Monday, September 24, 2007

Andrew's Microphone

Although I was fascinated by the YouTube videos of police at the University of Florida tasering student Andrew Meyer, I wasn't going to blog about it because it was so obvious to me that the police had behaved correctly. But over the weekend, I spoke with a friend who surprised me with a different (and, in my opinion, mistaken) view. So maybe it's worth pointing out a few things about what happened to Meyer.

There are two discreet issues here: first, did Meyer have a right to do what he was doing at the microphone? Second, even if he had such a right -- that is, even if the police were wrong in asking him to leave -- did the police behave wrongly when they tased him?

To argue that Meyer had a right to behave as he did at the microphone requires an adherence to a notion of free speech that would destroy free speech in fact. Watch the video. His tone aggressively sanctimonious, Meyer makes an incoherent speech, and finally, in response to repeated requests that he ask a question, fires a few off without pausing to let Kerry answer. After Meyer had been at it for over a minute and a half, someone cuts the power to the mic. Meyer's response is revealing: "Thanks for cutting my mic."

Not "the" mic... "my" mic. If you hadn't already figured out from his tone and behavior that Meyer is an immature, narcissistic grandstander who doesn't give a damn about anyone's rights but his own, his diction just then provides an important clue.

(You can catch another important clue here, where Andrew's narcissism has blossomed so fully that he believes the police are going to lead him away to murder him. This behavior strikes me as being about on a par with that of delusionals who believe they're Napoleon or Jesus Christ).

Watching the video, it was plain to me that Meyer wasn't interested in an exchange of ideas, or in eliciting information, or in any way engaging anyone else in the room. It was a performance. It wasn't about Kerry and it certainly wasn't about the people in the audience, several of whom you can see getting up to leave the moment Meyer starts acting up. It was all about Andrew. Andrew wasn't speaking; he was performing.

Now a performance, even one as self-indulgent as Andrew's, can be protected speech. But at what cost? Within what parameters? How long should Andrew have been permitted to go exercise his right? He'd been given over a minute and half already. What if he'd wanted to go on for two? Five minutes? Ten? Is the determination of what he's going to say, and how long he'll take to say it, entirely up to him? Or should the moderators have some say, as well?

Unless you think how long a speaker should be permitted to prattle on is entirely up to the speaker, you have to acknowledge that at some point the moderators or other authority figures have the right to shut the speaker down. If there are no rules -- and no one to enforce them -- it's hard to see how free speech could get exercised amidst all the discordant shouting.

But even if you believe Meyer's right to perform was absolute and that no one had the right to shut him down, or if you just believe they shut him down too early or otherwise inappropriately, we're still left with that second question: did the police behave wrongly when they tased him?

Here's a quick -- and wildly inaccurate -- sound bite: "The police tased Meyer just for asking questions!"

No. The police tased Meyer for resisting arrest. Watch the sequence: there were about a dozen steps of escalating confrontation between Meyer's "questions" and the police tasing him:

1. Meyer is urged to ask a question. He ignores the request.
2. The mic is cut and the police take Meyers by the elbows, telling him, "come on outside."
3. Meyer dodges away, saying, "I'm not going anywhere! Get off me! What the fuck are you doing!"
4. The police start pushing Meyer toward the exits.
5. Meyer breaks away, continuing to shout.
6. The police grab him again, and they fall to the ground.
7. The police direct Meyer to turn over on his stomach.
8. Meyer refuses.
9. The police get him over on his stomach and try to cuff him.
10. Meyer resists.
11. The police tell Meyer repeatedly to put his hands behind his back.
12. Meyer refuses, saying instead that if they let him up, he will walk out on his own.
13. The police repeatedly warn Meyer that if he doesn't put his hands behind his back, they will tase him.
14. Meyer repeatedly refuses and continues to resist.
15. Meyer is tased.

At every one of these steps, the police gave Meyer a choice. Every time he had a choice, Meyer chose to escalate rather than comply.

(BTW, important safety tip: when the police give instructions, it's not a negotiation. Once you choose escalation, you can't negotiate down to a lower level of confrontation, as Meyer tried to do at #12.)

So here's the correct sound bite: "The police tased Meyer for violently resisting arrest."

Or, if you want a sound bite that ties the police response directly to Meyer's microphone behavior, you could say, "The police told Meyer to leave just for asking questions!" But that doesn't quite get people rushing to the barricades, does it.

When the police give someone clear verbal instructions and the person refuses, what should the cops to do at that point? Apologize and walk away? Or should they escalate: a request becomes a command, the command is accompanied by taking the person by the elbow, the elbow becomes the torso, etc. A lot of people don't like the taser. What do they suggest as an alternative -- a billy club?

