Content note for police violence against children of color.
Last week in South Carolina, a white school officer, Deputy Ben Fields — or officer slam, as he has been known among the school’s students prior to this incident — attacked a non-resisting, silent teenage girl by violently throwing her from her seat, causing her multiple physical injuries and emotional trauma. Her crime? Earlier in the class period, she did not immediately comply with a teacher’s request to put away her cell phone. Additionally, she was black.
Fortunately, one of her classmates took out his phone and videotaped the encounter. In the video, as many have pointed out, it is clear that the officer made no attempt at intervention, other than to move the girl’s laptop off her desk, indicating that he had decided to attack her (which is the proper verb for when an adult man throws a teenage girl onto the ground) from the very beginning of the encounter.
Yet even with a clear video of what took place, including the girl’s silence and lack of any physical threat to the man who initiated physical aggression towards her, news media have responded by defending the officer’s actions and seeking ways to explain his behavior. People have said everything from “well what happened before the camera started rolling?” implying some sort of prior aggression by the girl toward the officer, when in fact multiple witnesses say that nothing of the kind took place, to arguing that the video should be viewed in a “broader context” in which teachers feel that their safety and authority is chronically threatened by the students in their classroom and therefore are justified in calling in for backup.
In this latter, sickening video, the mediaperson makes an odd sort of statement inviting viewers to “ask any teacher” because, presumably, they will endorse feeling threatened by their students to the point of requiring police involvement. Well, I have a number of friends who teach in disadvantaged school districts. So, I asked them. Their replies all boiled down to the following:
If you can’t handle a teenage girl who doesn’t want to put away her cell phone in class without calling for the police — don’t become an educator.
Seriously, just don’t.
However, that’s not half of why the response to this incident is so obnoxious and horrible. Beyond the fact that this mediawoman’s claims are simply not backed up by anecdotes from teachers and by research on the subject, I think we can all acknowledge that media folks would not be bending over backwards to defend the actions of a policeman who nearly broke the neck of a white girl who didn’t want to put away her phone. As has been upsettingly and infuriatingly found in study after study, black children are simply not given the same benefit of the doubt and attributions of innocence that white children are given. Black children are portrayed as a threat; white children are portrayed as students. A black teenage girl who doesn’t want to give up her phone and is consequently attacked is portrayed as dangerous; a white teenage girl would be portrayed as a “Silly teenage girl,” which is still sexist but profoundly less likely to land her in a cast.
Which brings us back to a sadly necessary refrain: attitudes are not harmless and they do matter. Yours do, mine do, your parents’ do, that media-person’s do, and we have to speak up and challenge them wherever possible. Sticks and stones may break bones, but words tell people whose bones to break. Unless we continue fighting to change stereotypes attitudes toward people of color, they are going to continue being attacked, and our entire society bears that responsibility.
If you consider yourself an ally of people of color, now, as always, is the time. Speak up, speak out, speak loud.