Monday afternoon, video emerged of a white man approaching a small, black girl sitting in a classroom, noosing a thick arm around her neck, slamming her to the ground while she was still entangled in her desk, picking her up again, throwing her some distance across the room, and then again pinning her down. “Put your hands behind your back,” he said. “Give me the hands. Give me the hands. Give me the hands.”
The video of the attack was as horrific as it was sickening. An adult was attacking a child. A man was rag-dolling a little girl. Soon, further context began to trickle in. The beatdown—which is what it was—took place in Columbia, S.C.’s Spring Valley High School. The man was a police officer identified as Ben Fields, a senior deputy in the Richland County Sheriff’s Department assigned to to Spring Valley as a school resource officer. He also was a coach on the school’s football team. The girl was a student. Video of the attack made the evening news as a story or, as on CNN, fodder for debate.
Anchor Wolf Blitzer asked a panel if there was an excuse for the officer to slam the girl. Tom Fuentes, former assistant FBI director, said there was no excuse for slamming, but then explained that if the girl didn’t comply with the cop, the cop would then have to get physical, and when the cop gets physical, “it’s not gonna go well.”
Blitzer then posited the question to CNN host Don Lemon, who blustered and qualmed before arriving at his point.
“This only shows a small slice in time of what happened. I’d like to know more before passing judgment.”
Finally, CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin cut in. “Are you guys kidding me?” she asked.
“No, we’re not kidding,” Lemon answered. “We don’t know what happened. You weren’t sitting in the room, Sunny. You don’t know if she wasn’t standing up!”
As Lemon and Hostin sparred back and forth, it became apparent what was going on. A violent crime had been caught on tape, and all Lemon and Fuentes could do was assume the habits of deference and look for a reason to blame a child for being attacked rather than the police officer who slammed her to the ground, threw her through the air, and arrested a second student, Niya Kenny, when she tried to step in.
Yesterday, RCSD Sheriff Leon Lott addressed media and provided that reason.
“If she had not disrupted that school,” he said, “disrupted that class, we would not be standing here today.”
He continued, saying that while the girl’s behavior didn’t justify Fields’s violence and that he had been placed on leave, there was another video angle that showed “the student hitting the School Resources Officer with her fists.”
It was a detail every bit as convenient as it is feeble. First, it’s not clear that the narrative is credible. As to the disruption, a student named Aaron Johnson told Gawker’s Jordan Sargent on Monday that Fields was summoned once the girl ignored orders from both a teacher and an administrator to go to the discipline office; yesterday, a classmate who recorded the encounter named Tony Robinson also talked to reporters, laying out the offense. “She really hadn’t done anything wrong,” he said. “She said that she had took her phone out, but it was only for a quick second.” As to the hitting, Fields engaged her first, and violently.
More important is the question of proportion. Fields is dubbed “The Incredible Hulk” at Spring Valley High because of his ability to bench 600 pounds. He’s also a trained police officer, who was dealing with an unarmed student who posed no threat. A cop working in a school should have tools available to them for dealing with children that fall somewhere on the spectrum between not doing anything and proceeding as if in an active shooter situation.
In Lemon’s and Fuentes’s search for a reason why the officer would attack a child, and in Lott’s provision of one, they were, like many, speaking around the attack itself, and in doing so, losing sight of the vital detail.
“The bottom line is, Don,” Hostin said, “this is a young girl!”
Black people on American shores have always been seen as innately criminal. This assumption of criminality traces back beyond before the very birth of this country. Even after Americans won their independence in the Revolutionary War, blacks who tried to escape from or fight their way out of enslavement were seen as thieves, stealing their own bodies from someone else.
The assumption of black criminality bears out in a variety of ways. Blacks only make up about 13 percent of the American population, but account for nearly half of the country’s prison population. Blacks are six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, and they are sentenced for longer periods and put to death at much higher rates than whites who commit the same crimes. The penal system aspires to be a state-sponsored reform program, but prison doesn’t exist in its current form as an attempt to rehabilitate black people so much as to remove them from society altogether.
