By Genoa Barrow | Observer Senior Staff Writer

Just as many watched in disbelief and outrage when bystander video captured White Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee to the neck of a handcuffed Black man, George Floyd, until he died, the world is also watching him stand trial for the man’s tragic death. 

Local psychologist Dr. Kristee Haggen, a professor and the creator of the Safe Black Space healing circles, said clinicians, therapists and community healers are being overwhelmed as they try to help people cope during these challenging times. (Photo by Russell Stiger)

As the Chauvin trial continued for a second week, local mental health experts say having to relive the May 25, 2020 incident on television, and continued acts of violence in general, are taking a serious mental toll on the Black community.

“I just can’t take it,” local psychologist Dr. Kristee Haggen, a professor and the creator of the Safe Black Space healing circles, said Monday as she stepped away from the trial broadcast.

“It wasn’t anything in particular that was said. I can’t say ‘Oh, because the chief said this one thing,’ that was just the last straw. It’s kind of just the cumulative impact of our history — of course, what happened to George Floyd and just watching this, witnessing the reality that he was literally murdered right in front of our eyes, and then to watch the defense and now, the stories that are being made up in an effort to clear the officer, and then just witnessing, listening, hearing, the testimony, the tears, the new body cam coverage, and all of that.

“It’s a lot.”

She started the healing circles — “emotional emancipation” sessions — locally in 2018 after Sacramento police officers shot and killed an unarmed Stephon Clark in Meadowview. The two officers, one Black and one White, were not charged in Clark’s death. 

“We started after Stephon Clark was killed; another tragedy, but (it) spoke to the need for this ongoing kind of relentless valuing of Black life,” Dr. Haggen said. “And seeing that, of course, all the different aspects of how we live in the world, from law enforcement and education, health care, it’s just rampant. We’re on the bottom list of so many disparities.”

The sessions, held online currently due to COVID-19, were increased from once to several times monthly this past summer, as African Americans sought an outlet after the deaths of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.

While “retriggered” by the courtroom proceedings, Dr. Haggin admitted she can’t walk away completely, even though as a mental health provider, and an African-centered psychologist in particular, she should “know better.”

“I feel like I kind of need to watch in bits and pieces because it seems important to kind of bear witness to what’s happening, to stay kind of connected to the narrative that’s being told and what’s being said,” she said. “But I can’t do it for too long or on a regular basis, because it is overwhelming.”

Dr. Haggen suggested watching for short intervals before disconnecting, or tuning in for highlights at the end of the day. It’s a practice fellow psychologist Dr. Lenore Tate uses as well. 

“I tape CBS, NBC, ABC. I tape Al Sharpton; ‘Read Out’; MSNBC; Roland Martin, News One — all I’m doing is watching a little,” she said. “I take the tidbits off of everybody, because I just want to know about what’s going on, but I don’t do more than 30 minutes. Part of the (prescription) is ‘less is better for your mental health,’ in terms of the images, and the voices that we’re hearing.”

Dr. Haggen said clinicians, therapists and community healers also are being overwhelmed as they try to help people cope.

“It’s heartbreaking at the same time because there’s so much need,” she said.

“Those folks that are doing the work are really stretched because there’s a lot of requests, there’s a lot of need, and a lot of emotions, that they’re carrying for themselves, and then for the people that they see.”

She and others have to engage in extra self-care, just to maintain.

Racial trauma is in “our DNA,” Dr. Tate said.

“What we as Black people have come to figure out is that in the eyes of White people, and this is just in general, our life is not worth what their life is worth,” she said. “I’m speaking for myself. I’m speaking also as a psychologist who deals with (clients with) PTSD. When we are confronted by law enforcement, I believe that we all, in general, have a fear that equity and equality will not be shared as it is with our White counterparts.”

Witnesses to Floyd’s death have cried while on the stand, recalling how he called out for his mother and begged for his life in his last minutes. His killing was felt not only by bystanders near where he was when he died outside of a corner store, but those who heard of it later, have seen the video, and now, who are watching the trial. The same is true of incidents that occurred locally and elsewhere.

“This is our story. This is our narrative,” Dr. Tate said. “Not only have we been traumatized, but even if we haven’t and we see those that either look like us, or we always see an event in which we have survived, but that other person has been mistreated, it causes what we call secondary trauma.

“It’s secondary trauma because it didn’t happen to you. You weren’t getting beat up or they didn’t have their knee on your neck…but you witnessed it, or you heard about it second hand. It’s secondary, but we still have those feelings of low energy, being tired, nightmares, feeling numb, feeling hopeless, feeling overwhelmed. Some people have difficulty coping. They hit the bar or they hit that weed or do self-harm. They turn those things inward. Some people have flashbacks, some people just get really nauseated. Some people have intrusive thoughts,” she shared.

Racial trauma, Dr. Tate said, has impacted generations. 

“It does something negative in terms of chipping away, I believe, at our soul, our spirit,” she said. “We remain resilient, but it chips away at that, it compromises some of that.”

Dr. Tate pointed to the importance of first identifying one’s feelings, in learning to cope. Dr. Haggen said giving Black people space to unapologetically vent and process is critical as well. The next Safe Black Space session is set for 3-4:30 p.m. Saturday, April 10, and marks a three-year anniversary. Registration is available at www.safeblackspace.org

“While we’re sure to talk about the trial and its impact, we really are wanting to emphasize the celebration, that we’re all still here as a people,” Dr. Haggen said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series by OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer Genoa Barrow addressing the impact the Derek Chauvin trial has on the emotional well-being of the African American community. See next week’s issue for the second part of the series.