Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Are you shocked?

Everybody, it seems, is talking about the incident at the University of Florida when a student named Andrew Meyer who was aggressively questioning speaker John Kerry was arrested and tasered.

About half of the focus has been on the student and about half on the cops with some room left over to sneer at Kerry for what more than one called "sonorously droning on" as the incident unfolded. Dealing with those in reverse order and so getting to my real concern last (wait for it), I first want to offer a mild defense of John Kerry.

There are a number of news accounts of the incident, but they tend to start at different points and so some things get lost. One is that when Meyer first went to the mike - and apparently he did push to the head of the line - he vocally complained that members of the audience did not have enough time to question Kerry, which may well have been true: After Kerry spoke for 45 minutes, there was a time of, if you will, official questions from one person, leaving the audience no more than 25 minutes for Q&A. At that point, campus police went to remove Meyer but Kerry intervened, saying he should be allowed his question. He answered a question from across the hall and then went back to Meyer.

Meyer asked three questions - why did Kerry concede the 2004 election in the face of evidence of foul electoral play (referring to Greg Palast's noteworthy book Armed Madhouse), why is there no move to impeach Bush to prevent an attack on Iran, and was Kerry in the Skull & Bones Society at Yale along with Bush - but did so at considerable length and even at that point seemed in no mood to relinquish the mike. His mike was cut off, campus police moved in on him, and the struggle began. At that point, Kerry can be heard on various videos saying "It's all right, let me answer his question."

Now, what Kerry should have done at that point is gone down off the stage, up to the cops, and said "I said it was all right!" and insist they let Meyer go - and then he should have said to Meyer that he will answer his questions but in return Meyer had to agree to surrender the mike when he, Kerry, was done.

He didn't. But he did enable the questions to be asked at all and did at least make some objection to the police action by saying that it was okay and he would answer them. He indicated later that "I believe I could have handled the situation without interruption," which at least implies he thinks the police overreacted.

One other thing: Some have written about Kerry "droning on" (he was actually answering the question about the 2004 election) while Meyer was "screaming in pain." Okay, but remember that the videos are taken just feet from Meyer. Kerry, who was using a sound system, can barely be heard in the background. What makes anyone think that Meyer's cries were any more noticeable or intelligible where Kerry was than Kerry's voice was where Meyer was?

Enough of that. There has also been some commentary about Meyer himself. Some of it, as Jon Swift astutely pointed out, came from conservatives denouncing the Left's suppression of free speech until it sank in that Meyer is to the left of Kerry, at which point all bets were off and all of the commentary from all sources, it seems, was intended to label him just a troublemaker who got what he deserved. Well, yes, he was an obnoxious loudmouth - the screaming for help that began when the cops tried to hustle him out of the hall, i.e., even before he was actually arrested, and the subsequent appeals to onlookers to follow the cops because otherwise they'd kill him made him look particularly boorish to me - but no, no way did he get what he deserved or deserve what he got. The police acted hastily, stepped in unnecessarily, were overly aggressive and violent, and bottom line were responsible for creating an incident where there need not have been one.

On Countdown, Rachel Maddow was asked if upon first seeing the video, she thought "overzealous campus police who went too far or loudmouthed activist looking to make trouble who was dealt with?" She answered "Yes." That's exactly my take on it, which is why my real focus, my real concern, is one one particular point:

The taser.

The goddam em-effing taser.

Once again we see the police whipping out a taser like some cliché old-West gunslinger to intimidate and punish rather than to protect. There is no doubt from the multiple videos that Meyer was first threated with being, and then was, tasered for nothing more than failure to cooperate. In fact, while it's hard to be certain, this video seems to show that he was already handcuffed when he was tasered; clearly he was on his stomach with his hands behind his back. He was handcuffed and shocked despite his clear statement that if released we would leave quietly (which getting him to do was the original point, supposedly). They tasered him not because they had to but because they could.

