Revolution #139, August 10, 2008

Torture by Police Taser in the USA

Guantanamo...Abu Ghraib...Bagram, Afghanistan…the secret CIA prisons. These sites operated by the U.S. have been the scenes of excruciating pain of waterboarding, the brutal humiliation of rape and sexual abuse, mind-destroying isolation, and other horrors perpetrated by the U.S. against thousands of people. All in the name of the “war on terror,” which really should be called the “war for greater American empire.”

Within the U.S. itself, the use by police of tasers—recognized by the United Nations, Amnesty International, and other organizations as a form of torture—is being increasingly adopted as a routine part of how the police operate, especially against Black and Latino people, as well as against people involved in dissent and protest.

In June of this year, the NYPD adopted the recommendations of a RAND corporation report to increase the use of tasers as a “less deadly” alternative to police use of firearms. The report was commissioned by the NYPD in the wake of massive protest against the savage police murder of Sean Bell on his wedding day in November 2006. The NYPD has begun a pilot program in which 520 sergeants will wear the device on their belts while on patrol instead of keeping them in their cars, as they had been doing.

A taser is an electroshock weapon that fires about 50,000 volts along two metal wires with hooks at the end that embed in a victim's flesh or clothing. Or a taser can be applied directly to a person's body, which the police call “stun-driving.” When a victim is assaulted by a taser, his or her muscles twitch uncontrollably. A shock of just a half-second causes intense pain. Two or three seconds can cause a person to become dazed and drop to the ground. Over three seconds will usually completely disorient a person and cause paralysis for at least several seconds.

The United Nations' Committee Against Torture concluded in November 2007 that tasers constitute a form of torture and can cause death. Amnesty International (AI) recorded 291 deaths in the U.S. and Canada, almost all in the U.S., of people struck by police tasers between June 2001 and September 2007. AI said it has documented “disturbing instances where we believe that taser use has amounted to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment which is absolutely prohibited by international law.” AI also reported that “the vast majority of people who have died after being struck by tasers have been unarmed men who did not pose a threat of death or serious injury when they were electroshocked. In many cases they appear not to have posed a significant threat at all.” Of the 291 deaths, AI has identified only 25 individuals who were reportedly armed with any sort of weapon when they were tasered, and none of those weapons were guns.

Many thousands of people in the U.S. have been subjected to extreme pain and injury as a result of being tasered by police. Thousands of videos documenting police tasering people are posted on YouTube.

A Lethal Weapon

Many of those who died from police tasering were subjected to multiple and/or prolonged shocks. The following are some examples:

Tasers in Schools and at Protests

Children are being tasered in their schools by cops for the “crime” of disobedient or rebellious behavior. In 2004 the parents of a six-year-old boy in Miami sued the police department for tasering their child, who was threatening to cut his own leg with a piece of glass. Two weeks later, a 12-year-old girl in Miami-Dade County was tasered for skipping class.

College campus cops are also armed with tasers. On November 14, 2006, Mostafa Tabatabainejad, an Iranian-American UCLA student, was electroshocked multiple times by campus police in a library while handcuffed. His anguished screams of pain, captured in a six-minute video taken by a cell phone camera and available on YouTube, are impossible to forget ( The police said they tasered him because he refused to show his student ID card and didn't leave the library when ordered to. Tabatabainejad said he refused to identify himself because he was being racially profiled based on his Middle Eastern appearance. On the YouTube video, he can be heard shouting, “Here's your PATRIOT Act! Here's your fucking abuse of power!”

On Sept. 17, 2007, Senator John Kerry spoke at a Constitution Day forum at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Toward the end of the Q&A period, Andrew Meyer, a 21-year-old undergrad, posed some questions to Kerry, including why he conceded the 2004 presidential election to George W. Bush when he appeared to have won the popular vote. Meyer's mike was turned off, and two campus cops grabbed him and began taking him out of the auditorium. As he was dragged away, Meyer could be heard yelling, “Don't tase me bro, don't tase me!” But Meyer was tasered, and his plea to be spared the torture has become part of today's popular culture, including on T-shirts and in a song by Mick Jones of Carbon/Silicon and former guitarist for The Clash.

In 2003 demonstrators in many cities opposing the Bush regime's preparations for the invasion of Iraq were tasered by cops and attacked with other weapons of repression, including pepper spray and rubber and wood bullets. In the same year, demonstrators protesting a meeting in Miami of member nations of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas were tasered. In December 2007, people protesting at the New Orleans City Council against the demolition of public housing were tasered and pepper-sprayed.

Tasers are used most extensively in the U.S. against Blacks and Latinos. In Houston, police data show that in almost 1,000 taser incidents over a period of two-and-a-half years, 63 percent of those tasered were Black, although Houston's population is only 25 percent Black. Of those who were tasered in that period, Houston police data indicate that 95 percent of them were not carrying any kind of weapon.

Marquez Claxton, spokesman for the New York City organization 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement, said he is certain there will be more tasering by the cops because of the new NYPD policy, “because now the sergeants have them on their belts. So now if someone is a little bit belligerent they are going to get tasered. If an officer decides that someone is not cooperating enough, they are going to get tasered.”

Think about it. Fifty thousand mostly young Black and Latino people are “stopped-and-frisked” by the police in New York City every month, for any reason but mostly for no reason at all. (See “NYPD Stops-and-Frisks: Criminalizing People in the Ghettos and Barrios,” Revolution #79, online at Fewer than 10% of the stops result in arrest. Young people walk out the door every morning not knowing whether they might be stopped by the NYPD and become another Sean Bell or Amadou Diallo. Now these police are being encouraged to increase the use of a recognized instrument of torture. What kind of sick and vicious system institutionalizes the routine use of electric-shock torture on the people?

On Nov. 17, 2006, three days after Mosstafa Tabatabainejad was tasered at UCLA, nearly 400 people—students, faculty and staff, parents, and community members—gathered on campus to protest the brutal incident and proclaim their opposition to the post-9/11 climate of fear, intimidation, torture, and repression. They marched to the UCLA police station and confronted police in riot gear. In Winnfield, Louisiana, people marched in protest shortly after Baron Pikes was tasered to death. This is the kind of determined resistance that is needed in the face of the blatant, hideous brutality and injustices of the rulers and their armed enforcers.

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