Videos of police brutality can bring both justice and trauma

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Videos bring violence home Pixabay

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The summer of 2020 will be remembered globally as a summer of sickness and violence. The novel coronavirus has infected at least 25 million since March, with more than 800,000 dead. But if coronavirus seemed to be the story of the year in the anxious early days of spring, the May 28 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer ensured that white supremacist and state violence – and resistance to it – would also be a defining chapter. 

Some of this summer’s violence has been life-affirming – the emancipatory violence of tactical arson in Minneapolis and Seattle, the liberational violence of looting and resource redistribution – but most of it, like Derek Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck, or Rusten Sheskey firing seven rounds point blank into Jacob Blake’s back, has been the opposite. It has been almost entirely racist, frequently state sanctioned, and all too often, lethal. And more than any other time in history, that violence is being witnessed en masse, thanks to smartphone footage and social media. In many ways this has been positive. Ahmaud Arbery was shot to death by white supremacist vigilantes in February, but it was not until video footage of his death was released in June that arrests were made. If it wasn’t for the video of Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd, Chauvin would not have been arrested and the spark that reignited the Movement for Black Lives would not have been lit. It is possible that if it wasn’t for video footage, Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot two men to death in the protests that followed the near-murder of Blake in August, would not have been arrested at all. 

But that doesn’t mean these videos are an objective good, or that watching and sharing them is benign. Dr. Steven Kniffley Jr., a Black clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky, said that videos of graphic, often lethal, violence can contribute to what he calls “vicarious race-related stress and trauma,” which can have the same profoundly negative effects on a person’s mental health as witnessing or experiencing trauma directly. “What we’re seeing in the media is someone experienc[ing] this trauma that we’re all thinking is due to their racial background [and] there’s also this very real threat about that potentially happening to them,” Kniffley said. “So there’s this dual somatic experience happening.” 

Kniffley said that it’s important for the videos to exist and be publicly available as a testament to the violent conditions racialized people are exposed to, noting that if the Civil Rights-era photos of Black people being attacked by dogs and beaten by police didn’t exist, “well-meaning white individuals would not have believed that Black individuals were experiencing the challenges that they were encountering in the South.” He added that even now, “there are some folks who will not believe there’s such a thing as police brutality or discrimination in the criminal justice system, et cetera, unless they’re able to bear witness to those things.”  

But he stressed that it is incredulous white people who need to bear witness and that Black and Indigenous people should not feel duty-bound to watch the videos. “It does nothing for your mental health to continue to expose yourself to things that traumatize you,” he said. “There’s no reason we should say to someone that they should continue to watch something that has contributed to vicarious stress and vicarious trauma.” He added that “Black individuals and other persons of colour, many of us are very aware, and have been made very aware over several generations, of the challenges that are occurring and do not need any reminder of what that looks like.”

Kniffley said that even for the very few Black and Indigenous people who have not experienced police or white supremacist violence first hand, watching videos of racist brutality can lead to extreme psychological trauma, especially when those videos are coming at an alarming pace, as they have this summer. “Someone may experience more intrusive thoughts, poor concentration, hyperactivity. And then there’s this thing called alexithymia, and what that refers to is one losing the ability to communicate their emotional experience. So literally because of the trauma [of being exposed to graphic videos], they lose their ability to articulate how they’re feeling about things.”

“And because we’re talking about people of colour specifically, we’re coming from a collectivist culture,” Kniffley said. “There’s this African proverb that says ‘I am because we are, and we are because I am,’” Kniffley said. “And that really highlights the ways in which we are impacted negatively by the experiences of others. Because not only do we see that happen to people who look like us, we understand that could happen to us as well. Because of the we, rather than the I.”

Kniffley said that people need to use restraint when sharing the videos on social media. “I’ll say to not expose folks without their consent,” he said. Meaning that people shouldn’t be retweeting them on Twitter, where they may autoplay, and take caution to add content warnings to anything they share on Facebook. Kniffley encourages students who are struggling with the impacts of racism on their mental health to seek support, and while there is little in the way of racial trauma informed counselling available in the province (something mental health professionals have been raising the alarm about for years, and which URSU acknowledged is a problem on campus in their last meeting of the summer) counselling and a crisis line are available, there are elders on campus, and peer support has been shown to be beneficial. 

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