The Collective Trauma of Watching the End of Black Lives

The latest graphic images and videos of black people killed by law enforcement have experts debating whether we need to watch.
Diamond Reynolds speaks to a crowd outside the governor's mansion in St. Paul, Minnesota, on July 7. Reynolds live-streamed video of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, after he was shot by a police officer on the night of July 6. (Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Jul 7, 2016· 5 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

#PhilandoCastile. #AltonSterling. #WalterScott. #MichaelBrown. #SandraBland. #TamirRice. #EricGarner.

And on and on and on.

Tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram memes, and T-shirts provide us with a stream of the hashtagged names of black men, women, and children shot and killed in the United States. The hashtags are often accompanied by an onslaught of horrifying images, chilling audio, and graphic videos of the violence these black bodies endured before they breathed their last breath.

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Some say the images and videos are essential to ensuring that the truth about what’s happening to black people in the United States gets out. But in the aftermath of the audio and footage of the deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, many experts worry about the effect of the constant barrage of brutality on black adults and children.

“It can be actually very traumatic for people of color, particularly African American children, to see this sort of thing happening,” Monnica T. Williams, a licensed clinical psychologist and the director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville, told TakePart. “It really sends a message that black lives don’t matter and that the people who are supposed to be protecting and serving us can just beat us and kill us with impunity. And the world is not a safe place for us. It can be very, very damaging.”

Williams has conducted research and written extensively about the link between racism and post-traumatic stress disorder in black Americans. She’s found that the chronic fear black people experience over whether they or their children are safe can cause depression and anxiety.

“Over time, if you continue to see these images, what happens is, in order to protect yourself from the distress they cause, you end up making yourself numb to these sorts of images, and you don’t let anything in. Then you constrict and stifle your emotion and then have trouble connecting and relating,” Williams said.

The video of 37-year-old Sterling being tased and then, while flat on his back, shot and killed by a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police officer, autoplayed in countless Twitter and Facebook feeds on Wednesday morning. Then came the looping footage on cable news outlets of his grief-stricken son, 15-year-old Cameron Sterling, sobbing, “I want my daddy,” while his mother, Quinyetta McMillon, gave a statement at a press conference.

“He had to watch this, as this was put all over the outlets and everything that was possible to be shown,” McMillon said. “As a mother, I have now been forced to raise a son who is going to remember what happened to his father.”

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That was before the release Wednesday afternoon of a second, even more graphic video that clearly shows the officer firing into Sterling, the blood pooling on Sterling’s chest as one of his hands slowly moves toward his head and then stops moving at all.

A few hours later, Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds used Facebook’s Livestream feature to broadcast the immediate aftermath of the shooting of her fiancé, 35-year-old Castile, by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, in front of her and her four-year-old daughter. Viewers of the video, which circulated widely on social media on Wednesday night, see Castile, a much-loved cafeteria supervisor at a Montessori school, bleeding out in the front passenger side of the vehicle while the officer continues to point his gun and shout.

The shooting was not caught on video, but viewers hear Reynolds describe her version of events after Castile was stopped for a busted taillight.

“He’s licensed to carry. He was trying to get out his ID and his wallet out his pocket. And he let the officer know that he was—he had a firearm, and he was reaching for his wallet,” says Reynolds in the video. Viewers hear her pray that Castile is still alive and hear the heartbreaking words of Reynolds’ daughter trying to comfort her as she weeps.

“It’s OK, Mommy,” the little girl can be heard saying. “It’s OK. I’m right here with you.”

On Thursday, Reynolds told reporters that she chose to live-stream the incident “so that the world knows that these police are not here to protect and serve us. They are here to assassinate us. They are here to kill us because we are black.”

Phillipe Copeland, a professor at Boston University School of Social Work, told TakePart that he chose not to watch the videos or images of either incident because of the potential for them to cause trauma.

“Think about it. How many of us have ever seen simply a dead body, let alone actually watched another person being killed before our eyes and then possibly seeing that over and over?” Copeland said.

To help people deal with the trauma, on Wednesday Jasmine Banks, an Arkansas-based blogger with a master’s degree in community counseling, wrote a post titled “Self Care for People of Color After Psychological Trauma.” The post, which has been widely shared on social media, contains tips for dealing with race-based trauma, such as connecting with community and exercising.

Banks wrote in an email to TakePart that she created the post as a reaction to how black and brown people are dehumanized after they are killed and “become talking points to debates on the social media stage.”

“Black folks in particular believe (because we are taught and internalize) that the constant distress is just part of our lives,” Banks wrote. “My post and suggestions are a reaction to that lie: The constant distress and trauma are not things we just get used to. They are experiences that we must intentionally heal from.” Healing requires self-care, “something [people of color] aren’t typically taught because of how disposable our existence within America is,” she wrote.

Williams told TakePart that although self-care is important, “what would really be helpful would be to see justice for those who have been victimized. That’s really what’s going to be the most helpful and healing thing for the community and our country overall.”

On Thursday morning, many on social media lashed out at the New York Daily News for putting an image of a bloodied, dying Sterling on the front page of the paper. Activist and journalist Shaun King justified the decision with a series of tweets pointing out that Mamie Till, Emmet Till’s mother, asked for Jet magazine and The Chicago Defender to publish a photograph of the beaten, disfigured body of her murdered son. The decision brought international attention to the plight of black people in the United States.

Although such images of black people who have been killed are horrific, Williams said to TakePart, censorship isn’t the answer.

“These things have been happening for centuries. It’s really important that it’s getting out there—exactly how bad it is and what’s happening so that we can as a society begin to make some changes to our system and hold those accountable who are doing these things,” she said. She offered the caveat that viewers “have to be conscious of how this is affecting us and take proactive steps to take care of ourselves so that we don’t also become traumatized by the imagery.”

Copeland thinks the potential for trauma might outweigh any benefit to people of color watching such videos. “Do black people really need graphic evidence that racial violence is taking place? It seems to me we are not the ones who need convincing. So when we choose to watch these things, why are we doing it, and does it actually serve the struggle?” he asked.

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Given that children may be exposed to the images, Williams said it’s important for teachers and parents to address these incidents with kids: “Even if children are not talking about them, they’re thinking about them. And I think it’s really important for kids and teachers to explain what happened and why.”

For adults, social activism and safe spaces “to have discussions about these things and how they feel impacted by them and how they’re affected by them” is critical, Williams said. “Trauma happens when people feel shocked and helpless, and they feel like they could be victimized at any time, and the world is dangerous and there is nothing you can do about it. So if you can give people a sense of efficacy in the face of these problems, then that will only help.”