On September 17, 2007, U.S. Senator John Kerry addressed a Constitution Day forum at the University of Florida, which was organized by the university’s student government. Toward the end of the question and answer period, University police forcibly removed questioner Andrew Meyer, a 21-year-old fourth- year undergraduate telecommunications student, restraining him through direct force and drive stunning (“contact tasing” in police-speak) with a taser. Several videos of the event were then posted on the Internet (available at You Tube).
As scary as it is to watch someone electrocuted for speaking his mind, the most horrifying part of the Andrew Meyer incident at the University of Florida were the things happening on the periphery.
One video shows a woman on the right side of the aisle staring obediently ahead at Senator Kerry as Meyer is pinned to the ground just behind her. A man on the left is smiling as the action comes right past him.
The only person with the power to stop the assault was the man at the microphone and his affect never rose above bland. Shortly before the cops pressed the volts into Meyer’s chest, Kerry can be heard droning, “Folks, I think if we all just calm down.” The folks he was addressing, of course, weren’t the police, but the few audience members who had risen from their seats.
It’s as if one is watching the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Meyer coming out as the last human who has not been invaded by the pods that replace people with emotionless doubles.
Perhaps half the comments of You Tube viewers support the tasing as an apt treatment for someone so disruptive. Meyer may have been loud, attention-hungry, and an awkward presence in the room, but the awkwardness is nothing compared with that of people trying to work out the concept of free speech in their online comments.
“The First Amendment does not guarantee anyone the right to make a public ass of oneself at the expense of others…” writes Russ Thayer. Joseph (comment 87 on the New York Times site) agrees: “I hate to tell you, but the meaning of Freedom of Speech doesn’t mean you can scream and shout at people. To exercise your right to Freedom of Speech you need to remain calm.”
Says Dusty Bottoms, also on the Times site: “Freaking idiot deserved it…. [H]ow many times does one have to be warned? I’m all for free speech, but do it in an intelligent way.”
The voices were altogether different among readers of the Times of London, where 33 thought the tasing was wrong and only 3 supported it. Duncan Roy, a UK resident, commented on the New York Times site: “If shouting and agitation were the criteria for tasing then our entire British Parliament would be tazed. What is it with you Americans that you have become so frightened of free and passionate speech?”
Unfortunately, police tasing students and others without cause is nothing new. A video of an even scarier incident at UCLA last fall can also be watched on You Tube, linked from the Florida clips pages. Police tased this student because he didn’t have his student ID with him in the library. The video shows an eerily passive group of zombies, inching slowly forward as the victim cries for help. Only after the student is hauled out of the library, still being tased, do a couple students start asking for badge numbers, to which the reply is: “Back up or you’ll get tased too.”
The alien pods haven’t gotten us all, however. Based on the volume of comments people posted about Meyer incident, watching the video clearly hit many Americans a lot harder than it did mainstream journalists.
Mike Bellman of Columbia, Missouri, wrote, “I am ten times ashamed for the spectators who watched this debacle slack-jawed and motionless like they were watching the You Tube video online. Shame on citizens who idly watch this kind of abuse and not recognize it. Shame on all of them including John Kerry who didn’t relieve the police of their duties. And finally shame on anyone who doesn’t have the courage to question authority or believe that another American has the right to speak freely in an open forum. I am ashamed to live in this America and I weep for the U.S. Constitution.”
An “ECartman” wrote that a “lot worse happened in Berkeley in late 60s and early 70s…. Wish these students could get more incensed with what we are doing in Iraq everyday…. Don’t expect this to happen though as these kids really got no soul.”
There’s a whole racially charged aspect to the question of police authority that I can’t begin to unpack here, but “Jargon” says on the Times site: “I am so sick of this blind, unquestionable trust that whites hold for police.”
On the spectrum of eeriness, watching Jimmy Kimmel laugh about the incident on late-night TV was strange, but not as bad as reading dismissive accounts of it in the mainstream press. Shameful ad hominem reporting appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Salon. com. It’s as if these reporters can’t keep these two concepts separate: “he was annoying” and “he deserved to be arrested and assaulted.” This confusion reminds me of people I sometimes meet overseas who can’t treat me as an individual because I come from the loathsome United States. The fact that Meyer’s website features pranks and skits, notably that he carried a “Harry Dies” sign after the release of the last Harry Potter book, seems to have persuaded many people that he deserved what he got.
Someone who exudes such a reclining air that he will probably never be on the receiving end of a taser is the Washington Post’s Emil Steiner, who writes, “Kerry’s voice, however, was no match for Meyer’s, who despite not having a microphone continued to hog the audience’s attention with such glib catch phrases as: ‘Help me! Help!’…”
This smug tone is jolted awake by the first comment below the piece, from “Mark”: “One word: FASCISM. Be afraid to ask vital questions in our free republic.”
In observing the cultural milieu in which this incident took place, from the blank reaction of students and Kerry to online comments to press reports, this was a taste of what it was like to be living in the United States in 2002/2003. It was the most haunting time I have known, when story after story in the mainstream press sold the war and friends of mine with college and law and medical and doctoral degrees jumped on the bandwagon. I looked all around me and saw only pods.
The question is when do the pods take over our souls? Is it in adolescence, when we have individuality pounded out of us by the mob so eager to squelch any deviant thought or behavior? Is it in classrooms or in front of televisions? What is the pod?
Surely Kerry was alive in Vietnam when he saved his fellow soldiers, and when he came home to protest the war; but somewhere in 37 years of public life he got the lobotomy needed to win elections. (Politicians with a pulse don’t stand a chance.) Even after he had time to reflect, Kerry offered the Associated Press this safe pablum: “Whatever happened, the police had a reason, had made their decision that there was something they needed to do. Then it’s a law enforcement issue, not mine.”
Lost in the melee was one of Meyer’s questions: “Why not impeach Bush before he has a chance to invade Iran?” It’s a question that, if seriously considered, would tase the brains of zombies everywhere.
Brendan Cooney is an anthropologist and writer living in New York. He has written for Salon.com, Columbia Journalism Review, and National Journal. This article was originally published on Counterpunch. Photos from You Tube videos.