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Attendees at the “March to Stop Police Brutality” support each other in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, on April 1.
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Trial by trauma

The Derek Chauvin trial is retraumatizing Black Americans.

Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

It’s been more than 300 days since Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinned down George Floyd’s neck — but time hasn’t dampened the mental anguish of seeing a Black man die under the weight of a white man sworn to protect the public.

Instead, Chauvin’s criminal trial, which began on March 29 and is expected to continue for weeks, has only heightened the emotional toll of the disturbing event.

Chauvin faces charges of manslaughter and murder, and to make their case — that Floyd died because Chauvin used excessive force — prosecutors have been relying heavily on the 9-minute, 29-second video that captured Floyd’s final moments. They’ve replayed it over and over to the courtroom, and to all those watching the proceedings live on television. The video’s been slowed down, it’s been rewound, and witnesses have been repeatedly asked to identify themselves in the footage.

Jerry Blackwell, a lawyer for the prosecution and founder of the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers, issued a warning before he played the video for the first time: “I need to tell you, the video is graphic and can be difficult to watch. It’s simply the nature of what we’re dealing with in this trial.”

But the warning was too late, a futile attempt to preserve decency. Floyd’s death and the impending trial against Chauvin loomed over the country for almost a year, amid a pandemic that’s only magnified injustice. The palpable effects of this trauma have been visible in the mental health of Black Americans, and in the witnesses taking the stand.

Charles McMillian, 61, sobbed as he listened to himself tell Floyd, “You can’t win!” as Floyd struggled under Chauvin’s knee. Donald Williams II, a 33-year-old mixed martial artist with a background in security, eventually broke down as he testified about the “blood choke” that he saw Chauvin use on Floyd. Firefighter Genevieve Hansen, 27, fought back tears as she described feeling helpless at being unable to act in her capacity as an EMT to save Floyd’s life.

Darnella Frazier, 18, who recorded the viral video while accompanied by her 9-year-old cousin — who also testified — explained how the incident has irreparably changed her life, from the way she sees Floyd in the Black men in her life to her repeated, prayer-like apologies to Floyd for not doing more.

Charles McMillian, 61, sobbed as he listened to himself tell Floyd, “You can’t win!”
Court TV/AP
Donald Williams II, 33, broke down as he testified about the “blood choke” that he saw Chauvin use on Floyd.
Court TV/AP
Firefighter Genevieve Hansen, 27, fought back tears as she described feeling helpless to save Floyd’s life.
Court TV/AP

For the public who watched Floyd’s death on their screens, the trial has been similarly retraumatizing, particularly for the Black Americans who have grown familiar with how casually America handles Black death, and who are well aware of the country’s long history of brutalizing Black people. On Twitter, some users have resorted to muting any news about the trial, in an effort to shut out more pain.

“This wasn’t the first time people saw a Black man being killed by the police so there’s historical trauma here,” Howard Stevenson, a clinical psychologist who studies racial stress and racial trauma and a professor of Africana studies and urban education at the University of Pennsylvania, told Vox. “Memories of other Black men being killed by the police play in our emotional movie and we depend on those memories to make sense of traumas.”

How the trauma of Black death compounds

In 2018, researchers at Boston University, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital found that police killings of unarmed Black people have adverse mental health effects on Black adults who were not directly affected by the incident itself: stress, depression, and difficulties with emotions that manifested in “poor mental health days.”

Black Americans have a greater and more personal understanding of systemic racism — they understand a lack of fairness, a loss of social status, diminished trust in social institutions, and prior related traumas, researchers found.

“We already knew this was happening based on how people talked about it on social media,” Jacob Bor, a professor of global health at Boston University and one of the report’s authors, told Vox. “But we wanted to contribute population-level data to a phenomenon that we were already seeing. We sometimes just assume that racism causes health disparities, but when you’re not explicit, people make other interpretations like maybe it’s genetics, behavior, or culture, which is pretty wrongheaded.”

For those already carrying the trauma of systemic racism, it doesn’t take much to trigger a physical and emotional response: Just hearing about Floyd or Chauvin’s trial can be enough to trigger memories of the other Black men who died at the hands of the police. And seeing video of the incident or even just listening to audio, particularly hearing Floyd’s voice and how he pleaded for his life, adds to that existing trauma.

It is a kind of trauma that builds over time, increasing with other moments of violence, from the beating of Rodney King in 1991 to the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, and compounds with Floyd and the police killing of Walter Wallace in October 2020 or the police shooting of Adam Toledo just last month.

“This is a part of our generation’s collective and ongoing trauma that was also a part of the experience that our ancestors had to undergo, only in a different iteration,” says trauma psychologist Mariel Buqué. “It’s new age terror and what happens to a person when they are terrorized to the point that they fear for their lives, and when this happens in an ongoing way by way of racist acts, is that it leaves profound fear planted in the person. And that fear, if impactful enough, can lead to the development of trauma.

