December 8, 2021 Blog
On These Grounds
We cannot turn a blind eye to the injustice that is woven into the fabric of our country. That is why it is so important to bear witness when people’s rights and safety are threatened, and identify what aspects of policy, culture, and advocacy most urgently need to be changed. The recently released documentary On These Grounds is piercing and moving, and watching it is one way to uphold these values. The Alliance hosted a screening of the film in November, followed by a Q&A with Vivian Anderson, who played an important and inspiring role in the documentary.
On These Grounds follows the story of Shakara Murphy, a Black girl in high school, who became the subject of national attention after a brutal video showing a white School Resource Officer (SRO) dragging her across a classroom floor went viral. Shakara and a classmate who defended her were both arrested following the incident and accused of “disturbing school.” Central to the story that unfolds in this documentary is the entrance of Vivian Anderson, an activist from New York, who moved to South Carolina where the incident happened to try to combat the underlying systemic issues that enabled it and to support Shakara and other young Black women in the area.
The officer who was the focus of the controversy in the video, Ben Fields, had previous records of being reported for excessive use of force. But rather than facing discipline or termination, he had simply been transferred to different positions, a common practice among law enforcement. It took an overwhelming wave of public attention and pressure for him to be fired for the incident with Shakara. This case illustrates the urgent need for meaningful tools to hold law enforcement officers accountable wherever they are employed.
The root of the issue here ultimately is not the actions of a singular law enforcement officers, but the result of a system that is not designed to support Black people, and specifically Black students. A law in South Carolina, as well as many other states, makes it a crime for students to “disturb school.” As the film shows, laws like this are disproportionately used to punish and even incarcerate Black students. Ben Fields was also given the authority to remove students forcefully from their classrooms if they tried to resist. When he first grabbed Shakara, he knocked her chair over and her hand flew up making contact with his face—she described it as trying to keep herself from falling, and he described it as a punch in the face. If you interpret Shakara’s arm hitting Fields as an intentional attack, then his response was legal in South Carolina and sanctioned by the school system. The question is this: what does that say about the legal and law enforcement systems in America?
The good news is that thanks to the advocacy efforts of Vivian Anderson and others, the “disturbing school” law has been struck down. Anderson also started an organization in the aftermath of Shakara’s assault called EveryBlackGirl to empower and protect young Black women. EveryBlackGirl is dedicated to a holistic effort to support Black girls: including spaces for young women to connect and heal, fighting for policy change on an institutional level, and providing economic opportunities. This kind of systemic approach is necessary for us to ensure that our country is safe for everyone regardless of race or identity.
— Finch Brown is a Fellow with the Alliance.