But maybe they couldn't. According to the Ocala Star-Banner's account, University Police Department Captain Jeff Holcomb
said there would be an investigation into whether the officers used force appropriately, adding that employing a Taser gun would only be justified in a case where there was a threat of physical harm to officers.
Which there very clearly was not. He was very painfully shocked with 50,000 volts not because he was a threat, not because of any danger he presented to the six campus police on him, but because he refused to actively cooperate, meekly and submissively, with police demands. This was the deliberate infliction of physical pain not in self-defense but as punishment for resistance. And frankly if it was up to me the cops responsible would not only be fired, they would be prosecuted for criminal assault. Perhaps we can at least hope for some kind of reprimand, although the University may be trying to fashion an out: One report which I can't locate now (so no link) said one cop was injured - so we may well be treated to a claim that the six of them feared for their safety in the face of this one kid lying face down on the floor.

It's far from the first case where tasers have been used in such a way. Sold by the manufacturers on the grounds that they offer an alternative to potentially lethal violence, they have from the beginning been something else. They very first time I mentioned them, 31/2 years ago, I declared that
[w]ith the increasing availability of tasers ... will come the increasing temptation to use them routinely, no longer in lieu of lethal force but in lieu of persuasion and patience, no longer against someone posing a physical threat but against someone giving "a hard time," no longer for protection but for dominance.
That is, they would become weapons not of protection but of convenience, used not to save lives but to save effort, to secure not public order but passive obedience. And that, in fact, is exactly what they have become, as incident after incident after incident has shown.

From AP last month:
In a confrontation captured on videotape, a hospital security guard fired a stun gun to stop a defiant father from taking home his newborn, sending both man and child crashing to the floor. ...

"I've got to wonder what kind of moron would Tase an adult holding a baby," said George Kirkham, a former police officer and criminologist at Florida State University. "It doesn't take rocket science to realize the baby is going to fall."

[William] Lewis, 30, said the April 13 episode began after he and his wife felt mistreated by staff at the Woman's Hospital of Texas and they decided to leave. Hospital employees told him doctors would not allow it, but Lewis picked up the baby and strode to a bank of elevators.
He was confronted by security guards, one of who, within 40 seconds of the encounter, prepared to use his taser. The hospital defended the guards, claiming Lewis "became verbally abusive by using vulgar expletives," behavior it called "threatening." Yes, oh my gosh, he used vulgar expletives! I'm sure they were things neither guard had ever heard before!

And, as it all too typical in this case, who got charged? Lewis, of course, charged with endangering a child, I assume by dropping it when he was tasered. That was so bogus that a grand jury refused to indict him.

More recently, this is from the New York Daily News for Monday (via AmericaBlog):
A retired 20-year veteran of the NYPD said yesterday that cops used excessive force against his son when they zapped him four times with a Taser, hit him 15 times with a nightstick and put him in a choke hold.

Retired Lt. Alexander Lombard said his son, Alexander Lombard 3rd, 17, was beaten by cops after they arrived at a "community sponsored" barbecue at 126th St. and Park Ave. last month. ...

But Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne said in a statement that a police sergeant "employed a Taser against the suspect's ankle" to subdue him after responding to a large disturbance at about 3:30 a.m.
Which is curious since the photo accompanying the story shows what sure as hell looks like taser burns on Lombard's side. If the cop didn't know the difference between Lombard's ankle and side, I strongly suspect there are two other more traditionally-compared parts of his own body about which he is equally confused.
[Noel] Leader, [co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care,] who went with the father and son to file a complaint with the Internal Affairs Bureau, pointed out that disorderly conduct was the sole charge against Lombard.

"The mere fact that he was hit with a Taser four times," Leader said, "and there's no resisting arrest charge, no criminal possession of a weapons charge - it's evident to me that this incident did not justify use of a stun gun."
An amazing number of them don't. Far, far too many. Tasers have become (if they were not always) exactly what I predicted from the start they would be: Weapons not of last resort save guns, but of first resort, weapons used not for self-protection but for securing passive obedience, weapons of control and cruelty that express not a cop's concern for their safety but their inability to control their own frustration. They should be banned.

Footnote: Perhaps an unnecessary one since this seems to be getting spammed into comments on this, but under the heading Frontiers of Free Enterprise comes a website (to which I will not link) that the day after the incident at the University of Florida was hawking "shirts, hats, buttons, stickers and more" reading "Don't Tase Me, Bro'" and "What Did I Do?"

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