Terrorizing Schoolchildren in the American Police State
By Henry A. Giroux / CounterPunch
This piece first appeared at CounterPunch.
Americans live in an age, to rephrase, W.E.B. Dubois, in which violence has become the problem of the twenty-first century. As brutalism comes to shape every public encounter, democratic values and the ethical imagination wither under the weight of neoliberal capitalism and post-racial racism. Giving way to the poisonous logics of self-interest, privatization, and the unfettered drive for wealth, American society reneges on the social contract and assumes the role of a punishing state. Under the regime of a predatory neoliberalism, compassion and respect for the other are viewed increasingly with contempt while the spectacle of violence titillates the multitudes and moves markets. A free-market mentality now drives and corrupts politics, destroys social protections, celebrates a hyper-competitiveness, and deregulates economic activity. As politics is emptied of any sense of social responsibility, the apostles of casino capitalism preach that allegedly amoral economic activity exacts no social costs, and in doing so they accelerate the expanding wasteland of disposable goods and people. One consequence is a vast and growing landscape of human suffering, amplified by a mass-mediated metaphysics of retribution and violence that more and more creeps into every commanding institution of American society, now serving a myriad of functions such as sport, spectacle, entertainment, and punishment. Alain Badiou rightly calls those who run our current political system a “regime of gangsters.” These so called gangsters produce a unique form of social violence. According to Badiou, they:
Privatize everything. Abolish help for the weak, the solitary, the sick and the unemployed. Abolish all aid for everyone except the banks. Don’t look after the poor; let the elderly die. Reduce the wages of the poor, but reduce the taxes on the rich. Make everyone work until they are ninety. Only teach mathematics to traders, reading to big property-owners and history to on-duty ideologues. And the execution of these commands will in fact ruin the lives of millions of people.
Increasingly, institutions such as schools, prisons, detention centers, and our major economic, cultural and social institutions are being organized around the production of violence. Rather than promote democratic values and a respect for others or embrace civic values, they often function largely to humiliate, punish, and demonize any vestige of social responsibility. Violence both permeates and drives foreign policy, dominates popular culture, and increasingly is used to criminalize a wide range of social behaviors, especially among African-Americans. In part, the totality of violence in American society can be understood in terms of its doubling function. At one level, violence produces its own legitimating aesthetic as part of a broader spectacle of entertainment, offering consumers the pleasure of instant gratification, particularly in the visibility and celebration of extreme violence. This is evident in television series such as Game of Thrones and Hannibal, endless Hollywood films such as Dread (2012), Django (2012), and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), and video games such as Grand Theft Auto 4 (2008), Mortal Combat (2011), and Battlefield Hardline (2015).
At another level, violence functions as a brutalizing practice used by the state to squelch dissent, incarcerate poor minorities of class and color, terrorize immigrants, wage a war on minority youth, and menace individuals and groups considered disposable or a threat. Not only does such violence destroy the conditions and institutions necessary to develop a democratic polity, it also accelerates abusive forms of punitiveness and control that extend from the prisons to other institutions such as schools. In this instance, violence becomes the ultimate force propagating what might be called punishment creep. The punishment creep that has moved from prisons to other public spheres now has a firm grip on both schools and the daily rituals of everyday life. Margaret Kimberly captures one instance of the racist underside of punishment creep. She writes: “Black people are punished for driving, for walking down the street, for having children, for putting their children in school, for acting the way children act, and even for having children who are killed by other people. We are punished, in short, because we still exist.”
Violence in America has always been defined partly by a poisonous mix of chauvinism, exceptionalism, and terrorism that runs through a history marked by genocidal assaults against indigenous Native Americans, the brutality of slavery, and a persistent racism that extends from the horror of lynchings and chain gangs to a mass incarceration state that criminalizes black behavior and subjects many black youth to the shameful dynamics of the school-to-prison-pipeline and unprecedented levels of police abuse. Violence is the premier signature of what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “The Dreamers,” those individuals and groups who have “signed on, either actively or passively, to complicity in everything from police shootings to real estate redline, which crowds blacks into substandard housing in dangerous neighborhoods…The Dream is about the totality of white supremacy in American history and its cumulative weight on African-Americans, and how one attempts to live with that.” In part, violence whether produced by the state, corporations, or racist individuals is difficult to abstract from an expression of white supremacy, which functions as an index for demanding “the full privileges of the state.”
