The Weight of Bearing Witness
Archival Recording: To continue to apply that level of force in no way shape or form is anything that is by policy. It is not part of our training. And it is certainly not part of our ethics or our values.
Archival Recording: He said something along the lines of, "If you really are a Minneapolis firefighter, you would know better than to get involved."
Archival Recording: Say, for example, the subject was under control and handcuffed, would this be authorized?
Archival Recording: I would say, no.
Trymaine Lee: We're weeks into the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, who is accused of killing George Floyd. And, so far, we've heard from the chief of police, paramedics, and even the police department's use of force instructors.
But we've also heard from a parade of witnesses who were there when Floyd took his last breath's beneath Chauvin's knee. Some were young, so young that the judge wouldn't allow their faces to be seen on national television. Others, a little older. And one was an elder, wise, but weary.
Archival Recording: Mr. McDunn (PH), do you need a minute? (SOBBING)
Archival Recording: Oh, my God. I can't help but feel helpless.
Lee: This parade of witnesses, nearly all of them Black, brought to bear the wrenching last moments of George Floyd's life, but also all of the hurt and pain they've been left to carry with them into court.
Archival Recording: Anything of what I'm saying I became aware, because, like I said, once the police get the cuffs on you, you can't win. So, I'm tryin' to tell him, "Just cooperate with 'em. Get up. (UNINTEL) and get in the car. Go with 'em. You can win."
Lee: It's not just what they witnessed last Memorial Day that continues to haunt them, and us for that matter. There's something more, the residue of generations of Black pain, and trauma, and death that has been passed down like a bad inheritance. And in revealing and reliving that pain for the world to see, these witnesses are carrying the most unfair burden, but a burden that Black folks have been forced to carry for a very long time.
Dr. Bravada Garrett-akinsanya: Racial trauma is the byproduct of a legacy of what we call racialized labor. It's the laborious action that we have to take everyday in dealing with a white mainstream society that doesn't quite get us. And eventually we experience racialized battle fatigue where we just get plain tired, like Fannie Lou Hamer said, "I'm sick and tired of bein' sick and tired." So, we come with the burden of all of that complexity and that racialized trauma that's directed toward not just what we do, but our very being.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee. And this is, Into America. Today, we explore what the murder trial of Derek Chauvin reveals about America's legacy of racial trauma and the weight of witnessing while Black.
Garrett-akinsanya: The pain that you're seeing is traumatic. It is an indicator of the trauma that the people who are testifying are experiencing at that time. And you could almost hear the guttural sounds of the people who were weeping, or the shut off of emotions flowing as people were talking.
Lee: Clinical psychologist, BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya, refers to herself as a Black liberation psychologist. Dr. B runs the African American Wellness Institute. She's based in Minneapolis, where witnesses have poured from themselves on the stand of the Hennepin County Courthouse.
Garrett-akinsanya: Trauma, what it does to us, it takes us to a very deep place where we've had previous wounds. So, it kind of latches onto previous traumatic experiences. And because of media and the ability to actually see real time victims, like we saw Tamir Rice getting shot, we saw Philando Castile getting shot. So, we actually have born witness as if we were there. And we saw, of course, George Floyd with the knee on his neck. So, what you're seeing is not just current day trauma, but actually the impact of historical trauma simultaneously.
Lee: When you mentioned the historical nature of the kind of trauma and pain that Black folks have experienced, I can't help but think about the lynchings, and the public nature of not just death, but witnessing that kind of violent, violent death.
Lee: And I wonder, as we kind of look at what we're seeing now, not just the spectacle of George Floyd's death, but then the spectacle of this trial that's being broadcast all across the country, and everyone is seeing this. How does the public nature of all this play into it?
Garrett-akinsanya: What it does is reinforces the experience of the day that they saw him die. And, so, publicly, we are vicariously experiencing that same traumatic reaction that individuals who are on the trial testifying, we're seeing it. And because we are Black folks, when we see someone else experiencing trauma, we see them as our brothers and sisters.
