Features » January 25, 2008
Tupperware and Tasers (cont’d)
There’s been no shortage in the blogosphere of people poking fun of Andrew Meyer’s appeals, moans and screams that accompanied the University of Florida incident. Indeed, sites like www.dont-tasemebro.com are further proof of the ways in which even the most serious issue can be trivialized and depleted of its power. Why pass up a perfect opportunity to make a bit of money ($29.95 per T-shirt, to be exact) on a popular slogan, even if it originated in the pleading moments before the sickening crack-snap-sizzle sound of a Taser shooting electrified darts into a person’s skin?
Taking outright pleasure in the pain the weapon can inflict, the popular TV series “24” seems to have developed a love affair with this kind of weaponry. At least two “terrorists” have been stun-gunned thus far, in addition to Abu Ghraib-style electrical torture during interrogations.
Even low-budget Asian martial arts movies shown in the United States feature the occasional stun gun stunt, alongside more familiar, high-flying punches and kicks.
People who have been tased often liken the experience to the sensation of dying–something that does not seem like an exaggeration in light of at least 250 Taser-related deaths in the United States since 2001, according to Amnesty International. The U.N. Committee Against Torture recently determined that the use of Tasers “causes acute pain, constituting a form of torture.”
Until recently, reports of Taser-related incidents and deaths have tended to involve men, typically described by police as having behaved in deranged and/or dangerous ways before being stunned.
But what once amounted to a few reported Taser encounters per month has now taken the shape of daily accounts throughout North America, including several high-profile deaths in Canada.
Last September, the death of a non-English-speaking Polish immigrant at the hands of inexplicably aggressive, Taser-wielding Royal Canadian Mounted Police at the Vancouver Airport drew international outrage when a bystander’s cell phone footage thwarted initial “official” efforts to downplay what had happened.
Increasingly, people being stunned aren’t just people with limited English-speaking skills; they’re also children, teenagers, the elderly and the disabled. In fact, with astonishing frequency, police are using Tasers on women and girls.
In November 2007, for instance, Chicago police tased an 82-year-old woman with dementia.
Last June, a homeless woman died outside an Oklahoma City shelter after she was thrown on the ground, handcuffed by police and then tased while incapacitated.
In Green Cove Springs, Fla., the family of an agitated 56-year-old wheelchair-bound woman filed suit last February after watching police shock her 10 times in response to their request for assistance. Her death was ruled a homicide.
Ohio has become an unexpected epicenter of the use of Tasers against women and girls. Last May, Crystalynn Coker, a 17-year-old African-American student was tased in Monroe, Ohio, when she refused to back down from a racist verbal barrage by a fellow student and staged her own form of a one-person, nonviolent sit-in after her teacher ordered her out of the classroom. According to Coker and her family, a police officer was called in without any justifiable cause to physically remove her from the room. Once the officer pulled Coker from her chair, he handcuffed and tased her three times without any explanation before, during or after the attack.
In the town of Warren, Ohio, footage emerged in September 2007 of a policeman shocking 38-year-old Heidi Gill repeatedly. In the video, Gill is shown crawling, moaning and pleading desperately as she tries to get away from the apparently trigger-happy officer. Footage shows Officer Rich Kovach handcuffing and dragging Gill’s body around during much of the ordeal, which is now under investigation.
One of the strangest overreactions involving Taser use occurred in, of all places, a Best Buy electronics store in Daytona Beach, Fla. Amid frenetic rush of pre-Christmas shoppers, 35-year-old yoga instructor Elizabeth Beeland had been waiting in line to purchase a CD player with her credit card. When her cell phone rang, Beeland stepped outside the store’s noisy environment to have a brief conversation. Although she left both the CD player and credit card with the cashier, the clerk somehow concluded that Beeland might be using a stolen card, and called police officer Claudia Wright over to handle the situation. Beeland took umbrage at the accusation, and raised her voice. Wright threatened to arrest her if she didn’t stop yelling. In what has become an increasingly familiar scenario–the rapid escalation from an initial encounter with a civilian, culminating with the infliction of horrendous pain, sometimes within just a few seconds–Wright opted to use her X-26 over any number of more logical alternatives. On the surveillance tape, Beeland is seen trying to back away from the Taser-wielding cop, then falling to the floor in obvious pain after the stun gun wires pierced her flesh.
Worse yet, Tasers have already begun to be used in robberies, domestic violence and hostage situations.
Among other disturbing reports, a serial rapist in Modesto, Calif., kidnapped and brutally raped a 27-year-old woman in August 2006 after stunning her with a Taser.
For the sake of those schmooze, stun and sales parties, they might do well to keep this kind of information under a tightly sealed Tupperware lid.
Silja J.A. Talvi
Silja J.A. Talvi, a senior editor at In These Times, is an investigative journalist and essayist with credits in many dozens of newspapers and magazines nationwide, including The Nation, Salon, Santa Fe Reporter, Utne, and the Christian Science Monitor.