What’s Wrong with this Picture? by Elise M. Edwards


Elise EdwardsOn Monday, the picture was on my Facebook feed again: The picture of a girl lying face down in the grass under a police officer pressing his knee in her back. It was from the video of an African-American teenager being pinned to the ground by Eric Casebolt, the police officer in McKinney, Texas who was responding to calls about a pool party. When I saw the picture this time, it was in a screenshot with these words below it:

“Funny how a 14 year old bikini-clad black girl being publicly assaulted by an adult male does not accrue mainstream feminist outrage.” – Yohanna

The screenshot was taken of a post to Yohanna’s Twitter account (@maarnayeri). I don’t know her, but she troubled me.

If you haven’t seen the images we’re talking about, you can view the video here with a description of what is concurring or below from YouTube. I was reluctant to watch the video. It seems voyeuristic to view this young woman’s suffering and screaming. And, if I am honest with myself, it also seems useless. Viewing this from my computer screen, I’m in no position to help her. I hear her cries and it make me cry too. But I can’t push him off of her. When other teens tried to come to her defense, Casebolt pulled a gun on them and chased them. I don’t even have the power to get him fired from his position of authority immediately. No, we must have the investigations and inquiries and due process that seems so indiscriminately afforded to the privileged. Casebolt was put on administrative leave on Friday, and on Tuesday June 9, he resigned.

So how should I respond?

I had a conversation with one of my closest friends a couple days ago that provoked me to reflect on what to do when I’m conflicted about how to respond. Her background is in acting and theatre, and now she is a pastor and artistic director of a Christian church and arts initiative who believes in supporting arts, imagination and creativity. In our conversation about discerning the next steps in our lives, she was reminded of a book by Samuel Wells that proposes “theatrical improvisation as a model for Christian ethics.” That reminded me of books I’ve read that talk about musical improvisation or call-and-response as model for living, and some pieces I’ve written about that. Inspired by ethicists and theologians including Emilie M. Townes and H. Richard Niebuhr, I believe that to answer the question of how I should respond, I must first answer ‘What’s going on?” An improvised response or a fitting response is the response to what is already occurring. We must look at the situation critically to respond appropriately.

What’s going on in this video and the controversy surrounding it? I am certainly not an impartial or all-knowing observer, but here’s what I see:

  • A white man forcibly throws an unarmed, African-American teenager to the ground yelling “On your face!” We can see that she is unarmed because she is wearing a bikini.
  • The man is a police officer. He is upset that his authority is being challenged. Other officers are present and seem to be asking questions, but the violent one seems out of control and frantic, running around and yelling. He escalates the situation when he throws the girl to the sidewalk, which causes an outcry in the crowd.
  • As the video went viral, there were many protests and online statements against this violent event, but also statements of support for the officer. And sadly, I agree with Yohanna’s assessment. I may have missed it (and I hope I did), but I didn’t see a broad, mainstream feminist response against this violence.

I’m a feminist. I’m a black feminist. I’m a Christian feminist. I may not be a mainstream feminist (depending on your definition), but I’ll express my outrage anyway. It is sickening to watch his treatment of this teenage girl. This man’s mistreatment of a young black girl’s body is chilling. It is wrong and he should be held accountable for it.

I don’t think outrage is enough. But outrage does express that our moral sensibilities have been awakened and that we recognize that something profoundly wrong has occurred. In the face of comments that say she deserved this treatment, we as feminists must insist on the officer’s wrongdoing. “She had it coming.” “She incited him.” As feminists, we know that these kinds of statements are used in cases of rape and intimate partner violence to explain away violent actions and to shift the guilt from perpetrator to victim. The backlash against feminists and others who oppose these explanations argues that we ignore the victim’s responsibility or agency.

Bloggers and social media users know all too well the horrific statements that often appear in the comments section of online posts, videos, and articles. One comment I saw about the McKinney video says that the girl was “sassing back” at the police and that “if she wants to talk like adult then she’s going to be treated like an adult.” This kind of justification makes my blood boil! Sassing back is speaking up and saying something to an authority figure when you are expected to be silent.  While the term sassing back doesn’t exclusively apply to women and girls, it is nonetheless a phrase with gendered connotations. How many boys are called “sassy”? Is it that no one had the right to say anything to this officer running around yelling at black teen boys to sit on the ground, or is it that this black female should have kept quiet? Regardless, throwing an unarmed person to the sidewalk for supposedly saying something disrespectful is not justifiable behavior to adults or children.

I wish I knew more about what’s going on and how to respond to the violence I see in the world. I know these perennial questions subvert easy answers. I only have a partial response. I am responding with outrage and questioning and take this to my feminist community and into my spiritual practice. “What’s going on?” and “How should I respond?” are questions I ask God. I pray for justice. I pray for God’s presence in the outrage and in the investigations, and in the lives of those children who were violated.

Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.

