In December 2008, the Victoria Police shot 15-year-old Tyler Cassidy dead in a Northcote skate park. The agitated teenager, distressed by the anniversary of his father’s death, was the youngest person shot by police in the state. Over the past two decades, Victoria Police have killed more people than any other police force in the country. Rather than reflect on this appalling record, the Police Association used Tyler’s death to advance its campaign for arming police with tasers. Yet the ever-growing roll call of youth, people with mental illnesses, Indigenous people, immigrants, the homeless and others who are now dead after being tasered, is ample evidence that these are lethal weapons, which will escalate deaths in custody.
The family of Robert Bagnell, who died moments after being tasered in 2004, launched a blog, TNT: Truth Not Tasers, in honour of his memory. It includes a long list of the dead. Robert, a Canadian, was the 63rd North American to die in a taser-related death. Five years later, the figure swelled to 453.
“Taser” is the brand name of stun guns produced by Arizona-based Taser International. The current model, introduced in 2003, is called an X26 and it’s a big money spinner. It shoots twin metal darts that deliver a 50,000-volt shock. Taser use has grown exponentially. In 2001, 1,700 U.S. law enforcement agencies used them. Less than a decade later, it’s 8,700! Police officers that patrol schools in several U.S. states have been carrying tasers since the early 2000s and have tasered children as young as six.
In 2008, police in New Zealand were armed with tasers. Police in France, Greece, the UK, Israel, Malaysia and Singapore use them too. They are now in general use in Queensland, New South Wales, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. In November, the South Australian government announced $2.5 million in funding for a general rollout. In Victoria, specialist groups are armed with tasers, but they are not in general use. In Tasmania, the Police Association is campaigning vigorously for all police to be issued with the lethal weapon.
A shocking year.
A year since Tyler’s death, the record for tasers has been horrendous. At least 46 deaths have occurred in North America. In April, a 39-year-old Alice Springs man died after being immobilised by capsicum spray and then tasered. Antonio Galeano lay dead in Townsville after being tasered multiple times in June. He was addicted to amphetamines and, suffering a psychological injury, had been released from hospital just 48 hours earlier. One month later, a man from the remote Aboriginal community of Warburton in WA caught fire after being tasered. He was rushed to hospital with burns to 20% of his body. Police were trying to arrest him for petrol sniffing. An unarmed teenage girl was tasered on Brisbane’s South Bank and in Sydney, a man was tasered after jay walking!
Taser International, keen to sell its profitable wares, law-and-order politicians promising to “get tough on crime” and police all promote tasers as a safer option to firearms. But this is what makes these lethal weapons so dangerous. Highly agitated or exhausted individuals are at greater risk of death as are those with pre-existing health conditions. And if tasers are marketed as “safer,” they are more likely to be used. Emma Ryan, a researcher from Monash University, argues, “It’s pretty clear from the United States and Canada that when they are made general issue, they tend to become a first resort rather than a last resort. So you see graffiti artists, fare evaders, all sorts of people committing quite minor offences being tasered in the States quite routinely.”
Challenging corporate propaganda
. Grassroots activists are increasingly challenging the slick trade fairs and massive marketing effort by Taser International. Blogs, such as Excited-Delerium.com, are proliferating, and forums and seminars aim to expose Taser’s myth-making. The Indigenous Social Justice Association hosted one such forum, Say No to Deadly Tasers, at Solidarity Salon last year.
Featuring Ryan and community legal centre activist, Charandev Singh, participants heard how marketing efforts to portray tasers as harmless are a complete sham.
Ryan warned about the importance of critically reviewing the source of information: “I’m in the process of trying to untangle who funds what. ‘Scientific and medical evidence’ is Taserspeak for Taser-sponsored research, and this is what Taser leans on to ‘prove’ their weapons are incapable of killing, despite all the deaths.”
Singh agreed, arguing, “Taser International is operating like big tobacco, big asbestos and other such corporations by suing critics to try to silence them. In the same way tobacco companies will fight to deny the link between smoking and cancer, Taser International will fight to deny the link between taser usage and deaths.” He also described efforts to make the technology seem harmless: “What’s in your face is the normalisation of shock technology. Taser International will try to place tasers in movies to normalise their use. We need to be oppositional and get alternative views out.”
Ryan stressed the importance of discussing tasers in the context of who is most incarcerated, highlighting that Aboriginal people, those with mental illnesses and the poor are more likely to have dealings with the police. The trial conducted before tasers were introduced in New Zealand highlighted this. Tasers were used in 50% of mental health callouts, according to an analysis by the NZ College of Mental Health Nurses. Singh described how in New Zealand, Maori and Islander youth were also singled out.
A political, not a technological question
. Tasers are just another one of many techniques and tools used in the arsenal of the capitalist State to protect the interests of the ruling class and uphold the status quo. They’re already being used to try to quash dissent. Last April Scotland Yard armed police with tasers in preparation for protests against the G20 summit in London. This was the first time UK police faced demonstrators armed with these weapons. They made sure that activists knew of plans in advance in a bid to try to scare off anti-capitalist protesters. Singh described how Taser International is now busy promoting a new product called the Shock Wave, a weapon designed to taser a crowd en masse. “Its market is the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, protests such as those against the G20 and putting down resistance inside prisons.”
But Singh is also keen to stress: “It’s a problem when people become locked into a discussion about technology. We need to situate the discussion about tasers in the context of widespread, systemic police abuse. Tasers are a weapon, and they are a part of the military industrial complex produced by a well-funded arms company with profits to defend. Taser International will increasingly seek out markets wherever it can sell weapons and be subject to the least amount of accountability and scrutiny possible.”
Taking on Taser
. The struggle to roll back the use of tasers and other repressive weapons, such a capsicum spray and foam, must be tackled as part of the broader struggle to hold police to account. Elected civilian review boards – directly accountable to the community – with powers to investigate, discipline, fire and charge would be a great start.
But the failure to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, rising police brutality and prisoner abuse prove that capitalism will never eliminate these atrocities, because the profit system’s survival depends on its police, courts and prisons. That is why the movement must go beyond reforms and challenge the capitalist State. In 1917, Russian Revolutionary leader, VI Lenin, got to the heart of the issue when he wrote that the State is “an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another.” Tasers give the State another brutal and lethal weapon to do this. It’s time to organise!