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Why the Internet cannot defend the #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh
Officer Fields came. He saw. He brutalized.
Warning: This article contains video that may be potentially triggering.
He came. He saw. He brutalized.
In a disturbing viral video, Columbia, South Carolina deputy Ben Fields (a white male police officer the size of an offensive lineman, better known as “Officer Slam” to students) leers toward an unsuspecting young Black female student at Spring Valley High School. According to unconfirmed reports, as the Root notes, she refused to leave the classroom per her instructor’s demand, for allegedly not following a few simple orders: namely, to stop chewing gum or to put away her phone. But that’s irrelevant.
As the footage shows, the unidentified student is apparently without a weapon. She poses no clear and present danger. She’s not even suspected of having committed a violent crime. Yet Fields, acting as the school’s “safety officer,” enters the classroom to intervene on the teacher’s behalf. He’s barely tries to encourage her cooperation, let alone ask for her side of the story. Instead, Fields immediately picks her up from her desk, slings her across the room, and continues roughing her up after she thuds to the floor.
On face, that alone might be enough for most people on the Internet to respond in anger, outrage, or disgust with the excessive force used by the officer against an unarmed high school student. But where there’s a will to be ignorant, there’s indeed a way. Cue the impulsive, enabled online observers swinging in to defend law enforcement.
As the #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh shows, yet again, the Internet is filled to the brim with people who assert that Black people “must have done something to deserve” brutal treatment from officers. Since Monday, the hashtag associated with the violent incident has elicited more than 150,000 tweets, according to Topsy, but the online sentiment still reveals a broader indifference or unwillingness to condemn anti-Black police brutality.
It’s time to stop defending police officers who behave with the impunity they’re afforded, both by the long arm of the law, and by us—especially as it pertains to Black women and girls.
One prime enabler of Fields’ actions at Spring Valley High, and a culprit du jour in discussions of anti-Black racism and violence, is none other than Don Lemon. In his initial on-air response, the CNN anchor’s line of questioning proved so controversial, his name (again) became a top-10 trending Twitter topic in the United States, sparking online debate about whether or not the young student should’ve been treated in such a manner.
This televised exchange is about more than Don Lemon’s persistent ignorance while covering racial issues on a major national platform.
“I’d like to know more before passing judgment,” Lemon said, a position echoed by many online onlookers in the hours immediately following the release of three different angles of footage from that Spring Valley classroom. But former federal prosecutor, CNN contributor Sunny Hostin—who happens to be a Black woman, and an expert much more qualified to address the nature of the situation—immediately challenged his legal logic.
“I don’t need to know more,” Hostin said, despite Lemon’s attempts to shush her. “The law provides that the standard here is whether the officer has to use this type of force, whether it’s reasonable and necessary to somehow secure discipline in the school. The bottom line is, Don, this is a young girl in school. There is no justification for using this kind [of force] …and it is assault.”
The next day, Richmond County Sheriff Leon Lott had similar questions as Hostin, which prompted the FBI to open an investigation into the matter on Tuesday.
To be clear, this is about more than Don Lemon’s persistent ignorance while covering racial issues on a major national platform. It’s about the propensity—from Black men in positions of power, racists with reckless abandon, and staunch cop defenders on the Internet—to erase, ignore, or downplay the pain that many Black women and girls face at the hands of police officers, many of whom are white.
The online defense of Fields also highlights a pernicious double standard.
Citing Lemon’s questioning, online users have hidden behind faux-journalistic ethics and a purported need for verification to enable the people who defend Fields the most. In a post for the unaffiliated “CNN Commentary” blog, which Lemon retweeted on Tuesday, the author lauds Lemon hesitantly, calling him “for once the voice of reason” before decrying the “trolls” (including Hostin) who blasted him on Twitter. Lemon’s reaction—one shared by several on social media—was praised as “reasonable” and responsible.
But even further, the online defense of Fields also highlights a pernicious double standard.
