Part of the Recovery Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
This story contains detailed depictions of violence against protesters that may be disturbing to some readers.
When 21-year-old Louisville, Kentucky, activist Cheyenne Osuala was violently arrested at a protest in July 2020, she tried to get the whole thing on video. An officer grabbed her, slammed her up against a wall, and started pulling the handcuff so far behind her back that her wrist fractured. As he tugged her arm further and further, she remembers screaming, standing on her toes to try to relieve the pain.
She dropped her phone during the attack, but shaky footage from a bystander shows the officer pushing her face-first against the wall while other protesters scream for her release.
Osuala said she was gathered with a small group of protesters outside of a parking garage when she noticed plainclothed men on the roof shooting pepper balls down at the people gathered below. Concerned that the men could be counterprotesters looking to harm their group, Osuala and other protesters asked Louisville police officers to confirm if the men on the roof were police. Osuala says the officers told them they weren’t aware of anyone currently stationed at the top of the parking garage, so they headed up to find out who the men were — and why they were firing at a peaceful crowd.
That’s when, she said, officers followed them into the parking garage, blocked them from leaving, and arrested her, breaking her wrist in the process. She was later charged with criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct, although both charges were later dismissed by a judge.
Osuala filed a complaint with the Louisville Metro Police Department but received no response. She later filed a lawsuit, alleging that she was wrongfully arrested and assaulted by the department’s officers, and this spring, the Justice Department separately opened an investigation into the Louisville department’s practices, including use of force against protesters. (Louisville police did not respond to requests for comment.)
Osuala said she can recall the experience in excruciating detail, but said that she still won’t go back and watch the video. “It was too traumatizing,” she said.
The broken wrist and resulting nerve damage eventually healed, but in the months that followed, she was left feeling powerless. “I still remember feeling his weight on top of me. He was so much bigger,” she said. “It felt like a power trip. He wanted to hurt me, and I couldn’t do anything.”
In uprisings last summer that drew tens of millions across the country — an unprecedented number — protesters called for an end to police brutality. Amid the mostly peaceful protests, some demonstrations, many spurred by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in May 2020, were marked by incidents of police violence. In the first two weeks of demonstrations, more than 10,000 people were arrested. The total today sits at more than 17,000, according to the Washington Post. Most arrests were for low-level offenses, such as curfew violations or failure to follow dispersal orders.
At the height of the protests that June, police were repeatedly recorded using force, many of them punching, kicking, or shoving protesters. One criminal defense lawyer collected nearly 300 videos documenting police violence across the country. Among these videos were incidents where officers beat unarmed protesters in Las Vegas, fired tear gas canisters into a crowd in Dallas, and pepper-sprayed peaceful protesters in Columbus, Ohio.
One video showed officers in riot gear in Buffalo, New York, shoving a 75-year-old man to the ground, leaving him unconscious and bleeding on the sidewalk. In New York City, an officer was caught on camera violently shoving a woman to the ground. Another video shows a group of officers beating protesters with batons in Philadelphia.
Some departments also reportedly used rubber bullets and tear gas as a form of crowd control. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, reporters filmed an officer shooting a protester in the head with a foam bullet, fracturing her eye socket. In one of the most controversial and widely shared incidents, police used tear gas to disperse peaceful protesters outside the White House in Washington, DC, to allow for President Donald Trump’s photo session outside of a church.
After protesters were arrested en masse, for some, the physical trauma was immediate. Explosive imagery from some protests shows people bleeding from projectiles, choking on tear gas, or left with swollen wrists after being detained for hours. In the face of an increasingly militarized police force — armored vehicles, military-grade riot gear, flash grenades, sound cannons, and tear gas canisters — protesters were left reeling from violence that felt like it belonged on a battlefield.
In the aftermath of the uprisings, another kind of pain lingers. While their physical wounds may have long since healed, some protesters, like Osuala, said they have been left with deep psychological scars that remain open and raw.
“I feel like we’ve all been through the war,” Osuala said. “All the people who have really been out there from the beginning and have stayed out there consistently — we all have PTSD.”
