“Let me tell you. If that was my child being tossed around like that by a grown man, there would be consequences and repercussions.”
This sentiment has been expressed by many parents since video recently emerged of a sheriff’s deputy flinging around a Spring Valley High School student.
But what happens if you are a student without an advocate or recorded evidence to support claims of mistreatment?
That is the power of videotaped policing and social media reporting.
When people witness a police incident that seems wrong, video recording from a safe distance and sharing with social networks or apps provides a platform for advocacy for disenfranchised people.
For good cops, misunderstandings can be clarified, and bad cops can be held accountable. Therefore, students should be encouraged rather than punished for using their cellphones to record the acts of discipline-enforcers — even in the classroom.
Since the initial story broke, it has been revealed that the girl in the video is in the foster care system. Even with a loving foster family, children are placed in foster care as a result of an unspecified trauma, such as the death of caregivers, abuse or neglect. So this young girl is already in a vulnerable position. Without the vigilant gaze of her classmates’ cellphone recordings, the world inside and outside Spring Valley High School would probably remain ignorant of the extreme actions of the sheriff’s deputy.
The viral video recording enabled what was probably this girl’s most frightening and humiliating moment to be a clarion call for action. Suddenly, the word of a defiant black girl, unassisted by parental advocacy, was given credence by public appraisals, and thus gained millions of advocates who could express their outrage on her behalf.
For rogue police officers, excessive force is not the tool of choice for engaging with people perceived as privileged. In contrast, for people from a disenfranchised group, there is an assumption that law and order must be brutally enforced — even for minor infractions.
Misguided cops who use these tactics do so because they also assume that these disenfranchised people are easily discredited and lack the resources to hold them accountable. These stereotyped perceptions can be stronger than rational judgment.
When NBA player Thabo Sefolosha’s leg was broken during an unjustified arrest in New York City, he was assumed to be just another dangerous black man from an impoverished community. The treatment of this well-respected professional athlete caused great embarrassment for the New York Police Department and resulted in a recently settled civil case. Luckily, he had the benefit of video evidence of his assaults, and he had the resources to counter flimsy justifications for poor police work.
But for Freddie Gray, a black man in Baltimore with a history of drug abuse and arrests, rough handling was seen as an appropriate course of action. Given Gray’s addiction, as well as the socioeconomic challenges faced by his family, it is unlikely that they would have had the credibility, financial resources and diligence to pursue justice on his behalf. It was the video recording of his slumped body being tossed into a police van, as well as social media reporting, that facilitated an in-depth investigation.
State-sanctioned violence against people of color is not a new phenomenon. Whether it was the anti-lynching campaigns by Ida B. Wells in the 1890s, or the Watts, Los Angeles and Ferguson social uprisings, police brutality against black communities has continually been a cause for protest and alarm.
We are in a unique historical moment when disenfranchised communities are able to use their cellphone videos and social media reporting to humanize longstanding police brutality. However, history has also taught us that video evidence does not guarantee justice.
In the case of Spring Valley High, some people feel that a good tossing is a necessary lesson to learn respect. Consider this: When your teenager pulls out her cellphone in class, what lessons do you want her to learn? If school police decide that lessons are best learned with physical force rather than corrective conversations, I bet you would want her classmates to pull out their cellphones to record the incident. After all, everyone needs an advocate.
Keisha Bentley-Edwards is an assistant professor of educational psychology in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Corpus Christi Caller Times.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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