When I first saw the silent cellphone video of the February 16 arrests of six teens after an altercation on a school bus in North Charleston, I was horrified. A 15-year-old boy being kneed repeatedly, forcefully cuffed, then straddled by an officer as he lay facedown on the ground. A young female pushed by a male officer, then threatened with a taser. Later, I saw the video with sound.
My feelings did not change. At all. My heart still aches for those kids.
While the language the youth used was profane and disrespectful, what’s far more upsetting was the physical force used against them by police. The video begins as a young man is yanked from his seat by an officer; another officer then attempts to help cuff the youth, whose arms are held firmly across his chest. We don’t know what happened prior to the cellphone video. As I write this, a week and a half after the incident, the body, dash, and bus cam videos have yet to be released. The only pieces of evidence we have are the video posted on social media, various news stories that rely heavily on the incident report, and interviews with the family of one of the students arrested, which offer a stark counter narrative to that presented by law enforcement and the bus driver. However, we do know this: the police did not de-escalate this situation. Rather, their tactics further contributed to the chaos.
North Charleston mayor Keith Summey released a statement regarding the incident on social media, in which he justified the actions of the NCPD, saying that “the officers followed protocol and removed the problem from the school bus.” Yes, you read that right, he referred to children in his city as “the problem,” and justified aggressive policing against minors as “protocol.” And because this wasn’t inflammatory enough, he then attempted to undermine any critique of the officers’ actions by stating that allegations of abuse must be unfounded simply because of who they were coming from, Black Lives Matter, ultimately dismissing the concerns of citizens unaffiliated with BLM and family members of the students involved.
However, Summey did make one valid point in his statement when he asked, “Where’s the civility and common sense?” Would it have not made sense to attempt to first diffuse the situation peacefully, allowing the students to be disciplined by their families and their school? Should elected officials not exercise civility and restraint when discussing matters of a sensitive nature? Why is the burden of moral behavior placed more heavily on the shoulders of children than of adults? Does that make sense to you? Sorry, Mr. Mayor, but I care less about foul language than I do about adults in positions of authority using force to gain the compliance of children. While I don’t expect young people to behave like adults and exercise good judgement and moderation, I do expect police officers and elected officials to.
Unfortunately, this shaming of the behavior and language of the youth involved extends beyond North Charleston’s beloved mayor to our local media. In a February 24 Post and Courier column (notably yet predictably titled “Old-school activists could teach young ones a thing or two”), Brian Hicks defends the actions of police, saying that the students were “kicking and punching,” and that “they charged at officers, ripped off their body cameras,” none of which is evident in the cellphone video available to the public. I assume these details came from the incident report, a source of information that doesn’t always coincide with what actually went down (memorably evidenced by the report former officer Slager filed after he killed Walter Scott). Hicks then praised local civil rights leaders from the National Action Network and The Coalition for supporting the police instead of the kids, saying that “not every arrest of a black person is a civil rights violation,” a statement that masks a very real problem directly related to racial injustice, an issue that concerns Micah Blaise, youth organizer with Girls Rock Charleston’s Alternatives to Incarceration program — the first of its kind in the state — which seeks to implement community-based programming as a solution to the school-to-prison pipeline: “Seventy-seven percent of the youth arrested in Charleston County in 2014 were Black, although the overall population is just 29 percent Black. This is systemic racism happening in our school and communities.” I imagine then that it won’t shock you that all the kids seen arrested in the video are Black, a detail Hicks must not have found significant.
Much like Summey, Hicks did get one thing right in his patronizing meditation on morality and youth, when he stated, “Anyone who wants to be taken seriously needs to acknowledge what’s right, not just what’s wrong. It’s called diplomacy, moderation and putting things in perspective.” The blame and criticism regarding this affair have almost exclusively been ascribed to the most vulnerable: the youth. Few adults in this situation — media, law enforcement, elected officials — have taken any responsibility, instead justifying the criminalization of our youth, with no attention to diplomacy or moderation in either their words or actions. Even fewer have focused on the root causes of incidents of this nature, and how we can truly do what’s right for our youth moving forward, how we can support them. Maybe this will help put things in perspective for them.
Jessie Parks is a lifelong South Carolinian and founding member of a writers cabal comprised of “unfuckable femanazis that migrated from Ohio.” Predictably, she really likes cats.