The evening started out quietly enough. D came into Civic from her own work and was patient while I faffed about wrapping up the work day. We adjourned to Tosolini’s, an excellent place for writing dates on account of nice armchairs and a counter at a good height for laptopping, and dined before we got the computers out and went to work.
So far so good. Chicken salad, excellent antipasto, coffee, watching the rain, getting a little bit of writing mojo on for a story I need to finish. Then we get a siren, and a cop car comes down London Circuit, flashers going. Normally they’re falling in behind some hapless, pimply young sort unwise enough to be speeding, but tonight it swerved down into the East Row interchange. Peering around the corner (we were sitting outside) I could still see its flashers. A minute or two later, there went another one, and I cuuld hear sirens from further afield.
That seemed like a good excuse for a bit of leg-stretching, so I pleaded a break, left the laptop with D and wandered down East Row to see what was going on. About halfway there I saw another cop car pull up and two more police jump out and run down into Garema Place, and by the time I rounded the corner I was coming into the back ranks of a small group of bystanders all staring down toward the slope.
The centre of the action was across the plaza. One of the closed shopfronts had its alarm going, and in front of it stood a pale, gangly young man barricaded in by a semicircle of police. He was roaring and gesticulating, but I was too far away to catch any meaning from any of it: some of the gestures were clearly meant to be threatening, but others seemed random and his voice never quite rose enough for me to catch any words. It was the sort of thing you see every so often, except for the guns.
I know that a couple of times through the evening I saw something flash in the streetlights at the end of this fellow’s arm – a sizeable metal flash, as off a blade, for example, rather than a watch or a bracelet. What he was actually carrying I don’t know, but the feel of the whole scene changed once I realised that nearly all the cops around him were wearing bullet vests, the ones who weren’t were being brought vests by the regular carloads of police reinforcements, and every time the man walked forward at the cops, several pistols came up and pointed at him. Seeing a bit of a scuffle in Civic of an evening is one thing, but trying to work out if I was ready to see someone’s life end in front of me, if it came to that, came as a sneaking sort of shock, doubled by the meta-shock each time I realised what I was thinking about.
He paced, he shouted, he advanced and retreated, he took off his singlet and threw it away. I couldn’t hear what the cops were saying to him, as the rain picked up and the alarm kept ringing and we were shooed further and further back by the ever more numerous police. Then I got a text from D asking for help with noisy teenagers and went back down to Toso’s to help her pack up and pay: a gaggle of yelling, obnoxious kids were shoving and wrestling each other back and forth right in front of where we were writing. Not conducive to mood or concentration. At that point we packed it in and I walked her to her car, fully planning to return home and keep writing.
Except… there was still this thing happening behind me, and not knowing how it was turning out was going to nag at the back of my head all night. So rationalisng, I scooted back into Civic and walked back to my former spot to see what was going on.
The whole affair had gotten bigger. There were more cop cars, a dog unit, and although I don’t recall what I said I definitely remember swearing out loud when a van pulled up behind us and five cops in full tactical gear jogged past with helmets, shotguns and a riot shield. That was when I started wondering if we were talking gun here, not knife, and thinking about lines of sight from the agitated little figure in the spotlight across the way. One of the other onlookers said that that was the second Tac Response squad to arrive, a first team were already in there, somewhere.
By this stage we’d all been ushered well back, up to practically the East Row curb. The tradies doing fitout at Sizzle Bento had been moved out, and King O’Malleys and all the Garema Place cafes had been emptied out. The man at the centre of it all had shouted himself hoarse by now, and nothing was audible from the pavement under the Develin Chemist sign, although the cops had a light on him and we could still see his white torse and sunburned arms – his head, oddly, was hard to discern.
