>No worries – no booze zones can fix everything.

Last week Dick Puddlecote, who would have put on the blog roll last week if fucking Apple hadn’t had my computer*, brought up something I’d been meaning to comment on:

A man in Western Australia was engulfed in flames when police officers fired a Taser stun gun at him.

Police say they used the Taser on Ronald Mitchell, 36, when he ran at them carrying a container of petrol and a cigarette lighter.

They said that Mr Mitchell, who lives in a remote Aboriginal community, had been sniffing petrol.

Carrying petrol and a lighter, so they fired a massive spark plug at him. There’s clever.

Yep, launching sparky things at people with petrol cans was probably something they wish they hadn’t. But considering they could simply have shot him the officers involved might have been thinking that the Taser was the better option, and in fairness the newspaper reports here did say that it’s unclear whether the fumes were ignited by the Taser or the guy’s own lighter. Still, it seems that the WA Police guideline – emphatically not a hard and fast rule you’ll notice – is not to use Tasers around flammable liquids, presumably because the manufacturer says it’s not a terribly bright idea:

Mr O’Callaghan [WA Police Commissioner] said police were trained not to use Tasers around flammable liquids but this was not a strict rule.

“The situation here was that the police officers were confronted with a person who was prepared to set light to them and himself and they deployed a weapon. The only other choice that they had was to use a police-issued firearm and the circumstances would almost certainly be far more grave.”

George Hateley from Breon Enterprises, the distributor of the guns in Australia, said firing a Taser around petrol could certainly cause a fire.

He said that was why police were trained not to fire the weapon in those circumstances.

Okay, I have a certain amount of sympathy with the police here. I don’t envy their having to make a split second decision how to handle it: shooting seems unreasonable, we’ve now seen why their training is not to use Tasers near fuel, and getting close enough to use hands or batons on someone waving a load of fuel and a lighter around risks getting roasted yourself. Obviously the best option is to talk to the guy so you don’t have to decide what weapon to use on the poor bugger, but we have to accept that option isn’t always going to be there, especially when the police are dealing with someone whose mind has been marinading in 92 RON petrol for half the evening.

Of course an even better option is not to have stupid paternalistic laws that put police in the position of having to nick people for this sort of thing. Back to Dick Puddlecote:

But what the fuck is this?

Mr Mitchell was charged with assault to prevent arrest and possession of a sniffing substance.

Possession of a sniffing substance? Petrol? Is that really a law for the upside-down people?

Yeah, probably, though I don’t know if that’s a state law or federal (“Commonwealth” for the pedants), and if state whether all states have a similar law. Certainly there are some things that are legal in some states in Australia but are illegal in others, or are legal to varying degrees. This might be one of those.

But why, to use Dick Puddlecote’s phrase, is there a law against posessing a sniffing substance for upside down people? Well, cocaine is a sniffing substance and there’s a law against that for just about all people whether upside down, right way up and standing sideways, and the mentality behind this is much the same. The world’s authoritarians have a problem with people getting off their dials… well, not them obviously, but certainly the common folk getting off their dials. And I won’t argue that it can create health, social or disorder problems, but unfortunately the powers that be have decided that the solution is to dot alcohol free zones throughout Australia. This includes reasonably affluent suburbs such as in Melbourne’s Port Phillip where I saw the sign above, and that’s annoying and paternalistic. I don’t know if the way these zones are policed are quite as ridiculous as in the similar zones in the even less liberal UK, at least as far as confiscating booze as people walk out of the fucking shop with it, but I’ve certainly seen alcohol taken from people drinking in public elsewhere in Australia. As I said when I blogged about the UK alcohol free zones:

…it struck me that alcohol free zones probably come about for one of two reasons. First is that in remote parts of Australia they’ve got some areas with serious rates of alcohol abuse among indigenous Australians, and so the paternalistic, if not borderline racist, approach is simply to ban alcohol. If you’re an aborigine who likes the occasional beer, or anyone else for that matter, tough. But be comforted by the knowledge that the ban is there for your protection even if you’re responsible and have no need of it. The second problem is one that the UK is familiar with, that of people out on the lash not knowing when to stop and being a drunken pains in the arse.