Police violence against African-Americans has become highly visible and thrust into the national spotlight as a result of individuals recording acts of police abuse with their cell phones and other tools of the new technologies. In the last few years, there has been what seems like a torrent of video footage showing unarmed black people being assaulted by the police. For instance, there is the shocking video of Walter Scott being shot in the back after fleeing from his car; Eric Garner dying as a result of being put in a chock hold by a white policeman who accused him of illegally selling cigarettes; the tragic killing of Freddie Gray who after making eye contact with a police officer was put in a police van and purposely given a jarring ride that resulted in his death; and the needless shooting of 12 year-old Tamir Rice for playing with a pellet gun in the snow in a park, and so it goes. All of these deaths are morally indefensible and are symptomatic of the deep-seated racism and propensity for violence in many police forces in the United States.
Yet, as Jeah Lee observes, while such crimes have attracted national attention, the “use of force by cops in schools…. has drawn far less attention [in spite of the fact that] over the past five years at least 28 students have been seriously injured, and in one case shot to death, by so-called school resource officers—sworn, uniformed police assigned to provide security on k-12 campuses.” Increasingly as public schools hand over even routine disciplinary problems to the police, there is a resurgence of cops in schools. There are over 17,000 school resource officers in more than half of the schools in the United States. In spite of the fact that violence in schools have dropped precipitously, school resource officers are the fastest growing segment of law enforcement.
In part, the militarizing of schools and the accompanying surge of police officers are driven by the fear of school shootings, particularly in the aftermath of the Columbine High School tragedy in 1999, and the massacre that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2013, both of which have been accentuated by the ever present wave of paranoia that followed the terrorist attacks of 9/11. What advocates of putting police in the schools refuse to acknowledge is that the presence of police in schools has done nothing to stop such mass shootings. While the fear of school shootings are overestimated, the fact remains that schools are still one of the safest places for children to be. Caught under the weight of a culture of fear and a rush to violence, many young people in schools are the most recent victims of a punishing state in a society that “remains in a state of permanent, endless war,” a war that is waged through militarized policies at home and abroad.
What has become clear is that cops in schools do not make schools safer. Erik Eckholm reporting for the New York Times stated that judges, youth advocates, parents, and other concerned citizens “are raising alarm about what they have seen in the schools where officers are already stationed: a surge in criminal charges against children for misbehavior that many believe is better handled in the principal’s office.” In Texas, police officers have written “more than 100,000 misdemeanor tickets each year” and many of these students “face hundreds of dollars in fines, community service, and in some cases, a lasting record that could affect applications for jobs or the military.” The transformation of disciplinary problems into criminal violations has often resulted in absurd if not tragic results. For instance, in 2009, in Richardson, Texas “a 14-year old boy with Asperger’s syndrome was given a $364 police citation for using an expletive in his classroom.” It gets even more ludicrous. “A 12-year-old student in Stuart, Florida, was arrested in November 20008 for ‘disrupting a school function.’ The ‘disruption’ was that the student had ‘passed gas.’”
Similarly, a number of civil rights groups have reported that the presence of police in schools often “means more suspensions, which disproportionately affect minority students.” Many of the young people who end up in court are poor black and brown students, along with students with disabilities. What must be recognized is that schools in general have become combat zones where it is routine for many students to be subjected to metal detectors, surveillance cameras, uniformed security guards, weapons searches, and in some cases SWAT team raids and police dogs sniffing for drugs. Under such circumstances, the purpose of schooling appears to be to contain and punish young people, especially those marginalized by race and class, rather than educate them. What is beyond doubt is that “Arrests and police interactions… disproportionately affect low-income schools with large African-American and Latino populations.” For the many disadvantaged students being funnelled into the “school-to-prison pipeline,” schools ensure that their futures look grim indeed, as their educational experiences acclimatize them to forms of carceral treatment. There is more at work here than a flight from responsibility on the part of educators, parents, and politicians who support and maintain policies that fuel this expanding edifice of law enforcement against the young and disenfranchised. Underlying the repeated decisions to turn away from helping young people is the growing sentiment that youth, particularly minorities of color and class, constitute a threat to adults and the only effective way to deal with them is to subject them to mind-crushing punishment. Students being miseducated, criminalized, and arrested through a form of penal pedagogy in prison-type schools provides a grave reminder of the degree to which the ethos of containment and punishment now creeps into spheres of everyday life that were largely immune in the past from this type of state and institutional violence.