Vox spoke with several protesters about the lingering effects of last summer’s protests. Now that much of the attention on the George Floyd protests has faded, Osuala and protesters like her say they’re left wondering how to put the pieces back together when it feels like the rest of the world has moved on.
Since the protests began last summer, some therapists, including a few Vox spoke with, have reported an influx of patients experiencing hypervigilance, anxiety, panic, and nightmares from their involvement in the demonstrations.
Licensed psychotherapist Cheryl Ades has seen a spike in the number of people coming to her practice with protest-related trauma. “The level of PTSD is going to be extreme,” said Ades, who works with protesters as a part of the network Therapists for Protester Wellness in Louisville. “It might not hit for a while — a few months, a year, five years — but it’s going to come down on people sooner or later.”
Months after the demonstrations, dozens of evaluations of police departments across the country exposed the full scope of the violent response. These reviews found that officers behaved aggressively and used crowd-control munitions indiscriminately against largely peaceful demonstrators. Their tactics, the reports found, often escalated violence instead of defusing it.
These findings were the culmination of a broader shift in American policing, said Jennifer Earl, a sociology professor at the University of Arizona and an expert on policing tactics.
From the civil rights movement in the 1960s to last summer’s protests, police departments using military-grade riot gear have increasingly become the norm in American cities. In part due to the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which allows law enforcement agencies to receive military hardware, American police departments have access to a wide arsenal of such equipment. From 1998 to 2014, the value of military equipment sent to police departments shot up from $9.4 million to $796.8 million.
“The access to militarized equipment means they’re approaching the protests in a different way — with a sort of warrior mentality,” said Earl.
As the police response becomes more militarized, so do the tactics of protesters on the ground. “It contributes to the feeling of protests as a war zone,” says Dana R. Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland who studies social movements in the US. “If you tear-gas people in the streets, they’re not going to go home and say they’re not going to go out again. What happens is that everybody goes home and comes out with gas masks and with helmets, leaf blowers, and umbrellas.”
Experts say that decades of research have led to a similar conclusion: Escalating force leads to more violence, not less. Police wearing riot gear and deploying military-style weapons is more likely to lead to the same kind of violence they were supposed to prevent.
Increased violence also leads to increased emotional trauma. A report by the nonprofit Don’t Shoot Portland in 2020 noted that experiencing or witnessing violence in a protest setting was linked in recent research to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety.
For some Black protesters, the trauma of violence experienced on the ground is only intensified by the ancestral trauma of centuries of oppression, experts say. “It’s personal,” says Jennifer Mullan, a psychologist whose Decolonizing Therapy business provides resources for therapists to address inequities in the mental health industry. “It’s tied to your liberation and the liberation of your people. This is something that many people of color have been experiencing our entire lives. These communities are already in a heightened state of trauma. It just amplifies the trauma of protest.”
Cory, a community activist from Los Angeles who is being identified only by his first name due to safety concerns, says protesting is just another part of survival. “[Being a Black person is] like trauma upon trauma. I’m literally fighting against these people who could kill me during a traffic stop. There’s so much more invested for me.”
More than a year after her arrest in June 2020, 20-year-old Judith Velasquez finds herself trapped in a recurring flashback. When she closes her eyes, she’s back on the police bus in Los Angeles, packed alongside dozens of other protesters, her hands cuffed. It’s completely dark; the only light comes from faded street lamps seen through the reinforced glass windows. She can barely make out the silhouettes of those around her.
“I was terrified,” Velasquez said about the several hours she spent on the bus after being arrested for breaking curfew. “We were completely vulnerable in the dark, just waiting for them to do something.”
All the while, she said, people were screaming and pleading to be released. Some were shaking uncontrollably. According to Velasquez, one protester urinated on her seat after hours without access to a bathroom.
Every time Velasquez sees a police car — a regular presence in her working-class Latino community in Los Angeles — she freezes. “I see the red, white, and blue lights, and it takes me back,” she says. “I start shaking so hard. Because I remember how there was nobody to protect us. They could do anything to me.”
Like Velasquez, Cory says he has signs of PTSD. Difficulty sleeping, distressed by loud noises, nightmares, flashbacks.
