In our present sociohistorical moment, we've seen twin trends arise. As marginalized groups are more aggressively targeted by the state, social narratives are simultaneously promoted about the status of equality in the U.S. in ways that create hostility for minority groups who point out the continuing salience of race, class, and gender as significant markers that inform how we are perceived and treated. As our country becomes further stratified, the myth that we are "post-race" or "post-gender" is used by dominant groups to vilify those who point out the fissures that complicate or invalidate these myths. These recent arrests emphasize the prevalence of power imbalances that continue to plague our society today:
In April, Kiera Wilmot, an honors student from Florida, was expelled from school for an explosion which occurred during a failed science experiment. Wilmot writes in the moments leading up to her arrest, "they didn't read me any rights. They arrested me after sitting in the office for a couple minutes. They handcuffed me. It cut my wrist, and really hurt sitting on my hands behind my back." Social justice commentators asked why Wilmot, a black student with no previous record, was being penalized for an accident which harmed no one, while a white student from her school who accidentally killed another student faced no charges. While the charges against Wilmot were eventually dropped due to pushback from progressive activists, this case highlights the constellation of racism and ageism inherent in the enforcement of zero-tolerance policies.
Ashlynn Avery, a student with type-II diabetes and sleep apnea from Birmingham, Alabama, was arrested for falling asleep during detention. Because of her sleep apnea, Avery fell asleep while reading Huckleberry Finn. Her personal health was not taken into account by either the teacher supervising detention, or the police officer who arrested her immediately after she excused herself from the room. The teacher slammed the book she was reading against her chest, and the officer that arrested her violently slammer her body against a locker. Avery had to be hospitalized following her arrest, and her arm was set into a cast. Both Avery and her mother are currently suing for battery and civil rights violations.
Deric Lostutter, the 26-year-old hacktivist formerly known as KYAnonymous, was responsible for throwing down the gauntlet on Steubenville and sparking national outrage about the case, which eventually led to the arrest of two of the rapists. He is facing up to ten years in prison in connection with hacking the football team's website, RollRedRoll.com. Lostutter challenged a town that was refusing to take action or hold the football team accountable for their perpetuation of rape culture via unrepentant humiliation of the victim, and his efforts should be rewarded, not punished. Furthermore, this sends the cultural message that advocating on behalf of rape survivors is more repugnant than the actions of those who prop up our present power structure.
Monica Contreras, a Nevada-based woman, was sexually assaulted in a courtroom during an appearance in family court by Ron Fox, a court officer who subsequently arrested her. Even worse, the hearing master and others in the room refused to look at Contreras or otherwise stop the assault while it occurred. After a recording of her assault was aired by a local news affiliate and subsequently went viral, it was revealed that Fox had a history of sexually harassing defendants. Even though there "wasn't a law that could support the arrest," it happened anyway, with the full endorsement of those who looked on and subsequently covered up the evidence.
Tremaine McMillan, a 14-year-old black teenager from Florida, was arrested for giving a police officer a "dehumanizing stare." McMillan was holding a puppy while this occurred, and his mother was able to record parts of the arrest, in which he was violently pinned down by police. One has to ask: In what universe can a black teenager, the most disproportionately targeted and profiled demographic in this country, "dehumanize" a police officer? Because I'm pretty sure we don't live in it.
Police officers barely need a plausible reason to arrest marginalized groups, because narratives about their inherent criminality are so infrequently questioned within police cultures themselves. However, there is a grain of hope in independent media coverage of these cases. By presenting alternative narratives that provide additional context the mainstream media too often elides, writers have helped people to consider larger structural forces at play in these cases. (For instance, much coverage of Wilmot and Avery’s cases have mentioned the “school-to-prison” pipeline that targets students of color.) In response, activists have leveraged social media to spread information about these injustices and hold those in power accountable. In this way, young activists are both challenging assumptions of guilt and introducing much-needed social context to these cases.