Dealing with the second problem by banning alcohol consumption is just fucking laziness on the part of local politicians. Do they seriously expect us to believe that until they banned alcohol the police had absolutely no power to deal with troublesome drunks? Are we to believe that there was no law at their disposal? Sorry, no. I call bullshit on that. I suspect it’s a move to reassure NIMBYs and provide an absolute offence for borderline cases where police might not make a charge stick. You might not be quite fighty enough for the police to be sure that arresting you for a real offence will actually go all the way to a conviction, but just you fucking open that stubby and take a swig – it’s an absolute offence so all it takes is for a single drop to pass your lips and your feet won’t touch the ground.

But as annoying as that is the other situation, that of no booze zones because of the amount of alcohol abuse among some indigenous Australians, is if anything even worse. Not only is it paternalistic and borderline racist – I know it’s the wrong country but it smacks of White Man’s Burden to me – but what effect is it having? Well, since they’re going to be hassled by the police for having alcohol some choose to sniff petrol instead, and that brings us full circle to some poor bastard jerking to the rhythm of the Taser while trying to put out the fire on his chest. A further complication is that I’m told that some alcohol bans in and around Aboriginal communities have been brought in at the request of the communities themselves. Now that made me rethink the situation. Isn’t it equally patronizing to suggest that the Elders of a community aren’t able to decide what should and shouldn’t go on there? Isn’t it just like a home owner asking people not to smoke in his house, and expecting them to comply or go outside? I can’t help but feel that there’s probably a middle ground here, and scaling up that home owner example might be roughly the direction to take. But it’s a bit of a minefield and all I know for certain is that banning booze in public areas is not an answer. At best you move the problem on to somewhere else and at worst you end up with people abusing more dangerous substances that you can’t so easily ban and can’t readily police if you try. After all, Ronald Mitchell was sniffing fuel at his mother’s house, and the police are never going to have the resources to knock on every door to see if the occupants are having a petrol party.

I don’t disagree that such laws are intended to help vulnerable people, to save them from themselves and the damage they may be doing to themselves and their long (or short) term health, but like all similar laws it’s ultimately wrong and stupid. Wrong because it presumes people do not own their own bodies and may not decide for themselves what to put in them and how, and stupid because such laws fail just about everywhere and for everything that’s been tried. People can make decisions for themselves, and if freedom means anything it means freedom to make the wrong decision from time to time.

* – P.S. Dick Puddlecote joins the blogroll as of now, no fucking thanks to Steve Jobs.

Posted on July 28, 2009, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. >"First is that in remote parts of Australia they've got some areas with serious rates of alcohol abuse among indigenous Australians, and so the paternalistic, if not borderline racist, approach is simply to ban alcohol." I remembered this comment from you at the weekend, when the (hardcopy) edition of the 'Telegraph' carried this story. It was accompanied by a picture of some tribesmen looking in a car window just underneath a huge roadsign saying things like 'do not offer snacks, drinks and other inducements to men, women and children to pose for photographs and show off their exotic tribal costumes, do not allow them into your car, etc.' It was so utterly bizarre I thought it was a photoshop.I think it was quite the most bizarrly racist thing I've ever seen. And I've been to some pretty odd websites!

  2. >Oh, and on the Taser flammability question, as ever, 'CSI' got there first 🙂

  3. >Julia, it's a funny kind of racism, if indeed it's racism at all since governments usually don't think people of any colour are really capable of looking after themselves. But I find the situation with Aborigines particularly odd given that they are from the world's oldest culture and were getting along in what can still be a tough place for at least forty thousand years, possibly as much as sixty thousand, without the benefit of 'help' from Europeans. Like I said, White Man's Burden keeps springing to mind.I must have missed that episode of CSI… along with the other zillion ones that aren't set in New York. But while it's plausible the jury is out on the WA incident. And personally I feel that ignition is if anything more likely to be from the lighter in the guy's hand, which is designed specifically to set things alight, than from the Taser. But even if that turns out to be the case the cop still ought to answer the question 'what the fucking fuckity fuck were you fucking thinking of, and does your next trick involve slamming lumps of plutonium together?'

  4. >Great article again, AE (still catching up after a heavy weekend).Thanks for the add.People can make decisions for themselves, and if freedom means anything it means freedom to make the wrong decision from time to time.Amen to that.

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