Many people breathed a sigh of relief this week when a jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty on two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter in the death of George Floyd. For some New Yorkers, who had seen the nine-minute and 29-second video of the white police officer with his knee on the neck and back of a Black unarmed citizen, sparking mass protests that lasted throughout the spring and summer, it was a time to celebrate.
Murder convictions are exceedingly rare when the defendant on trial is a police officer. Here in New York City, the most recent prominent case of an officer conviction was of Chinese American Peter Liang for the killing of Akai Gurley. When white cops kill Black people, they are rarely disciplined, let alone put on trial. This failure of the criminal justice system to value victims of police-inflicted violence not only traumatizes Black victims and the community from which they come, but the repeated hurt now permeates through our society.
Research shows any verdict can be much needed in a time when people have experienced, either directly or indirectly via media exposure, a series of collective traumas. Over the past year, one has crashed down upon the other—without much in the way of closure or resolution. For many people, negative side effects come with continuing to bear witness to these events. Health experts say it is vital to find a balance between staying informed and caring for your mental well-being.
Roxane Cohen Silver, who researches psychological reactions to collective traumatic events, raises two examples: The trial of police officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King in 1991 versus the hearing for the Boston Marathon bomber in 2013.
In the first instance, a California jury acquitted four LAPD officers of assault (and three of excessive force) in the arrest and beating of Rodney King, precipitating five days of riots in Los Angeles. Twenty-three years later, the surviving Boston Marathon bomber received the death penalty, but when the judge ultimately overturned the sentence, the outcome led more Americans to support capital punishment.
“I don't think it took the pain away, so to speak,” said Cohen Silver, “but it certainly was a very different psychological outcome than after the Rodney King beating.”
But any peace offered by the resolution in the murder of George Floyd may be short-lived. Within minutes of the verdict, the name of another Black person became a viral hashtag on social media--Ma’Khia Bryant. The 16-year-old girl was fatally shot Tuesday by a police officer in Columbus, Ohio, responding to a fight involving Bryant. Police released only a portion of the body-cam footage of the incident, showing Bryant wielding a knife at another girl before the officer’s shots rang out. This video arrived just over a week after another showed police officer Kimberly Potter lethally shooting 20-year-old Duante Wright during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. The city’s police chief said Potter accidentally drew her gun rather than her Taser when his department released the body-cam footage on April 12th.
Cascading Collective Traumas
Since last March, Americans have weathered the pandemic, economic insecurity, natural disasters, police violence, election uncertainty and an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. It’s a phenomenon that Cohen Silver recently coined “cascading collective traumas” in a commentary she co-authored in the journal Nature Human Behavior. The term refers to the ways in which these events interconnect as well as the compounding trauma they can create.
Black people, in particular, are perpetually dealing with trauma related to generations of racism and violence. Cohen Silver hypothesizes the current moment in America feels unprecedented when it comes to exposure to traumatic events, both because of the pace at which they are happening and how people consume them through the 24-hour news cycle and social media. The negative health impacts of being bombarded with bad news have been well-documented, with evidence that it can lead to fatigue, anxiety, loss of sleep and even PTSD symptoms. Research shows that consuming negative news can bring on mood changes that exacerbate people’s worries, even if they’re unrelated to the topic at hand.
“The first cascade was from pandemic to economic devastation in many communities and in many families,” Silver said. “Because of the stay at home orders and restrictions on people's activities in the spring, more people were at home with time on their hands in which they could see the video of the George Floyd murder and could see and engage in the outrage in the context of a very difficult several months prior to that.”
Dave Cazeau, a licensed clinical social worker who treats clients from around New York City, says many of those he works with are impacted by the racialized violence they see in the news.
“For some, there's a numbing that happens when they see another report,” Cazeau said. “And for some, it can be very draining to see something has happened.”
He noted that his clients don’t have to look like the victims to feel secondhand effects. He offered as an example some Black clients’ responses to recent attacks on Asian Americans. “Just seeing that that's happening in New York is impacting other individuals of color and just bringing up a lot of feelings about their own sense of safety,” Cazeau said.
Cazeau said some people expressed anxiety in anticipation of the Chauvin verdict being announced, regardless of the outcome, because they worried about the fallout.
Some therapists prescribe putting a limit on news consumption to avoid the adverse mental health effects that can come with it. But when it comes to police violence against Black people, video documentation has become vital for raising awareness and seeking accountability.
“There's a delicate balance that needs to be reached here,” said Allissa Richardson, an assistant professor of journalism and communication at USC Annenberg, who has written about how Black people use their cell phones to bear witness to significant events. “Just because we have the footage, does it mean we need to air it on television?”
Although police brutality against Black people is not new, videos documenting it come out at a much faster pace now than they did in the past, Richardson added. She said she experienced a “narrative gap” between witnessing video footage of police beating Rodney King in the early 90s and video of a police officer shooting Oscar Grant in Oakland in 2009.
“My students, however, don't have that same luxury,” she said. “They have grown up with video after video after video.”
Richardson acknowledged the importance of documenting police brutality. Many have credited Darnella Frazier, the teenager who videotaped George Floyd’s arrest and death, upending the Minneapolis Police Department’s account of the incident and playing a pivotal role in Chauvin’s conviction. But video evidence of police brutality has not always been enough to get an officer convicted in the past.
Richardson says that such citizen journalism might be less necessary if professional journalists were quicker to question police narratives and hold police accountable. As long as videos documenting these incidents are necessary, she said, they should be shared sparingly and with approval from the victims’ families.