Months after the George Floyd protests in Los Angeles, Cory found himself on the streets again to protest Dijon Kizzee’s fatal shooting by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
On the first night of protests in September 2020, he was heading toward the front lines when there was a sudden shift in the air — he turned around to look at the line of officers, looked back at the crowd, and then, he says, there were rubber bullets flying all around him. He started running, diving behind a box truck for cover while the officers continued to fire at him. There was so much tear gas on the streets around him that he couldn’t breathe. (Vox has corroborated Cory’s account with other protesters and news sources.)
Over the four days of demonstrations in Los Angeles, Cory says that the protesters experienced continual violence. As they took cover from pepper balls and chemical irritants fired by the sheriff’s department, he watched someone get hit in the head with a concussion grenade. A friend of his was struck by several pepper balls, fracturing her hand and leaving her bleeding on the sidewalk.
The impact on his mind and his body was immediate. “I couldn’t really sleep, I couldn’t really go out. My nervous system was so fucked that I couldn’t think straight.”
These symptoms are now a constant presence in his life. When he goes back to the locations where he’s experienced violence, his anxiety spikes. Loud noises send his heart racing. He has trouble concentrating and often finds himself dissociating.
“It was like being in a war zone,” he said. “Watching that happen, watching people get brutalized — it will never leave me.”
The nature of this ongoing violence — night after night, week after week — can make the path to healing complicated.
Ihotu Ali, a Minneapolis-based healer and organizer, says it may be impossible to completely recover from these experiences. “If you continuously break your leg ... it’s never going to heal.”
When protesters turn to therapy for support, they can come away feeling even more traumatized. As both a community organizer and a mental health therapist in Los Angeles, psychotherapist Devon Young has seen it happen time and time again. “They’re experiencing trauma on the ground and then go to look for support from these experts,” she said. “But they might not find validation or recognition in that industry, which tends to overlook marginalized experiences. Not to mention barriers like money and health insurance.”
Thinking back on everything she’s been through, Velasquez knows there’s no turning back now. Her outrage has only grown over the past few months, amplified by the fact that it feels like the rest of the world has moved on.
“It’s been years of pain, years of people suffering at the hands of the system and on the streets,” she said. “If you can go back to normal after this, then you exhibit a privilege that I can only dream of.”
In the face of militarized policing and the continued deaths of Black people at the hands of police, Mullan acknowledges that many activists feel a need to stay on the front lines. But she stresses that community healing is just as important — and can even act as another form of resistance.
“We know the reason why they inflict this violence. They want to take us off the streets, to split us apart,” she said. “That’s why it’s deeply necessary for us to lean on each other for healing. Even as things are burning down around us, our communities become a form of home. We educate each other, take care of each other, support each other. It’s the opposite of what the system wants us to do. They don’t want us to come together.”
Instead of relying on systems that have consistently failed the most vulnerable in the protest community, Mullan encourages a shift toward community-based care. “Trust in the community, in the possibility for transformational restorative justice work, can be extremely healing for people who are on the front lines. Community can become a point of healing.”
Young echoes the need for a transformative shift in therapy for front-liners. “We need to build a better mental health infrastructure,” she said. “And it won’t come from the state. It needs to happen from within activist circles. We know the fight will continue and these traumas are going to occur. The best we can do is create support systems that are built by the people.”
For Velasquez and other dedicated protesters, stopping the fight for justice isn’t an option. The more the police try to drive them off the streets, they said, the more determined they are to stay.
“There’s something that stays with you after you’ve gone through something like this,” Velasquez said. “Even with everything that happened, I kept going.”
While her experiences left a deep emotional impact, she also remembers how the protesters kept their spirits up on the prison bus: singing songs, chanting protest slogans, pulling up each other’s masks, and finding ways to break free from the plastic cuffs. “We were all supporting each other,” she said. “And we weren’t quiet for one second.”
Even with the progress the movement has made over the past year, Velasquez can’t help but feel disillusioned with the system. Looking back on everything protesters have been through — and continue to go through — she says no amount of accountability or reform can make up for the impact of her experiences. But through community healing, she’s found a way forward.
“They’re not going to protect us,” she said. “But we can protect us.”
Julia Dupuis is a Los Angeles-based writer covering protest movements and police violence.