Don’t Tase Me, Bro: Emergent Participatory Economies across Web Spaces

Don’t Tase Me, Bro: Emergent Participatory Economies across Web Spaces

Lynn C. Lewis

"Don't Tase Me, Bro."

Because community is such a prevalent commonplace for participation….

—Genevieve Critel, "Investigating the Rhetoric of Student Participation: Uncovering and Historicizing Commonplaces in Composition Studies"

In October of 2007, Andrew Meyer, a twenty-year-old student at the University of Florida attended a John Kerry forum. He came prepared to ask questions about Kerry’s concession of the 2004 election to Bush and brought a copy of a book by Greg Palast called Armed Madhouse, a book detailing various conspiracy theories about Kerry and Bush. He also brought a video camera. According to Meyer, he handed the camera over to a woman he met in line and requested that she film him when he asked his questions (The Andrew Meyer).

Figure 6 This is a close-up image of an Andrew Meyer-inspired bumper sticker on a car. The sticker is captioned with the phrase 'Don't Tase Me, Bro,' and features lightning bolts in the background and an image of a risk-of-electric-shock sign.
Fig. 6. A close-up image of an Andrew Meyer-inspired bumper sticker.

When Meyer got his turn to speak, he was—well, he’s been described variously as manic, passionate, argumentative, or just very committed—but what’s important to acknowledge right now is that he wouldn’t stop asking his questions even though he was asked to sit down. A short, stocky female police officer along with three large male officers attempted to stop him. The situation quickly escalated as Meyer began shouting for help. His histrionic shouts turned quickly to genuine, fearful cries as he was wrestled to the ground. He shouted, "I didn't do anything. What did I do? I didn't do anything." Then, "Don't tase me, bro—don't tase me!" Immediately thereafter, with several police officers holding him down, he screamed as one of the officers tased him.

Whether or not Meyer was manic or passionate, argumentative or committed, he was held down by four large police officers and tased. His moans and cries can be heard clearly, although differing iterations of the video give more or less time to those moans and cries. He cried out four words that erupted across media and Internet circuits immediately, “Don’t tase me, bro.” The phrase was autotuned, remixed into a downloadable cell-phone ring, appeared on T-shirts and on bumper stickers (Clark) (see fig. 6). The Urban Dictionary, a crowd-sourced Web site with pop-culture slang, offered this definition within five days of the incident:

  1. An utterance emitted by University of Florida student Andrew Meyer on the evening of September 17, 2007 in efforts to ward off the vicious bite of a police taser after he was detained for getting uppity at a forum with U.S. Senator John Kerry.
  2. A phrase used (with ironic reference to the above incident) to express feigned dissatisfaction with another's recent or impending actions or speech.

As of 2015, the video can be viewed on YouTube on several channels, although these change frequently as the video is taken down and then uploaded again. Some YouTube users comment on the cruelty of the police and Senator Kerry's ineffectuality, others note Meyer's lack of decorum. Still others target the other students in the auditorium, who watched. In fact, in some video versions, a smattering of students applauded as Meyer was helped to his feet and hustled out of the room. (To be fair, it is not clear that they realized he had just been tased.)

The meme, as catchphrase, emerged from a moment of resistance and was highly participatory. But as the Urban Dictionary definition suggests, despite the evidence of violence against the student, despite Meyer's attempt to resist, despite the evident sincerity of his cry, the catchphrase became an "ironic reference."

The words spun out across networks, and when they appeared, they were read or heard in the blink of an eye, and then they were gone.

I asked my students recently if they were familiar with the phrase "Don't tase me, bro." Most were. I asked them if they knew its origin. Only two did, and they explained what they remembered to the class. Then I showed the students the video, and their reactions were mixed, much like those of the YouTube viewers. No one found Meyer persuasive or heroic. They felt the video might be unfair to the police, even. They noticed the audience's lack of participation, its passive acceptance of Meyer's tasing. When I reflected on this class later, I realized they had identified more with the watching audience than the indecorous Meyer.

Meyer disrupts community norms by his actions. The students in the audience failed to act in any way to stop the tasering. Put another way, Meyer's disruptive behavior on behalf of his individual agenda to call out Senator Kerry othered him so that his scream evoked little emotional response. Critel points out that while instructors link the need for classroom community to the requirement for classroom participation, the relationship between these two is deeply complicated by the obligations of assessment. Meyer's story suggests that even without assessment obligations, the relationship between community and participatory action may be affected in complex ways by community norms.

The Meyer-meme phenomenon demonstrates a few things about one possible outcome for images of violence that are reproduced but also condensed, as in the case of what happened to Andrew Meyer’s plea. The possibility of identification, which Benjamin sees as crucial to the emergence of films and photographs, is, in fact, erased. The distance between the actual tasing of Andrew Meyer, his screams and cries, and the meme Don’t Tase Me, Bro becomes enormous in the same instance that the temporal moment is compressed down to an instant and over in a blink.

In this case, the textuality of the meme squeezes meaning down to one dimension. Without Meyer's screams or the visual of police officers holding him down on the floor, one single line of text, "Don't tase me, bro" invites the meme audience to laugh, shake their heads, and move on.

But this is not always the case.

Tap Root

With her site of study as the first-year writing classroom, Critel identified the close links between community and participation, noting that some instructors see these as interchangeable (135). Fecund participatory memes offer a loose-linked, flabby version of community; that is, they invite general agreement that the meme amuses and offers enjoyment of remixed iterations. However, Critel troubles this notion of community by asking us to think about its purposes in the classroom.

Likewise, identifying and thinking about the purpose of a meme community provides insight into how memes that provoke real-world action may function. There can be no heuristic.

However, considering participatory memes as emergent economies and tracking the lines of production, distribution, and consumption will demonstrate the possibility of a fruitful interpretive lens.

I consider next a second participatory meme born out of violence and resistance.

[Go to "The Casual Cop and the Pepper Spray"]