Archive for August 1st, 2008

Having finished my quota of articles for July early, I took yesterday to run errands and browse a couple of book stores downtown. I took most of the afternoon, and had worked out most of the kinks from spending too much time in front of the keyboard when the relaxation was undone in a moment by seeing someone beaten up by three members of the transit police. In fact, until I read the first comment (see below), I thought I had witnessed a tasering. I’m still not sure that I didn’t, considering the source of the comment. But what I did see was bad enough, whether a taser was involved or not.

Understand that I have little use for cops of any kind. The small-c conservatism of the average person in the police fits poorly with my anarchistic tendencies, and I have seen and heard enough that I view the seige mentality of the typical cop with a skeptical eye. While I have known some decent cops, too often they seem a kind of of government-sponsored street gang. And the transit cops are worse than most. One or two in particular seem to take far too much pleasure in picking on Asian teenagers for my liking. But what I saw yesterday was even worse than I had come to expect.

As I got off at my stop, I saw three transit cops taking aside a man for questioning. The cops were typical of the transit forces: each was a few years past his prime, and a little paunchy. The man they were surrounding was much smaller and thinner, and possibly Vietnamese. He had a glazed look about his eyes that suggested that he was stoned on something.

“You poor bastard,” I thought, and continued on my way.

A few minutes later, I was at my bus stop when a scream caused me to look up to the Skytrain platform. Now, the small man was trying to run from the three cops, dodging behind a pillar without much success. As I watched from twenty meters away, two of the cops wrestled him to the ground. I could hear him pleading with the cops as they tried to handcuff him, promising at the top of his lungs that he would cooperate with them if only they left him unrestrained.

They didn’t listen. Clumsily, they continued to wrestle with him. Suddenly, I saw a flash. (naturally, I thought it a taser). The man screamed even louder than before, and went limp. After some effort, they pulled him to his feet. He was crying and cursing, but in a lower voice than before. I heard another scream, which was probably his arms being twisted behind him as a cop put him in handcuffs, but could possibly have been a taser being applied directly to his skin.

I’ve just seen someone tasered, I thought dumbfounded. Even at the time, I supposed that I could have been wrong, but what I saw certainly resembled the videos I’ve seen of tasers being used. The only difference was that watching a video has a distancing effect. This was all too real.

As I watched, I told myself that I should go back on to the platform and see what I should do. I knew that could be unpleasant for me – to say the least – but I hated to think I was the kind of person who would watch such a thing and do nothing. Nor was I the only one; about half a dozen others gathered around the scene on the platform, being held back by a couple of other cops who had suddenly appeared from somewhere. I imagine that most of the other spectators were having as much trouble believing what they saw as I was, but I like to think that, like me, some might be bearing witness to what was happening.

To my own self-criticism, I was still deciding what to do when the police dragged the man away and my bus arrived. But my day of leisure had already been spoiled, partly by my own internal debate about what to do, but mainly because of the unexpected brutality I had seen.

Ever since Robert Dziekanski was tasered to death at the Vancouver airport last fall, I have been against the use of tasers by police. I have been angry, too, that the various investigations into other recent taser deaths were obvious white-washes that exonerated the police involved and never even considered the possibility of banning tasers, calling instead for better training and guidelines. It seems obvious to me that tasers kill, and that they are especially likely to kill precisely the sort of people on whom cops tend to use them.

However, what I hadn’t really absorbed before was that tasers are being used to torture people in public. Can anything be so contrary to the alleged purpose of the piece, or more humiliating for the victim and horrifying for both him and passers-by?

I may have been wrong about what I saw, but the insight is not wrong for all of that. Even if no taser was used, what I saw was brutal and shocking, even from a distance.

And what was the man’s alleged crime? Probably nothing worse than fare evasion and failing to show the proper respect for the cops when questioned, then trying to run. These are hardly acts that deserve such a reaction from people who are supposed to be in authority.

I wish now that I had shouted something, or run to the platform and urged others to act with me – although what we could do, I’m not entirely sure. Chant, “The whole world is watching” in hopes of shaming the cops? Probably, that would have only resulted in us being arrested or assaulted ourselves, assuming that I could have found anyone else who shared my outrage. As things were, all I am left with is – once again – the melancholy conclusion that the civil society on which we pride ourselves is a lie.

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