A sad, predictable thing happened this week: A video of an officer assaulting a young black girl went viral, and people who should know better blamed it on the girl.
After an initial wave of righteous outrage swept the internet, the National Review’s David French wrote that the video from South Carolina’s Spring Valley High School was getting attention "for all the wrong reasons.” The officer’s physical force—pulling the girl’s hair and dragging her out of her desk—was appropriate because she had refused orders, he argued.
“The fact that the incident didn’t look good on camera doesn’t make his actions wrong,” French wrote.
At a press conference the same day, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott spread the blame around as well. “She started this,” Lott said of the high school-aged girl, whose name has not been disclosed. He also announced that Deputy Officer Ben Fields would be fired for being “wrong.”
Sheriff Leon Lott: "She started this"
Are black girls and women inherently violent? Are they biologically lacking in deference? Innately obstinate? From Sandra Bland to the teenage girl in the bikini in McKinney, Texas, to this young student, the treatment of black girls and women by some educators, officers and right-wing media implies they are deserving of the violence perpetrated against them.
On Tuesday, The View co-host Raven-Symoné made waves after she too placed blame on the student. “There’s no right reason for him to be doing this type of harm,” she said. “But at the same time, you’ve got to follow the rules in school.” On Thursday’s episode, the former child star walked back her comments by acknowledging the connection between the incident at Spring Valley High School and the school-to-prison pipeline.
There’s a strong link between the over-disciplining of black girls in schools and the violence inflicted upon black women by the state, said Kimberle Crenshaw, a professor of law at UCLA and founder of the African American Policy Forum. “Girls and black women are seen as are more aggressive, and their emotions aren’t read accurately. Hurt and pain and even excitement are misrepresented on black faces,” she said.
Niya Kenny, another student at Spring Valley who was in the classroom during the incident told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes that Officer Fields wasn’t nice at all. That in fact he was known as “Officer Slam” by other students. “I’ve heard he’s in the past slammed pregnant women, teenage girls. He’s known for slamming,” Kenny said. The officer had been named as a defendant in a lawsuit that said he “unfairly and recklessly targets African-American students with allegations of gang membership and criminal gang activity.” The lawsuit is set to go to trial next year, according to Newsweek.
In the 2011-2012 school year, black girls were suspended six times as often as white girls, according to a 2015 report called Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected released by the African American Policy Forum, a think tank. Black girls reported feeling uncomfortable with security in their schools. Some “were dissuaded from coming to school at all,” said the report.
At an earlier press conference, Sheriff Lott cited the fact that Officer Fields has been dating a black woman “for quite some time” as evidence that the incident wasn’t motivated by race. The infamous segregationist Strom Thurmond also had a black girlfriend, with whom he had a child. Racism is messy. Fields is capable of acting in a racist way and also engaging romantically with a black woman.
The portrayal of black girls and women as deserving of more force isn’t restricted to this one incident. In July, Sandra Bland died in a jail cell in Texas after she was held for three days for a traffic stop. During her exchange with the arresting officer, he asked her to put out her cigarette. Bland refused, which was her legal right. The officer threatened to use his Taser and reached inside Bland’s car to remove her before she willingly complied. Fox News’ Elisabeth Hasselbeck called Bland “irritated” and indicated that she should have put out her cigarette because “sure someone has, in the history of this land, used a cigarette against a police officer.”
Later in the summer at a pool party in McKinney, Texas, a black teenage girl was slammed to the ground by a police officer in her bikini. In her analysis, Fox News’ guest Jonna Spilbor said “something clearly happened that aggravated this police officer,” making an excuse for his actions, an indictment against the visual evidence showing a teen girl violently thrown by law enforcement.
The FBI has opened an investigation into the incident at Spring Valley High School.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.