No longer are schools spaces of joy, critical teaching, and support, as too many are now institutions of containment and control that produce pedagogies of conformity and oppression and in the name of teaching to the test serve to kill the imagination. Within such schools, the lesson that young people are learning about themselves is that they can’t engage in critical thinking, be trusted, rely on the informed judgments of teachers and administrators, and that their behavior is constantly subject to procedures that amount to both an assault on their dignity and a violation of their civil liberties. Schools have become institutions in which creativity is viewed as a threat, harsh discipline a virtue, and punishment the reward for not conforming to what amounts to the dictates of a police state. How many more images of young school children in handcuffs do we have to witness before it becomes clear that the educational system is broken, reduced largely to a punishing factory defined by a culture of fear and an utter distrust of young people?
According to the Advancement Project, schools have become increasingly intolerant of young people, imposing draconian zero tolerance policies on them by furthering a culture steeped in criminalizing often minor, if not trivial, student behaviors. What is truly alarming is not only the ways in which young people are being ushered into the criminal justice system and treated less as students than as criminals, but the harsh violence to which they are often subjected by school resource officers. According to a report by Mother Jones, Jonathan Hardin, a Louisville Metro Police officer, in 2014 “was fired after his alleged use of force in two incidents at Olmsted Academy North middle school: He was accused of punching a 13-year-old student in the face for cutting the cafeteria line, and a week later of putting another 13-year-old student in a chokehold, allegedly knocking the student unconscious and causing a brain injury.” In a second incident that year, “Cesar Suquet, then a 16-year-old high school student in Houston, was being escorted by an officer out of the principal’s office after a discussion about Suquet’s confiscated cell phone. Following a verbal exchange, police officer Michael Y’Barbo struck Suquet at least 18 times with a police baton, injuring him on his head, neck and elsewhere.” Y’Barbo claimed that beating a student with a police baton was “reasonable and necessary” and “remains on regular assignment including patrol.” There are have also been incidents where students have been shot, suffered brain injuries, and have been psychologically traumatized. Jaeah Lee cites a young black high school student in Detroit who after a troubling interaction with a school police officer speaks for many young people about the dread and anxiety that many students experience when police occupy their schools. He states that “”Many young people today have fear of the police in their communities and schools.”
If one important measure of a democracy is how a society treats its children, especially young children who are black, brown, or suffer from disabilities, there can be little doubt that American society is failing. As the United States increasingly models its schools after prisons, students are no longer viewed as a social investment in the future. A deadly mixture of racism and violence in the 21st century has become increasingly evident in the violence being waged against young people in American schools. If students in general are now viewed as a potential threat, black students are regarded increasingly as criminals. One result is that schools increasingly have come to resemble war zones, spaces marked my distrust, fear, and demonization. With more police in the schools than ever before, security has become more important than providing children with a critical education and supportive learning environment. As authority in many of the schools is often handed over to the police and security forces who are now asked to deal with all alleged disciplinary problems, however broadly defined, the power and autonomy of teachers and school administrators are weakened at the expense of the safety of the students. This loss of authority is clear in New York City where school administrators have no control over security forces who report directly to local police departments.
In most cases, the disciplinary problems that take place in schools involve trivial the infractions such as violating a dress code, scribbling on a desk, or holding a 2-inch toy gun. The assault on children in the public schools suggest that black and brown children cannot view schools as safe places where they can be given a quality education. Instead, schools have become sites of control, testing, and punishment all too eager to produce pedagogies of repression, and more than willing to erect, once again, what has been called the school-to-prison pipeline, especially for youth of color. Roxane Gay is right in observing that
Black children are not allowed to be children. They are not allowed to be safe, not at home, not at pool parties, not driving or sitting in cars listening to music, not walking down the street, not in school. For black children, for black people, to exist is to be endangered. Our bodies receive no sanctity or safe harbor.
It is inconceivable that in an alleged democracy poor minorities at all grade levels in the public schools are subjected to shameful criminal practices such as being handcuffed and carted off to jail for minor incidents — and that such draconian practices could take place in a society that views itself as a democracy. Stripped of their public mission as institutions that nurture young people to become informed, critically engaged citizens, schools have become punishing factories all too willing to turn disciplinary authority over to the police and to usher students into the harsh bureaucracy of the criminal justice system.
