Public Comment

Commentary: Violence and Parking Enforcement In the City of Berkeley

By Kirk Rivera
Tuesday November 14, 2006

I am a student of violence. There is, to consider, the actual explosion of rage, when flesh collides with flesh. I have been at the wrong end of two encounters, I have seen it happen to another, and have heard, sometimes within minutes, of many others. But I am even more interested in the moments before the eruption—the thickening of the voice, the ape-like bulking of the shoulders, the trembling of the cheekbones, the reek of flammable testosterone. I’m crackingly alert to the warning signs that scream: MOVE! What is my line of work? Parking enforcement for the City of Berkeley. 

Some years ago, I read an account of domestic abuse, of a woman married to a usually benign but unpredictably, randomly abusive husband. There would be long stretches of normalcy inevitably interrupted by a constant fear of what inflection of voice, what choice of subject, what facial expression would trigger her spouse’s wrath and the sudden laying of the hand. I feel, especially whenever there is a recurrence of violence in our work, that parking officers are in a situation somewhat similar to that of the woman in an abusive relationship. On the one hand, we are, as it were bound, not only by the routine regulations of employment but also by the particular requirements of law enforcement work. On the other, we are, like unarmed London bobbies, in a position of weakness. Considering the public we come in contact with as a whole, I regard it as mostly amiable and mostly reasonable, but capable of lightning-fast changes in mood, not entirely trustworthy, and sometimes dangerous. Knowing people, and knowing, among other things, when people turn violent, is in the interest of self-preservation. 

Recently, one of my colleagues had an experience that, if nothing else, proves that despite my many years in the job I haven’t seen everything yet. Put as plainly as possible, what happened is this: The vehicle of a male Berkeley citizen was cited for a parking violation. The citizen approached the female parking enforcement officer who had issued the citation and demanded that she take back the ticket. The officer declined. The citizen reached for her, grabbed her jacket, and pulled the officer toward him. He then brushed her shoulder-length hair aside, and pushing her shoulder in the same motion, inserted the citation inside a jacket loop above her shoulder. Finally, he slammed his hand down on the shoulder, the loop, and the crumpled citation, and walked away. In the next half-hour, the citizen would be apprehended and arrested for battery by Berkeley police officers. The citizen’s behavior was brutish, yes, but not that uncommon. What sets this incident beyond the pale is that he, self-identified as Rob Browning, wrote a letter about the incident to a local publication, that this letter was defiant rather than contrite, that this letter was in fact published as a “commentary” by the Berkeley Daily Planet (in the Nov. 7 edition), and that he is the husband of Berkeley City Councilmember Linda Maio. 

The commentary, headlined “My Jail Term,” in which he refers to Thoreau and Gandhi and intimates an acquaintance with the noblest principles, puts the strutting rooster back into cockiness. At best a simulacrum of apology, in which he calls the officer stupid and unfair, the letter is at worse something much more worrisome: a provocation to further violence. Mr. Browning describes, with palpable glee, a cellmate who upon hearing of the incident approved of “my achievement.” While in the letter he downplays the details of the incident—the whole of it: “I stuck the crumpled citation under the epaulet of her jacket”—I wonder how honest he was with the cellmate. Did he even, for macho effect, exaggerate? Perhaps, since the incident, he has had or will have conversations, barren of any mention of art museums, writers, or acquaintance with the noblest principles, in which he will snicker and say, “I gave her what she deserved.” 

By necessity, I am a student of violence. And in my estimation, Rob Browning has made my situation and that of my colleagues more precarious. 


Kirk Rivera is a Berkeley resident.