Chile has the nastiest, meanest looking riot cop vans I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Big hulking blocks of dark green metal with barred up blacked out windows, always lurking round the most innocent looking street corners on sunny afternoons.

I’m doing fieldwork on a university campus at the moment, a twenty minute bus ride from my apartment. Jumping off at the stop a short block away from the university this morning, I noticed again that there were two large riot vans parked in the drive through McDonalds nearby. I have been trying to work out what this signifies. Do the Santiago police really like Big Macs? Is there not enough parking space at the cop shop? Is McDonalds perceived to be in need of two van loads of riot cops to protect it? Or maybe its McDs itself that’s considered subversive, and we the public are being protected from its revolting pseudo food by the boys in riot gear? One of my many daily mysteries.

Sometime this afternoon, during a rather boring class I was observing, we were disturbed by the sound of crowds of voices and loud sharp cracks outside the window. The guys sulking at the back of the class jumped up to peer out the window – but the window was closed and we went back to work. Let out half an hour later, I followed the shouting and smell of burning to the other side of campus – where one of those huge hulking riot vans was squatting in the street close up to the spiky iron perimeter railings of the campus. The water cannon was aimed at a crowd of protesting students and onlookers (but not at the burning trash cans, sadly, which would perhaps have been more useful).

Things progressed, and eventually the armoured-up cops marched back to their riot vans, while the cat calls and wolf whistles of the crowd rained down on them: punctuated with a few farewell rocks and bottles.

A classic moment – the black clad figure, face masked by a red and black scarf, runs forward with arm pulled back to sling his rock at the retreating cops. The Bansky pose, if you will, iconic whether he holds a rock or a flaming bottle or a bunch of flowers.

Except in mid hurl he slipped on the wet pavement and landed on his arse, and the entire crowd of protesters and onlookers burst into giggles.

Poor guy. He did manage to jump up again and land a good thonk with his rock afterwards, bless him. I guess his pride took a bit of a battering too. But he has given me something to remember and laugh about whenever I come across those scary scary machines in the future.

I’ve got addicted to the HBO series The Wire in the last few days. While I was ill this weekend and home alone in the house in the countryside, I watched the whole first series while wrapped up in a pile of blankets in front of the electric fire one afternoon. Now I’m nearly done with the second series as well, though its not as good as the first.

If you’ve never heard of it – and I hadn’t till some of the guys here kept going on about it – The Wire is basically a cop show. But though I usually hate cop shows, this one’s got a sense of humour and a good plot that makes it very watchable. It shows both sides of a police case – the detectives who are all either corrupt or drunks but have heart, and the empire of drug dealers they are trying to catch. The story goes back and forwards from one perspective to another, and portrays both as sympathetically or negatively as the other. The name comes from its main preoccupation – the story is basically about the cops discovering the use of surveillance and wire tapping. It starts with them still writing reports on type writers, and follows them through the amazing discovery of how they can bring down criminal masterminds by looking at their phone records, tapping their phones, and – eventually in the second series – learning what text messages and GPS are. Somewhere near the end of the second series there is a big plot lurch forward when they realise they can track someone’s phone number and then get all their records if they know the place and time that they sent a single text message. This seems like fairly obvious stuff to me, but that’s probably because of the company I used to keep. To most people who watch it I guess it is quiet a revelation that so much can be learnt from tracking phones. The plot briefly explored the misuses of the wire tapping (the two ‘dumb cops’ listening in to a suspect having phone sex), but mostly it concentrates on everything that can be gained from such technology. The major obstacles are the oppressive and corrupt senior officers that don’t believe in the power of the wire and keep trying to close the investigation. The fact that the bad guys are obviously bad, and the audience knows this, means that there is never a more in depth questioning of the use of such technology.

Of course, its not surprising that a series like this comes at a time when the US and most other governments are flinging privacy laws out the window as fast as they can, and making it easier and easier to spy on anyone, anywhere, anytime. I never really like cop shows partly because I hate that thinly veiled attempt to get us to think the old copper is just a good guy really, and if he does turn you into a bloody pulp in a cell one night, its probably for your own good. The Wire is not so blatant as, say, 24, in pushing the message, and its refreshing in this day and age to not only have some non-Muslim bad-guys, but to also have the occasional snide remark about the effects of the ‘war on terror’. As far as propaganda goes, its well written and pretty entertaining propaganda, with just enough self-awareness to make it more than palatable.

Barry Cooper is on a mission. Having been one of the most successful narcotics officers in Texas during an 8 year career, Barry found life wasn’t quite so much fun once he left the force and was himself the target of over-zealous police attention. A little soul searching led him to the conclusion that maybe the law on marijuana possesion was wrong.

Barry explains, “I knew what I was doing was wrong but my need for fame, adrenaline and peer acceptance over road my good conscience.” Barry now realizes this is a war on people not a war on drugs. He explains “This war on people is a failed policy. We have more prisoners of this war in jail then ever before yet even the DEA admits we have more potent drugs and a larger supply of drugs available than ever before.”

So Barry decided to take matters into his own hands, and strike back. He made a DVD: “Barry Cooper’s NEVER Get Busted Again”. Making use of his extensive experience he tells you, the marijuana smoking citizen, how to “Hide Your Stash”, “Fool The Drugs Dogs” and generally outwit the officers. And all for only $19.95 (now accepting Canadian dollars).

The important question.

Q. Is Barry teaching us how to break the law?

A. No. It is clear the law is already being broken. 18 million Americans smoke marijuana daily and 93 million Americans admit to using marijuana at least once in their life. Barry is teaching how to keep from going to jail for an unjustified law that is already being broken daily by millions of non-violent citizens.