Well, there were at least six cops... maybe they should have just forced Meyer's arms behind his back rather than tasing him. Leave aside for the moment that they were trying but apparently couldn't. Instead ask, what would people say when, say, Meyer's shoulder was dislocated in the struggle, or he was otherwise injured by the force he made the cops use? Police brutality, is my guess.

Bottom line: take out all the hot button free speech arguments, and imagine instead that Meyer had been trying to use a lavatory when the cops told him, without explanation, that he would have to find a different one. Imagine too that the cops had no right to order him out of this particular restroom. Is Meyer right at that point if he fights the cops? And what should the cops do if he does?

If you think the police are abridging your rights, you can send a complaint to the university ombudsman. Or write an op-ed in the school newspaper. Or organize a protest march. Or sue the police department. Any or all of the above would be fine -- but no, you don't get to fight with the police. And if someone does fight them, I hope the cops would respond as sensibly and professionally as the ones who had to deal with Meyer did.


Joshua James said...

I've seen plenty of evidence and video of police and security using the tasor inappropriately (wasn't one of them UCLA? I can't recall) but in this case I completely agree with you . . . after watching it, it seems they did what they're supposed to do with regard to someone who obviously was a bit unbalanced . . . one reason I haven't blogged about it as well . . . he got up and went off, got instructions and fought back and look what happened.

My cousin is a Trooper, and so from a very young age I learned never to argue or fight with uniformed police, it only makes a situation worse . . . I will say that I have been in situations where I've been nothing but respectful and still gotten a hard time from an officer, sometimes just because my hair was longer than he liked and for no reason other than they could do it and get away with it . . .

this is why officers having everything videotaped is a good thing for all involved, I think.

Anonymous said...

My uncle was one of the original Tac-Squad of SFPD during the riots at San Francisco State back in the late '60s. There were no video cameras or tasers back then; you would still be surprised at the complaints of cruelty the SFPD received. My uncle said they always gave several obvious spoken warnings before taking physical action. If an officer of the law tells you to do something, do it. It's better than trying to act clever or confrontational. You will ALWAYS lose...
-Debi Durst

KSR said...


Your points are logical and effective. One should definitely follow the orders of a police officer lest you run the risk of getting some kind of physical punishment. The issue here is more emotional, however. You have to really watch the event moment by moment to agree that this guy is/was a douchebag and that the police were acting appropriately.

I have read too many articles and seen too many YouTube clips of people in this country getting in trouble with the law for wearing a t-shirt or marching in a parade or simply protesting the war with signs. The current administration is doing everything in their power to strip away many basic civil liberties. Do you agree that there is general trend in the US where "enemies" are locked away without due process and citizens are spied upon by the government without judicial oversight? It's a short slippery slope to facism. One more terrorist activity in this country and we very well may have marshall law.

So when we see clips of the police taking someone down for speaking, and we don't take the time to understand the full context of the particular scenario, it's easy to see this as another example of that slippery slope.

Logically you're right. Meyer may have been setting up the whole scene for the cameras and his 15 minutes of fame. He may want to be the next Abbie Hoffman. One thing we could agree on...he got what he was after.

Anonymous said...

I disagree, sort of. Meyer seems to be a conspiracy nut, both from his Skull&Bones question and his later reaction to being led away by the police. I also think it was correct to cut "his" mic and ask him to leave the stand.

That said, I don't see the necessary escalation. Lead the guy out, let him have his moment of grandstanding, and let him go. And six police officers should manage to get him out of the auditorium.

In my opinion, it goes wrong when Meyer is put to the floor – that's when I said »come on, he's just a jackass.« Tasering him when you have six people standing around just seems to be excessive – it may very well not be if you try to cuff him, but it looks that way nonetheless. And arresting him? Unnecessary in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I totally agree with your assessment here, because I think there's a third issue that seems more important to me. (Having watched the video and read a few related articles - there may be something obvious I'm missing).

To look at it objectively, Meyer was in a public discussion forum where he was allowed one minute of time. He spoke for a minute and a half, asking three questions. One was ludicrous (the last), but the other two arguably deserved an answer, which Kerry said he was willing to give.

Sure, he was obviously performing and grandstanding, but free speech - without devaluing it in the slightest - demands we don't remove his rights simply because we find his manner obnoxious. Of course, the situation needed to be controlled so the debate could continue, and I think all of the arguments you raise in the first part of your post support cutting the mic off. Arguably, they support asking him to leave too.

But from watching the video, was he even asked to leave? Was he placed under arrest? It's at this point that I get uneasy watching the video, because all I see are two officers grabbing hold of his elbows. It seems needlessly heavy-handed - an unnecessary escalation that it must have been obvious Meyer was going to resent.

