Smash’Em: Democracy 101

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On August 20th, in an effort to prevent a group of anti-war activists from convening at an Army Recruitment Center, Pittsburgh police used pepper spray, Taser stun guns and dogs to smash what on-lookers insist was a peaceful rally. Even though the Pittsburgh Organizing Group (POG), which sponsored the event, did not have a permit to hold the rally, eye-witnesses contend that Pittsburgh police along with University of Pittsburgh Campus Police used excessive, unnecessary and potentially deadly force.

The demonstration, which was held in Oakland, near the University of Pittsburgh, disrupted afternoon traffic. The Army Recruitment Center, which had prior knowledge of the protest, vacated its offices earlier in the day. POG activities have shut down the recruiting station six times over the past several months.

At a news conference following the event by the Thomas Merton Center for Peace and Justice (TMC) along with POG, a local news reporter asked whether the protestors, many of whom wore black clothing and masks, provoked law enforcement by the type of clothing they wore and by not having a permit. “We use masks to protect against police and federal surveillance,� said Jeremy Shenk, a member of POG. “We also use masks and goggles to lessen the affects of chemical weapons, such as pepper spray. We are anonymous, faceless and identify with oppressed people from all over the world. And finally, we wear masks to show our solidarity with the Zapatisti in Mexico.�

According to reports, the melee began when a freelance FOX News cameraman was involved in an alleged altercation with one of the activists. The situation deteriorated when the cameraman, who claimed his equipment was damaged, sought assistance from police. Deanna Caligiuri said that she was thrown to the ground, pepper sprayed and then shocked by a Taser gun even though she complied with a police officer’s request to disperse. “I’ve never felt such excruciating pain in my life,â€? she said. “It felt like I was on fire. They put me in a police van with no ventilation. Mucous was dripping from my nose and my eyes were tearing from the pepper spray. I couldn’t even wipe my face because my hands were cuffed behind my back. I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was choking.â€? After approximately 45 minutes, Caligiuri was taken to a hospital then transported to the police station to face multiple charges. In total, six activists were arrested and two hospitalized.  Others, some who were simply bystanders, reportedly became ill when they encountered pepper spray fumes. Video footage of the confrontation, show Tasers being used indiscriminately against the unarmed protestors. 

Taser International originally marketed the Taser as a non-lethal method of protection, contending that 50,000 volts of electricity from a Taser, can disable a person more effectively and safely than a blow from a police baton or a blast of pepper spray. However, cardiologists say that, in some cases, a surge from a Taser might also interrupt the rhythm of the human heart, throwing it into a potentially fatal state known as ventricular fibrillation. Dr. Zian Tseng, a cardiologist at University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), believes Tasers are potentially dangerous because a jolt of electricity, at just the right moment in the heartbeat cycle, can trigger ventricular fibrillation.

The public furor over the use of Tasers continues to grow, despite the manufacturer’s insistence that the stun guns are safe. Dr. William F. Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, said that his organization is working with the U.S. Department of Justice to assess the risks associated with the guns. "There has been a conspicuous absence of leadership in evaluating safety claims and monitoring the abusive use of Tasers in the United States. Thus far, city and state governments have allowed the public to be used as guinea pigs to test this unproven, new technology based on little more than slick marketing and misleading claims that Tasers are generally safe.�

Executives at Taser International say they are aware of the potential risks, but insist that the device has been thoroughly tested to evaluate its safety.  Mark Kroll, an electrical engineer and board member of the Scottsdale, Arizona firm, insisted that “medically induced fibrillation involves applying a current directly to the inside of the heart, while a Taser's current is applied to the clothing and skin. The current delivered by a Taser is too weak to induce ventricular fibrillation.''  UCSF cardiologist said in a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle that police should be prepared in the case of ventricular fibrillation: “As a precaution, police should carry automatic electronic defibrillators in their cars, so they might revive someone whose heart has been stopped.â€?

Moreover, Amnesty International compiled a 93-page report titled "Excessive and Lethal Force: Deaths and Ill-Treatment Involving Police Use of Tasers." The organization’s research indicated that Tasers are used on citizens who are unarmed 80 percent of the time. In the cases of unarmed suspects, according to Amnesty International, 36 percent were for "verbal noncompliance"; and only 3 percent were for cases involving "deadly assault." Researchers also found that "far from being used to avoid lethal force, many U.S. police agencies are deploying Tasers as a routine force option to subdue non-compliant or disturbed individuals who do not pose a serious danger to themselves or others."

Jim Kleisster, Executive Director of the Thomas Merton Center, called for Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy to impose a moratorium on the use of Tasers by law enforcement. The center also called for an investigation into Saturday’s events and that all charges against the activists be dropped. Vincent Irini, who attended the protest with his wife Rebecca Reed, and their two young daughters said, “I’ve been to POG events in the past. There have never been incidents of violence.  If I thought violence would erupt, I’d never have brought my children along. I would never put my children in harm’s way. The response from the Pittsburgh police was extreme. They overreacted and the situation quickly spiraled out of control. I’m still trying to explain to my daughter why the police were attacking unarmed people.â€?

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