One recent example of a particularly disturbing incident of police brutality was captured in a series of videos recorded in West Spring High School in South Carolina. Prior to the incident being filmed, a young black student named Shakara took out her cellphone in class. The teacher asked her for it and when she refused to hand it over, she was asked to leave the class. The teacher then called the vice principal. Rather than attempt to defuse the situation, the vice principal called for a School Resource Officer. At this point, Officer Ben Fields enters the classroom. One of Shakira’s classmates, Niya Kenny, asked her classmates to start filming because as she put it: “I told them to start filming because we know his reputation–well, I know it.” In what follows, as filmed by one of the students, Officer Ben Fields approaches the young woman, appears to give her no time to stand up and proceeds by grabbing her left arm while placing his right arm around her neck; he then lifts her desk, pulls her out of her seat, slams her to the ground, and drags her across the floor before handcuffing her. The video is difficult to watch given the extreme level of violence used against a high school student. The young woman was arrested as was Kenny, who both filmed the incident and loudly protested the treatment of Shakara. Fields was fired soon afterwards, but incredulously both students are being charged with “disturbing schools, a crime punishable by up to ninety days in jail or a thousand dollar fine.”
What has emerged after the incident went viral was information indicating that Fields had a previous reputation for being aggressive with students, and he was viewed as a threat by many students who nicknamed him “Officer Slam.” Moreover, he had a previous record of violently assaulting people. The question that should be asked as a result of this shocking act of police violence against a young black girl is not how Fields got a job in a school working with children, but what kind of society believes that police should be in the school in the first place. Whatever happened to teacher and administrator responsibility? Sadly, it was a school administrator who called in the police at Spring Valley High School because the student would not turn over her phone. Even worse, when Sheriff Leon Lott announced his decision to fire Fields, he pointed out that the classroom teacher and administrator supported actions of the police officer and made it clear that “they also had no problems with the physical part.” Both the teacher and administrator should be fired. This incident was in all probability a simple disciplinary problem that should have been handled by responsible educators. Students should not be treated like criminals. It is one thing to not assume responsibility for students, but another to subject them to brutal assaults by the police.
Lawlessness runs deep in American society and has been normalized. Brutal attacks on defenseless children rarely get the attention they deserve and when they do the corporate media refuses to acknowledge that America has become a suicidal society willing even to sacrifice its own children to an expanding punishing state that protects the interests of the corporate and financial elite. How else to explain the shameless defense of such a brutal assault against a young black girl by pundits such as CNN’s Harry Houck and Don Lemon, who implied that such violence was warranted because Shakara did not respect the officer, as if the beating of a black child by a police officer, who happens also to be a body-builder, who can lift 300 pounds, justifies such actions. This is a familiar script in which black people are often told that whatever violence they are subject to is legitimate because they acted out of place, did not follow rules that in reality oppress them, or simply refused to fall in line. The other side of this racist script finds expression in those who argue that any critique of the police endangers public safety. In this dangerous discourse, the police are the victims, a line of argument recently voiced in different ways by both President Obama and by James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This discourse not only refuses to recognize the growing visibility of police violence, it shores up one of the foundations of the authoritarian state, suggesting that the violence propagated by the police should not be subject to public scrutiny. As an editorial in the New York Times pointed out, this “formulation implies that for the police to do their jobs, they need to have free rein to be abusive. It also implies that the public would be safer if Americans with cellphones never started circulating videos of officers battering suspects in the first place….This trend is straight out of Orwell.”
Educators, young people, parents and others concerned about violence in schools need to organize and demand that the police be removed from school. Not only is their presence a waste of taxpayer’s money and an interference with children’s education, have they also pose a threat to student safety. Instead of putting police in schools, money should be spent on more guidance teachers, social workers, teachers, community intervention workers, and other professionals who are educated and trained to provide a safe and supportive environment for young people. It is particularly crucial to support those social services, classroom practices, and policies that work to keep students in schools. Everything possible should be done to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline and the underlying forces that produce it. At the same time, more profound change must take place on a national level since the violence waged by the police is symptomatic of a society now ruled by a financial elite who trade in cruelty, punishment, and despair. American society is broken, and the violence to which it appears addicted to will continue until the current configurations of power, politics, inequality, and injustice are eliminated.
The increasing visibility of police brutality in schools and in the streets speaks to a larger issue regarding the withering of democracy in the United States and the growing lawlessness that prevails in a society in which violence is both a spectacle and sport–and one of the few resources left to use to address social problems. America is paying a horrible price for turning governance at all levels over to people for whom violence serves as the default register for addressing important social issues. The Spring Valley High School case is part of a larger trend that has turned schools across the country into detention centers and educators into hapless bystanders as classroom management is ceded to the police. What we see in this incident and many others that have not attracted national attention because they are not caught on cellphones are the rudiments of a growing police state. Violence is now a normalized and celebrated ideal for how America defines itself–an ideal that views democracy as an excess or, even worse, a pathology. This is something Americans must acknowledge, interrogate, and resist if they don’t want to live under a system of total terror and escalating violence.Wait, before you go…
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