My stomach turned when he violently slammed her desk backward. I could feel my heart rate slow nearly to a stop as he dragged her five feet across the grimy linoleum of the classroom floor. She was young, female, and black. He was older, male, and white. At issue was teenage insouciance. She wouldn’t give up her damn cell phone.
I avoided watching that video for a week. I didn’t want to read the hashtags on Twitter. I didn’t want that weary, impotent rage to blanket my mind once again. I simply wished it wasn’t real.
Why is it that mild rebellion becomes a kindling for violence when it features a black cast? What element comes into play that transforms routine encounters between law enforcement and commoners into theaters for racial animus? What made this particular 16-year-old such a looming threat?
These are the facts: A black female student at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina was glued to her cellphone during class time. After refusing to heed the demands of both her teacher and an administrator to leave the class, a School Resource Officer was called in. The officer, Ben Fields, is seen on cellphone video immediately escalating the situation.
After the student refuses to comply with Officer Fields’ demand to follow him out of the classroom, the video clearly captures him grabbing her by the neck, slamming her backwards while she is still seated at her desk, and finally dragging her to the front of the room. Her fellow classmates are shown taking pains to stare at their desks in an effort to avoid witnessing the brutal scene.
Following the incident, the student was released to her parents. Although some students argued in defense of Fields, his brutal tactics led to his termination. Officer Fields has faced lawsuits for excessive force and violation of civil rights. One suit was largely dismissed in 2007. A second suit, filed by a former student at Spring Valley High, will be heard in January 2016.
As I’ve written before, the presence of video thrusts the public into the heart of the assault. The existence of the video shot by the student’s classmate obviates the public’s reflexive need to pretend the officer couldn’t have possibly been that brutal. The dispassionate oculus of a zoom lens is a necessary tool in the fight to expose the heady reality of race and policing in American classrooms.
In widening the scope of the analysis, it becomes easier to understand how punitive educational policies strangle the potential of black students to fully engage in and benefit from school. The ability to test the boundaries of acceptable behavior has become a privilege reserved for white kids merely deemed to be going through a “phase”.
At the heart of this brutal incident is the introduction of school policies that effectively criminalize students for bad behavior. Resultantly, unacceptable behavior is met with criminal liability instead of course correction and empathetic guidance. The pivot toward early criminalization of students is exemplified in South Carolina by the Disturbing Schools Law. This 1962 statute makes it unlawful “for any person willfully or unnecessarily to interfere with or to disturb in any way or in any place the students or teachers of any school or college…” Conviction leads to a misdemeanor charge and a fine.
This disturbingly vague law opens innumerable pathways to the criminalization of a significant portion of the 59% of black students served by the school district encompassing Spring Valley High. Indeed, recent studies conducted by the Department of Education bear this out. The data is clear. Black students are 3 times more likely than their white peers to be subject to disciplinary action that separates them from a learning environment. Add to that the introduction of police officers in schools, and the inevitable result is a punitive atmosphere in which disadvantaged students face early forays into the penal system for petty rebellions.
Officer Fields has been fired. Both the F.B.I. and the Justice Department are investigating the assault. Unfortunately, the individual fate of Officer Fields will have a net zero impact on the multitudes of black children navigating an educational system that is not built for their success.
She was young, female, and black. Why did she have to be that?
During her acceptance speech at the Oscars last Sunday, actress Patricia Arquette made an attempt to rally white feminists by calling for equal pay. On the surface, Arquette’s standard issue rallying cry was the sort of policy-lite that could be hashtagged and memed for days. However, things went south backstage when she was asked to elaborate her onstage comments. In a breathtakingly ignorant move, Arquette asserted that white women had done their part in agitating for the civil rights of “everybody else” (read: blacks and gays)—and now it’s their turn. Her response betrayed a fundamental flaw in mainstream, American feminism—the repeated failure to acknowledge the socioeconomic ramifications of intersectionality. In other words, the movement’s failure to recognize that one can be both a feminist and a poc and even, by god, LGBT. She offered the following wisdom behind the curtain:
“And it’s time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now”.
