On 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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