Witnessing Witnesses Of Black Trauma Is Not Enough

#BlackLivesMatter is not just a trend, and interest in the trial of Derek Chauvin shouldn't be either.
Black Lives Matter, Anti-racism rally at Vancouver Art Gallery
Credit: GoToVan CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

*yt guilt disclaimer and CW: racism, trauma, and police violence specific to the death of George Floyd. This is an incredibly complicated subject--the below is entirely my narrow experience, opinions, and thoughts, and I implore anyone reading this piece to always read and uplift BIPOC voices rather than those of white voyeurs like me. Nothing I write should be taken as a comprehensive understanding of race, policing, or trauma, and we all have more learning to do.

Like many Americans, I have been glued to the news and my Twitter feed for the past week watching heartbreaking, eye-opening testimonies from witnesses of George Floyd’s death at the hands of then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. You know the story, you surely know or have seen the video, and you are likely among the trial’s viewers in some capacity. It is no doubt important to bear witness to these events--unfortunately, killer cop trials are my generation’s 9/11; every few years we have this decades’ newest Rodney King case. But hearing the personal expressions of guilt, anger, and overwhelming helplessness of witnesses who could do nothing in the presence of a state-sanctioned killing is keeping a lot of us up at night, jurors included. I've been wondering about myself, to myself:

What are we doing, and how are we helping, by simply witnessing these witnesses? How many eyes must be opened, hearts must be wrenched, before the circulation of Black death simply becomes trauma porn, a twisted fascination with racism’s death toll, rather than a call to dismantle systems of oppression?

León, Felice. “The Good, the Bad and the Traumatic: Reevaluating the Role of Sharing Black Death on Social Media.” The Root,10 June 2020.

I have repeatedly told myself that I am interested in these horrific legal proceedings because of my personal and academic experience with racist institutions. As a nervous, white-ish guy with a mixed-race father, and with mixed emotions of guilt and justified anger, do I hope that continuing to bear witness to this trauma will further cement my beliefs that Black Lives Matter? As someone who wrote an undergraduate thesis on media representations of policing in the U.S., does my fixation on the trauma of others help me uplift Black voices and organizers pushing for prison abolition, and a radical new approach to "justice" in the United States and beyond? 

The short answer: No.

I am not helping. I am not more "justice-oriented" because I raise the view count on CNN, NBC, or YouTube live streams of physical and psychological violence. I am instead paralyzed by, and desensitized to, my anxiety, guilt, and voyeuristic desire to continue witnessing trauma because that’s what white people tend to accept as the "best" we can do. Because for most of my life that is what I, and I suspect others my age, have done.

Witnessing

In 2017 I witnessed resurgent, ever-present, white supremacist violence in Charlottesville; in 2014 I witnessed the trial and non-indictment of Michael Brown Jr.’s killer, as well as the police violence used to suppress subsequent protests in Ferguson, MO. I witnessed this past summer of peaceful resistance to police brutality, participating both physically and financially when possible. But my participatory value in social justice movements is practically nonexistent compared to my long history of emotional involvement--bearing witness but doing nothing; something must change. If I have learned anything new from this week’s ongoing trial--because we have seen so much of this rhetoric before--it is just how helpless and useless it is to witness Black trauma from afar and continue to do nothing. 

Witnesses

If trained white witnesses like Firefighter and EMT Genevieve Hansen could feel helpless to prevent Mr. Floyd’s death, be discounted by police at the scene who could prevent it, and discredited by Chauvin’s defense in court, certainly we are not helping by solely watching this trial unfold. And if a white bystander made me tear up, it was nothing compared to the moving testimony of Charles McMillian, one of the most senior witnesses to speak in the trial so far--the youngest being nine years of age. Nine! 9! Nine years old

Charles McMillian, a 61-year-old black man, felt that his only way to calm the situation on Memorial Day 2020 was to encourage Floyd to accept his fate, to remind the younger Black man that he "can’t win" as multiple officers restrained him. His testimony was incredibly powerful, and every news clip summarized the day’s events by referencing Mr. McMillian’s emotional reaction as he "breaks down in tears" when shown new body-camera footage of himself witnessing a death at the hands of police. In the context of law, it is undoubtedly important to see how video corroborates testimony and how witnesses react; in the context of humanity, as a helpless viewer who wasn’t present at the scene, this moment had me questioning the need to re-traumatize these witnesses--particularly Black witnesses who are seemingly on trial rather than ex-officer Chauvin. 

No matter how the trial of an officer plays out, our legal system requires proof of trauma experienced by witnesses, family members, and victims, as well as proof that said trauma is harmful and persistent. Mr. McMillians’ lived experience, and likely lasting racial trauma, led him to plead with Mr. Floyd to entirely submit to bodily harm inflicted by police because that is how our policing system works in theory; in practice, even compliance with police orders can still lead to violence or "justifiable homicide". Indeed cops, especially white cops, tend to win: in fights, in law, on TV, and even on social media.

Historically, police tend to win in the court of public opinion, though social media has facilitated the recirculation of violent imagery, shifting the public’s perspective by enabling outsiders to digitally bear witness to police brutality. Cops, even those who have since been fired, also tend to have the support of immensely powerful police unions and defense funds, and ex-officer Derek Chauvin is no different. His million-dollar, dozen-lawyer legal defense spearheaded by Eric Nelson is funded by the Minneapolis Police and Peace Officers Association (MMPPOA) who tout "24 hour access to the top criminal defense attorneys in the state of Minnesota". The average American, let alone the average person of color, does not have this same access to legal representation.

Whiteness and Privilege

It is important to remember that, as helpless as we white witnesses to these witnesses might feel, it is nothing compared to the material impacts of violent policing that disproportionately harm people of color daily in this country. Police misconduct is inherently violent, backed by Legal Defense Funds like that of the MMPPOA defending Chauvin, despite the fact that our legal system works in conjunction with the police to re-traumatize witnesses rather than err on the side of the people. The system is not broken, we’re just seeing more of its flaws when high-profile cases garner interest, when trials are televised, and when Black death is treated as a social media trend.


Even in writing this reflection, I am participating in that minimization and recirculation of trauma, and it is important to acknowledge the harm I may be causing. Black Lives Matter is not a trend but can seem like one, especially if, as white people, we treat it as such. If you feel helpless just by bearing witness, you might only be paying selective attention, when all you can do is watch--when trauma is trending. Prison Abolition and Black Liberation are not new concepts, not trends to simply witness, and not going away any time soon, no matter the outcome of this trial. 

So let’s stop sitting, staring, and recirculating Black trauma; instead look at your communities, helping where there is a need--because chances are, you are less helpless than you feel, and privileged to be living, breathing, or feeling anything at all.

A lifelong learner with a B.A. in Anthropology and passion for justice. I look forward to sharing my thoughts & reading yours! (he/him)

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