So, it’s 4:30 in the morning, and I’m just coming back from a very surreal experience at NUBlabs.
We’re leaving for Maker Faire in a day, and we wanted to bring down a bunch of our logobots with us. We got all the boards and parts at the last minute, and I threw together a robo-building party to assemble a bunch of the robots. We got about 8 or 9 people to come, bought a bunch of beer, soda and brazilian food, taught everyone to solder, and then laid out all the parts and set folks to work.
It was great! Everyone had a lot of fun, we built fourteen robots and spent hours joking and soldering and working. Around 11 at night, people started to leave, but Alec and Shaunalynn and Jason and I kept working.
At some point, Will took off in the car to go lasercut the chassis, and we never bothered to close the doors after him. It was a nice night, and so we left the big bay door to the warehouse open and kept on soldering.
Around 2 in the morning, a cop car pulls up and the cop walks uninvited into our space. I get up to meet him and ask him what the matter is. He asks for our business license, and I tell him I can show him our operating agreement. I don’t know what a business license is. He’s going on and on about how everybody has to have a business license to run a business in somerville, and this is the first I’ve heard of it.
In retrospect, I realize my first error was in accommodating this guy. He shouldn’t even have come into our space, and even so, we’re tenants in a space we’re renting, doing safe work on our own and not bothering anyone. He had no right or reason to be there. By doing what he said, I instantly gave him the upper hand in our interaction. (in my defense, I’d had about 7 hours of sleep in the last 70 hours and wasn’t really on top of my game)
So I start shuffling through papers, looking for a printout of our operating agreement. I ask him if we’ve done anything wrong, and he says that we had the door open. I offer to close it, and he says, “no–you need to show me your business license. You have to have one to be working at night in somerville”
Now, this doesn’t make any sense to me, and I’m getting flustered because I can’t find any appropriate papers and there’s two more cops pulling up outside. A guy with a city zoning badge comes out of one, and another cop gets out of another. God knows why there’s a zoning guy on call at 2 am. Our tax dollars at work, I guess.
The zoning guy asks me what we’re doing, and I tell him we’re a company working with local somerville schools (true) and we’re under a deadline and staying up late to assemble a bunch of educational devices. He kind of turns to the cop with a “what’s the problem?” look.
The cop says, “When I got here, the door was wide open–WIDE open, and there were open alcoholic beverage containers on the premises”
I repeat my offer to close the door to the zoning guy, who says, “well, if they close the door, I don’t see the problem”
The cop, with the smug air of a tattletale, reports “they don’t have a business license for somerville. He claims to have an operating agreement for his company, but so far has FAILED to show me any paperwork”
The zoning guy says, “you don’t have a business license? hmmm…”
so, this is where it gets wierd. Up until this point, I’ve been feeling kind of confused and defensive. All these cops are apparently busting me for not having my door closed while I was in the shop, and this is the first I’ve ever heard about us needing some business license. In short, I have no idea why they’re in here talking to us, and I’m wondering why they’re not off chasing real criminals.
The cop says, “Without a business license, who knows what you could be up to in here! You could be doing anything. You could have high explosives back there”
So, now I’m getting angry. This is just ridiculous. I turn to the cop and say, as calmly and steadily as I can, with an expression of amazement on my face, “Is that really what you’re worried about”
The cop says, “yeah! As the situation stands, I don’t see any reason NOT to worry about it”
I turn to both of them, an expression of pleading and disbelief on my face. “We work with schools. We’re working on educational teaching aids. We have a deadline and we’re working to meet it. I’d like to close the door and for us to continue working”
The cop says, “No–shut it down for the night. You’ve got to go in tomorrow and get a business permit”
The zoning guy, glancing at the cop, echoes him.
I repeat that we’ve got a deadline, they don’t really care. I finally tell them, OK, we’ll shut down for the night, and they head out. On his way out, the zoning guy says “this officer will drive by in a bit. If you’re still in here, there’ll be big trouble.”
I jam my finger on the ‘door close’ button, confused and pissed and unbelieving and turn my back on them.
Now, I’m not proud of what I did next. I came back to Alec and co and told them what had happened and that we had to leave for the night. In retrospect, I’m amazed and ashamed at how thoroughly the cops had beat me mentally, to the point where I’d pass on their orders to other people. I just had this sense that they were fucking with us, but that we somehow were in an illegitimate position and wouldn’t be able to withstand a confrontation.
Fortunately, Alec has a solid head on his shoulders and talked some sense into me, pointing out that we are doing nothing wrong, we have every right to be in our rented space working whenever we want, and that we shouldn’t forgo what we’re working on because of them, nor should we back away from a confrontation here. It took some doing, but I eventually came around and sat hoping, somewhat nervously, for the cops to come back and both nervous and scared about whatever would happen next.
As it turned out, they never came. We stayed there and worked and built robots for the rest of the night without an incident.
I took a few things away from this:
First, I’m upset at myself for backing away from a confrontation. I’m not used to interacting with authority figures–I like to do things behind their backs, and it bugs me that I’m not good at dealing with them face to face. It smacks of passive-agressiveness on my part, and that’s my least favorite personality trait.
Second, cops don’t have our best interests in mind. Why are they bugging us for having a door open? Why are they telling us we have to go home? It’s detrimental to us, and they have no reason or justification for doing it. I didn’t have much trust for cops, but I lost whatever faith I had left in them tonight.
Third–I should never start out talking with a cop in a defensive manner. Browbeating is incredibly effective, and cops are experts at it. They attack any weakness in your personality or demeanor to assert their dominance in a situation. Never again. I’ll react to a cop entering my space with mistrust and suspicion, not open-ness and honesty.
Fourth–blind trust of authority is dangerous as fuck. After our conversation, I was impressed enough with their authority (and their threats) that I was ready to forgo a pretty important thing I was doing in order to comply with their wishes. I need to start cultivating more of a resistance to cops’ ordering me around, because it’s very easy to do what they tell you.
And finally, thinking back over our conversation, it’s ridiculous. To come to someone’s open door, suggest that they have explosives inside, and then force them to leave is such a stupid way to behave. I hate rabid behaviour in anyone, and this smacks of it. And when authority figures are illogical and inconsistent, I get scared and mad as hell. We’re a bunch of kids working with local schools, for chrissake. Isn’t there actual crime to fight at 2am, rather than coming over to fuck with us?
Seriously–you fucking pigs. Get a life. Get out of mine.