The bullies in blue don’t belong in our schools

October 30, 2015

Khury Petersen-Smith provides the perspective of a teacher on the shocking video of a Black student brutalized by a sheriff's deputy in a South Carolina classroom.

AS A classroom teacher of middle school- and elementary school-aged children, I have always told my students that, above all, they are safe in my classroom.

We all know that, unfortunately, schools are not always the safest places. But they should be. I have taken pride and comfort in knowing that, whatever is going on at the homes of my students, or in the streets before and after school, they are safe at school, and can learn and grow there.

This makes the recent video of a uniformed officer slamming an adolescent to the ground in her classroom at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina, all the more horrifying.

When LAPD cops brutalized Rodney King in 1991, the videotape of their assault, broadcast on television across the country and around the world, was incendiary. This documentation of racist police violence was new, even if the violence itself was not.

At this point, it's hard to remember a time before video recordings of vicious police encounters became a daily feature of life, especially in the era of the Internet. Video after video make it overwhelmingly clear that the police forces in this country are on a rampage, out of control and accountable to no one.

An armed police officer assaults a child in a South Carolina classroom
An armed police officer assaults a child in a South Carolina classroom

What the footage from Spring Valley High School shows in particular is that the same cops who terrorize and kill people--particularly Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color--in the streets, at traffic stops, in shopping malls and in our homes also carry their violence into our schools.

In addition to documenting what may be the most violent and humiliating event in the life of the unnamed adolescent, the footage counters the latest company line coming from the cops and their supporters--that the Black Lives Matter movement against racism and violence is responsible for an increase in crime.

On the very same day that the brutality took place at Spring Valley High, FBI Director James Comey was talking about the so-called "Ferguson effect" to a gathering of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Chicago. "In today's YouTube world," Comey said in his speech, "are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that prevents violent crime? Are officers answering 911 calls, but avoiding the informal contact that keeps bad guys with guns from standing around?"

The fact that the director of the FBI can suggest with a straight face that the U.S. has a problem of people recording racist police violence--rather than the violence itself--speaks to how normal the heavy and violent police presence has become in the U.S., and the extent to which it is supported by the government, the media and other institutions of power.

When the nation's top cop defends the reckless lawlessness of violent police and points the finger at activists trying to hold them accountable, that's the problem--and it's a serious one. But a society where police assault and kill children in particular--often--has crossed a certain threshold of depravity.

THE VIOLENCE of police and racist vigilantes against Black children in particular has been a major catalyst for the latest wave of resistance to racism.

There is the case of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Black boy murdered by Cleveland police while playing with a toy gun. There is Aiyana Stanley-Jones, the 7-year-old shot and killed as she slept in her Detroit home during a Special Response Team raid. People around the world were shocked to see footage this June of a cop in McKinley, Texas, slam a Black teenager in her bathing suit to the ground, pin her down with his knee and draw his gun on other Black teens who came to help her.

Just weeks later in Fairfield, Ohio, a less well-known but similar incident took place: police pepper-sprayed Black youth at another public pool and broke the jaw of a 12-year-old girl. The list could go on. It includes Trayvon Martin, the Black youth whose stalking murder by George Zimmerman launched a wave of protests that was the harbinger for the explosion in Ferguson two years later. That rebellion was sparked by the police murder of unarmed Mike Brown, himself fresh out of high school.

All of these cases inspired outrage and protest. But they also involved police departments, city officials and the mainstream media rallying in defense of the cops. In fact, each case reveals the ritual demonization of young victims of police violence as standard operating procedure of the courts and the media, while their killers escape with few, if any, consequences.

In other words, the video out of Columbia, South Carolina, is the latest record of the criminalization of generations of Black youth.

THE SHERIFF'S deputy involved in the Spring Valley High incident has lost his job--something that might not have happened without the one year-plus of angry protests over police violence and abuse.

But at the same press conference where the firing was announced, Sheriff Leon Lott said of the 16-year-old victim: "Even though she was wrong for disturbing the class, even though she refused to abide by the directions of the teacher, the school administrator and also the verbal commands of our deputy, I'm looking at what our deputy did."

This mealy-mouthed statement is meant to obscure the most obvious fact about the incident: An adult officer threw an unarmed, non-threatening teenager to the ground. Under no circumstances is this acceptable. Whatever behavioral problems took place before the officer arrived have nothing at all to do with his violent outburst.

Any teacher can tell you that resolving conflicts in the classroom thoughtfully and effectively is complicated and challenging, and a basic feature of the job. And of course, it's difficult when a student is defiant. But a student's refusal to listen to a teacher isn't a crime. It is a classroom-based conflict that should be handled through the work of teachers, students and administrators--not cops using their powers of arrest, let alone physical violence.

Many of us in the Black Lives Matter movement have recognized for some time the need for the movement to spread from the streets to every corner of society--including schools. This is because institutional racism permeates the whole of society, and since the civil rights movement, schools have been a key arena of anti-racist struggle.

Unfortunately, the cops are also proving the need for the movement to spread to schools and everywhere else. It is on us to draw in more people--including teachers, students and other members of school communities--to participate in the struggle against the criminalization of Black youth.

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