By Genoa Barrow | Observer Senior Staff Writer
It has become common practice for an African American who sees a fellow Black person interacting with law enforcement to stop and watch, often with a cell phone at the ready.
You want to make sure they’re good.
George Floyd wasn’t good on May 25, 2020. Something told 17-year-old Darnella Frazier to remain outside her neighborhood corner store and keep an eye on the interaction between Floyd and several Minneapolis police officers. Among them was Derek Chauvin, who applied a knee to Floyd’s neck despite his pleas. The video the teen captured on her phone and subsequently shared on Facebook was seen worldwide and sparked weeks of protests and calls for an end to such abuses, as well as for sweeping law enforcement reform.
Ms. Frazier, now 18, has received death threats and experienced what some mental health experts have called a form of PTSD and survivor’s guilt.
“There have been nights I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life,” she said while testifying for the prosecution in Chauvin’s murder trial.
While Ms. Frazier witnessed Floyd’s death up close, experts say young people can be traumatized by secondary exposure to such violence as well.
Fifteen-year-old Adiyah Obolu says she’s not watching the Chauvin court proceedings in their entirety.
“A lot of the times when we watch these type of trials, they’re always trying to criminalize the person who died and it’s just very draining, especially knowing that (any punishment) is just going to be the bare minimum,” said Ms. Obolu, a 10th grader at Sacramento’s Inderkum High School. “I watch updates to know what’s going on — but to watch the whole thing — I just think it’s a little too much.”
Like Ms. Frazier on the witness stand, Ms. Obulu says Floyd reminded her of her own male relatives.
“It was scary because I have family who look just like George Floyd,” Ms. Obolu said.
“I have cousins, brothers … that could be them.”
Ms. Obolu said she never watched the whole viral video either.
“It was just so sad, watching it, his life being taken away, him calling out for his mom,” she said. “One thing I’m also very cautious about, just watching all of this stuff, is getting numb to it. It’s something that you have to see to know what’s going on, you have to be aware of things that are going on, but also you don’t want to become numb to the injustice, seeing it time and time again. Breonna Taylor, you know, right after, and then there’s a bunch of other stories that don’t even get on the news that are super big, so it’s a balance.”
Sadly, for many, these incidents aren’t just “something children are seeing on TV” and are far removed from. They’ve experienced them first hand. Philando Castille was killed by a Minnesota police officer in 2016 while his girlfriend’s 4-year-old daughter was in the car with them. Five-year-old Kodi Gaines was shot by police near Baltimore in 2016 when they stopped his mother Korryn Gaines, 23, for an alleged traffic violation; he survived his wounds, but his mother did not. Last month, 1-year-old Legend Smalls survived being shot in the head by a Houston officer who was chasing a robbery suspect through the gas station where the baby’s mother, a bystander, was at the pumps.
Additionally, older Black youth are often unfairly harassed by school resource officers. They’re followed at the mall or other shopping areas and they’re frequently racially profiled while driving by the police. Many may have already been frisked, placed in handcuffs for no apparent reason, or even roughed up by law enforcement.
Dr. Lenore Tate, a local Black psychologist says some parents are experiencing anxiety and are afraid to let their children out of the house and out of their sight. Parents fear incidents like the one that ended in the death of Daunte Wright near Minneapolis just this week. The young man was pulled over, reportedly for having an air freshener hanging from his rear window, which apparently is illegal in Minnesota. A White, female police officer shot Wright, 20, saying afterward that she meant to pull her taser, but accidentally pulled her gun instead. The excuse sounds eerily familiar as it was the same justification transit officer Johannes Mehserle gave in fatally shooting Oakland’s Oscar Grant in 2009.
“Before we even get to George Floyd we have what’s been happening over the last five years, with our young Black kids,” Dr. Tate said.
“What we know is that we have to be hyper-vigilant in our behavior, both the tone of our voice and how we carry ourselves in order to stay alive,” she added.
Repeat exposure to such violence has taken a mental toll on area young people. Watching the trial, or hearing about it on the news, can be emotionally triggering.
“It’s really important that parents, caregivers and loved ones talk to their kids about what’s going on, how they’re feeling and what it’s bringing up for them,” said local psychologist Dr. Kristee Haggen, creator of the Safe Black Space healing circles.
“If we’re not doing it with them, then they’re not going to get the support they need,” Dr. Haggen said.
“Our young people feel anger, resentment, helplessness, hopelessness, and fear,” Dr. Tate shared. “Not only do they feel that, but they also experience nightmares, difficulty going to sleep or staying asleep. If they’re in school, their grades are going down. They’re not motivated, because on top of all this George Floyd mess, is COVID.”
Last summer, at the height of the pandemic, young people’s frustration over seeing those who look like them being mistreated and killed spilled over into the streets with demonstrations. Local and national protests happened again this week following Wright’s death.
“We have learned through history, through our own stories, that our life is not given the same respect (as Whites),” Dr. Tate said.
“If it was a Black police officer and it was the White boy on the floor (in the case of George Floyd), he may have already been sentenced to life in prison. We know this and I think our children know this,” she added.
Young people internalize that reality, Dr. Tate says.
“They turn inward on that, with that feeling of fear, anxiety, hopelessness, and helplessness. And then you couple that with the disenfranchisement of economic non-opportunity, or the lack of opportunity in our communities, the inequities in our schools, the lack of jobs. I think that those feelings bring about in the kids that I’m seeing both a combination of depression and anxiety. I’m not seeing them do a lot of drugs and drinking, but I’m seeing self harm.”
Many young people, she says, who don’t know how to deal or cope with everything they’re seeing and hearing are cutting themselves, because they’re depressed. Dr. Tate adds that they’re biting or hitting their upper arms to “just try to do something with these insidious feelings of helplessness.” Many young people are also dealing with adverse childhood experiences such as molestation, child abuse, parents with substance problems, and being in the foster care system.
“You put that on top of this whole police brutality issue and it’s a lot to unpack. It’s a lot of pain to begin to heal,” Dr. Tate said.
Teens have found comfort and calm in writing down their feelings, she says. Others just need a non-judgmental space to talk.
Watching video of Floyd dying initially reduced Ms. Obolu to tears, but it also moved her to action.
“You have to get back up and kind of do the work in order to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” said Ms. Obolu, admitting that staying hopeful was hard.
Being a student leader at Inderkum High School is an outlet for her, as is meditation.
“I’m very involved in my school’s BSU and we always try to talk about what’s going on in the world, and also, what we are doing to take care of ourselves and also work towards a solution. I talk about it a lot with my family. We’re very involved and we’re always thinking about it, and thinking how are we going to be the change to make this better, which can also be draining in itself, to be completely honest,” she said.
There is promise, Dr. Tate says.
“Everybody heals in time, but I don’t think everybody forgets,” she shared. “We figure out how to navigate, kind of developmentally, through the process of feeling anger, feeling fear, feeling shame, whatever those feelings are, we learn how to navigate that, but it takes time.”EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series on the mental toll of viral violence. To read the first part of OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer Genoa Barrow’s series visit http://sacobserver.com/2021/04/african-americans-search-for-peace-amid-the-derek-chauvin-trial/