In her self-righteous bid to briefly don the “activist cape”, Arquette denied the ongoing struggle of people of color and LGBT citizens. Her reflexive universalization of the experiences of leisure-class white women revealed an unsophisticated understanding of the fight for equality. The actress’s failure to recognize the interplay of race, class, and gender mirrors broader issues within feminist movement.
Black feminists in the academy long ago recognized the immutable reality of intersectional identities. Pioneering work by Kimberle Crenshaw (who coined the term intersectionality) and bell hooks, among many others, attacks the notion that one has to be either a feminist or a woc. Most feminists of color recognize that systems of oppression do not operate in isolation, and thus reject the dictate that the struggle for minority rights is a separate and competing agenda.
Unfortunately, the popular imagination still clings to the framework first put forth by Betty Friedan. This is a framework centered on middle-class, college educated white women. Today, the daughters of Friedan’s peers want to lean in and be compensated appropriately for it. Essentially, these women want to compete on the battlefield of capitalism and achieve financial parity with their white, male counterparts.
Arquette’s appeal conveniently ignored the fact that black women and Latinas routinely earn less, dollar for dollar, than their white peers. An analysis of Census data conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) found that while white women earn 78% of the earnings of their white male counterparts, black women only earn 64%, and Hispanic women make even less at 53%. A quick look at the numbers muddles Arquette’s simplistic argument for fair pay.
The data collected by AAUW shows that race has an almost decisive impact on the lifetime earnings of women of color when compared to those of white women. Furthermore, deeper analysis of the numbers demonstrates that higher education amongst women of color does little to mitigate the persistence of the pay gap. Arquette’s use of a heteronormative, white, male-vs-female dualist framework to attack gender-based pay discrepancies erases the unique challenges faced by women with intersecting identities.
Ultimately, rather than taking a moment to seriously question an economic system that is highly stratified and marked by crippling inequality, the actress instead chose to unconsciously endorse a mode of production that must necessarily keep a significant percentage of the population on the bottom rungs. Instead of insisting on parity in a grossly unfair system, Arquette would have been better served to call for the structural changes that would make such concerns largely null and void. Perhaps next time Patty, you can struggle for women across the race-class-sexuality spectrum.
Actually…don’t bother. Intersectional feminists can agitate just fine for our damn selves.
Policing in black America has historically been fraught with racial tensions that often catalyze sudden convulsions of violence and backlash. History has demonstrated that police are not trained to integrate themselves into the fabric of the poor communities they serve. Instead, the daily grind of black and white cruisers coasting down the block often evokes feelings of anxiety and suspicion. The fact that you can, and very likely will be, randomly accosted by a patrolman for darkly nebulous reasons sets the stage for a potentially explosive encounter. A foundation of trust, respect, and mutual understanding between communities of color and the police doesn’t exist.
The roots of black Americans’ relationship with state-sponsored sources of law enforcement have been poisoned since the birth of our nation. During the Jim Crow era, vigilante justice, public lynchings, and other forms of brutality committed against blacks were often conducted with the participation or tacit approval of local police departments. The most base of alleged transgressions, such as attempting to shop at a market owned by whites, were met with spectacular displays of ritualistic punishment. Decades on, the motto of Service and Protection is a commitment that becomes cancerous when applied to the cracked sidewalks of working-class neighborhoods. Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Ezell Ford, Michael Brown, and to a large extent, Trayvon Martin (his killer, George Zimmerman, was a self-proclaimed neighborhood watchman), are all tragic symbols of hyper-aggressive and largely unaccountable police departments. These most recent murders at the hands of cops have sparked organized, mostly nonviolent protest movements throughout the country.
The Dehumanization of Black Youth and the Denial of Black Childhood
The testimony of officer Darren Wilson during the grand jury proceedings in Ferguson provide a very compelling snapshot of his denial and cartoonish distortion of Michael Brown’s common humanity. In his testimony, Wilson evoked the caricature of a massive black man of superhuman strength and aggressiveness. The officer described Brown as a demonic machine sprinting through a hail of ineffective bullets. Furthermore, transcripts of Wilson’s testimony reveal that he “felt like a five-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan”. It’s important to understand that Wilson and Brown were almost equally yoked. Officer Wilson stands 6-foot-4 and weighs in at around 210 pounds. Similarly, Brown was 6’5 and 290 pounds. That’s hardly a David and Goliath matchup.