Garrett-akinsanya: We are a collective group. So, our original behaviors and our sense of self is based on communal and collective values, where many dominant culture people have, you know, individualistic culture. So, when we see something happen to one of us, we automatically go to this place, "That could be my son. That could be my brother. That could be me. That could be my husband."
Garrett-akinsanya: We go to that space. And, for once, it's like children, and adults, and elders are experiencing that deep centered pain that others are witnessing. And when you see it, if you have humanity, even if you're not a Black person, if you have humanity, you can see what has happened to us as a people.
Lee: You talk about the kind of communal nature of grief, and grieving, and pain, and trauma. And I wanna play this clip of Darnella Frazier, the young lady who stood up so bravely, and filmed every moment of this ordeal. Let's play this clip of Darnella Frazier. And then we'll talk on the back end.
Darnella Frazier: When I look at George Floyd, I look at my dad. I look at my brothers. (CRYING) I look at my cousins, my uncles. Because they are all Black. I have a Black father. I have a Black brother. I have Black friends. I look at that, and I look at how that could've been one of them. It's the nights I stayed up apologizing and apologizin' to George Floyd for not doin' more, and not physically interacting, and not saving his life.
Lee: You know, that's hard for me to listen to. Such a young woman. And, again, during the court proceedings, they actually didn't even show the faces of the youth. Right? They were too young to show their faces. But they were also old enough to witness this kind of public killing, right, this state violence that's been so public. When you hear this young woman wrestling through her emotions, what are you thinking?
Garrett-akinsanya: I'm thinking she's traumatized. And she's taking responsibility for something that isn't hers to take. She's trying to rework in her mind. When we have trauma, we try to rework, "How could I have done it differently? What could I have done? I should've. I coulda."
Garrett-akinsanya: But somehow in her spirit, the courage that it required to hold that videotape was the best that she could do, not just for him, but for the community, and for the world. She bore witness to something that was ugly, that we as Black people have been experiencing for 400 years.
Garrett-akinsanya: She shone a light. She turned up the volume on what we see. And many of us, we know through microaggressions, and threats, and systemic racism, racist policies, that we see a threat to our lives everyday, everyday. What we do as Black folks, we enter a space, and we take a cultural inventory of how many of us are there, "How safe am I in this space?"
Garrett-akinsanya: And when she was talking about the difficulty, the trauma of dreaming it, thinking about it in her sleep, tryin' to make sense of it, all of that let's us know that she's gonna have to have some professional support to heal. 'Cause one of the things we use when we work with youth is something called trauma focused cognitive behavior therapy to help them work through in their heads and in their hearts what they're seeing, and to make meaning of it for them.
Garrett-akinsanya: So, she's gotta come to a place of meaning making, for, "Why was I there at that space? Why was I there at that time?" Because what she witnessed, and the others, what they witnessed, no human being should have to see, and especially no child.
Lee: When you think about the idea of trying to help a child or young person unpack what they witnessed, and whether it's a high profile case like this of police and state violence, there's community violence, there's family violence, young people bear a disproportionate burden of that, because they're just so young. What's at stake here? And what do we risk if we're not arming young people with the tools to handle this trauma or at least aiding them in healing that trauma? What's the long term prognosis?
Garrett-akinsanya: Well, it's poor. Because one of the things that happens in long term is if you don't learn healthy coping skills, you may use the skills that are modeled around you. Some of those skilled include over drinking, alcoholism, drug abuse, sex addictions, gambling addictions, overeating.
Garrett-akinsanya: A variety of behaviors are used to compensate for that emptiness that comes from that psychological and spiritual assault when one witnesses violence, and when that violence looks like it could be you, and you feel helpless doing anything about it.
Garrett-akinsanya: It really, just think about it, brother, it reminds me, as we think back in our history, like you said, public lynchings. But even before we even talk about that, thinkin' about slave plantations where people were beaten in front of others, so that that mental-cide took place.
Garrett-akinsanya: So, mental side is the psychological killing off of another human being, of their humanity. And that process of mental-cide, we've heard of suicide, homicide, but mental-cide is, you are not human. And when we witness that, somehow in it, it tells us that we don't have the right to be.
