*The following was written for and published in East Lansing High School’s newspaper, Portrait. If you would like to read my 2011 article on the incident, you can do so here.
As I sat in my college dorm room reading about another unarmed African-American killed by police, I made the obvious connection between the recent national attention devoted to police brutality against African-Americans and an event at East Lansing High School four years ago. I realized that almost every student who was at the school at the time is no longer there, top administrators in the school and district have moved on, and there is now a different resource officer at the high school. It is therefore likely that few people at the school remember what happened. So, I decided to revisit the incident, in the hope that it would remind the East Lansing High School community of what likely is its own sad relation to ongoing patterns of racism and discriminatory policing.
I can only speak about my own understanding of and involvement with the incident. In November 2010, I was a sophomore eating lunch when I heard that an African-American student had been tasered by the white resource officer outside the cafeteria. That day, the administration sent out an email saying “no one was hurt,” even though a student had just been tasered. After a month, having grown frustrated with what I perceived as the callous response of the administration and my white friends’ indifference to the event, I decided to write an opinion piece on the incident for Portrait.
I spent about a month researching the incident, interviewing as many relevant actors as I could, from members of the Black Parent Union to witnesses of the tasering to an expert on tasers. The police file confirmed that the student was not behaving violently when the resource officer decided to arrest him, and that the resource officer chose to use his taser even though three police officers were holding the student down. I found that the administration was conducting an investigation of the event while also trying to protect itself from a lawsuit. The tasered student and the two other students involved were suspended indefinitely, and the administration unsuccessfully recommended that the tasered student be expelled based on what struck me as a biased investigation. The superintendent told me he had not even been aware that resource officers in the school carried tasers prior to the incident. Despite the concern of the African-American community and the extensive efforts of the Black Parent Union, most people, including the administration, were baffled why this incident could be so concerning.
The article came out in January. I published it with somewhat self-aggrandizing expectations, but I know of only a handful of people who read it, and I do not know if it had any impact at all. While two of the three students involved returned to ELHS after months of suspension, the tasered student never did. I participated in a few further efforts to work towards racial justice at ELHS, and I now think about the incident only occasionally. I suspect the tasering has been almost entirely forgotten at ELHS.
I will never know whether racial bias led the resource officer involved to taser the student, just as we will never know for sure whether bias played a role in individual cases of police brutality gaining national attention. We do know that the litany of similar cases confirms the impact of racial bias in policing, and the tasering incident would fit neatly into this pattern. I would also guess that the fact that the administration was almost entirely white played a large part in why they were oblivious to the dismay of the African-American community. I think most of them, as I am sure I do, subconsciously held some racist views. I hope the importance of this case would now be clearer in the aftermath of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and so many more, and I wonder if the officer would be slightly more hesitant to use his taser now.
I think in light of the attention to police brutality nationwide, it is vital to remember that East Lansing is a part of oppressive systems. Before these trends were as widely publicized, East Lansing High School had a case of its own (but, thankfully, although the tasered student’s life may have been shattered in multiple ways, he did survive). The history of racism in the U.S. continues to manifest itself in the present day throughout the country in countless forms, including excessive use of police force. East Lansing is not immune from these evils; indeed, I think this is the main reason I found the tasering incident so disturbing. I genuinely believe that in terms of diversity, tolerance, and racial equality, East Lansing is one of the best places in the country, but it’s still so bad.
So, where do we go from here? I think the tasering incident could be a good place to start. Just as the national movement is focusing on exposing and addressing police brutality among countless other forms of racial injustice in the U.S., the issues raised in this case could serve as first steps.
Future resource officers can think, really think, about whether they would be more likely to use a taser against an African-American student. Administrators can think about whether they would put fear of a lawsuit over the right to an on-going education for one of their students, and white students can consider whether they would almost entirely ignore the incident. I can think about how I was able to write the article, fail to create change, and move on without suffering any consequences from continued racism. We can make sure that we are not paralyzed by either a fear of controversy or an unwillingness to accept that we may subconsciously hold racist views. We can all listen and learn from those who do suffer the consequences of racism, and, I hope, begin to make meaningful changes.
But we could have been doing all this four years ago. This is not to say no progress has been made, even if it has been ever so slight, and I think the current resource officer would have handled the situation better. Still, the question I just cannot get away from is if, instead of four years ago, the original resource officer was entering into the situation now, would a similarly terrible sequence of events unfold, from an unnecessary tasering to an irresponsible administrative response to an indifferent community? I hope not, but deep down, I think it probably would.