You see, in the minds of men raised in a culture that builds its understanding of black people through hyperbolic myths and assumption, seeing a teenage black male as an outsized, savage, wrestler-like figure is quite common. The tragic case of Tamir Rice is another striking example of the denial of black childhood. The officers who encountered Rice in that snow-dusted Cleveland park aged him up nearly a decade. Initial police reports described him as a man of 20 years old. Rice was 12 at the time officers gunned him down. Photos and video of the child clearly show an undeniably young boy.
Tamir was in a public space playing around with a toy gun—the ultimate symbol of American masculinity, strength, and swagger. (see Richard Slotkin’s work on this topic, or if reading is too much, just cue up any Clint Eastwood film). Yet, when a young black boy dares to participate in this hugely celebrated aspect of American culture, it becomes an imminent threat to local safety. (For the record, I’m not in anyway way endorsing the celebration of American gun culture. I’m simply using this example to demonstrate the differing cultural standards for white youth and youth of color.)
From these two instances alone, it becomes clear that youthful insouciance is a privilege reserved for those of the dominant class. Our culture has rejected an age of innocence for black American youth. Resultantly, black children are ineluctably tasked with carrying the colossal burden of adult responsibility years before they are psychologically and socially equipped to navigate those waters. These denials of black childhood, combined with the toxic assumption of hyper-aggressive masculinity, are the driving factors behind deadly police encounters.
The Role of Public Spectacle. Then and Now.
The element of public spectacle is oftentimes present when dealing with the murder of black citizens at the hands of police. Cellphone video and digital camera footage have usurped the role of lusty, voyeuristic crowds of onlookers erstwhile clustered around macabre outdoor theaters showcasing the latest “strange fruit”. The deft utilization of community-based oversight of police activity has allowed a global audience to observe beat cops’ callous disregard for the dignity of black bodies.
In the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, his body lay exposed to the elements on the filthy street for over four hours, all without the benefit or respect of a basic white shroud to protect his young corpse from baking in the Missouri sun. Photos from the scene show Mr. Brown splayed across the asphalt, face down in morbid repose, while officers and detectives calmly mill about. In Staten Island, Eric Garner was brutally choked to death while a concerned bystander recorded the assault and his haunting cries of “I can’t breathe”. A second video shows the arrival of emergency responders who make a seemingly calculated decision to withhold lifesaving measures from Mr. Garner. CPR and oxygen never entered into the equation. Instead, officers stare at Garner’s lifeless body and repeatedly check his pockets.
Another video has emerged of 12-year old Tamir Rice, who was killed by police officers in a public park. The footage, recorded by surveillance cameras across from the park, show Tamir’s 14 year-old sister frantically rushing to his aid after he was shot. The video shows an officer tackling the little girl to the ground, and eventually marching her to the back of the police car as her brother lay ten feet away bleeding to death. Rather than acknowledging the sister’s grief and confusion, the officers chose to prematurely criminalize her behavior by handcuffing her and refusing to allay her concerns. It’s incredibly sad to imagine the psychological trauma of being unable to protect your sibling and unceremoniously witnessing the blunt end of his short life. It’s almost certain that the Cleveland officers instilled a seed of mistrust and fear in the Rice family that will have ripple effects for generations.
In 2012, Trayvon Martin’s body laid soaking in the damp grass as a mild Florida rain dampened the hoodie that would go on to become a lightning rod for urban stereotypes. Again, no attempts were made to protect his young body from the unforgiving elements. In each of these instances, the sequence of events demonstrates the officers’ shameful lack of empathy for the victims. The electric atmosphere captured on film often melts into a state of calm detachment from the tragedy that occurred moments earlier.
It’s hard to overstate the value of real-time video/photographic documentation. When events are in dispute (which they almost always are), the objectivity of a zoom lens can obviate heavy reliance on the shaky recollections of a eyewitness. Community oversight of police tactics has helped catalyze the current political movement to eradicate the violent basis of cops’ relationship with poor, black communities. This democratization of investigation, analysis, and observance of public servants is a necessary check on the excesses of law enforcement. Capturing photographs and footage of police encounters also reshapes the often-emotional debates about race, social justice, and policing.