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Categories: abuse, Activism, Art, Black Feminism, Body, Christianity, Domestic Violence, Ethics, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, Gender, Gender and Power, General, In the News, Media, Patriarchy, power, Race and Ethnicity, racial-ethnic minorities, Rape Culture, Resistance, Sexual Violence, Social Justice, Violence, Violence Against Women, Women and the Media

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22 replies

  1. Yes, it was an outrageous act of violence against a young, clearly unarmed girl who was posing no threat. I was imagining that she might be saying something like, “We didn’t do anything. Why are you treating us like we’re criminals?” That whole video was shocking. I kept wondering why he couldn’t just have a conversation with these kids to determine if there was a problem that required his help or intervention before acting like a deranged cop trying to beat down a group of kids at a pool party. I’m guessing he wouldn’t have responded the same way if they were white.

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  2. I felt paralyzed in my shock and distress at what happened and didn’t know what to say. I’m sharing your post as a start.

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    • Thank you. I’ve felt paralyzed in a way, too. That’s part of what I’ve been dealing with- how to start expressing SOMETHING. I suppose my approach may be too intellectual or theoretical for some, but the reminder to live improvisationally or within a call and response pattern here helped me really look at the situation and then write in response. That, at least, moved me from shock.

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  3. I also wish I knew how to respond to the violence we see happening everywhere in the world, including this incident about which you write. I don’t know where to “fit” violence into my worldview. I don’t see it as helpful or redemptive. Perhaps it is, I just don’t see it that way. Even outside the “human” world, violence happens all around us. The other day I witnessed a large bird (perhaps a crow?) dive into a leafy tree. Almost immediately, two smaller birds flew out of the foliage and set up a loud squawking racket. No doubt the larger bird was after the eggs or baby birds in a nest–I’m guessing here–but the violence of those kinds of acts (happening in nature with regularity) leave me dispirited and wondering…..

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    • Thank you for your comment, Esther. I, too, struggle with how to “fit” violence into my worldview. There are very few, if any, violent acts that I would claim as redemptive in some sort of way. And yet, I can see the presence of God in empathetic responses and in courage to fight for justice.

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      • I think, for the sake of victims of violence, we must maintain the possibility that transformative, redemptive healing can come out of violent acts. We have to first see the possibility, this potentiality, before it can be actualized. The power to see is an extraordinarily large power.

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      • Absolutely. Healing certainly has the possibility for positive transformation and redemption. Thank you for voicing this. I resist the sentiment, though, that the violent or abusive act itself is transformative (which is not what you said, of course.)

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    • Esther,

      I’m having trouble with your comment about the crow raiding another bird’s nest. The crow’s action may have been violent, but like any other creature, it has to eat. Is eating to survive violence in the same way that a man with a gun running amok and eventually tackling a young girl and sitting on her? I believe this is comparing apples and oranges. And it doesn’t help us as humans to figure out how to stop the violence in our own world. In some way, this kind of comment seems to lead to resignation. But I’m not resigned to the absolutely unnecessary and heinous actions of some of our police these days. I want justice for the victims, including this 14-year-old girl.

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      • Nancy, I very much agree with your comment and especially the temptation to resolve it all in resignation. What amazes me is that the topic of concern is NOT the police tactics which never seem to resolve anything, but rather complicate the situation and make even worse.

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  4. As for the question, “how should I respond?” — I think the most beneficial way to respond is to help the girl reverse the course of her trauma. It would be so easy for this incident to grow in power over her life and spirit, in terms of, for instance, her suffering from depression, PTSD, a sense of helplessness/powerlessness, shame, humiliation, self-hatred, etc. As someone who has been a young victim of sexual violence, I know the deep and potentially devastating consequences of this kind of abuse. And so I think one of the most powerful things we can do is, with our collective intention, to see the immensity of the power and beauty and life in this girl and raise that up higher than the assault on her body and spirit. But also, at the same time, not denying any of her pain or any form this pain may take in her. So, it would be to work simultaneously in letting her express her pain, as fully and deeply and with as much time as it would take to reach resolution and healing inside her, while at the same time, continuously reflecting to her her own beauty, strength, power and light that shines infinitely brighter than the abuse.

    Ideally, as a society, we would do this for any victim of sexual violence. It would be a collective undertaking, because we would realize that we are all deeply inter-connected and when one of us has been thrown down on the ground and assaulted or raped, that is a deep assault or rape on the entire human spirit.

    Not having a close connection to the girl, being only connected in my heart, spiritually, with her, the only way I know to do of the above would be to write a letter to her, and to send it to her (not sure how to do this), or to make such a letter public. I can imagine thousands of letters from women all across the country, ending up in this girl’s home town… Basically saying, “no, no, no… our power to love you, honor you, cherish you, and see your beauty and light is infinitely greater than this man’s power to assault and abuse you.”

