After she heard the story of police violence against a Black schoolgirl in South Carolina, New York-based activist Vivian Anderson uprooted her life to help. ‘I just couldn’t walk away,’ she says.
‘This girl should not have to be carrying this weight alone,’ Vivian Anderson said when she saw an interview with high school student Niya Kenny. Niya had stood up for her 16-year-old classmate Shakara Murphy, and was arrested for it. ‘All I felt was: “Here’s a girl calling folks to action,”’ Anderson remembers.
Shakara had been in a verbal dispute with her math teacher about having her phone out in class. Soon, white ‘school resource officer’ Ben Fields was called in. Fields violently pulled Shakara from her desk and dragged her across the floor. As Fields entered the classroom, however, Niya Kenny had encouraged her classmates to film what happened, and videos of the incident went viral. Unbelievably, both Niya and Shakara were arrested and charged with ‘disturbing school’.
Police officers patrol more than half the public schools in the United States. ‘We call them SRO’s [school resource officers],’ Anderson says in the impressive documentary On These Grounds, ‘but it’s really policing schools.’ It’s the result of the so-called ‘school disturbance laws’ that criminalise ‘disturbing’ behaviour by school children in many US states. Anderson: ‘But policing and safety don’t necessarily go together.’ That’s why her organisation Every Black Girl advocates for police-free schools across the US. After the involvement of Every Black Girl, the charges against Niya and Shakara were dropped.
As can be seen in On These Grounds, the subject of policing schools is a deeply divisive issue in the US. This comes across strongly in the scenes where Anderson sits down with officer Fields to talk about what happened. Fields sees himself as a ‘political victim’ who simply did his job. It’s impressive and inspiring to see how Vivian Anderson keeps trying to bring humanity into the discussion. ‘I believe that everybody has genuine heart in them,’ she later said in an interview. ‘When it comes to children, are we seeing children as children? He never saw Shakara as a child.’
On These Grounds is shown at the Movies that Matter Festival 2022, where Vivian Anderson is a special guest.