An Incident In South Carolina

It is impossible to conceive of the Gray Wastes without first conceiving of a large swath of its inhabitants as both more than criminal and less than human. These inhabitants, black people, are the preeminent outlaws of the American imagination. Black criminality is literally written into the American Constitution—the Fugitive Slave Clause, in Article IV of that document, declared that any “Person held to Service or Labour” who escaped from one state to another could be “delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” From America’s very founding, the pursuit of the right to labor, and the right to live free of whipping and of the sale of one’s children, were verboten for blacks.

The crime of absconding was thought to be linked to other criminal inclinations among blacks. Pro-slavery intellectuals sought to defend the system as “commanded by God” and “approved by Christ.” In 1860, The New York Heraldoffered up a dispatch on the doings of runaway slaves residing in Canada. “The criminal calendars would be bare of a prosecution but for the negro prisoners,” the report claimed. Deprived of slavery’s blessings, blacks quickly devolved into criminal deviants who plied their trade with “a savage ferocity peculiar to the vicious negro.” Blacks, the report stated, were preternaturally inclined to rape: “When the lust comes over them they are worse than the wild beast of the forest.” Nearly a century and a half before the infamy of Willie Horton, a portrait emerged of blacks as highly prone to criminality, and generally beyond the scope of rehabilitation. In this fashion, black villainy justified white oppression—which was seen not as oppression but as “the corner-stone of our republican edifice.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Black Family In The Age Of Mass Incarceration”, The Atlantic, October 2015


The lynching of Laura Nelson. Her crime? She hadn't committed a crime.

The lynching of Laura Nelson. Her crime? She hadn’t committed a crime.

If you’re reading this, you probably know the story: a young woman, 16 years old, was asked by her teacher to leave her classroom for being disruptive. Her infraction? The teacher says she was texting. When she refused to leave, the teacher had a school administrator come to the class and remove the student. She again refused. The administrator had county sheriff’s deputy Ben Fields come to the room. When the student still refused, well . . . the rest is on digital media forever.

The link above goes to Wonkette’s first story on the incident. Their second story includes not only the county sheriff’s “He can’t be a bigot because he has a black girlfriend” defense, includes the following prophetic note:

 Here’s that video — no doubt a slow-motion Zapruder-style version will be available soon enough — and darned if what Sheriff Lott calls “striking and punching” looks an awful lot like reflexive flailing as the student and her desk are flipped over, and the her arms appear not to move until Fields has his arm around her neck and is lifting her and the desk

Not an hour after I read that second story, someone on Facebook had posted this:


Every story has overlapping contexts, various points-of-view, and our challenge as those not present is to weigh as much evidence as possible when we consider how we might react, if we are or even should react at all. This story is no different from any other in this way.

Here’s how I see it.

First, there’s the overarching narrative of race, state-sanctioned violence, and our ongoing efforts to criminalize black life, whether by creating vagrancy laws to prevent African-Americans from looking for work in the better parts of cities and towns or outlawing sagging pants. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s beautiful, masterful, thorough look at what he calls our “carceral state” includes our history of outlawing black life and lifestyles. No meeting between a representative of our state police power and African-Americans can be understood without at the very least acknowledging the reality that we continue in our efforts to make black life in America synonymous with criminality.

Second, there’s the abandonment of substantive penal reform and the growth not only of prisons both public and private, but an overall abandonment of a large swath of our population, demanding they police themselves while constantly undermining any chance for them to do so. Rather than assisting inner-city and poor rural communities through job programs, shoring up local institutions and providing real policing that targets criminals rather than neighborhoods, we insist they do so themselves before they receive any assistance. African-Americans are no different from the rest of us in wanting real policing that helps keep their neighborhoods safe. The difference is they receive policing that targets any and all persons in various neighborhoods as criminals. It isn’t that they hate or don’t like the police. The police do not act in ways deserving either of trust or respect.

Third, there’s the ongoing realization that excessive police violence against minorities and minority communities is not isolated to particular municipalities or regions of the country. It’s everywhere. And it isn’t a matter of an individual officer being a bigot or not. The whole history of this country creates conditions in which African-Americans are automatically seen as criminal; not just criminal but naturally criminal in ways that go beyond the norm, requiring the use of excessive force. This is not to say “All cops are racist”. It is just to note the reality that police forces at all levels are structurally and institutionally geared to see African-Americans as posing an unusual criminal threat; this structural reality is as old as the United States, built in to our very founding.

Finally, there are the specifics of this particular case. An officer with a known history both of targeting African-American students and using excessive force; a civil-trial against him for just these violations of student civil rights begins in January. A young woman who recently lost her mother, forced in to foster care will certainly have issues teachers should understand and -perhaps? – consider when making disciplinary decisions. The teacher alleges she was “being disruptive”; specifically, that she was texting in class, was asked to leave, and refused. Rather than summon first an administrator then a police officer, perhaps the school’s counselor might have been called? In any case, there’s the matter of a much larger man attempting to grab a much smaller, much younger girl from both above and behind. Unless someone is a martial artist, simple physics and questions of leverage would leave him in a dominant position, even if the student were larger. He reaches for her, and obviously she strikes out. Wouldn’t you if someone known to you as prone to excessive force tried to grab you? Of course she could do nothing to harm him; he picker her up with her seat and slammed the mass to the floor, then dragged her across the floor.

Let’s suppose we consider these facts in isolation. Let’s even give the benefit of the doubt to the teacher that she was being so disruptive she needed to be removed from the classroom. It’s a question of proportionality: Does the punishment fit the crime? She was texting in class. Rather than being slammed to the floor and dragged across it, perhaps the teacher could have simply confiscated her phone until the end of the class period? Using violent physical force is in no way justified given the facts of this case.

Except of course she’s African-American, perpetually the criminals and “thugs” of America, regardless of what they actually do. So, yes, race has everything to do with it. And Ben Fields deserves nothing but scorn and contempt for his actions.


Comments are welcome, as long as they apply to issues rather than individuals. Don't make me break out the Benevolent Banhammer Of Love

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