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  5. I’m dumbfounded. It’s appropriate that the officer resigned, but there needs to be follow up. The man is dangerous. The neighbourhood is in need of reconciliation and healing.

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  6. Most of us, Elise, felt as you did! Shocked, hurt, outraged…but also resigned somewhat. We are resigned somewhat to the injuries caused to humanity, to the world, to the earth, to womanhood, and unavoidably, to girls.
    It is natural that we are resigned, somewhat, for the essence of injury, of violence, is to raise and build up one’s immune system (emotionally in this case) to be able to stand the injury, to be able to resist its effects somewhat.
    It is a self-preservation process that is further established in us by authority and its main tool: blame, and its main ally: the media. Authority blames us for whatever it does to us, and the media, through portraying the victim as either deserving or despicable, or sometimes deserving yet still despicable, further reinforces the authority’s message of justifyability, and our own sense of necessary guilt.

    It is a bully tactic that is at the heart of every instance of oppression, whether domestic/marital (she made me mad…),geopolitical (Palestinians’ culture of death…), name your black man shot by the cops (the officer felt threatened), homophobia (he was too flamboyant…), rape victim…(she was dressed too scantily).
    It is also the colonist’s tactic to divide the victims into several groups, thereby diluting the common force and diffusing its power.
    The lack of reaction from the feminist powers reflects that division… is this a woman issue? A girl issue? A race issue? A Texas issue? Meanwhile, as you ask, where is the feminist response?

    Although we must address the girl’s attack in its local realm, the feminist one, we must also address it in its other realms, the racial/ethnic one and the personal freedom/constitutional rights. All of those realms were breached in that attack,and the confusion we all feel and powerlessness in front of it is reflective of our inability to reconcile each with the other, and see that the girl’s blackness is inseparable from her girlness, which is inseparable from her personhood, which is inseparable from her citizenship and humanity.
    That is the value of fighting this legally, by suing the police department and demanding the firing of the officer. When she gets public and official redress from the authority, her pain and injury is acknowledged nationally, as is her full personhood and citizenship. Her subsequent healing as black person and as a female will then have an established/communally legitimate ground to sprout on, and will find nourishment and support in the local structure (church, school, neighborhood, friends and family.)
    Right now, her friends and family, church and school are all offering her support and reinforcement, but as long as the larger society is mute and the authority is not sanctioned, such support rings hollow and no healing happens.

    This attack happened against the backdrop of increased killing of black women by cops, and more and more killing of black men by cops, and more and more laws, bills and acts that seek to further control women and their bodies, and therefore their power, and more and more attacks on the poor and the structure that helps them. All of those are linked, and until we see that each is an attack on the whole of the person, besides the ethnicity, gender or means, we will remain shocked, hurt, outraged but still unable and ineffective.

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  7. Also, it was incredibly moving to me to hear her calling for her mother, as she is being assaulted. It seems she knew deeply what she needed in that moment. And so, can we respond to that need? Can we follow that call? It goes hand in hand to me, with a collective cry right now for God the Mother…

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  8. One possible way to respond is to email the White House and urge President Obama to sign an executive order expanding and enforcing federal bans on discriminatory policing and strengthening nationwide police accountability mechanisms. 

    Also, sign this open letter urging local officials to charge Officer Casebolt with battery and assault, too:

    http://action.momsrising.org/sign/ChargeCaseboltMcKinney/?source=blacklivesmatter

    Together, we are truly a powerful voice for children and families!

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  9. Jennie,
    Thank you so much for speaking about addressing both this young woman’s pain and her beautiful strength!! Indeed!
    Elise,
    Thank you so much for bringing this up in a way that can help us feel empowered. I think I identified with the young woman on the ground and left her and myself there as it was too painful to look for very long when I first saw the video.
    I think your voice and the other voices here form a community that we need to start to get up, stand up and feel our power and the power of our voices.
    Thank you again.
    Sonia

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  10. I also want to mention the trauma to all the other young and older people in the crowd trying to stand up for this young woman and being bullied into paralysis by this officer who was clearly out if control. The fact that no one could stop him without endangering their lives will also be a source of trauma for the them. This forced helplessness is a terrible and painful wound also.
    I must admit the other officers seemed calmer but they could or would not stop this one man.

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  11. I have been away from my computer and news for 2 1/2 weeks so I missed this. How did that man ever get on a police force in the first place, and who told him that it was OK to use swear words along with totally unnecessary force in the line of duty. I have to note that these looked like quite young middle class kids not on drugs or alcohol, not that it would have been right to have done what he did if they had been poor, older, or drinking. If they were white, it would most likely have been “all right.” What country do we live in? Certainly not the land of the free. I feel sick and yet I know that this is not a one time thing, but everyday reality for many. So sorry for all that is suffered, all that is lost, including the innocence of so many children just having a good time with each other.

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  12. Another example of African American females not being valued in American society. We have to value each other and pray for change!

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