This trauma manifests in psychological symptoms like numbing, dissociation, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, flashbacks, agitation, self-destructive behaviors, and other common symptoms like nightmares, lack of sleep, emotional detachment, and mistrust, Buqué said.

Online, countless people have explained their need to turn away from the trial when possible, so as not re-experience the pain they felt when first watching the video of Floyd’s death. “I had to mute it,” one Twitter user wrote. “But even without sound it’s the stuff of nightmares.”

When people experience racial trauma or even vicarious trauma — indirect trauma that is a result of witnessing or hearing about someone’s suffering — the effects aren’t only mental: They can present a whole host of challenges that affect the body.

“When people experience a racial encounter, something that puts so much stress on them, it always involves their bodies, but that’s rarely discussed,” Stevenson said. “Trauma is like an inability to manage stress and any healing approach that doesn’t take into account how it has changed our bodies is missing out. Understanding how our bodies react when we’re triggered by the video can help us gain control and feel less helpless.”

During the trial, the prosecution released footage and audio that wasn’t previously widely seen by the public, like how bystanders pleaded with officers to loosen the pressure they placed on Floyd. Even if someone has seen the video of Floyd multiple times, they haven’t captured all the information about it because it’s so overwhelming, Stevenson said. “The more times you see it, the more new information you pick, only adding to the trauma.”

And the weight of this feeling isn’t just personal — for example, parents have an added layer of trauma to navigate. Children are also seeing the video, hearing about Floyd’s death or even witnessing it themselves firsthand. Adults are tasked with explaining the case to children. “Many choose to look away and don’t want to talk about it to kids, or to anyone, but the fact is that it’s repeated through media,” Stevenson said. “You can go a lot of places trying to avoid it and still not be able to.”

No matter the verdict, the trauma could remain

Part of working through trauma is talking about it — and recognizing that it will take time to overcome. There’s also room to bring humanity to the situation, to promote healing, according to Stevenson.

“We need messages to counter the inhumanity of how Floyd died,” he said. This could involve thinking about how courageous Floyd was in his final moments. “Him calling out for his mother, as sad and tragic as it was, can be seen as a spiritual practice,” Stevenson said. People should keep talking about Floyd’s life and his family.

For the public, who watched Floyd’s death on their screens, the trial has been similarly retraumatizing, particularly for the Black Americans who have grown familiar with how casually America handles Black death.
Chris Tuite/ImageSPACE/MediaPunch/Getty Images

The eyewitnesses have already brought humanity to the stand — from the way Frazier testified to seeing her family in Floyd, to how McMillian, while testifying, still wanted to chastise Chauvin for his actions. And after holding onto the pain of these stories for nearly a year, witnesses fought back against defense lawyers who sought to categorize them as unknowledgeable, rowdy, angry, or belligerent. “You can’t paint me out to be angry,” Williams told the defense during cross-examination.

Though the video is a major source of trauma, Stevenson doesn’t believe we should stop sharing it, because the video represents accountability. Floyd’s loved ones originally wanted people to watch the footage to have the world see how Floyd was killed: “For so many Black families who experience this, the hardest part is about getting people to believe it happened and care,” Stevenson said.

Going forward, there’s also room for warning labels, particularly labels that speak to how these videos affect our emotions. “When you pick up a pack of cigarettes, they warn us that we can get lung cancer from smoking them. In this same way, we need to help people make the connection between watching these videos and how trauma shows up in our lives,” Stevenson said.”

Warning labels suggest an acknowledgement that harm was done, that our country cares enough to help people heal. A warning label could also signify the recognition that there’s an urgent search for accountability that the video helps to serve.

Additionally, working through trauma on the societal level means not giving up on the search for truth and seeking justice.

“Retribution cannot address the horror of an inhumane tragedy,” Stevenson told Vox. “But part of the reason we need accountability and justice is for our safety from here on out.” The fear that there will be no justice is one that looks to the future — Black people watching this case are concerned about what happened to Floyd, but are also concerned about whether they’re safe in a world that doesn’t see Black people as worthy of justice.

And though the current trauma subsides over time, there is a broader context to consider. Historical traumas remain, and the Chauvin trial won’t mean police violence will end forever. “Even if this justice happens, we won’t fully get over all of the other injustices,” Stevenson said.

The George Floyd Memorial at the site where he died outside Cup Foods in Minneapolis.
Chris Tuite/ImageSPACE/MediaPunch/Getty Images

Overcoming trauma — and limiting future traumatic experiences — will require telling the truth about these tragedies, recognizing and acknowledging trauma’s role, and understanding that the killing of Floyd is connected to the discrimination that people of color face in hiring, or in accessing health care, for example.

In the meantime, Black and brown communities must draw strength from their cultures and communities, because with historical trauma comes historical survival, or rather, transcendence.

“No other people have faced these kinds of horrors, so if this country wants to heal, it’s got to go through the cultural practices of Black and brown people,” Stevenson said. “In our cultures and practices, we can learn a lot about navigating white supremacy and dealing with trauma. We have to recognize our culture as a healing force.”


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