It’s been a year since video of African American George Floyd’s death exploded across the globe, triggering months of anger, racial justice protests and demands for an end to police brutality in the United States and beyond. Images of white former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin fatally pinning a handcuffed Floyd on the street with a knee to his neck for more than 9 minutes remain etched in the psyches of millions of people, especially those in the Black community.
“For me it’s been painful and traumatic,” Shelia Holden of Maryland told VOA. She recalled her disbelief watching Floyd’s final moments on social media in May 2020 and hearing him repeatedly tell Chauvin, “I can’t breathe.”
“Seeing one person take the life of another is something I had never seen,” the African American mother of two said.
During the three-week nationally televised trial, the video became a key piece of evidence in the criminal prosecution of the former police officer, who was found guilty last month of second-degree murder and manslaughter. The images were captured by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, who recorded the encounter with her cell phone camera, upending a nation already reeling during a pandemic.
During the trial, Frazier testified how she is still haunted by what happened. “When I look at George Floyd, I look at my dad, I look at my brothers because they are all Black,” Frazier recounted. “I look at how it could have been one of them.”
“It’s been heartbreaking seeing the video so many times over the last year,” said Bruce Brandon, a retired bus driver from the nation’s capital. Brandon said his family couldn’t stay home after seeing the Floyd video and joined the Black Lives Matter protests last year. “Our family suffered a lot of anxiety but taking part in the racial justice demonstrations gave us an outlet to express our outrage over the amount of police brutality against African Americans.”
U.S. President Joe Biden called the verdict “a step forward” while recognizing the injustice the Black community has suffered.
“It was a murder in full light of day, and it ripped the blinders off for the whole world to see the systemic racism that’s a stain on our nation's soul,” Biden said. “It was the knee on the neck of justice for black Americans. The pain, the exhaustion that Black and brown Americans experience every single day.”
Searching for answers
The George Floyd video reopened excruciating wounds for Black families who’ve also lost loved ones after deadly encounters with police.
“Every time another killing happens, it's trauma,” said Allissa Findley, whose 26-year-old brother, Botham Jean, was fatally shot in his apartment in 2018 after a white off-duty Dallas police officer said she mistakenly entered his apartment, thinking it was hers, and believed Jean to be a burglar. A jury convicted Amber Guyger of murder and a judge sentenced her to 10 years in prison. Police body camera video captured the scene after the deadly encounter.
“After seeing what happened to Botham and to George Floyd, it's just traumatizing all over again,” Findley told Reuters.
Some believe the anguish inflicted by police brutality videos is compounded when Blacks are repeatedly asked to share their feelings about the incidents – including by the news media.
“That can add to the trauma because you're reliving seeing those images,” said Mary Frances Winters, president of the Winters Group, a diversity and inclusion consulting firm. “We recommend people of color affected by this more severely set boundaries.”
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In a book titled “Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit,” Winters sees racism as triggering a public health crisis.
“Black people are experiencing microaggression and being tokenized, and then you compound it with all the things that are happening externally. It leads to psychological and physiological ailments,” she told VOA.
Trauma and the generational impact
Researchers at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences found violent acts that are widely publicized and perceived as anti-Black may harm the mental health of observers, particularly Black Americans. The study found Blacks reported poorer mental health conditions than whites in the weeks when two incidents of anti-Black violence occurred or when national interest of those events were higher.
Leaders in the African American community acknowledge that deep anger persists a year after the killing of George Floyd.
“I think all of Black America is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Pastor Jamal Bryant of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church outside Atlanta in a recent interview with CNN. “To have to relive what happened in that video has been like a high-tech lynching.”
According to clinical psychologist Joy DeGruy, the impact of centuries of unaddressed trauma is compounded by today’s social injustices. She says “toxic stress trauma” experienced by parents can affect the psyches, behavior and possibly even the DNA of their offspring for generations to come.
“Fear mutates into all kinds of things,” DeGruy said at a recent forum on her research.
Some experts are urging a focus on improving the mental health of Black Americans nationally, saying the effort should begin by recognizing that people don’t simply bounce back from deep-seated collective trauma.
“We have to challenge that idea that we just have to be resilient,” said Winters. “We have to begin to change the system, but we also need to prioritize our well-being in the midst of all of this.”