Garrett-akinsanya: And that's what harms us is that process of hearing it, and internally, at some point, believing it. So, I often tell people that when we're shouting, "Black Lives Matter," it's not just for the white folks that we're telling them, it's an affirmation to ourselves that we matter, that our lives matter.
Garrett-akinsanya: It's a rejoining of the lost part of who we are and where after that process of deracination and stripping us of our racial selves. We have to recover. And when I hear that young lady, I'm proud of her courage, and I'm sad for her loss. So, we have to make sure that she's got an internal compass that is fortified about what is right to do.
Garrett-akinsanya: We even do this piece in treatment called responsibility pie where we help the children learn, "What part is yours? What part is not? What could you do? What could you not do?" And when we think about it as Black folks, even the white lady who was the EMT, she didn't jump up in there.
Garrett-akinsanya: And she's got white privilege. So, you know if another Black person woulda stepped in there, the risk for us would've been even higher. So, instead of havin' one dead brother, it mighta been two or three. I'm just telling you. So, that's the psychological process that goes through children and adults.
Garrett-akinsanya: Because our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that helps us do executive or systemic thinking, it helps us do sequential thinking, "If I do this, then that, then that will happen," that part shuts down when you're afraid. And you're in a fight or flight mode.
Garrett-akinsanya: And you know you can't fight. And sometimes you can't flee, you can't leave that brother on the ground without doing something. That's what she's gonna hold her whole life if she doesn't get help. She's always gonna remember it. But my hope is if she gets treatment, she won't always feel it so deeply.
Lee: You know, one theme that came up for me as I was listening to witness after witness is this idea of a survivor's guilt. Right? We know that the attacks have always been there. And those who survive are left with all the pieces, and, "What do I do with this?" And I wanna take a listen to Christopher Martin, another teenager who actually was a clerk at the store where the whole encounter began. Let's take a listen to Chris Martin here.
Archival Recording: He saw you standing there with your hands on your head for a while, correct?
Christopher Martin: Correct.
Archival Recording: What was going through your mind during that time period?
Martin: Disbelief and guilt.
Archival Recording: Okay. Why guilt?
Martin: If I would've just not tooken (SIC) the bill, this coulda been avoided. The other person that had come in, it kinda seemed like he was tryin' to scheme, like he knew it was a fake bill, and he was tryin' to get over. I thought that George didn't really know that it was a fake bill. So, I thought I'd be doin' him a favor.
Lee: What role does guilt play in processing this? And how heavy a weight is it for survivors or witnesses to carry that kinda guilt?
Garrett-akinsanya: It's a very heavy burden. And the guilt is that they were helpless. And the helplessness leads to anger. And that anger is turned inward. And that anger becomes depression. So, when one feels that degree of helplessness, and you can't do anything, you try many different ways to fix that story, so that the ending is not as it was.
Garrett-akinsanya: So, in his mind, he's going to be trying to figure out, "What could I have done that it didn't end up like it did," that, you know, "It was just $20. I coulda just put it in the cash register," or, "I coulda just not taken it." And he's just gonna work it through.
Garrett-akinsanya: And what that's gonna mean for him going through life is the ramifications of being the one who was the person who asked for the $20, who got, you know, George Floyd killed. And that's so unfair. He wasn't the one with the knee on his neck.
Lee: We'll be right back.
Lee: We're back with Dr. BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya, talkin' about the Derek Chauvin trial, and the trauma of bearing witness. So, what we're seeing is, is these people carrying the burden of what they witnessed that day that George Floyd was killed.
Lee: And in coming to court, are we in any way retraumatizing them? And, certainly, everyone is pushing for justice. And Black folks, I always argue, that we've never experienced true justice in this country ever. I'm not sure we fully understand what justice actually means or looks like. But in pushing in that pursuit of justice, do we risk retraumatizing people? And is there any other way around it?
