Taser inventor Jack Cover named his gadget after a zapper from Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle, a 1911 YA science fiction novel by Victor Appleton that tells the story of a hero who travels to Africa to get rich by killing elephants for their ivory, and who encounters racist caricatures of "natives" who he fights off with his "electric rifle."
Today, tasers are one of the go-to weapons for the world's increasingly armed-up, unaccountable, racist and murderous police, and despite its marketing as a nonlethal alternative to guns, it can and does kill (it also has been shown to escalate situations that might have been handled with talk into situations that are handled with lightning).
Though being named after something racist doesn't make you racist yourself, the current context of tasers in the use of often lethal force against African-Americans shows that the narrative of Tom Swift and the "wild, savage and ferocious" "hideous savages" he encounters has not changed much in the intervening century.
While this unabashed entrepreneurial imperialism tends to read as a relic of a bygone age, today disproportionately white police departments in places like Ferguson, Missouri, often function similarly as the adventurers sent to do the dangerous work of this kind of wealth generation. Like in the book, black communities are often seen not as dynamic places where people live lives, but as sites for plunder.
Take, for example, the Department of Justice’s March report on the prevalence of predatory, revenue-based policing in St Louis County: entire municipalities there, as elsewhere in the US, float their operating budgets and justify their own existence on the racially biased extraction of statutory fees from primarily black residents. This scheme has only begun to decline because of the protests and organizing that defined Ferguson in the wake of Mike Brown’s death.
In the book, as in America today, the black people are rendered as either passive, simple and childlike, or animalistic and capable of unimaginable violence. They are described in the book at various points as “hideous in their savagery, wearing only the loin cloth, and with their kinky hair stuck full of sticks”, and as “wild, savage and ferocious ... like little red apes”.
Where did the word 'Taser' come from? A century-old racist science fiction novel [Jamiles Lartey/The Guardian]