I’ve heard all sorts of creative justifications (many from white adults) for the classroom body slamming of a 16-year old black girl by Deputy Ben Fields; criticizing the student for being rude, disrespectful, and uncooperative (as if such things somehow merit what came to her this week.)
And they’re all flat-out wrong.
I’ve been a student pastor for 18 years, and during that time I’ve encountered literally thousands of teenagers; many of them rude, disrespectful and uncooperative, some belligerent, combative, or even violent.
And in those nearly two decades, do you know how many I’ve flipped through the air an onto the floor? Zero.
That’s because I’m a grownup and grownups know that adults don’t respond to disrespectful teenagers (especially those who are not their children) with physical violence—period. That Fields has a gun and a badge or represents authority is irrelevant. Actually come to think of it, if anything it makes him more culpable, his actions less excusable, and his response all the more troubling.
Let’s be clear: even if the young girl was acting immature and disruptive and defiant, this is still not a matter of two parties equally guilty of wrongdoing.
This is an unarmed, nonviolent, non-threatening teenage girl doing what troubled teenagers sometimes do (testing adults and posturing for her peers) and an armed, muscle-bound man three times her age, assaulting her because he felt his manhood challenged in public—and his manhood came up short.
Adults are adults for a reason. We’ve logged more time on the planet than teenagers. We learned and experienced more than they have. We have a different perspective and we’ve acquired wisdom, and we’re supposed to be smarter and more mature than them as a result of our advanced age and resume.
Ben Fields isn’t only an adult, but an adult trained in law enforcement. He is by virtue of his title, expected to deescalate tense, violent situations, not to exacerbate them. It’s simply assumed that he is more patient, more restrained, less volatile, and less prone to lose control than other people. At the core of his very position is the diffusing of confrontation and that’s why this was a huge failure, one we sadly see all too often in greater recent police conduct—especially toward people of color.
I don’t care how “bad” this student wanted to show she was with her attitude and her disrespect, Officer Fields doesn’t get to show her how bad he is, by tossing her across the room like an unwanted stuffed animal. If you believe he does, I’m going to question your maturity, your humanity, and your sense of decency.
I’ve heard reports that the student in question is recently orphaned, currently in foster care and grieving the loss of her mother. Deputy Fields could not have known this in the heat of the confrontation, but if it is true we should now be moved to show kindness and compassion toward this young girl, not slapping her wrists with finger-wagging sermons and armchair moralizing.
I don’t know Ben Fields. I’ve never heard him speak. I’m not inside his head. I don’t know why he did what he did. All I know is what I see here, and what I see is an adult in a position of authority losing sight of what the right way to handle this situation with a minor was. I’m sure if he could go back and replay the movie, he’d have chosen a different script.
I’m more concerned with our path now, as we should all be seeing more clearly. We should be more objective and sober in our assessment, and more gentle with the hurts of teenagers like this student.
One of the saddest things to surface this week is the alarming number of adults who have determined that this 16-year old somehow “deserved what she got”, many of these folks themselves parents. It’s astounding to me that we can be so cavalier and callous with someone else’s daughter.
Any parent who claims they would be fine with the bodyslamming of their own child by another adult for any reason—is full of it.
That this young woman is not our daughter, shouldn’t make a damn bit of difference. It doesn’t to me.
As I watched her thrown around her classroom, I saw the faces of thousands of teenagers who have crossed my path. I saw the face of my own daughter—and I wept.
This event isn’t a referendum on bad teens or crooked cops (and though it certainly seems apparent many responses to this event). It’s not just a teachable moment regarding institutionalized racism (though I would contend those things are certainly at play here in either the officer’s conduct and in many people’s justification of those actions).
This is most certainly a gut check for all adults.
It’s a challenge for us, whether we represent the Law or God or simply ourselves, to respond to adversity and conflict with young people in a way that shows we’ve used our journey well and in a way that teaches them the better path.
It’s a challenge for white adults specifically, to speak into injustice that comes via racism, bigotry, misogyny or bias, and not seek to justify misconduct.
At the end of the day, this girl may be immature and disrespectful and prone to bad decisions. (Welcome to every teenager’s life, including yours when you were one.)
She may be a discipline problem, but she isn’t a criminal.
This young girl may be an orphan, but she is our daughter.
Adults: Act your age.
Note from John: This piece is largely a response to the (mainly white) adults claiming this incident was somehow the student’s fault; something I wholeheartedly disagree with. It is by no means a denial of the racial elements of the officer’s conduct, but an effort to poke holes in the feigned outrage at the teenager’s behavior by others after the fact. That is to say, even if I take that explanation at face value, that this is strictly a conduct-based response on behalf of the officer, it would still be a completely unacceptable response.