Yesterday, in something of a rage, I wrote the story of an African-American boy with Down syndrome who was heading to his first day of school in Syracuse. His parents were with him and, as they entered the school, they paused to take a picture.
A white security guard intervened and pushed the boy against the wall to ‘assume the position’ as if he were being frisked.
“Wait, wait, wait, hold on,” Brandiss Pearson [the boy’s mother] recalls the sentry saying. Then the sentry turned Brandon to face the wall and lifted Brandon’s hands above his head on the wall, as if to be frisked, she said.
“And he starts laughing and says, ‘Now take the picture, he’s in the right position,’ ” Pearson recalled.
This is racism, ableism, and authoritarianism. Racism because the “right position” for a black boy in this guard’s eyes is against the wall. Ableism because he’s relying on the fact that Brandon has Down syndrome to make it funny – indeed, Brandon thought it was all a game. To me, that intensifies the awfulness of it.
Authoritarianism because this is one way that the cult of compliance has entered our schools.
I don’t want to overlook this last point as I wallow in the anger at the racism and ableism. Schools are not militarized yet, not in the ways our police forces are, but they are increasingly a part of our compliance-driven state.
Within the school, the guard has intensifying power to control the space and control the bodies – especially the bodies belonging to people of color – all in the name of safety. And sure, safety is important, but as Bruce Schneier says, 1) We’re bad at assessing risks and 2) all security comes with trade-offs.
There are consequences when we fill our schools with guards, with metal detectors, with draconian dress codes, with zero tolerance policies, with the constant drumbeat of fear that your school or your kids’ schools or your neighborhood school is beset by armed gangs ready to do battle or psychopaths ready to commit a massacre! There are consequences and we have not properly assessed the trade-offs here between security and not just loss of freedom, but loss of sense of self-worth and the price of empowering men like this security guard.
Our schools do need security, sadly. What they don’t need is a demand for total compliance. They need guards who understand their job is to protect and empower the students as they chase their future, not control, not dominate, not bully.
This guard is a bully. He’s the same as the kids who dumped feces and urine over an autistic boy who thought he was doing the ice bucket challenge. He’s the same as the people who sent mean texts to a girl with seizures. He’s the same as the “teachers” who use electrical shocks to “control” people with autism. He’s the same.
But he has a kind of power in the school that he’s used to exercising, and it seemed like it would be funny to him, and if it’s funny to him, surely it’s funny to the parents and boy too.
The incident is disgusting. The guard will likely be fired (he’s been suspended). If he talks to the press, he’ll express regret, he’ll say that he was just trying to make a joke and didn’t think about it. I believe him that he didn’t think. Such acts of petty control have become normal, and if Brandon didn’t have Down syndrome, if the guard just pushed another black boy up to assume the position, we probably wouldn’t hear about it.
I’m going to end with a quote from Alice Goffman’s controversial book On the Run. One thing that even her critics agree is that she did a good job showing the consequences of police abuse, not just on the people arrested, but on the whole community. She writes:
I saw children give up running and simply stick their hands behind their back, as if in handcuffs; push their body up against a car without being asked; or lie flat on the ground and put their hands over their head. The children yelled, “I’m going to lock you up! I’m going to lock you up, and you ain’t never coming home!” I once saw a six-year-old pull another child’s pants down to do a “cavity search.”
These are the trade-offs of our pursuit of perfect safety and total compliance – Brandon against the wall, the six-year-old pretending to do a cavity search.
UPDATE: The guard was fired. That’s good. The question is whether the school admin will also think about the culture that enables such a guard to exist in the first place.