Anyone with a beating pulse could bet their year’s income that the Internet reaction—and maybe even Lemon’s—would be markedly different if a burly, bodybuilding, Black male police officer roughed up a white, blonde, female student in a high school class. The Internet would be in even bigger uproar calling for the officer’s ouster, and he would’ve likely been fired without question, even before a formal investigation took shape, as Fields has been afforded.
Yet it’s officers like Fields who often get the benefit of the doubt from many observers, and even get away with murder in the courts. That includes Daniel Holtzclaw in Oklahoma, who still faces charges for allegedly abusing his power to serially rape multiple Black women. It also includes Eric Casebolt in McKinney, Texas, who resigned after slamming and pinning a teenage Black girl wearing a swimsuit, while using his gun to scare away concerned bystanders over an alleged pool party dispute. And lest we not forget Brian Encinia, in Waller County, Texas, who brutally took down an unarmed Sandra Bland over an alleged traffic violation, dragging her out of her car and leading her to the holding station where she’d soon, mysteriously die.
And with the racial role reversal—had the officer been Black and the student been white—at most any other high school in America, the classroom instructor may have even tried to deescalate the situation. The young woman’s bystanding peers may have challenged his authority even more than they did at Spring Valley, where a number of concerned students defiantly recorded the incident on their cell phones.
Notably, one of those students—18-year-old Niya Kenny, a young Black woman—was also arrested for interfering in defense of her classmate.
“I was screaming, ‘What the f, what the f is really happening?’ I was praying out loud for the girl,” she told South Carolina’s WLTX, adding that she also recorded the traumatic event on her cameraphone. “I just couldn’t believe this was happening, I was just crying, and he said, ‘Since you have so much to say, you are coming too.’ I just put my hands behind my back.”
But as Kenny also highlights, according to reports, Fields has a sick reputation for handling female students. “I’ve heard in the past [Fields has] slammed pregnant women, teenage girls, he’s known for slamming,” Kenny told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on Tuesday evening, noting that she told fellow classmates to strap in for an unsettling episode. And given his violent reputation for excessive force, Kenny said she also encouraged her peers to take out their cell phones to film an incident that she knew wouldn’t end well.
If a surrendering, white supremacist murder suspect can get coddled into police custody, then young, unarmed Black students should expect more from police officers.
Kenny’s fears aren’t unfounded, after all, given Fields’s history of misconduct and racial bias. In addition, as the Root’s Kristen West-Savali highlights, Black girls in the United States are six times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white counterparts, per a 2015 report from the African American Policy Forum. As AAPF co-founder and law professor Kimberle Crenshaw notes in the report, “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected,” concerns about the risks that Black girls and other girls of color confront “rarely receive the full attention of researchers, advocates, policy makers, and funders.”
Indeed, the “why does it have to be about race” defense simply doesn’t work in instances where racial and gender biases, combined, demonstrably play a role in how Black girls are treated in school settings. “If the challenges facing girls of color are to be addressed, then research and policy frameworks must move beyond the notion that all of the youth of color who are in crisis are boys,” the report’s executive summary states, “and that the concerns of white girls are indistinguishable from those of girls of color.”
What will it take for the public to condemn police brutality outright, when it’s a clear and present danger to people of color in America, including and especially Black women and girls? If the Internet has long waited for a reason, the #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh is most certainly a prime one. But, even so, the reasons are irrelevant here, because no individual in similar circumstances deserves being brutalized by the police officers who swore to protect them.
If a surrendering, white supremacist murder suspect (read: the Charleston shooter) can get coddled into police custody and equipped with a bulletproof vest—after murdering several Black church congregants just a two-hour drive away from Spring Valley High School—then young, unarmed Black students should expect police officers and government agencies to fully regard their lives with respect and dignity.
Because their Black lives matter, even when the Internet argues otherwise.
Derrick Clifton is the deputy opinion editor for the Daily Dot and a New York-based journalist and speaker, primarily covering issues of identity, culture, and social justice.
Photo via _the.kidd/Instagram (CC by 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman
Derrick Clifton is an identity and culture reporter and columnist. His work has appeared on NBC News, the Guardian, Vox, the Root, Quartz, MSNBC, HLN, and Mic. He is the communications manager for ProPublica Illinois.