White Americans are now exposed to the harsh reality of the police brutality that is numbingly routine in minority communities. Deploying citizen media to document these encounters strongly mitigates the biases and distortions found in the anecdotal data put forth by victims, pundits, and police organizations. Cameras don’t have a political agenda to protect. Nor are they interested in perpetuating the status quo. Therefore, the proliferation of their use can only force a skeptical public to reevaluate their unconscious processes for justifying and hastily accepting the disproportionate use of deadly force against African-Americans. Unlike the grim days of public executions in the Jim Crow south, today’s use of spectacle is perhaps the smartest weapon in a sustained campaign against the state-sponsored violence rained down upon the bodies of black Americans.
On the media front, the coverage of the assassination of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu stands in stark contrast to the relatively muted reportage surrounding the murders of multiple unarmed black men last year. Hero Cop Dies is always the tagline when an officer is killed on the job. Bold headlines eulogizing the life and good works of the slain officers ran in most major newspapers. The tone of the coverage was evocative of a national tragedy. Unfortunately, outside of the protestors and the black community at large, that same empathy for the tragically short lives of the victims of police brutality has been largely absent. It seems that our hearts stop when an officer is killed. But the murders of scores of citizens a year at the hands of police is taken in stride. That collective tendency to lionize police officers is dangerous because it insulates them from accountability. Cops are not heroes. They are merely men, subject to the same errors in judgment and moral complexities as every other human.
Race, Policing, and Justice
Most Americans are steeped in a culture that is loath to critically assess the daily actions of police officers. The experiences of whites with policing are often radically different from African-Americans of all socioeconomic strata. A history of state-sanctioned violence and terror on behalf of law enforcement organizations doesn’t exist for the majority population. In fact, the most recent killings of young black men has only seemed to inspire a feeling amongst whites that race relations were being totally overblown. Indeed, fully half of white respondents to a Pew study conducted after the onset of riots in Ferguson felt that the racial elements of the case were receiving too much attention. It becomes easy to understand then, (although not in any way accept), white Americans’ deep reluctance to examine the racial dimensions of such incidents. Most of us are trained to hold subconscious biases that lend tropes of criminal behavior and general impudence to blacks. Thus, most Americans’ aversion to even suggesting that just once, the cop made a bad call.
Whites are incredibly likely to implicitly trust the judgment of the patrolmen, prosecutors, and grand juries that consistently fail to unpack, and objectively examine the violent actions of police against people of color. This disconnect is demonstrated on a larger scale when officer-involved shootings rarely lead to the conviction or even indictment of officers. The underlying assumption of many grand jurors regarding police brutality is that the officer was under imminent threat, thus deeming his actions legitimate. The nature of the evidence pertaining to his actions is largely beside the point. We like to give a wide berth for police organizations to put forth their version of events, and allow them to investigate problems in-house. Resultantly, a culture of recklessness and impunity rules, because those that would objectively analyze the culture and practices of various police departments are shouted down as anti-police.
This resistance to change has been thrust out into the open in the wake of the nationwide anti- police brutality protests. Officers in New York have been turning their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio in a coordinated effort to show their opposition to a leader that many in the force believe chose the protestors over them. The fact that de Blasio dared to legitimize the grievances of the protestors, and even went so far as to advise his son on how to interact with police, was a bridge too far for the men and women of the NYPD. Service and protection should be extended to all citizens, whether or not they buy wholesale into the myth of the hero cop. The fact that these officers have turned their backs on the people of New York is disgusting. Freedom of assembly doesn’t stop at the precinct’s door. The notion that Mayor de Blasio contributed to anti-police sentiment by protecting the protestors’ right to take to the streets strongly suggests that the NYPD expects blind and unflagging support.
