Last week, the whole world watched Deputy Fields, the school resource officer (police officer assigned to a school) at my old high school in Columbia, South Carolina, pick up a “disruptive student”, along with her clunky desk and chair, and throw her across the room.
Social media went wild, and the reaction was fascinating to watch. Here in Edinburgh, the response was one of simple shock and disgust, and there is no debate as to whether Fields was out of line. I’ve since had to explain to people that police officers are often present in schools, armed to fight the forces of evil and, apparently, to impose the authority of teachers by force. It had not yet occurred to me that this was strange.
Meanwhile in Columbia, there is actually a fierce debate going on about whether the officer was right to violently assault the student. And, horrifyingly, the supporters of Fields seem to be winning. The mainstream media was quick to draw attention to past accusations of excessive force made against the officer. In addition, it should be pointed out that local public support has not exactly helped Fields, who was fired on Wednesday. But a glance at the comments of online articles or a quick scroll through the Facebook newsfeed of any South Carolinian will reveal a large and very vocal group of people who see no problem with the forced removal of a student from class by a police officer. She refused to listen to her teacher, multiple administrators and a law enforcement official, they reason. Didn’t her parents teach her respect? Deputy Fields was a good guy, she must have deserved it. His girlfriend is black, so he can’t be racist. The Richland County Sheriff couldn’t even fire Fields without mentioning that the incident started because of a “disruptive student”.
These arguments are all based on the tenants of discipline and respect for authority, on the idea that children are in school to obey without question. It doesn’t matter that the “disruptive student” was being punished for something as simple using a phone, nor that the police officer was called in because she refused to leave class, not for being violent, swearing, or possessing a weapon.
These arguments don’t matter to Fields’ supporters, who, despite conceding that he went a bit overboard with his use of force, apparently value obedience above all else. Popular opinion in South Carolina holds that we must be allowed to own guns in order to protect ourselves from an oppressive government. The most passionate believers in this idea are simultaneously some of the most vocal supporters of Fields, blaming the victim for resisting arrest in the first place. How can these people reconcile their belief that we must stand up to unjust authorities with their insistence that police exist to be obeyed unconditionally? Maybe Fields was just a man doing his job, but he was also representing an institution which has killed 185 unarmed people this year, a disproportionate number of them black. Is this really the type of authority which deserves our obedience and respect?
The race question, despite the insistence of some that it played no factor, cannot be ignored. Fields may not have been thinking about race when he put his arms around the student’s neck, but he did form part of a racist law enforcement system. He worked at a school in which black students, despite making up a majority of the student body, are completely underrepresented in advanced-level classes. That issue absolutely must be addressed. Former-Deputy Fields is not responsible for these greater social problems, but we cannot ignore the implications of his act. We certainly should not attempt to justify it.
Image: Chris, Flickr