Sunday, November 22, 2009

Land of the Free-Flowing Current

Digby, who has done some excellent documenting of the out-of-control use of tasering by poorly-trained police, links to yet another recent taser antic:
During protests over the past two days, at least a few students were tasered. UCLA officials said two were tasered on Wednesday and photos show that at least one student was on Thursday.

A witness to Thursday's incident tells LAist that two people were tasered during a scuffle captured in photos. "In fact with this particular incident," said the student, "there were actually two students who were tasered, the girl lying down next to Rustin O'Neill on the right in the first photo posted was also tasered, once, in the arm, and Rustin was tasered multiple times over the heart."

UCPD officials were not immediately available for comment...

A memo and training bulletin from Taser that gained media attention last month warned agencies that "if a stun gun is discharged to the chest, a lawsuit likely will follow, charging that police used excessive force," according to CNN in an aricle called "Taser makers say don't aim at chest."
Of course, Rustin O'Neill, who is revealed in the article's accompanying photos as being spectacularly laid out by campus cops for felony sidewalk-sitting, just happens to be black. Sheer coincidence.

I posted about this back in 2007, and at that time it seemed unlikely it could get much worse. But now it seems every time I turn around I read of some new and more ridiculous use of tasering. Got a tantrum-throwing 10-year old girl who won't take a shower? Call the cops. Gesturing while black? Take him downtown! Won't stand up when the cops tell you to? That broken back is no excuse! Confused? Let the cops relieve you of that confusion. Bi-polar? Pow! Off your meds? Pow!! Oh we love to give it to the crazies. Pow!!!

In Darius Rejali's "Torture and Democracy", an incredible treatise against "stealth" torture, he writes a major indictment against tasers ("instruments of torture"), recommending that they be banned entirely. He begins his book with a vignette on the arrest of Rodney King, and notes that while the world focussed harshly on the beating police gave him, the tasering he received got little attention:
Koon’s Taser model possessed two dart cartridges. Koon lodged the first pair of darts on King’s back and the second on his upper chest. Each discharge delivered short pulses of 50,000 volts, eight to fifteen pulses per second.

The pain was not trivial. The California Highway Patrol officer said King was “writhing.” LAPD officer Timothy Wind stated that King “was shouting incoherently from the pain of the taser.” Even Koon, who was nine feet away, declared, “He’s groaning like a wounded animal, and I can see the vibrations on him.” While Officer Laurence Powell beat King on video, Koon depressed the button a third time, draining whatever charge was left in the batteries. This was not a trivial discharge either. LAPD recruits knew that whoever touched a tased victim would also “get zapped. They don’t become unconscious . . . they just go down.” Officer Ted Briseno claims that he intervened at this point to stop the beating. Koon and Wind believe that “Briseno wasn’t trying to stop the violence; he was trying to prevent the TASER charge from hitting Powell and Wind.” At any rate, the third tase didn’t subdue King, and the beating continued.

If these beatings led to the Los Angeles Riots of 1992, the multiple high-voltage shocks barely impinged on public consciousness. Indeed, what would have happened if King had suffered no fractures, only the mere burn of the Taser? At the trial, the defense produced Dr. Dallas Long to contest whether there even was a burn scar. As Koon puts it, “Rodney King had no burn; a TASER dart doesn’t leave one.”

A democratic public may be outraged by violence it can see, but how likely is it that we will get outraged about violence like this, that may or may not leave traces, violence that we can hardly be sure took place at all? A victim with scars to show to the media will get sympathy or at least attention, but victims without scars do not have much to authorize their complaints to a skeptical public. A trial can focus on the specific damages of a beating—where did the blows allegedly fall? Were the strikes professional, necessary or neither?—but what precisely can a trial focus on with electric shocks that leave few marks? Some argue we are desensitized to violence we see on the evening news, but about violence we can’t see—even when its effects lie before our eyes, shaping very flow of traffic on our streets—we cannot reflect, much less react.
Even when the cops themselves are injured by this "safe" alternative to guns, SNAFU remains the status quo. As of March 2009, Amnesty International reported 351 deaths from tasers in the US since July 2001, and it looks like we're in no mood to quit now. Yet somehow our Daffy Defenders of Liberty have remained strangely mute on the subject.

I guess "freedom" as they see it means, not freedom from oppression, but freedom from oppression by the wrong people.

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