Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Don't tase me, bro!

By now, you've probably seen footage of University of Florida college student Andrew Meyer receiving a taser shock after being dragged away from a question-and-answer session with Senator John Kerry. And many observers have already leapt to the assumption that cops employed excessive force by trundling the kicking and howling kid away from the microphone and delivering an electric shock after he was on the ground, crying, "Don't tase me, bro!" Some may offer conspiracy theories about how the kid was removed only after he asked about the senator's affiliation with a Yale secret society. Clearly we have seen yet another example of authority run amok.

Believe me, I'm willing to accept that interpretation. I recall plenty of examples of cops and other "security personnel" abusing the public trust, particularly after forgetting the ubiquity of video cameras in our contemporary surveillance society. I remember citizens being barred from Bush campaign events simply because of t-shirts they wore or bumper stickers found on their cars. We're not talking about swear-words or the display of excessive flesh, merely the audacity to arrive at a political event with ideas not appearing on the talking points memo. I also remember seeing footage of presidential candidate Ralph Nader being told by police to leave a debate, even though he had been given a ticket to attend. In all of these cases, and in far more egregious and harrowing scenes, cops (both of the formal variety and the rent-a-type) were willing to back unconstitutional barriers to civic participation with potentially lethal force. Thus, I'm hardly surprised that a number of Meyer supporters are unfurling the banner of free speech and hurling epithets of police brutality.

But this incident, while shocking in a number of ways, can be boiled down to a far more basic issue, the obligation of forum organizers to balance the rights of individual speakers with the rights of the guest and the audience. Meyer had every opportunity to ask a challenging question and await a respectful reply. But instead, this kid harangued the group with a meandering lecture and overstepped any reasonable time limit that a participant to this sort of event should accept. The audience applauded the cutting of his microphone and Meyer received his moment of fame. Yet as he continued his stream of increasingly agitated speech, cops stepped in to remove him. And then he made his critical mistake, forsaking any sympathy he should earn.

When a cop steps up to arrest you, and I've had some experience in this matter, the time to talk, argue, and debate is over. Whether you're being taken to the back of a squad car or being removed from a public setting, the wisest response is to calm down and shut up. You may "resist" of course, if by resistance you decide to go limp and not participate in what you perceive to be an unjust act. You may lie down in front of a cop or a tank if you think it's the right thing to do. And you may use the judicial system and the media to seek redress. But shouting, cursing, and trying to escape a cop is only going to call for an overwhelming response. All too frequently, police officers have experienced moments in which peaceful interactions exploded into violent struggles, and with that possibility in mind, they don't mess around. Add the fact that this kid, while thrashing to elude the police, leapt in the general direction of a former presidential candidate who had probably received countless death threats, I can only conclude that Meyer deserved what he got.

What's most galling about this incident, however, is a sense that I can't shake, a belief that Meyer intended to scream his way into history, that he sought and enjoyed his notoriety. In an age when vapid celebutantes flash their privates for willing paparazzi, when sociopaths upload videos of themselves beating up homeless people, when "talk" and "reality television" shows demonstrate a steadily collapsing threshold of personal shame, I am no longer surprised to see some moron ignoring a cop's lawful commands, aggressively resisting arrest, and then being shocked, shocked when the taser comes out.

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