Richland County Senior Deputy Sheriff Ben Fields seemed to think the only way he could get a young Black girl out of her seat was to fling her across the room. His brutal attack on her was filmed by one of her classmates, and it’s a good thing he documented the incident. It was said that the young lady punched the officer before Eddie Robinson Jr., taping, but he indicates that she was quiet and simply refused to get out of her seat. He said she had only taken her phone out for a minute and “she didn’t do anything wrong.”
On Wednesday, October 28, Sheriff Leon Lott announced that Fields had been fired because his behavior was inconsistent with the training he had. But in response to a question at the press conference he held, he reported that Fields did not feel remorseful, that he was sorry the incident happened, but he was “just trying to do his job.” Not only did he brutalize a young girl, but he also arrested another young woman who simply asserted that the officer was wrong to treat her classmate so roughly. No other student said a word, and they were perhaps frightened to speak up.
Where are our women’s organizations? Where are our African American and civil rights organizations? Or our African American educators? Granted, this is just a few days after the fact and perhaps some of these folks will speak up eventually. Perhaps they are waiting to hear ‘the facts,’ but as Sheriff Lott said there was no excuse for a young lady to be dragged in the way that she was.
Sheriff Lott said his community, a suburb of state capital Columbia, South Carolina, was an “orderly” community. He said there were no marches, no confrontation, because “that is not how we do things here.” While the Sheriff did the right thing by firing Ben Fields, his own attitude could stand some adjusting, and perhaps a march might be a way to express dissatisfaction at his approach (and that of the school system). In his press conference, he said that Fields’ behavior was inappropriate, but he basically blamed the young lady for her plight.
While civil rights leaders routinely turn it out when Black men are beaten or killed, far fewer seem to care about what happens to Black women. From the time that video hit the airwaves there ought to have been cries of outrage (and perhaps they are coming). Ben Fields’ actions should not simply be called “unacceptable” but also criminal.
Why did the school call the police anyway? From what I understand, the young lady was not making noise or disrupting class. She failed to comply with a request regarding her cell phone (some say she was asked to put it away, others said she was asked for the phone). Either way, the penalty for noncompliance should not have been arrest.
Last year, the Department of Education released a report that showed that African American and Latino students were suspended or expelled far more frequently than their White counterparts, often getting a different level of punishment for the same offense. Some of the suspensions and expulsions even happen at the preschool level—meaning that three and four year old children are being kicked out of school simply because they are little children (who frequently misbehave).
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, around 43% of our nation’s public schools had police officers on their grounds during the 2013-14 school year, including 63% of middle schools and 64% of high schools. Why are officers of the law on school grounds? How often is their behavior inappropriate? It is unlikely that is the first time former officer Ben Fields behaved so badly toward a student. Indeed, the student who was arrested for speaking up (he said she was disruptive) indicated that Fields had a bad reputation. He was the subject of at least two complaints for excessive force.
While Fields has been fired, he needs to be held accountable, sued. But the bigger picture is the criminalization of our young people by arresting them (leaving them with a criminal record) for minor offenses. Where are the voices lifted to protect a young woman whose simply ‘no’ earns her a brutal beating? Where are the women, the civil rights leaders, the others who often have something to say? Are they silent because this is a girl? The two young women who were arrested need to be lifted up and affirmed by the African American community and that sheriff’s office needs to be confronted by the community. Sheriff Lott was gratified because there was no marching. There needs to be.
(Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist based in Washington, D.C. Her latest book Are We Better off? Race, Obama and Public Policy will be released in November 2015 and is available for preorder at <www.juliannemalveaux.com>.)