Recently, I picked up a copy of APB: Artists against Police Brutality, an anthology of comics and essays edited by Bill Campbell, Jason Rodrguez, and John Ira Jennings. In the introduction to the collection, Campbell points out that the “project was borne out of anger,” specifically the anger that he felt the night that a grand jury in Staten Island decided not to put the officers who murdered Eric Garner on trial. It’s a collection that will not cause “the justice machine” to suddenly recognize its errors and change, but it’s a collection to “further the dialogue, make some people see this debate in a different light, perhaps change a mind or two, and, most importantly, exercise our freedom of speech in honor of all those who have had their voices silenced.” Today, I want to look at a couple of the pieces in APB, focusing on the ways that society, from birth, places Blacks under constant surveillance.
Bettina Love, in “No Black Child Left Behind: Schools Policing Students of Color,” points out that the majority of Black and Brown students in urban locations, when they enter schools, go through metal detectors, empty their bags, and succumb to what equates to “airport security checkpoints.” They are, from the moment they enter the doors, “under police surveillance.” This surveillance doesn’t stop with the checkpoints. It continues with the use of surveillance cameras, hall policies, and more. The surveillance even extends as far as tracking students through “radio frequency identification nametags,” something that even colleges have started doing with athletes through their phones. (This is something that deserves its own post.)
While these measures exist under the guise of decreasing crime and school shootings, the most tragic school shootings have occurred in suburban schools, and the murderers were white. So, while “students of color are treated like criminals and domestic terrorists,” the white students in Columbine, Sandy Hook, and more, along with Dylan Roof who murdered nine parishioners in Charleston, enact the mass murders.
As Love points out, the policies and methods that school use to police students of color helps explain “how police officers can kill Mike Brown, Eric Ganer, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice,” among countless others. “Bodies of color are,” as Love continues, presumed guilty and under police suspicion from the moment they are born.” We’ve seen this with multiple incidents of police in schools slamming and arresting children, not just Black children. However, these events disproportionately affect students of color. Megan French-Marcelin notes,
Given that school policing originated and is concentrated in Black neighborhoods, it should be no surprise that school arrests disproportionately affect students of color. Nationally, Black students are more than twice as likely as their white classmates to be referred to law enforcement. And as “Bullies in Blue” shows, in South Carolina, Black students are almost four times as likely as their white counterparts to be charged with “disturbing schools” — an unconstitutionally vague and broadly worded law that allows police to arrest students for any behavior deemed “disruptive” or “obnoxious.”
The disproportionate number of incidents and arrests of students of color in comparison with white students carries with it not just physical affects but also psychological. Love writes, “Internally, their spirits are being murdered by labels of dangerous, aggressive, and unteachable by the time they enter school.”
We only need to look at Darren Wilson’s testimony about his killing of Michael Brown to see this mentality. Wilson told the grand jury that Brown as a “demon,” and he continued by stating, “When I grabbed him the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan. Hulk Hogan, that’s how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping him.” Wilson’s language paints Brown, who friends called a “gentle giant” and a quite person, as a monster and a beast. Keep in mind that Wilson is 210 pounds and 6-foot-4 while the eighteen-year-old Brown was 290 pounds and 6-foot-5. The size difference, apart from weight, was not a lot.
Wilson continued by stating that Brown went berserk and that he’d “never seen anybody look like that, for lack of better word, crazy.” At each point, Wilson depicts Brown as a threat, as a predator out to attack him. This language, as Love and others point out, is not unique to Wilson. It appears in the ways that Black and Brown students get descried in schools. This rhetoric demonizes students. It positions them as threats when they are nothing of the sort.
As an educator, I’ve been one of those teachers who has labeled students “unteachable.” When I taught high school, I taught at a school for at-risk students. The school was run by a private company that promised to turn students’ lives around through discipline, hard work, and a curriculum that took a business model of having students dress and act professionally, whatever that means. Not surprisingly, the school district, as I found out later, used the school as a repository for students who they deemed “problematic” and who would hurt their test scores. As well, the district undermined the school’s principle, and essentially paid the company money to host a site where these students could be far removed from their home schools.
The school was a disaster from the start. I was not equipped, at any level, to address the needs of the students. I did not know, at that time, a fraction of what I know about the ways that our school systems leave, as Love’s title plays on, children behind, specifically Black and Brown children. I did not know how to teach the students in a manner that would benefit them and make them feel important. Looking back, I think that even though we spent the majority of the time just trying to maintain a “structured”–again, whatever that means–day, we actually provided students with a safe space during the school day. The facilities were dilapidated and run down. We bussed students to the closest high school for lunch. We did not have adequate materials for the classroom.
The school system set these students up to fail, and they did. I do not know what has happened to most of these students. I know that one joined the military. That’s the extent of my knowledge. I wish I knew where they are now. I wish I knew they were alright. I don’t, though. I wish I was a better educator that year. I wish I was more compassionate. I wish I did not look down on the students, counting down the seconds till I drove home, exhausted and spent. I wish I didn’t have the prejudices that I had. The students, Black and White, were not threats. They were not unteachable. They were not dangerous. They were children who needed compassion, love, and someone who would listen and engage with them, not condemn them. I was not that person then. I failed them.
Stay tuned in the next post where I discuss another piece from APB. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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