Read all about it here. Its classic.

There aren’t so many moments, now that I’ve been here two years, when I get to use that ‘just-off-the-boat’ expression “Its just like the movies!!”. Familiarity of the real eventually begins to blur the memory of the imaginary, undercutting the primacy of fictional representation as the point of reference from which reality is compared. The question of which is the shadow of which that is constantly asked when one first encounters the origin point of all representations, becomes less urgent. But perhaps for that reason, moments when life imitates art imitating life occur to the point of parody – and thus force the question to ask itself – become all that more precious. This morning I visited a police station that was clichéd to the point of being gleefully so. It was all so serious – and yet so preposterously a rendering of the imaginary.

Now, the Chicago police have a fairly unsavoury reputation for being minority murdering thugs, so its not surprising that its taken me over two years to have my first serious interaction with them. I try to avoid them at all costs, something that is not so difficult being a white woman and therefore less likely to be pulled over and harassed at random, as is their wont. Last night, however, my car got smashed in a hit and run, and I was forced to go make a police report this morning in order to claim my insurance. So off I pedalled on my little bike to the nearest police station.

The building I found myself in felt like set of a bad 70s cop movie. I sniffed the air – no tobacco smell, of course, this is the year 2007. Yet it looked so nicotine stained – the grey and beige colours, the tired out furniture, the slightly grimy touch to the counter, the battered clock on the wall that helpfully explained the 24 hour system, the faded posters with their 1980s typeface, the dusty memorial photos to officers dead for 30 years… . A scathingly pedantic officer took my details, using monosyllabic grunts and the kind of belligerent more-than-my-jobs-worth sarcasm that makes the immigration bureaucrats at the border look like angels. When we had eventually managed to fill the form in, he sat his huge mass of fat down at a keyboard to single-finger type out the report, within the time frame it usually takes a small mammal to evolve. I got plenty of time to look around and take in my surroundings. Gradually I realised I had walked not into a real police station, surely not, but in fact into a surreal movie set, a self-parody of reality that could not possibly have existed outside of the banal imagination of a paper-back writer.

A door behind me opened and an officer walked in. The young man was tall and beautiful in his neatly ironed uniform, and looked for all the world like a young Italian farmhand who ought to be tumbling wenches in the hay on a hillside far far away. The innocence radiating from his face could not have been played better by Tom Cruise himself. A middle-aged fat guy leaning back in his desk chair glared at him over the rim of a coffee. This second dude was one of several killing time on their side of the counter, shirts squeezed over copious girths, the occasional scrubby white moustache setting off pasty dough-like faces. He watched with a look of contempt as the young newbie awkwardly made his way into the room. Eventually he spun his gut round in his chair to face the desk, and threw a question over his shoulder. “Which division did you say your father worked for again?” The newbie quickly stepped forward to answer. The precise division he replied with was lost on me, as I was trying not to giggle.

I turned to watch the action on the other side of the room instead. What had to have been ‘the genius’ – the only guy who knew how to use a computer properly – was sitting at a desk talking to the secretary. You could tell he was the socially awkward one in the plot line, by the fact he wore glasses and had badly died orange hair, receding over an already egg shaped forehead. Remember, this is a 70s cop-movie – the computer guy is always a distinctive and central character. No doubt later he will consult databases or something, provide an essential piece of info to give to the tough-guy heroes who will then dramatically solve the case. The secretary, however, never changes. A muscular bleach-blond, crumpled white shirt hanging over tight blue jeans, leaning on the desk and bitching about her day. That kind of lip-sneering bitching, one arm on her hip and the other tapping red nails over the desk she’s leaning on. At one point they were interrupted by a Asian officer who walked hurriedly through – we are now into 90s cop movie territory, where the token ethnic guy proves that its not just fat middle aged white guys who can beat up minorities. A discussion breaks out about where so-and-so is: he’s in looking after someone else’s prisoner, in a cell somewhere. On cue, so-and-so makes his appearance, bursting in from a tiled corridor outback, dressed in baseball cap and a sports team sweatshirt. The comic-relief, the cute all-American dude. He cracks a few jokes and leaves.

Just when I’m getting to grips with the fact this is now a 90s plot line (despite the obvious mislocation of the Italian hero – we’re in Chicago, not New York. Shouldn’t he be Greek?) in comes the classic 1970s cop. The grizzled old dude in the proper wide police hat (the kind you buy in cops and robbers costumes as a kid), big bushy white 70s moustache and a huge pair of black sunglasses, striding in and chucking his gun down on the desk. He surveys the scene with a self-satisfied smile on his face, taking in the pasty white dough-men, the lost young newbie, the bitching secretary…. All is right in the world.

There was just one thing I thought I would be disappointed by, in my experience of the parody of life and art. Sure, everyone was chugging down cheap coffee, but where were the doughnuts? I consoled myself with the fact that the coffee cups were all from Dunkin Doughnuts, and that therefore there must have been the real thing at some point, only I missed it.
Eventually, the fat fool filling in my paper work managed to get off the phone and drag his arse out the chair to give me my report with one last surly sneer. I made my way out to my bike, past the leering eyes of the baseball hat wearing officers in the corridor, the Hispanic guy trying to explain in broken English that he just wanted to see his kids, past the black kids hanging around looking miserable, and the women trying with no luck to elicit sympathy and help for the theft of her car. I unlocked my bike as a car drew up beside me. Another fat white guy got out accompanied by a tired looking female officer. They slowly rolled over to the door way, glaring at me on the way. In his hand – a bag of Dunkin Doughnuts.