Sunday, October 14, 2007

At Long Last: Andrew Meyer vs. Kent State

The Andrew Meyer tasering incident has largely faded from public discourse, but I’m confident nobody will think I’m acting out of character for flogging a dead (vanished?) horse. I’ve made noise about how I don’t see the University of Florida tasering and the Kent State shootings as parallel, so here’s my explanation of that position.

First is the presence of the enforcement personnel itself. In the Kent State incident, the National Guard had been called in on May 2 in response to violence off-campus, in downtown Kent, Ohio on the night of May 1. The National Guard set up camp on the university campus, putting the student protesters in close proximity to combat-trained soldiers. This was not a riot task force as we have now, but a contingent of wartime soldiers armed only with lethal weapons. This is the first difference between the two situations. There was no place for the National Guard on the Kent State campus—but the campus police at the University of Florida had legitimate reasons for being at the John Kerry appearance. They were there to provide security and prevent disruption. And that’s what they did. Meyer was disrupting the question-and-answer session, and they intervened.

The type of intervention deserves more attention, though. The National Guard at Kent State was armed with automatic weapons affixed with bayonets. The U of Florida’s police had tasers. The first is clearly unsuited to quieting a mob without casualties. The second is well-suited to subduing unruly people. When students were bayoneted on May 2 and 3, 1970, the authorities should have realized that. Kent State was a three-day interaction that never should have reached that point. The Meyer Polka was a three-minute interaction that didn’t offer that kind of time for reflection. Despite that, the police reacted with a weapon that didn’t kill Meyer, and one that likely kept him from hurting himself or others.

Also, the student protesters at Kent State were in a space traditionally known, and specifically suited, for protests. They were in the University commons, where they disrupted no proceedings and made their views known. Andrew Meyer was attending an event were a speaker spoke and then offered to take questions from the audience—the implication being that, since time is limited, that each questioner get one question. The Kent State protesters were acting in accordance with their context—Meyer was not. His delivery—a minute-long diatribe followed by a series of questions, one piled on top of another—was disruptive (normally when you ask a question and expect an answer, you give your counterpart time to answer). His inanity—Skull and Bones? WTF?—didn’t help his case. And if he did push his way to the front, he rightly earned the attention of the police.

Most importantly, though, is the effect of the authority’s actions in each case. At Kent State, not only were nonviolent protesters killed in a context where their behavior was appropriate, the National Guardsmen indiscriminately killed passersby. Nobody killed on May 4, 1970 was within 70 feet of any of the Guardsmen, and two of those killed were walking from one class to another. In contrast, Andrew Meyer was the rightful target of the action by the U of F police. He was the disruption, he was the resister, and he got shocked. Nobody else.

I’m sure some disagree with me that Meyer was disruptive. I’m sure some think the police had no business asking him to leave, or trying to compel him when he resisted. Again, I’d have to be convinced. Free speech doesn’t mean that you say whatever whenever wherever with impunity. I can’t walk into a college dean’s office and start screaming no matter what I have a right to say. I can’t berate a librarian, no matter what books I think should be in the university’s library. Security will remove me, and rightly so.

Another point: John Kerry wasn’t in charge of security at that event. He wasn’t in charge of anything on that day. If he thinks Meyer is harmless and security thinks he’s a danger, they take him out. If Kerry thinks he’s no danger and security thinks he’s an inappropriate disruption, they take him out, and Kerry has nothing to do with it.

That’s all for now. I hope this generates more thought (or at least discussion). I think this event is worth discussing, and I don’t think any of us have all the answers necessary to come to conclusions yet. But here are my provisional views. Enjoy.


Jim said...

The differences in the situations are so obvious that any journalist misguided enough to seriously compare the two needs a swift kick to the head. In no way is this remotely close to 1970's Kent State incident.

Maybe I'm just turning into one of those "get off my lawn" people, but I feel Meyer's idea of free speech is bent. He's like a two year old playing in a grown-up world. Someone fed this kid some important ideas without the background and struggle needed to appreciate those ideas.

Jason said...

Let's not get into the head-kicking quite yet--some of the people who draw the comparison are my friends.

It seems obvious to me, too, that the police acted appropriately in this matter, but I'm still open to the possibility I'm wrong. I can't, to this point, see Meyer as anything but an impulsive child.

I'm also confused as to why we haven't heard any follow-up to this story. I keep looking, but nobody's saying anything. Not Meyer, or lawyers representing him, or the University of Florida. It's weird.

Jim said...

I have a problem with accepting that the levels of abuse seen in the two cases are comparable. Regardless whether the situation warranted being tasered or not.

People died at Kent. People not even involved in the protest. Meyer endured some discomfort, but he and everyone else involved, lived through the incident.

Jason said...

I think you're absolutely correct. But even if the Ohio National Guard had used only tasers I think that the University of Florida police would have been justified and the Ohio National Guard would not be.

The situations were just that different.