She must have been so afraid.
Sitting at her desk at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C., feigning calm, warily watching the white man in uniform approach, the black girl with the brown skin must have been terrified.
It could easily have been Eric Casebolt or Daniel Holtzclaw or Timothy Loehmann or Daniel Pantaleo, but this particular monster’s name is Ben Fields.
You’ve seen the video. Fields, 34—a senior deputy with the Richland County, S.C., Sheriff’s Department; a school resource officer, defensive-line football coach and assaulter of black girls—reportedly was called to the student’s classroom after she refused to leave on the teacher’s command. According to classmate Niya Kenney, 18, the girl wasn’t participating in class, while others say she was chewing gum or being “verbally disruptive.”
Other students said she was “new” and just as quiet as she had been since she arrived, not bothering anyone.
None of this has been confirmed; none of it matters.
What does matter is that this girl was terrorized by an officer of the state. She was pulled, choked and thrown on the ground—while still sitting at her desk. She was dragged, forcibly placed in handcuffs and then placed under arrest. As she was assaulted, her classmates sat in eerie, almost petrified, silence. Some can be seen with their heads down, while a black man, identified on social media by students and locals as Spring Valley’s principal, Jeff Temoney, though that has not been confirmed, watches it all play out without saying a word. In fact, he moves backward and lets the devil have his way.
In the coming days, we’ll listen to mainstream pundits dispassionately talk about the necessity (or lack thereof) of police officers in schools, but they won’t honestly discuss the school-to-prison pipeline that targets students of color, even as white students are shooting up their classmates across the country.
Many white feminists will wave their colorblind flags and say, “This is a travesty, period. It has nothing to do with race.” But they won’t talk about the expendability of black women and black women’s flesh; how easy it is for us to be stripped of our dignity and our agency. They won’t talk about the fact that Fields is walking in a long tradition of slave owners and that it never occurred to him that he would be expected to treat what his kind consider property of the state as a human being.
As a child.
Appalled, yet still smug, observers will trot out the number of schools, primarily in the Deep South, that still employ corporal punishment, and they will attempt to frame it as a regional thing, some Southern fried depravity. This is, after all, the state where Bree Newsome had to scale the flagpole on the Statehouse grounds to remove the Confederate flag. This is the state where Dylann Roof entered a church and is charged with gunning down nine black church members after they invited him in to pray.
What more can we expect from this part of the country? That’s what they’ll ask.
What they won’t do is admit that black girls across this nation are six times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white counterparts. According to a 2015 African-American Policy Forum report, “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected” (pdf), in New York City, that number is 10 times more likely; in Boston, it’s 11 times more likely.
They won’t admit that violent and systemic racism is not quarantined to the Deep South.
Enraged allies will talk about Fields’ documented history (pdf) of racial bias and police misconduct (pdf), but not many will just as loudly declare that Fields’ conduct is perfectly aligned with how law enforcement manhandles, and murders, black children—because this student could have died. Not many will wrestle with the fact that Fields is not unique and that this is not evidence of a broken system, but of a racist system, functioning exactly as intended.
What they won’t do is admit that, as Very Smart Brothas’ Damon Young so succinctly noted, had this been a white girl, Fields would never have laid a hand on her.
This past June, when Casebolt assaulted and violently restrained Dajerria Becton, I wrote this:
“Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection,” said Phillip Atiba Goff, Ph.D., of the University of California, Los Angeles, in his study “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children” (pdf). The study gauged white police officers’ prejudice and unconscious dehumanization of black people by comparing them to apes.
According to Goff, “Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”
The same is true for black girls, quiet as it’s kept.
This is why over 1,000 of us, as well as over 250 concerned black men, signed a letter to the Obama administration explaining #WhyWeCantWait. Black women and girls are primary targets of state-sanctioned violence, not just adjacent mourners of and fighters for black men. And it bears repeating that just as was the case in McKinney, Texas, in Columbia, S.C., an adult black man stood by while a young black girl was being assaulted by a white police officer.
Clearly, the black man in the video—whether it be an administrator or some random person standing at the front of the classroom armed with a walkie talkie—believes, as (white) teacher Robert Long allegedly does, that “she should have cooperated” or else he would not have been complicit in the violence that showed every black girl in that math class how valuable they are in his equation.
How’s that for black power and solidarity? Can you imagine Long’s justification being effectively co-signed by a black man when Eric Garner was killed or Michael Brown was executed on Canfield Drive? What about when Ramarley Graham was gunned down in his home, or Oscar Grant was shot in the back at Fruitvale Station, or Martese Johnson was violently assaulted for partying while black?
No, but we witnessed it with Dajerria. We witnessed it with Sandra Bland. We witnessed it with Ersula Ore. And we’re witnessing it now. Even when there is no evidence that this girl was in any way disrupting class, the very suggestion that she could have been a “mouthy” black girl has been enough for some people to ignore their responsibility to her, and others to ask, “Well, did she deserve it?”
The answer: Hell no.
In her interview with WLTX, Niya Kenny, the girl’s classmate and the second girl Fields arrested, on a charge of “disturbing schools” for coming to her classmate’s defense, explained why she was so enraged by what she saw: “I know this girl don’t got nobody.”
Precedent teaches us that if this incident had happened anywhere outside the four walls of that classroom, that young girl would probably be dead. Dead because she “didn’t comply.” Dead because she “looked threatening.”
Dead because she is black.
And it is up to us who believe that black girls matter to demand justice for our girls because it is painfully clear that no one else will.
It is up to us to make sure that they know—every second of every minute of every day—that they do have somebody.