Wednesday, September 19, 2007

UF Tasering a sign of the times

I guess since I lived in Gainesville for two years that I should say something about the Tasering incident that took place at the Kerry event on the UF campus. Gainesville is a radical island in very conservative north Florida. The town was founded in the service of several slave plantations, the slaves of which are the ancestors of the African Americans that live in the east side of Gainesville, which was a former slaves' quarters. Even as a radical island, then, there are serious impulses to extreme conservatism swirling around, making the people who live and study in Gainesville who are radical, or I guess even progressive now, particularly vulnerable to police harassment. In short, if the police ever really decided to do something terrible there'd be no way of stopping them. The radicals exist at the sufferance or pleasure, it's not really a pleasure but same idea, of the police force. And ever since 9/11 the police force, at least in the time when I lived there, has been slowly ratcheting their position on protest up.

So it's not surprising that they crossed what to many people in the country was a very serious line because at their core they really don't give a damn about civil rights anyways. In their eyes this was just desserts for a noisy, troublesome, protester. Probably didn't cross their minds that other people would be seriously upset by seeing a guy getting tasered for asking a long question to a former Presidential Candidate.

I felt when I lived there that this process of slowly turning up the heat was something that was going on in the rest of the country as well, making Gainesville a sort of microcosm for America. If you read the "McCarthyism Watch" column on the "In These Times" website you'll see that this idea might not have been so far off.(on edit: McCarthyism Watch is actually on The Progressive's website). There have been cases of people arrested for trying to show anti-war signs in a public park when a tv show came to their town, a person arrested for displaying an anti-war sign in his front yard (he was later cleared), and a guy arrested for holding a banner on an overpass whose arresting officers specifically made sure that he knew their names and badge numbers so he could, as they said, get his fifteen minutes of fame. What seems to be happening is that across America police departments and some communities have decided that "enough is enough" with regard to protesters that they regard as nuisances, who in their minds are stretching the limits of legality by exercising their rights on public property and on their own private property. This is a very bad sign.

If the attitude becomes that the time for tolerating protesters is over, that it was fun while it lasted but now it's becoming a pain, then we're in serious trouble, because it will mean that the war supporting part of the American public as a whole will be moving from passive displeasure in relation to anti-war people and anti-war protesters to active intolerance of them. Naomi Wolf has a good column up on Common Dreams that goes into this and why this move is probably the worst thing that can happen, short of another terrorist attack causing Bush to claim total power for himself.

I hope this doesn't happen, but it wouldn't surprise me since four years of drum beating isn't going to have a negligible influence on people. It's effects aren't just going to go away, they're probably going to manifest somewhere, and unfortunately when that happens the "Daydream Nation" feeling of America, focussed on Britney Spears' failed performance and on Paris Hilton, will be replaced by something much darker, something that's been building underneath American society but that so far hasn't been strong enough to break out.

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