Essay by Susan Zakin
Judicial System – March 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine
I’VE FOUND AN odd career as the token eco-feminazi on a succession of hunting and fishing magazines, writing for editors who tell me that their politics are “to the right of Attila the Hun.” It’s reassuring that these guys seem to appreciate good journalism, even from someone whose politics are to the left of Hillary Clinton.
But all that’s changing now. I’m crossing over, just like Thelma in Thelma and Louise. Brace yourself Bo Gritz, I’m ready to hunker in the bunker.
You see, last May I spent an incredible two days camping alone in Anza Borrego State Park near the Mexican border in southern California. After leaving this desert rat’s paradise, I stopped for breakfast in the tiny town of Borrego Springs.
Boy, did I feel good. After breakfast, I clamped on my Walkman and fired up the old pickup, with Sly and the Family Stone singing “Stand” at top volume. I know it’s illegal to drive with a Walkman but the last time my car stereo was ripped off, the cops didn’t bother to investigate. I gave up on the whole in-dash enterprise.
There was nary a car to be seen on the road, which cut through the usual scorched-looking agricultural land you see in the half-irrigated desert.
Whomp. Stop sign. I stopped. Looked around quickly. Took off.
Whoa. I whipped off my Walkman. No point in getting two tickets. And proceeded to have an experience straight out of low-budget Hollywood, down to the mirrored shades.
Seems like the California Highway Patrol officer, a tall, Aryan-looking fellow with an authority complex, felt I hadn’t stopped long enough at the stop sign. Seems like the officer had been hiding in a speed trap just past the intersection behind some blank agricultural-looking shed.
Seems like I had out-of-state plates.
“I stopped at the stop sign,” I told him.
“This is unfair,” I whined, squinting down at the ticket. “I live in Arizona. I can’t come to San Diego and fight this.”
The cop told me that if I signed the ticket, I wouldn’t have to go to court.
When I got home, I called the San Diego court. After several frustrating attempts to negotiate their off-putting voicemail, I finally got someone who told me not to worry. They’d be sending me something in the mail.
I went to San Francisco on business for two weeks. Big mistake. By the time I got home, I had missed the deadline for sending in the $108 — that’s right, this is how much failure to stop at a stop sign costs in the Golden State. I agonized a bit more about whether I should pay. Wasn’t this giving in to extortion?
I thought seriously about the militias and about the anti-government rhetoric that I had written about, especially in the mid-90s, when it seemed to be at its height. It occurred to me that most Americans have only two real points of noticeable contact with government: paying taxes and getting traffic tickets.
No wonder they hate the government. I was starting to hate the government, too.
I considered writing a letter disputing the ticket. John Locke, the 18th-century political philosopher, wrote about the social compact, the agreement members of a society make with each other. That’s what this country was founded on.
This cop had lied. He had broken the compact. This seemed to have dire implications for the state of the union.
But I get paid for writing things like that. Okay, maybe not exactly things like that, but along those lines. I resented the idea that I’d have to work for free by writing a detailed explanation of all of this. This cop ought to be the one doing hard time.
So I wrote a check instead. I hoped they’d be happy enough to get the $108 and wouldn’t quibble about the fact that it was late.
Like those skinny, pathetic-looking Montana guys, just like the Branch Davidians, and ol’ white trash Randy Weaver, I found out just how jackbooted government thugs could be. A collection agency started calling me. Seems they wanted another $268, a fine for failing to appear. They had to be kidding. Hadn’t the cop told me that if I signed the damn ticket, I wouldn’t have to appear?
THE COLLECTION AGENCY didn’t seem interested in my constitutional arguments. When I explained about John Locke, they told me they would contact Arizona authorities and get my license taken away.
I thought I’d do better with the San Diego court. So I wrote a four-page letter explaining the whole John Locke thing and telling them this particular collection agency should not be representing them.
They blew me off.
OK, I’m ready. Sign me up, boys. California is Sodom and Gomorrah, full of corrupt thugs trampling on the constitution and the rights of hard-working Americans. The only thing is I can’t seem to find any of those militia fellers anymore. Where have they all gone?
But I think I’ve got the riff down. I’ll just tell the San Diego court one more thing: You can expect that $268 from me on the day Janet Reno and Bo Gritz have a love child. Got it, guys?
Damn, I feel American.
Susan Zakin is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colo www.hcn.org. She lives in Tucson, Ariz.