Things like learning how to read, pissing in the wrong trough, and not stepping off the sidewalk when whites pass have all at various times been seen as acts of defiance meant to subvert this country’s caste system, the ghosts of which still infect our legal process today. Any misstep a black person makes can be used not just to affirm their innate criminality, but as a tool with which to remove that person from society, crippling their future as well as those of their family and their community.
University of Virginia student Martese Johnson misstepped earlier this year when he tried to enter a bar while underaged. He was beaten bloody. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice misstepped last year in Cleveland, Ohio when he was playing with a toy gun in a park. He was executed at close range. John Crawford III misstepped in Beavercreek, Ohio when he picked up an air rifle off a shelf in Wal-Mart. He, too, was executed at close range. Jonathan Ferrell misstepped in Charlotte, N.C. two years ago when he banged on doors for help after a car accident. He was shot 10 times. Less than two months later, Renisha McBride misstepped in Detroit, Mich., when she got in a car accident of her own and also sought assistance. She was shot in the back of the head.
From an early age, blacks learn their lives can be taken casually—almost accidentally—and learn to focus on what they can control. Blacks are taught humility in the home—always with words and often with whips—and in the black Christian church. Black humility is often conflated with the Christian kind, but the two couldn’t be any further apart. Christian humility is affirmative, rooted in equality and the idea that God loves whores and kings all the same. Black humility is borne of pragmatism, of self-preservation in the face of mechanized brutality. To be black and humble is to be outwardly subservient, to tiptoe around the authority of a teacher, or a cop, or a neighborhood watchman, or just a white person ambling past. When blacks choose defiance, no matter how small, over humility, they are proving their black criminality. Bad things happen.
Sandra Bland, and Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown, and Jordan Davis, and Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott were all recently defiant to authority in their own ways, and they were all killed.
Compare their fates to that of James Eagan Holmes, the heavily armed gunman who was taken alive, tried, convicted, and sentenced after walking into an Aurora, Colo. movie theater in 2012 and shooting into the crowd, killing 12 and injuring 70 more. Or compare their fates to that of Dylann Roof, who walked into a Charleston, S.C. church earlier this year and killed 9 churchgoers. Officers arrested him, threw him in the back of their car, and then bought him Burger King.
Given that blacks are presumed criminal from birth, it makes sense that even in school, punishment is distributed unequally. Black children are just 18 percent of preschoolers, but make up 48 percent of preschoolers who receive more than one out-of-school suspension. Black students of all ages are suspended at over three times the rate as white students; black girls are suspended six times more than white girls. Black kids account for 16 percent of all students, but as many are expelled as white kids, who account for over half. In too many schools, all youthful defiance—talking in class, or not wearing the proper uniforms, or refusing to engage, or by-God fisticuffs—is taken as an illegitimate affront to or subversion of authority. The difference for black kids is that their defiances and even their mistakes are less often taken as one-offs or obvious bumps on the road to adulthood, and more often read as dangerous markers of intent. More black children are punished more often for transgressions like those children of other races make, and authorities are more liable to look at them and decide to remove them from school altogether, all but crippling their futures.
The situation becomes worse when police officers are injected into schools. SROs were originally introduced into schools to contend with rising crime, and their presence has exploded over the last two decades in the wake of mass shootings like Columbine. Cops in schools raise the stakes because with them around, routine, noncriminal offenses subject students to arrest. When students owe subservience as the price of not being assaulted, schools become prisons. On Monday in Columbia, a girl peeked at her phone, and then refused to leave class, and was then thrown around a classroom.
Since the video has become news, more details surrounding the attack have been unearthed. Fields, it turns out, is also nicknamed “Officer Slam” because of his reputation of using aggressive force in the past. He’s been previously accused of racial targeting. There have likely been other cases like Mondays at Spring Valley High School. This is just the first one to reach the public.
Fields was fired today, and the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice announced they’re conducting civil rights investigations to see “whether a federal law was violated.” A case will be built against him, he’ll have his day in court, and it will be determined whether he was found guilty of any wrongdoing. It’s all very fair and very American. Fields will be considered innocent until proven otherwise.
Illustration by Jim Cooke