When I heard the story of a white South Carolina police officer “brutalizing,” “man handling” and “flipping” a black teenage girl and “throwing her across the room,” I thought, “here we go again.” The list of similar white police or vigilante abuses of African-Americans has gotten so long it is tedious to enumerate. From Rodney King beaten in LA to Michael Brown shot in Ferguson, Missouri to Eric Garner choked to death in New York and, in my mind the most egregious case of all which has gotten the least attention, Sandra Bland arrested in Texas and thrown into a jail cell (where she eventually committed suicide) for “failing to signal a lane change.” (Have you driven in the USA recently? Does anyone there signal a lane change?)
These and a dozen more episodes in the unfortunate history of law enforcement in the USA share the pattern of white authorities and black victims, but each one is different in its own way. We are and should be outraged by the whole, but we owe it to ourselves and to all the actors involved to take note of how each is different from the others. The truth, like the devil, is in the details.
When I watched the video of Deputy Ben Fields arresting a 16-year-old South Carolina student in her classroom, I was expecting to have my festering anger sharpened. I watched the video, then I watched it again. What came to mind was a psychology experiment I heard about decades ago. A room full of test subjects watched a film showing African children at play and carrying on their daily lives in their homes and in their community. The children were all healthy, happy, living in a comfortable environment. At the same time a voice-over narrative described poverty, starvation and hardship in the lives of African children. The experiment subjects were then asked to answer questions about what they had seen. The test demonstrated that it is typical for people to believe what they have been told, to believe what they have been told they are seeing rather than what they have actually seen.
As I watched the South Carolina video sequence for the third time, resisting what I had heard and read, I became increasingly convinced that I had not seen a police officer brutalize, flip or wrestle a young girl or throw her across the room. Anyone who has ever played around even a little with video recoding realizes how video distorts distance. A dancer jumping three inches in the air appears to leap a foot and a half on video. In the South Carolina video I didn’t see anyone being thrown across a room. I saw a police officer pull a young woman out of a chair and then push her a bit further to get her clear of other desks and chairs.
Now a personal confession that will make me either callused or an authority on the case at hand depending on your perspective. I attended an all-boys Catholic high school run by Oblate fathers from the mid to late 60s. In my first and second years of high school hardly a week went by without my witnessing a student being slapped, punched, choked or roughed up, one way or another, by a teacher. My past experience has not induced me to consider corporal punishment as a desirable element of education. In fact, Mr. Knoble, homeroom and history teacher in grade 10B who never laid a hand on a student, remained the model I tried to emulate throughout my teaching career. He went so far as to joke with us that when he started at the school he was told by an old hand “If you want to survive here, as soon as you walk into the classroom, hit someone.” Then looking at his class list, the old hand told him who to hit.
Of the various beatings I witnessed, one stands out as particularly comparable to the
South Carolina episode. Mr. Q, the math teacher and football coach, grabbed Peter, the guy sitting behind me, by the hair and throat and dragged him out of his chair and across another row of chairs. No gender or racial divide in this case, but the chairs with a desk attached were the same—and the type of chair does matter. Imagine your job is to get someone out of one of those chairs using physical force. How would you do it?
When Deputy Fields is dealing with the South Carolina student, despite descriptions of him “slamming her to the ground,” I see him tipping her desk back and then holding her so that she would not be slammed to the ground. Deputy Fields did an effective job of getting the student out of the desk and into a clear space without bumping or banging the student against anything that might cause serious injury. He dragged and pushed her then rolled her over, put her in handcuffs and took her away. He did not lift her in the air and throw her across the room.
The student’s personal injury lawyer has already announced a list of her injuries. I didn’t see the officer do anything that would cause a serious injury; in fact, I came away from the video thinking it is not easy to do what he did without causing significant injuries, and he had done a pretty good job of making sure the student was not seriously injured. Nonetheless, in South Carolina, Sheriff’s are elected, so Deputy Fields's boss didn’t waste any time in announcing that Fields was fired.
There is a serious problem in American schools if classroom management requires police presence, but I don’t see how we can lay the blame on the officer called upon to do his ugly duty. The teacher had tried to deal with the young woman and failed; the principle tried to deal with her and failed. When Deputy Fields was called, what was the expectation? Was he called because of his expertise as a negotiator? Was he called because of his background in pedagogy and classroom management? His education in child psychology? Everyone in authority and, I would surmise, the young woman herself had decided that the situation could only be dealt with through physical intervention and that is what the Deputy did.
It may seem trite in this context to discuss classroom management, but if education is going to take place in schools, then classroom management is step one. Even at a university level it is clear that some students are unprepared for the baseline requirements of being orderly, attentive and quiet for extended periods of time. I have been shocked a number of times to pass a university classroom and hear a university teacher attempting to lecture by speaking louder than everyone else in the room who is talking. It is foolhardy to imagine that individuals can learn in an ambience of constant chaos and noise. As much as everyone pays lip service to the value of education, it seems clear to me that as soon as front-line issues arise and self-interest or “covering your ass” are in play, the importance of education disappears.
The moment Deputy Fields was called to solve a problem of classroom management, the teacher, administrator and the system were announcing their own failure. To make the police officer and/or race the issue is to guarantee that the real problem will never be addressed, will go un-solved and eventually escalate. One recalcitrant student may very well be a victim, but making the aspirations of a roomful of students hoping to get an education collateral damage to the problems of one student and an inept system is no solution.