Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Flash Fiction Friday: "Sweep The Street"

The Flash Fiction Friday team wants us to write about "Unrest" this week. My story is called "Sweep The Street"

I was tired. I yawned, trying to cover it quickly. I stood in line with the others, shoulder to shoulder. I knew there were more behind me, along with the looming bulk of an Army transport behind them. We had the armor, and we had the weapons, and we had the hard plastic shields to protect us, and we had the force of law. We were the society made flesh, the rules personified in a line of identically clad men and women, cleaning the streets of disorder and chaos. We were in charge.

But I still felt tired and vulnerable. The people in front of us looked scared, but there were a lot of them. I had been yanked out of a sound sleep to fall in for special duty.

It all started simply enough. You didn't have to be a sociologist to know that poor people, with nothing to do all day, no jobs and no prospects of any jobs, were going to get mad. It was usually against each other- one no hoper robbing or beating or killing another one. That was sad, but easy enough to deal with- you caught the one who did it a day or a week later, put him away, and that was that. You couldn't prevent it, so you caught and punished and went on.

This time it was different. There was a job training fair- an abandoned store with some laptops set up and some cute, earnest twentysomethings in polo shirts and khakis and nametags that said "Rayanne" and "Isabella" to do their duty by helping put resumes in order and give the impression there was some hope. The girls, fresh from degrees in social work at prestigious schools that Daddy paid for with four hours of work at his hedge fund, smiled wide and tried hard and looked very pretty and well bred.

But the people who drifted in, looking at these new grads with their pressed pants and shiny black shoes, knew better. They knew the game had been rigged since before they were born. They knew that the winners were going to keep winning, that there wasn't any way to move up, that nobody cared one whit about them or their problems. They didn't know who George Orwell was, most of them, but they would have agreed with him that the future was just more boots stepping on their face, over and over again.

One of the local tough guys, a guy in a basketball jersey everybody called Red, actually sauntered into the storefront and began talking up one of the girls. Once his clumsy romantic overture was turned aside, he got down to business, and his voice started rising. She tried to calm him down, but he got more agitated, finally slapping her once, hard, across her face. The police were called, and he started fighting with them. A crowd gathered, and rocks started raining down from the surrounding rooftops.

Things sped out of control, windows getting broken, fires starting to burn with firefighters refusing to come and combat them, and the crowd getting louder and angrier. People began chanting, and young kids started using the crowds as an excuse for mischief. Motorists were getting rocks thrown at them, and someone in the power structure hit the panic button. So we were assembled, the plan being to sweep straight down Burton Street to where another force waited on Shaughnessy Boulevard- pinching the crowd between us, cuffing and taking away those who wouldn't disperse.

I heard the command to move, remembering my training- stay together, move like you're blocking for a running back. Don't get ahead of your partner, which could let a protester get between us. Don't swing your truncheon until you are provoked. I saw an egg arc over our heads, splattering against the green metal of the Army truck. Just keep moving, just keep moving, I thought, thinking about the fish from the Pixar movie, saying, "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming..."

I understand what they're mad about. A year ago, I would have been one of them- I only got into the Academy myself when a sex scandal threw out about half the freshman class. You hear that all you have to do is work hard, and you'll be a success, and then you do work hard, and you can't afford college, and you wind up slinging burgers part time for minimum wage. They tell us our country is the wealthiest in the world, and you quickly realize that that wealth isn't spread around very well. Sure, there's equality of opportunity- but it's hard to make that argument when your dad is in jail and your school is falling apart and there's nothing on the table for dinner.

But we can't live like this- in the war of all against all, nobody wins. There have to be rules, and a structure. I took an oath to uphold this structure, and uphold it I will. We marched forward, watching people retreat before us, backing off from the row of hard plastic shields. I stayed in line with my brothers, angry at the forces that brought the people into the streets, and angry at the same people who retreated before our show of force. We marched, step by even step, pushing people before us, enforcing the rules of a system that discarded people like refuse from a fast food drive thru. I was tired.


  1. It is exhausting. I liked your description of the personnel at the job fair and the way the unrest started. I also appreciated the inner conflict of the narrator. Great story!

  2. I love this. Out of all of this week's stories and essays, yours is the one that I feel rings most true and in like mind, to me.

  3. This is really good. I like the fact that it shows both sides of the coin. Yes, the narrator believes in rules and in his role in enforcing them, yet he can also identify with those he is seeking to control. That's a very difficult position to be in. You described well the horror of how a minor conflict between a couple of people can turn into a street war. People being violent for truly no reason at all, and also with no real purpose at all. You brought the reality of this home. Well done.

  4. I feel a really eerie vibe with this story because I feel it will come true. God help us all when that happens.

    Needless to say, great story!

  5. I enjoyed the perspective from a "grunt" on the law enforcement side of things. You seemed to capture the hopeless cycle of communities in various parts of our country very well. Thanks for sharing

    L Turner

  6. I read this feeling a sense of helplessness - for the rioters who can see no better way out and for the enforcement officers who can only deal with containment, not rehabilitation.

    Fine piece, though. Well done.


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