Though a police officer exacted the physical violence caught on camera, a teacher, school administrator, and judge participated in it, too. Each of them prioritized power plays, intimidation, and coercion over teaching and learning in a safe environment.
“I was crying. Literally screaming, crying…I know this girl don’t got nobody.”
Those were the words of Niya Kenny, the only girl to speak up during a police officer’s attack on her classmate at Spring Valley high school in Columbia, South Carolina. On a cell phone video taken on Monday by one of the students, we can see a police officer approach a girl sitting silently in her chair. He grabs her by her neck, flips her violently backward on her head while she’s still sitting down, and then drags her by her knee before turning her over and jumping on her back.
It is a violent video, but one with the kind of violence that helps us maintain our manicured lawns and white picket fences while ignoring the homeless woman sleeping on cold steps down the street. It’s a violence to which we’re accustomed, the kind we believe in, the very violence that built this country. It’s a T-shirt that reads “I’m Still Breathing” when Eric Garner’s family still grieves his killing, or a shooting target that looks like a boy killed on the way home from the store. It’s the kind of violence that shoots a baby and kills his mother while she’s holding him in her arms. It’s acceptable, normal, and deliberate. It’s as American as apple pie.
It should be no surprise that when given the opportunity to create learning facilities for black and brown youth, a country founded by slave owners would create institutions more like prisons than schools. But it surprises me still that a child can be arrested for an offense like “disturbing schools.” It’s shocking that a child, frozen in fear, terror, and anger at school—a child who doesn’t even move to protect herself—can be charged with “resisting arrest.”
Throughout social media, people remark on the stillness of the other students, their silence in the face of such an attack. On the video, we see them put their heads down and avert their eyes. But, of course, that is what children do when confronted by monsters. They hope they don’t eat them, too.
The one student who did speak up—Niya—did so with screams and tears of horror. For that, she was brought to a jail cell and only released with a $1,000 bond (more aptly called ransom). Though a police officer exacted the physical violence caught on camera, a teacher, school administrator, and judge participated in it, too. Each of them prioritized power plays, intimidation, and coercion over teaching and learning in a safe environment. Learning to concede to injustice is the probably the biggest lesson those kids learned on Monday.
Around the country, schools for black and brown youth are being intentionally destroyed. If they aren’t being closed at a disproportionate rate by politicians intent on privatizing schools and removing public resources, then they are being used as a feeder system for the school-to-prison pipeline. Last May, a report found that black children in Louisiana were being disproportionately arrested at school for offenses such as throwing skittles or not having a hall pass. Another study found that 55% of all suspensions and expulsions of black students occur in just 13 southern states, including South Carolina. When charter schools and prisons are billion dollar industries, children are not only casualties, they’re the very fuel that feeds the engines.
Meanwhile, adults around the country who watch the scene online declare their outrage from the safety of their computers and phones. On TV, CNN anchor Don Lemon says he needs “to know more before passing judgment.” One of the school’s parent associations says they are heartbroken, but have not shown up to the school or offered any substantial support to either Niya or the girl we see thrown across a classroom. Local news provides no mention of the girl’s injuries or condition. The sheriff’s department has asked the Department of Justice to step in to investigate the incident, a federal agency led by an Attorney General who publicly opposes police accountability.
And today children are still sitting in that teacher’s classroom under supervision of that same administrator. Niya’s words continue to ring true—this girl don’t got nobody. It appears true for all these kids. Everyone, it seems, is sitting quietly by with their heads hung low.
Khadijah Costley White is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.