From that moment on, I sympathise with the police, and they seem to act professionally. I'm also sure they were within their rights to grab hold of Meyer in the first place. But, for me, the heart of the matter is the indignation Meyer felt at what he saw as physical bullying (basically) by someone in a position of power. There's no argument that he was both stupid and legally wrong to resist, and at the moment of tasering - fair play to the police. It can be justified as a legitimate response to the situation in the seconds before. But the event begins earlier than that, and I think there is an argument about whether there should have been anything for Meyer to resist in the first place. The fact that they can doesn't mean that they should.

@piplzchoice said...

In the name of free speech we have allowed neo-nazis to march in IL, and invited the jackass from Iran to spew his poison in Columbia School, but cannot tolerate antiques of a little grandstanding. Doesn't seem to be consistent.

Wim Demeere said...

Where I come from, when the police give you an order, you comply. Plain and simple. When they grab you, you don't fight back. But when they tell you to give the other hand to cuff you, you do so in a heartbeat. Not doing so is impressively stupid as well as against the law.

Meyer dug his own grave every step of the way, just as Barry described. He had plenty of chances to take another path but didn't.
As for the police being heavy-handed, overreacting, etc. IIRC, they were asked by the organization to remove Meyer. At that point the discussion is moot IMHO.
As for the tactics they used, as non LEOs, I doubt we can really appreciate the effort they put into *not* hurting him. And that despite the increasing agressivenes and resistance on his part. It would have been way easier for them to clobber him over the head and then drag him out. But they didn't. They could have tased him right away, they didn't. They could have dogpiled right away, they didn't. Instead, (as far as I can see from the Youtube clip) they followed the use of force continuum as instructed by law.

Now that's what I call my worthless opinion. :-)

aaron said...

Mr. Pricken-

You stated, "I don't see the necessary escalation. Lead the guy out, let him have his moment of grandstanding, and let him go. And six police officers should manage to get him out of the auditorium"

For the idea of leading him out, see what Barry listed as steps #3 and #5. For the six officers, please consider that disparity of force and tasers are both tools law enforcement officers use to avoid causing injury to the people they arrest. As for arresting Mr.Meyer, his refusal to leave after he was instructed gives that right. If you doubt this (Hey! you might be saying. It was a public forum!), go to a bar and refuse to leave when the barkeep/security/owner tells you. The organizers of the event asked the police to remove him, he wouldn't leave, and then fought with the police. That will get you arrested, every time.


I think we have to consider that it wasn't the same people allowing Ahmadinejad to speak, or the neo-nazis to march, as were ejecting Mr. Meyer. The first two have nothing to do with the last, "we" as a society are a bit to fractious for that. And I could be wrong.

Anonymous said...

Fair points. Maybe I have a different perspective on it because I'm from the UK? The way I see it, grabbing hold of somebody is very clearly assault, but I empower police officers with the right to do that in certain circumstances. I don't see the police officers in the clip asking Meyer to leave, telling him they're arresting him or explaining why they're arresting him. He doesn't look like a danger to himself or others. At worst, he's disrupting proceedings, but there doesn't seem to be any warning given by the police themselves before they take hold of him.

Plus, he's clearly impassioned, and so a trained officer should know that physical contact would bring the adrenaline out one way or the other. Surely - if he absolutely had to be removed even though he no longer had the mic - talking him down a little first would at the least have been wiser?

As he refuses to leave, I sympathise with the police's response. But for me the critical point is before then. The police aren't bouncers; I'd expect them to say "I'm telling you to leave" or "You're under arrest" before they grab hold of someone who's basically just standing there. Like I said, it's just a video of the incident itself, so maybe I'm missing something.

As an aside, I don't think there's anything remotely admirable in obeying instructions simply because someone's in a uniform or a position of power; it should be down to conscience or practical considerations. Most of the time, thankfully, all that will coincide. Meyer was obnoxious, melodramatic and unwise, but at least he stood up for himself, and for that (nothing else), I have a sneaking admiration for his response.

Anonymous said...

The police may have had the right to arrest him, that doesn't mean it was the right choice to do it. I still think that's unnecessary (note that I don't say illegal).

aaron said...

Mr. Mosby-

Perhaps being in the UK does change one's perspective. You are right in that the police did not ask Mr Meyer to leave before touching him-the even promoters did. This is not visible/audibleon the video, this is information given to press afterward. Perhaps they were lying? I do not beleive so, myself, but I suppose it's possible.

As for honor in obeying those in uniform/power...maybe not. It would depend on the circumstances. If your rights are being oppressed/violaed, then resist as you feel you must. I don't beleive Meyer's rights were in any danger...he could still say what he wanted, he just couldn't say it where he was, however he wanted. Violate the rules of the debate, get kicked out of the debate. In other words, other people don't have to tolerate you (generic you, not personal you) making an ass out of yourself. I find it difficult to admire someone for acting in such a manner. Standing up for what you beleive is one thing, ruining everyone else's night (watch the others, in the background) so you can make a point is just inconsiderate.

