On These Grounds: a shocking film about police brutality within US schools – The Guardian

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In a new documentary, the story of a 16-year-old Black student who was assaulted by a white police officer exposes a broken system

Tue 21 Sep 2021 14.18 EDT

In On These Grounds, an expansive, insightful and infuriating documentary about police brutality in the public education system, former school resource officer Ben Fields makes his case. Fields, a hulking and defensive white cop, meekly looks at the camera, clinically explaining away his actions when confronting a 16-year-old Black student identified as Shakara at Spring Valley high in South Carolina. The violent incident caught on multiple videos immediately went viral and led to his dismissal.

Fields arrived at Shakara’s classroom on 15 October 2015 after a math teacher accused the young student of being a disturbance. When Shakara refused to leave her desk, Fields wrapped his arm around her neck, slammed her to the ground, flung her across the classroom and put his knee on her as he made his arrest. He also arrested a fellow classmate, Niya Kenny, for speaking out against the use of force that left Shakara with a carpet burn over her right eye, a hairline fracture on her wrist and trauma that she will carry for years.

You’ve probably seen the videos, recorded by Kenny and her classmates, but you’ll be forgiven if you don’t remember which specific incident this is. There have been so many like it: the 2016 video of 12-year-old Janissa Valdez slammed to the ground, leaving her unconscious; the 2017 video of 15-year-old Jasmine Darwin thrown down in a cafeteria, enduring a concussion; the 2019 video of officer Zachary Christensen pinning an 11-year-old to the ground in Farmington, New Mexico, and so on. Just as I’m speaking to Garrett Zevgetis, the director of On These Grounds, over Zoom, a new video surfaces of a California school resource officer body-slamming 16-year-old Mikaila Robinson to the ground.

The issue is systemic, which is why there’s a sustained push among activist organizations to remove police from US schools. But Fields, and the majority in South Carolina who defend police conduct on campus and beyond, refuse to believe that either he or the system is to blame. Instead, they pick at Shakara, a child in foster care, and everything she may have done to bring that violence on herself.

“They look at each as a series of isolated incidents,” says Zevgetis. “When you only look at it as an isolated incident, you don’t have to think about the context. You can reduce it to blaming the child.”

Zevgetis’s film is all about countering such narratives with context. The documentary throttles between intimate recollections of the brutal incident and a forensic indictment of the culture that invites a racially biased criminal justice system into a similarly biased school system. Both Kenny and Shakara speak their truth to the camera, supported by the EveryBlackGirl founder Vivian Anderson. The activist relocated from Brooklyn to South Carolina to help them fight the justice system. The two girls were charged under South Carolina’s disturbing schools laws. Zevgetis ties all these strands together with Dr Janae Davis’s thesis that the soil in South Carolina, where the history of slavery is buried, absorbs trauma. “Burying that history is a metaphor for Ben Fields and for everybody else not wanting to think about the context of history,” says Zevgetis.

The director also mentions a tidbit not seen in the film. His follow-up conversations with Fields after George Floyd’s murder yielded predictable results. Fields agreed that Derek Chauvin, the former officer convicted of murdering George Floyd, went too far. But according to Zevgetis, Fields, an officer who insists that neither he nor the justice system is racially biased, was far more focused on the victim’s past. “He was blaming George Floyd.”

Vivian Anderson, Founder of EveryBlackGirl, in Columbia, South Carolina. Photograph: Gravitas Ventures

The director is talking to me while on break at his bartending job at Cambridge’s Charles hotel. The documentary business isn’t very lucrative, he explains, so serving drinks is a living that grants him the flexibility to pursue important stories as a film-maker. He speaks humbly and also protectively of Anderson, Kenny and Shakara. He says they have become like family, after spending years filming together, and before that many hours in conversation, building trust. “The most important thing is to get the subject to know you’ll never betray them,” says Zevgetis. He had to put in that work to tell this story, especially since, as a white man, he looks like so many of the people given to blaming Black people for their own oppression.

Zevgetis is upfront about his white male privilege, explaining how he was able wield it along with the years he spent in the navy, another use-of-force occupation, to gain access to Fields. “I can get into the belly of the beast,” says Zevgetis. “I knew he would relate to me.”

But Zevgetis also acknowledges that putting Fields on camera and giving him a platform requires care, because so much of what the former cop has to say – between victim blaming and rationalizing police brutality – can retraumatize a viewer. “Shakara, Niya [Kenny] and Vivian [Anderson] are the most important,” says Zevgetis. “If they didn’t want Ben [Fields] in the film, he wouldn’t have been in the film.”

Zevgetis says that Anderson was his guiding light on that matter. The activist developed a relationship with Fields. She is seen debating and attempting to educate him on numerous occasions throughout the film about how Black children are criminalized for behaviour that white children often get away with. Fields’s refusal to really listen is a whole other kind of violence that Zevgetis would not let stand. He followed his producer Chico Colvard’s advice to never allow any of Fields’s arguments or rationalizations to hang there unchecked. “Every time he brings up a point, we made sure that someone after him deconstructed or took down that rationale,” says Zevgetis.

Former school resource officer Ben Fields participates in a powerlifting competition. Photograph: Gravitas Ventures

The documentary film-maker isn’t feigning impartiality. On These Grounds has a clear perspective that shines through in its interviews and sly imagery. Clips of Fox News anchors defending brutal police action are superimposed over a swamp. As we listen to local sheriff Leon Lott speaking about the trust the community has in South Carolina’s police force, the camera wanders around his office, observing an American flag carved in wood and a bison’s head mounted on the wall. Remember that white settlers slaughtered bison to starve Native people off their lands. Context is everything.

The film’s biases may invite criticism even though all documentaries and journalism is inherently biased. In an article published in Canadian magazine the Walrus, Pacinthe Mattar wrote about how media privileges and rarely questions the narratives put forward by police and other government institutions. Meanwhile, there’s an expectation that testimony taken from witnesses on the ground needs to be interrogated, corroborated and framed in doubt.

“There is no objectivity,” says Zevgetis, before making the case for his own bias.

“I always thought that a school desk was the safest place in America. There is no logic or rationalization to rip a teenage girl out of it, assault her and throw her across the room. There was never going to be both sides of that story to me.”

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