We were an hour or more into things by this stage, and the crowd was starting to make its own fun. Each new person who wanted to walk down into Garema and got stopped by the cops came back to ask what was going on; some wandered off, some stayed to watch. Some didn’t have a choice: a young man standing next to me was being as cheerful as he could while telling me that that was his car down there, inside the exclusion zone and parked in by the cop cars, and he really, really just wanted to get to it and go home. The mood around me seemed sympathetic: a couple of onlookers kept talking about how sad it was for someone’s life to come to this, although one went on to point out that however little this guy had managed to achieve, tonight he’d successfully shut down the town centre of the national capital. The merits of tasers versus pepper spray were bandied about by the large number of instant armchair experts in the crowd, and if anyone knows if rain affects tasers, can you let me know? We were wondering if that was why they weren’t using one. I did see a cop fish a very large pistol-gripped aerosol can out of one of the cars, which I suppose to have been pepper spray, but I don’t think it got used.
A rail-thin man in a white jacket too big for him maintained that he knew the shouter, said that he’d been on methadone and grog and his missus had been locked up a day or two ago, but who knows? He was too far away to be easily recognised. Less sympathetic was the young man who came marching over from the nightclub strip with a bottle in his hand, stopped to ask what was going on, and upon being told about the shouter and his weapon gave a delighted bellow of “LET’S FUCK HIM UP!” and made to charge past the police lines. It took one of the cops a few moments to calm him down and turn him around, and he went slouching off toward London Circuit loudly extolling the virtuies of a “square kick to the fuckin’ nuts”.
We milled, we watched, we felt glad the rain was letting off, we exchanged theories. A craggy, late-forties-ish man I got talking to, apparently a nurse, said that he hoped they weren’t going to tase since there was the risk of heart trouble, but that this man’s behaviour put him in mind of ice and with ice-heads all bets were off. A theory that the police were taking advantage of this event to put new recruits through their paces, thus the large numbers of cops and two TR teams, was put about but evaporated when the people who’d proposed it wandered off to find another pub. A quartet of jaw-droppingly gorgeous African girls in full party gear stopped to ask what was going on, starting with “is he African?” and “is he black?”, although having the very white shape of the shouter pointed out to them didn’t seem to faze them much. As they left one of them was assuring the others that “this would never happen if I was the police, because…” but I never did hear the reason. A woman from the Canberra Times, wearing the expression of one who’d been pulled away from dinner for this, paced and clicked the scene through a zoom lens I’d very much liked to have borrowed for a better look at it all. And Random Shouting Man, whom I often see around Civic swearing loudly at, well, most people and things he passes within a few metres of, showed up in worse temper and swearing more loudly than usual. Perhaps he didn’t appreciate being upstaged. (“Oh, Robbie’s here,” said the nurse I was chatting to, and paid him no more heed. So now I have that to show for the night: the name of Random Shouting Man.)
Ice or adrenaline or whatever was at work, it seemed to be wearing off with the constant pacing and thrashing of arms and shouting, not to mention the cold and the rain. A couple of times I saw the object of our attention kneel down as though he were giving in to being cuffed, only to hop up and pace again. It was harder to see the cops’ deployment, although one person in the crowd swore they could see red sighting dots on the man’s back at one point when he turned around. All I could see was the cops gradually moving in, closing from twenty paces to fifteen, to ten, to eight and then…
Well, it wasn’t the movies. There were a couple of shouts of “get down, get down now” and then there was a brief scuffle. The pallid form of the man broke out from between a couple of cops and started running, just a few paces, long enough for me to think “if he makes it past them and disappears those guys will never live it down” before he crashed to the ground, dark-clad police bodies piled on, and on, and a tinny but perfectly clear voice came over the radio of the cop nearest us that the male had been taken into custody. The TR troops came sauntering back past us – I don’t normally miss having a camera phone, but I did then – and after a paddy wagon trundled over to the knot of cops and trundled away again the lines just sort of evaporated and people started wandering through the Place again. I went down to see if there was any interesting sort of aftermath, but there wasn’t really. I explained what had happened to a curious young man with an accent who said “I have not seen this before. I am not from Australia, from Arabia.” I’m not sure I got across to him what ice was, but when I mentioned that the man might have been on the grog he nodded and said “ah, the drunk” before we smiled and said goodnight. After which there really wasn’t much for it but to go to the car.
And that, you see, is why I only got a couple of hundred words written tonight.