Mr Pricken-

It is my impression (I could be wong) that by and large, the police don't choose who to arrest. They are required to arrest those wo break the law or disturb the peace. The police there were tasked with maintaining order, and enforcing the decisions of the event organizers. They were campus police, after all.

Anonymous said...

I think the most interesting thing about this event is the rush to judgement of those who so desperately want this to be a civil rights violation. Those who saw the first video: question - grab - tase, jumped to the conclusion that he was grabbed and tased for the question. But once longer versions and eye witness accounts came out, many admitted they were wrong. A small vocal minority however continues to insist he was apprehended and "tortured" for his questions. These people simply seem to want this to be true, It supports their politics, or they hate the Police, or something.

Oblivious to oblivion said...

Yeah, I was laughing out loud at this one... hehehehe


Barry Eisler said...

For anyone who's curious, here's my response to a comment left on my Amazon plog...

Neurosplicer, thanks for your thoughtful and civil comment. A few thoughts in response:

I'm not persuaded by the similarities you cite between the behavior of the University of Florida police and that of police in a tyrannical regime. For those kinds of comparisons to work, the focus has to be on essential qualities -- otherwise, you might as well note that, for example, US police and totalitarian police both wear uniforms and carry radios. In fact, I'm more persuaded by the differences I see between what happened in Florida and what I would expect in your tyrannical hypothetical: in an environment less committed to free speech, a known provocateur like Meyer wouldn't have even been permitted to attend Kerry's talk, let alone to approach the mic. This difference, I think, is the key to understanding what really happened in that auditorium: no one denied Meyer his right to speak; instead, the authorities correctly insisted that Meyer exercise that right in a manner that wouldn't disrupt other people's right to listen. I find it odd that there's so much emphasis on Meyer's individual rights, and so little on his social responsibilities. I don't know why a right to speak would or should confer a right to speak anyway you like.

You ask, "What choice [did the police give Meyer] other than 'Shut your mouth, do as ordered - if not, we escalate'"?

That was indeed pretty much the choice Meyer was given after his disruptive minute and a half at the mic. I think it was the right one.

You ask what Meyer was arrested for. I don't know Florida law or police procedure; perhaps disturbing the peace? But my sense is that the police didn't want to arrest him initially; they just wanted to get him out of the auditorium so that the Q&A could continue. Meyer chose to escalate rather than comply.

You note that the Skull & Bones question was never answered and that the mic was cut the moment Meyer asked it. Are you implying that the authorities cut the mic because of this specific question, and not because Meyer had already been ranting for over a minute and a half? My sense is different, but I don't think either of us has proof. Consider, however, the following hypothetical:

Meyer approaches the mic and says, "Senator Kerry, thanks for being here tonight. I have three questions: first, didn't you, according to this book, actually win the 2004 election? Second, why not impeach President Bush? Third, were you and President Bush in the same secret Skull and Bones society? Thank you."

I find it impossible to believe anyone would have attempted to shut Meyer down had he behaved as described above. In other words, had Meyer exercised his right responsibly, he could have asked his questions and had them answered. That he chose to do otherwise suggests at a minimum that Meyer's priorities lie somewhere other than in having his questions answered.

You ask, "Can you imagine the same scene in 1971? Would the body of this poor guy's 'fellow'-students exhibit such shameless apathy? Would the police officers be able to electroshock, handcuff and remove one of them from the auditorium unopposed (just for asking too long-winded questions)?"

As I noted in my original post, suggesting that Meyer was handcuffed and tased for asking questions is inaccurate and tendentious. I'm surprised you would resort to such a misleading sound bite in an otherwise thought-provoking post.

As for the apathy you note among Meyer's fellows, one possible explanation is that at least some of them had no sympathy for a student known for his narcissistic, disruptive grandstanding. Did you notice how several students immediately got up to leave as soon as Meyer got to the mic? What you interpreted as apathy might instead have been disgust with Meyer and support for the police.


Anonymous said...

Aaron - I don't think we disagree too much, really. I don't look at it and think 'major civil rights violation', or anything, but I just have that slight problem with the initial police intervention. Okay, the event organisers asked him to leave, and he didn't. At that point, then, he's trespassing? I don't know how that law works over there. I'd still expect the police to say "you're trespassing and so..." or "you've been told to leave, so would you..." or something similar. Basically, if a policeman is going to put his hands on me - unless I'm obviously a danger to myself or others - I expect him to have said something to me first to explain why. Maybe that's a UK thing, like you said. But I just think that would have been better: no obvious need to tase someone; no media spectacle; and, in the event he had to be removed, a clearer reason why.