Garrett-akinsanya: It is somewhat retraumatizing. And in our studies in psychology, we have learned how trauma can be physically passed on from one generation to the next in our very DNA. And, so, we know that they have that trauma that predated the killing of George Floyd.
They have their everyday trauma, which is stacked on top of that. And then, they have to rework that trial. So, you're asking people who are already traumatized if being in the courtroom is gonna be retraumatizing? It's gonna be additive. And that's what makes it even harder for them to deal with it.
Lee: Let's talk about that idea that you mentioned, that we carry it in our physical selves, in our bodies. What happens when we experience trauma? How does it live in us beyond just our emotional/mental state? But how is it carried in our physicality?
Garrett-akinsanya: We had a study done by some psychologist, Dyson Reesler (PH), some years ago, where they had white mice. In the cages with the mice, they were lookin' at stress and what was traumatic for them. So, they would shock the mice every, let's say, 20 seconds.
And each time they would get the shock, they would try to, of course, escape. Then the researchers paired the shock with the sweet smell of cherry blossoms. So, they put this cherry blossom smell, paired it with the shock. And the animals, when they withdrew the shock, they smell the cherry blossom, then the animals, the little mice would react, their whole bodies, their brainwaves, everything would react as if they had been shocked.
Now, they took these mice, these male mice, and they mated them with female mice. And I often say, well, these girls were from very nice homes. They never missed a meal. They were always happy, not traumatized. And they mated with these mice who had been traumatized.
Then they had babies. And mice babies are called pups. So, when they had the mice pups, they wanted to be sure that they weren't seeing models of how to react to cherry blossom or to shock. So, they removed the father from the space. They removed the mother from the space, and had the little mice playing.
And then they piped in the smell of the cherry blossoms. And their bodies viscerally reacted as if they had been shocked. Their brain, their whole body reverberated with the elements of fear. And it went on, it went on for two or three generations without them ever being exposed to shock.
And, so, if you take that analogy, and look at us as Black people, we could probably heal, but the shock continues. It has never ended for us. It has never ended. We even have studies of looking at brainwaves where people experience discrimination, verbally or in their jobs.
And these psychological assaults, these microaggressions, they leave the same brain pattern as if you've been physically assaulted. So, we know that the heritage, the pain, it has affected us psychologically. We are reacting with fear.
But let me say this too, brother. By the same time that we are learning pain and learning to deal with a trauma, we also have inherited resilience. We fooled around and got resilience in the midst of that shock and that sweet cherry blossom.
We fool around and learned how to be creative enough to find a way out, makin' ways outta no ways, survivin' when we shouldn't, overcoming when we shouldn't, knowin' that they could try to break us, but they don't. So, in us, and especially as a Black healer, I ask my clients and my community, let's find the resilience. Let's call on our ancestors. Let's call on our brothers and sisters. We have a right to be well. And we have a right to claim that wellness by any means necessary.
Lee: One way to claim that wellness is a defense mechanism called sublimation.
Garrett-akinsanya: And sublimation is taking your anger, and your rage, and your pain, and repurposing it. That's what leads to our change. When we see other people being harmed and broken, we have to have institutional changes. And as we get into those institutions, we have to bring it little by little.
Another way we do it individually and collectively is with families, and through our churches, and through our sororities, and fraternities, and our African American studies in universities. And as we teach, people heal. As they've found options, they heal.
And, so, as a clinician, and I am a clinical psychologist, and I've worked for 40 years, Lord knows, but I have learned that inside of everyone is the capacity to reframe what they see, and to repurpose their energies in spite of what's going on around them, that they themselves can be a change maker.
What I'm seein' now is that righteous anger from witnessing this abuse, it is spilling out. And, so, what many of us are trying to do is create a healthy space for that anger to be verbalized. Because we have to have a healthy space to heal, and to not think this is one more thing that we as Black folks have to stuff down and carry.
Lee: As a Black man first, and then a journalist second, I've been trying to avoid this. Like, I no longer share photos or images of Black people being killed on social media. I try not to engage with it. I have to for my work to kind of, again, parse through it, and give something back to the world in explaining where we are and who we are. But, I wonder, are you as a clinical psychologist, knowing (LAUGH) all the weight that this carries, are you watchin' this?