Another troubling aspect of police culture is the unwillingness to be called to account for misguided tactics, such as stop-and-frisk, that are fueled by an irrational fear of black citizens. These policies easily lend themselves to stereotyping, and adrenaline-soaked, half-baked judgment calls. It’s a solution in search of a problem. Naturally, petty crimes such as jaywalking or selling loose cigarettes become serious criminal offenses. When suspects rightly question their harassment by beat cops, the situation often veers out of control. What often begins as a relatively mild encounter quickly escalates to the use of deadly force. The shooting and killing of unarmed men, or in the case of Eric Garner, the brutal choking death, is indicative of a cadre of ginned-up, aggressive officers that are socially primed to dehumanize their black counterparts. Naturally, the argument will be made that these officers have to make split-second decisions with a number of unknown factors. However, if you compare the number of deadly encounters of black citizens and whites with police, the raw numbers tell an entirely different story.
According to an analysis by ProPublica, Young black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by a cop than young white men. Furthermore, the circumstances surrounding the use of deadly force often remain murky, with many police organizations reporting the cause of these violent incidents as “undetermined”. 77% of the victims of these shadowy encounters are black. Any organization that is sworn to protect and serve should be open to the disinfecting nature of sunlight. To operate in the dark, resistant to constructive criticism and change, investigating itself, and to be cozy with prosecutors and various politicos in local and state leadership, creates the environment we have today. Who are the cops accountable to? No one.
Prosecutors are also complicit in the unchecked trend of police brutality against unarmed black men. Oftentimes, decisions on whether or not to indict the officers involved in these murders are only brought after weeks of public pressure. Even then, prosecutors seem to deliberately fail to make a vigorous case to the grand jury. For example, Bob McCulloch, the prosecutor in the Ferguson case, repeatedly emphasized his cozy relationship with the police department, and his admiration of police. During a highly unorthodox late night presentation of the grand jury findings, McCulloch essentially condemned the actions of Michael Brown, and mounted a public defense of the teen’s killer, Officer Darren Wilson. Several months later, in recounting an egregious demonstration of unethical conduct, prosecutor McCulloch casually revealed that he presented witness testimony to the grand jury that he knew to be false. Under these circumstances the probability of the late Michael Brown ever being granted justice is almost laughable.
Justice would be similarly denied to Eric Garner. In Staten Island, over 70 percent of the majority-white population believe the NYPD does a solid job. Additionally, 60 percent of Staten Islanders believe the police provide equitable treatment to both whites and blacks. That broad-based perception of the “firm, yet fair” cop went a long way in precluding the possibility of criminal charges against an officer that has an established history of using unethical tactics. Unsurprisingly, the grand jury declined to file criminal charges against NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo.
Democratizing the Debate Through Social Media
Enter Black Lives Matter. The fact that this even has to be said is a tragedy. African-Americans have to constantly remind the nation that we are here, and our lives matter too. The marches, “die-ins”, Twitter campaigns, and general civil unrest are essential to keeping this issue from going quietly into the night. The disgust and outrage at police actions are entirely legitimate, and the tactics used to draw attention to the injustice are also legitimate.
The artful use of social media to draw attention to issues that otherwise wouldn’t get much traction in the mainstream press is crucial in the struggle. Because a cost-barrier doesn’t exist for most social media sites, individuals are empowered to gather in the virtual public square and initiate dialogue and debate that often transform into action in the streets. Furthermore, the use of Twitter allows serious people to offer legitimate counterpoints and perceptions that often differ from the organizational agenda of large outfits such as the NYTimes or CNN.
Considering the sad lack of diversity in many newsrooms, these voices from the outside are indispensable to cultivating a holistic understanding of current events. Some of the most groundbreaking insights and coverage of Ferguson, for example, came from Twitter users that are members of that community, and were available to live-tweet many incidents as they happened. That perspective is crucial for filling out the hollow core of news reporting. Social media humanizes what can sometimes be viewed as bland, detached, and uncritical reporting.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Thus far, the police have shown zero willingness to address these issues and institute the structural changes needed to fundamentally revamp the relationship between people of color and the officers sworn to serve them. Instead of turning their backs, they should open their minds. (ETA: On Feb. 12th, FBI Director James B. Comey gave a widely touted speech regarding the nature of racism and policing).