The internet is buzzing with a video showing Officer Ben Fields slamming a teenager into a wall and physically dragging her to the floor. Her crime for which he was summoned was none other than being "disrespectful" and "verbally disruptive" when she refused to give her cell phone to her teacher. To make matters worse another student, Niya Kenny, was also arrested for "disturbing schools" for being distraught and verbally protesting when Ben Fields assaulted her classmate. The incident is being publicized as an example of race violence, but it is also indicative of another seldom-considered injustice: a crisis in children's rights.
I venture to guess that there are many more policeman who have perpetrated similar violations of children's rights, but who have done so without YouTube stardom and national headlines. A year and a half ago, I sat in a Psychology of Trauma class listening to police officers who had come to discuss their jobs. Curious about what kind of special protocol and victim-sensitivity they employ when dealing with child victims, I asked them about how they respond to child victims of abuse. I'll never forget what happened next.
One officer's arm shot up with a jabbering hand gesture as he explained that, if the victim was a girl, he would just let her talk "because that's what she wants to do" before eventually suggesting that "maybe it was this that you did that made your daddy hit you." "But if it's a boy," he said, "I'll just tell him to stop being an asshole and he deserved everything he got."
I felt sick to my stomach. How could this officer possibly think his answer was acceptable, especially in a classroom full of psychology students? Why did no one feel like they could challenge him? My teacher looked at the floor.
When I heard about Officer Fields' violence, it was unfortunately not surprising to me. It is telling that our society deems Officer Fields' actions ambiguous rather than fully unacceptable. In the aftermath of the violent incident in South Carolina, a social media debate has raged about whether or not the child deserved to be slammed against a wall. One popular tweet by @NathanZed expresses an appropriate sentiment: "If you see a girl get dragged and thrown by a grown man & your 1st thought is 'she must have done something to deserve that' you got problems."
While this debate has been limited to whether or not it was appropriate or justifiable to throw the child across the room, few seem to question whether or not it was appropriate to arrest her for the "crime" of refusing to surrender her property (cell phone) and exercising her freedom of speech. This teenager, a foster child, now suffers from rug burn on her forehead. This happened in a country we refer to as, "the land of the free" where children are taught ceremoniously about civil liberties and human rights to which they are not entitled.
The fact that American citizens and police are divided about whether or not it is appropriate to attack a child is disturbing enough, but even more unsettling is that it remains legal. CNN Analyst Harry Houck stated that, although the video "looks really bad" Officer Fields was within his rights to "use whatever force is necessary" to remove the student he has decided to arrest. No charges have been filed against Officer Fields.
Furthermore, this year includes several highly-publicized examples of cases in which children were wrongfully arrested. In June, the Tsimhoni case made international headlines after Judge Gorcyca berated and abused Liam 14, Roee 10, and Natalie 9, in court, and ordered them to juvenile detention for no greater crime than refusing to have lunch with their father. Defying reason, the judge's actions were somehow not deemed fully unjustifiable and she remains on the case. The children were forced into the custody of their father who they chose jail over interacting with.
There was also the case of Ahmed Mohamed who was arrested and interrogated without an attorney for bringing a homemade clock to school. Fortunately, he was subsequently invited to the White House and has since moved to Qatar to accept an educational scholarship.
What do these arrests tell children? They send black teens the message: "Police can be filmed assaulting you and Americans will create a hashtag (#ISupportBenFields) supporting it."
They tell abused children such as the Tsimhonis not to report abuse because they might get arrested and have to live with their abuser full time.
They set an example for science-minded children not to experiment for fear of being accused of terrorism.
The United States is the only country which is not a signatory of The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and it is not among the 37 countries which have banned physical punishment of children in recognition of the serious harm that it causes.
For privileged children who have never needed rights, perhaps the thought of childhood will one day invoke nostalgic memories of safety, happiness, a lack of responsibility, or a blissful ignorance of the evil in the world. Sadly, children such as the teen in the video, the Tsimhonis, Ahmed, or any others who have been abused, wrongfully arrested, or otherwise discriminated against, will likely have much less romantic memories without the luxury of ignorance regarding the evil of the world. They will know the value of rights through their deprivation, and classroom discussions of American freedoms might seem painfully ironic.
When it is legal for authority figures to abuse children and have them arrested on spurious and unsubstantiated charges, can America really be "the land of the free"?