When I first saw the video of Ben Fields hooking an arm around a black girl's neck, flipping her over in her seat, dragging and throwing her across the room and then handcuffing her, never once did I wonder what she might have done to deserve it.
Fields, until recently, was a resource officer at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina. This week, the entire country saw video of him manhandling a 16-year-old student at Spring Valley High in the most forceful way possible. Critics have characterized his actions as "assault,” and the footage has led the FBI and Department of Justice to launch an investigation. Fields, who was also a sheriff's deputy in Richland County, South Carolina, was fired Wednesday after a 48-hour investigation into his conduct.
As 2015 draws to a close, no one should need an explanation of why it's horrifying to see a white police officer treat an unarmed black teen this way. It's especially upsetting to see this happen in a school -- the place we're always telling teens to stay in; the place where they're supposed to be able to get an education that will help them advance in life. Of course, for far too many students -- particularly students of color -- school is just a place to get railroaded into the criminal justice system. Yet as the video of Fields has spread this week, some black men seem strangely determined to figure out what this teenager did to provoke such treatment, even though no one is in a better position than black men themselves to understand how sometimes police brutality simply happens because an officer decided to be brutal.
A Twitter search for #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh will yield comments from many who need to know what, exactly, this child did. Even CNN's Don Lemon has argued that "we need to know more" and "you don't know [the girl] was just sitting there." It's strange and dismaying to see people looking for reasons to blame the victim: Why didn’t she do what she was told? Why didn’t she listen? Why didn’t she comply?
This is a cop-out. If there's a "why" question to be asked here, it's not "Why didn't the girl just listen?" but rather "Why did Fields think it was even slightly appropriate to act the way he did?"
She wouldn't put her phone away. She should have listened to her teacher. Well, OK, yes, that's true: The student should have listened to her teacher. Here's something else that's true: She was not waving a gun around, or brandishing a knife, or threatening to push the detonator on a bomb. Any one of those scenarios would be an appropriate time to put someone in a headlock, wrestle them to the ground and cuff them. But that's not what the girl was doing. She was flailing at the officer and possibly hitting him, but she was seated while he was standing, and as best anyone can tell, she didn't start doing that until Fields had already put his hands on her.
If we're being honest, no one can seriously watch the video and think there's any moment where the student has the upper hand. And it's very hard to imagine a police officer treating a white 16-year-old girl this way.
There's an ugly, persistent stereotype that black girls and women are naturally defiant and unruly and need to be forcibly kept in check. When you ask "what was the girl doing" instead of "why did the officer do that," you're not pushing back against that stereotype. You're reinforcing it. Negative stereotypes of black women and girls have been widely internalized, as Kovie Biakolo summed up last year for Thought Catalog:
The stereotypes that Black women often have to face in the United States -- stereotypes about being “loud,” having bad attitudes or being rude; commentary about having “fake” hair or being “over sexualized” are not only prominent among non-Black communities, they are internalized by many in the Black community and used to shame others. Usually the others that are being shamed are of course the poor, who are vilified as “ghetto.” And this kind of shaming trebles its effects in targeting three aspects of a person -- that they are Black, that they are a woman, and that they are poor. Words such as “ratchet” and “ghetto” and even the latest one, “thot” are originally raced and/or gendered terms that were used to disparage and police particular bodies -- Black, female, and oftentimes poor, bodies.
Misogynoir -- a term coined in 2010 by Moya Baliey, a gay black feminist and academic, to describe the intersection of racism and sexism and the unique oppression that black women face -- is rampant on social media. From #JadaPose to #RuinABlackGirlsMonday, black women and girls are frequently targeted on these platforms by black men using what are essentially white supremacist tactics: stereotyping, dehumanization, punching down.
It's worth noting that black men rarely ask "Well, what was he doing?" when black boys and men get killed by police officers. In the U.S., black women are still women, and black people, like everyone else, grow up in a culture where they're reminded every day that white patriarchy is king. Sexism, like racism, is something you learn, not something you're born with, so in a way it's not surprising when black men treat black women with distrust and disrespect -- the same kind of treatment they themselves get from white people.
“Black female bodies have long been sites of trauma, carrying not only the weight of the past, but present stereotypes that dehumanize and sexualize young girls before they even hit puberty,” HuffPost’s Zeba Blay said of Officer Eric Casebolt’s treatment of 15-year-old Dajerria Becton at a pool party in McKinney, Texas, this summer. “Casebolt did not think he was restraining a helpless teenaged girl, but a ‘black woman,’ with all the stereotypes and stigma that includes. This, it seems, was justification enough for her treatment.”
When black men are the ones searching for that justification, it’s especially mind-boggling and hurtful. Again, no one is in a better position than black men to understand how black children are seen as older and more menacing than their white peers; how a white person's dumb college antics can be a black person's death sentence; and how black adults, oddly, are often treated as irresponsible children.
The cut is deeper when you realize that black women have always stood up for and defended black men -- especially in the fight against police brutality. Hashtags like #SayHerName and #BlackWomensLivesMatter have helped raise awareness of the countless black women who are sexually and physically brutalized by officers and other authority figures. But black female activists usually have to devise and spread these hashtags themselves. Otherwise, it won't happen.
Sadly, black men are rarely seen at protests against the police brutalization of black women. Issues that specifically affect black women don't get a lot of airtime or public consideration. A common rationalization of this is that black women “dog black men out” and make them feel unwelcome, which is another cop-out. Without black women, the movements that have mostly benefited black men over the years wouldn’t have achieved much.
Yes, not all black men are like this, just as not all men are sexist and not all white people are racist. But that's not an argument against dismantling sexism and racism. It's important to understand that whatever transgression or act of disobedience the girl in South Carolina may have committed, Fields' actions are infinitely more horrifying. If you suggest otherwise, if you suggest that the girl somehow earned or deserved what happened to her, then you're not really that different from the white folks who brought up Freddie Gray’s criminal record or blamed Sandra Bland’s arrest on her attitude. You can do better than that. And you should.