Garrett-akinsanya: No. One, I don't have time, because I'm actually in sessions with people who have trauma. But I think that when I do watch it, I tell people to do it in doses. And don't overdose on it. You need to watch enough, or hear enough, or read enough that you know what's happening.
But when you sit there and bear witness hour, from hour, upon hour, you can't function. You'll be so angry that you can't do what you need to do for yourself or for your family. And you won't be at peace. So, we already know it's something to be angry about.
And we can keep that anger. But we need to have a healthy, safe space to contain it. And we don't need external containers. We need to learn to modulate our own affect and our own anger in a way that is healing for us and others. So, no, I tell people, "Don't sit there and watch it hour after hour." Even people who work in the courts, I say, "Don't look at it hour after hour." And the only people who can't escape are the jurors and the people in that room.
Lee: That sounds like a great first step is, like, just moderate your doses. What are some other steps that folks could take to kinda mitigate some of it?
Garrett-akinsanya: Well, if you don't mind, I'd like to take a developmental perspective to that question. So, with people who have young children, you need to be able to talk to them in a language that is understandable. So, be developmentally appropriate with children.
Don't have them afraid because you're afraid. Make sure that you say, "Somebody did something that was bad, and it hurt somebody else, and it killed someone. And we don't want to have that happening in our world. So, it's not fair, but mom and dad, we're gonna do everything in our power to keep you safe." That's for the little ones.
The kids who are a little bit older, they can begin to understand. But even at that, they need to see it only in doses as well, because our brain doesn't even finish maturing till we're 26 years old. And that tells us that they don't have the capacity to make those kinda decisions or to clearly deal with it.
Then, when we get older, at mid adulthood or geriatric age, we have to do exactly what you talked about. We're gonna look back over our lives, and see how much of this has continued, and how grievous and painful it looks. So, in each area, there needs to be space to have conversation that is developmentally appropriate. That's the second thing. The third thing I say is, "Do engage in self care." And self care may mean goin' fishin', it may mean lookin' at Family Feud on TV for four or five hours.
Lee: You had me at fishin'. (LAUGH) Anybody who knows me know I'm tryin' to get out there now. so.
Garrett-akinsanya: Oh, I did not (LAUGH) know that. But I do too. So (LAUGH), that was probably why I said it first. But things that make you enjoy being with your family and friends, those are really critical as well. And, so, I think community, being in community with others, is the best thing. And prayer, and moving your body, and eating well, sleeping as best you can, doing all of those things that put us in a space of balance, it will help you manage the situation.
Lee: You know, this is a perfect segue to my final question, which is probably my favorite question. What brings you hope? And what brings you joy? Obviously, things are thick and heavy, as they always have been. But, you know, we make a way where there is no way, and push forward. So, what gives you hope? And what brings you joy right now in this moment?
Garrett-akinsanya: In this moment, what brings me hope is moments like this (CRYING) when I feel empowered as an African American, when I have a whole community that's sayin', "Amen. Let's do this together." And the tears I have are tears of joy, and hope, and empowerment.
Because when I see us work together, we are fierce, fierce. And that's what I'm seeing. That gives me joy. Moments like this with you, moments in my community, my children's voices when they are heard, when they are laughing, when they make a way, that gives me joy.
Lee: Dr. B, don't have me up here sheddin' a tear now. I made it through this far (LAUGHTER), Dr. B. Thank you so very much. Obviously, the weight often gets really heavy. But we've developed strong backbones. Unfortunately, we've had to. But thank you for helpin' us break this down. I really do appreciate you.
Garrett-akinsanya: Thank you, my brother. I'm honored to be with you.
Lee: The trial of Derek Chauvin could last another couple weeks. If you have questions you want answered or thoughts you wanna share as things unfold, please reach out. You can Tweet me @trymainelee. That's @trymainelee, my full name, or write to us at email@example.com, intoamerica@nbc, and the letters U-N-I.com.
Lee: Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next Thursday.