When Assault Isn’t a Crime

The white police officer who brutally threw a black female student to the floor and then led her away in handcuffs in Richland County, South Carolina was summarily fired two days later. His supervisor, Sheriff Leon Lott, made the announcement at a press conference Wednesday. Another student recorded the incident on a cell phone video and posted it on the Internet Monday evening, local time, and it has since been viewed worldwide, causing widespread outrage.

Police officer Ben Fields had been detailed to classroom duty and was called by the Spring Valley High School teacher because the student refused to surrender her cell phone and leave the classroom. The video shows how Fields approached the peaceful student, grabbed her by the neck with one hand and by the leg with the other, and upended her out of the chair, then dropped her onto the floor. Following that, he dragged her like a roped calf past her classmates, who stared in disbelief, to the front of the classroom, where he knelt down on her while putting her in handcuffs. He then took her into custody.

The incident sparked horror, principally in the African-American community. However, not until the storm of protest engulfed him was Sheriff Lott moved to fire Fields. The anti-racist movement Color of Change launched and circulated a petition demanding immediate disciplinary action against Fields. The petition gathered almost 100,000 signatures within 24 hours, which proved effective. Lott, however, sees an infraction of staff rules in the incident but no punishable conduct.

This was not the first incident involving violence between Fields and black students or community residents. But as Color of Change pointed out, a criminal charge brought against him was the only way to ensure his removal from the police force. Without that, he could just be re-assigned to another duty location. Thus far, criminal charges have only been brought against the victims of Fields’ attacks, and that’s the way it continues here, where the victim is being investigated for causing a domestic disturbance. A classmate of hers was taken into custody because he came to her defense verbally.

Sheriff Lott also blames the student for the incident: Lott said the student should bear responsibility for starting the incident, and that charges against both students involved would remain because they had broken the law by filming the incident. Color of Change countered by demanding all actions against Fields’s victims cease and desist immediately. Their petition states that taking a cell phone into the classroom is not an illegal act and neither is filming police personnel in the course of carrying out their duties. The organization sees this and many similar cases as “a crisis of criminalizing black students.” Black girls are six times more likely to be the target of such “educational measures” than whites are. According to Color of Change, that turns them into permanent dehumanized stereotypes because of their skin color and their gender.

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