed on someone’s front lawn that we all wandered down closed streets to gawk at, but, in particular, the high number of incidents I witnessed because of where my house was situated, on the busiest street in town. Summer days when I was home alone included hearing screams from the crosswalk and seeing ambulances take away pedestrians who’d been hit by cars. And, in particular, my literal earliest memory is of a snowy night when a car crashed through our fence and came to rest a few inches from our front steps.

    • If this is surreal to read about, I can only imagine how it was to experience.

      So, yes. BUT. Considering the source, my personal level of disconnect is probably not even that remarkable, since being in cafeteria was also surreal, standing near boys was surreal, having a parking pass was surreal, having a locker was surreal, people knowing my name was surreal. Honestly, I spent a lot of time mentally backtracking through the events of my day to double-check that everything linked up—that it was actually happening and not just something I was making up or dreaming about.

      they had a district divided into two parts by a mostly arbitrary geographic split, so naturally the students of the high schools (Hills & Valley) enjoyed hating each other.

      Wow, this is the Exact Opposite of my district, which mashed the insanely affluent neighborhoods and the trailer parks together in one school (and to slightly less acrimony than one would expect, honestly). There were little rivalries and scuffles, but they tended to be minor and burn out quickly. Really, most of the serious conflicts (the ones that drew blood, anyway) were between people from the same social strata.

      the small plane that tumbled out of the sky a block away from my middle school and landed on someone’s front lawn

      This is probably one of the more surreal things I’ve ever heard, honestly. Maybe just because there are bad things you sort of expect, so even when they’re unpredictable or out of the blue, they still seem reasonable. Like, someone got hit in the crosswalk near my house, and it was terrible and now I’m nervous about the crosswalk, because I just accept that this is one of the risks of a major street and it could happen again. But even though planes sometimes fall out of the sky, you never really believe that they’re going to. It’s proven to happen, and it still just seems impossible.

      • A really surreal fun fact, at one point, you could honestly set your watch by small plane crashes in my town. There’s a little airport on the edge of town and they would give flight lessons on weekends, mostly to people in their late 60s. For multiple weeks in a row, every Sunday around 3 PM you’d have to watch out if you were headed over to the supermarket. There were hardly every any injuries, just little Cessnas failing upon the landing, so they just became an accepted part of everyday life somehow.

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