CounterSpin interview with KimberlÃ© Crenshaw about Spring Valley High police assault
Janine Jackson interviewed KimberlÃ© Crenshaw about the Spring Valley High police assault. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Condemnation came quickly when video surfaced on social media of a South Carolina police officer assaulting a female high school student in class in the process of arresting her for, according to reports, either not participating or refusing to put away a cell phone. But while demands to fire school resource officer Ben Fields, who had a history of racialized brutality, were answered, we still haven’t had a deep-going conversation as to why he was in the room in the first place.
The incident at Spring Valley High School is sadly reflective, too, of ways that black women and girls in particular encounter state violence on a daily basis. That’s the problem explored in the report Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected, produced by the African American Policy Forum, on whose board I serve.
We are joined now by the group’s founder, KimberlÃ© Crenshaw. She’s professor of law at UCLA and Columbia Law School, where she also directs the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies. Welcome back to CounterSpin, KimberlÃ© Crenshaw.
KimberlÃ© Crenshaw: It’s always a pleasure, Janine; thanks for having me.
JJ: It’s welcome news that Ben Fields has been fired. But what doesn’t firing this guy do? What’s left untouched?
KC: What’s left untouched is the entire system that has produced a particularly egregious outcome for the two girls that were involved. We did spend a lot of time over the last 48 hours talking about what should happen to the police officer, and somewhat under the radar was the question of what should happen to the girls.
Some people kind of assumed that once it was decided that the officer acted out of policy, that somehow that would automatically lead to a decision that the charges against the girls should be dropped. But to our knowledge, the charges are still pending, and I think we saw in the statement of the sheriff who fired Mr. Fields that he actually saw the arrest as being legitimate.
So we now have to look deeper into how it is possible that one could be subject to arrest either for not paying attention, for looking at a cell phone, or speaking up against brutality that’s playing out in the classroom. So the big issue is, can we get to the criminalization of ordinary behavior that young people engage in?
JJ: There’s so many heartbreaking parts of this. The comment from Niya Kenny, the young woman who recorded the assault, and who spoke up and who was then arrested herself: She said she did so in part because she knew her classmate “didn’t have nobody,” that her mother and grandmother had died. It just speaks to the multiple levels of trauma in the lives of these girls. And then school was not a haven from that trauma, but an extension of it. We should remember that the trauma of an incident like this doesn’t affect only the immediate victim, but also everyone who witnesses it, and then also everyone who recognizes that they too could be subject to it and that it would somehow be ok.
KC: Yes, and that’s a piece of what we were learning when we did our report, Black Girls Matter; there’s trauma all around. Trauma in being in an institution in which any moment you might be subject to severe punishment, including suspension or in this case arrest. There’s trauma that many young people, particularly girls, actually carry into the school with them.
As I was looking at the video, I had no idea what this young lady was dealing with, but it occurred to me that she could well be suffering from some type of personal challenge, some type of personal trauma, in which just getting to school is in and of itself a victory. If that teacher had simply perhaps approached the young lady, or just let her be for a period of time, no doubt the fact that she was suffering from some challenges would have eventually made itself known. But the moment this becomes a law enforcement issue, that becomes the moment where the student’s future is placed at risk. And that means our institutions are underserving students, not only by making such behaviors subject to law enforcement, but depriving them of the resources that they may otherwise need to handle some of the problems that they are dealing with.
JJ: Sheriff Lott at every turn says that the young lady was disruptive and disrespectful. It reflects an attitude that the young women and girls that you spoke with for Black Girls Matter, they remarked on that a lot, didn’t they, this idea that they were disrespectful, that they were in and of themselves disruptive. That’s kind of common.
KC: We were trying to figure out what was behind the disparity. We had found that black girls were six times more likely to be suspended than white girls, and in New York it was ten times more likely. We wanted to know what the stories behind the data were, and girls would tell us that they felt strongly that the teachers and administrators looked at them as problems. They said they see them as loud, unruly; the girls used the word “ghetto,” they see us as ghetto. When we participate in class, sometimes the way that we participate, or the way that we talk, the teachers don’t like, or they see it as being disrespectful. And when they get disrespected, the response is often, well, leave the classroom.
JJ: Yeah, Brittany Cooper in Salon was saying one girl was being punished for being quiet and another girl was being punished for speaking up. It’s a textbook illustration, if we needed one, of the school-to-prison pipeline; these girls could now have records. What people call “push out” from schools, this kind of thing that basically lessens young women’s interest in going to school, makes it harder for them to be there, that then leads to many other things that then have far greater repercussions even outside of school, doesn’t it?
KC: Not only are black girls disproportionately facing push out, but the consequences of that push out include both being caught up in the school-to-prison pipeline, being arrested for things that teenagers do all the time, and teenagers do in non-zero tolerance schools without fear of arrest. But also we know that any time a girl is separated from school, it increases the risk that she won’t graduate. It increases the risk that she will encounter other types of risks when she is not in school. But then beyond that, not being able to graduate and graduate on time is associated with long-term insecurity, both economically in terms of access to the workforce, housing insecurity, and greater risk of being caught up in the criminal justice system.
JJ: Let me just ask you, finally, how do we move forward from this? What are some things that we can be doing or demanding right now with regard to this?
KC: One thing I definitely hope happens is that the frame stays open. Now that we’ve seen this, we can no longer go back to the assumption that police violence, both in and out of the school, really only impacts men and men of color in particular.
The second thing is hopefully this will create, finally, a moment where we can have a very serious conversation about whether police belong in schools at all. I often think about the fact that my own mother taught junior high school for 50 years, and she was known as a disciplinarian. She never had to rely on sworn officers to come in and do her job. So it may be that our current teachers, who have relied on the police to actually enforce classroom discipline, have got to learn new skills. If that’s the case, then let’s make that happen. But this reliance on the police cannot be consistent with what we want to happen in our public schools.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with professor Kimberle Crenshaw. You can find the Black Girls Matter report along with more work at the African American Policy Forum website; that’s aapf.org. KimberlÃ© Crenshaw, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.
KC: Always a pleasure, Janine; thanks.