Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Keeping your mouth shut in the 'land of the free'

Here's a little reminder of how tolerant America is these days in responding to peaceful dissenters. Shocking as this incident is to view, it’s all too typical of the ruthless deployment of US police and penal brutality that belies even the homely patriotic notions of American liberals. In the Youtube video, A student tasered at Kerry speech, we get a good snapshot of America's continuing drift towards political authoritarianism. It rather reminded me of James Kelman's fine book and admonitory title, You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free.

Aside from its wider global atrocities, here's a further sample of America's internal record of shame, from the 2007 Amnesty International report on the US:

Ill-treatment in jails and police custody

There were reports of ill-treatment of suspects in jails and police custody, involving abusive use of restraints and electro-shock weapons. More than 70 people died after being shocked with tasers (dart-firing electro-shock weapons), bringing to more than 230 the number of such deaths since 2001.

In June the Justice Department announced that a two-year study of taser deaths would be undertaken by the National Institute of Justice. Meanwhile many police departments continued to use tasers in situations that fell far below any threat of deadly force. The UN Committee against Torture called on the USA to deploy tasers only as a non-lethal alternative to using firearms.

• In August, Raul Gallegos-Reyes died in Arapahoe County Jail, Colorado, after being repeatedly tasered and strapped into a restraint chair for screaming and banging on his cell door. The coroner concluded he had died from "positional asphyxia" due to restraint and ruled the death a homicide.

• A lawsuit filed against Garfield County Jail, Colorado, in July, alleged that prisoners were frequently strapped into restraint chairs and left for hours in painful positions after being tasered or drenched with pepper spray. Guards were also alleged to have taunted and threatened to shock prisoners wearing remote-controlled electro-shock belts while being transported to court. The jail reportedly had no clear policies governing use of restraints.There were reports of police ill-treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and of a failure to respond adequately to identity-based crimes against them.

• Mariah L√≥pez, a transgender woman, was allegedly subjected to verbal and physical abuse by New York Police Department officers and city jail employees after she was arrested. She reportedly sustained a broken cartilage in her nose, a broken tooth and numerous abrasions after being beaten by officers. She was also subjected to humiliating strip searches.

• Christina Sforza, a transgender woman, was reportedly assaulted in a New York restaurant. Police responding to the scene arrested her and refused to accept her complaint against her assailant. Assault charges filed against her were eventually dropped.

'Supermax' prisons

Thousands of prisoners continued to be held in long-term isolation in "supermaximum" security facilities in conditions that sometimes amounted to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. In November a federal appeals court condemned as unconstitutional alleged conditions in a "Behavioral Modification Program" in a Wisconsin "supermax" prison. A lawsuit brought on behalf of an inmate confined under the programme in 2002 claimed he was stripped of clothes and bedding, confined to a small bare cell and fed only ground-up food formed into a "loaf". The conditions were alleged to have had a severe adverse effect on his mental health. The case was referred to a lower court for a ruling on the facts, some of which were in dispute.

The dark practices of US torture and ritual humiliation, it seems, is not just confined to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

John

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