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No Protections Here

Photo by Roman Koester on Unsplash

I was inspired by and in awe of the students who participated in the March to Save Our Lives. The young activists showed impressive understanding of the intersections between issues affecting students from Parkland and those affecting youth from urban communities like Ferguson.

I planned to use this month's article to further this discussion and to review the evidence-based policies, procedures, and practices that communities can use to help prevent violence and address the needs of individuals who may be shooters. However, this weekend's news coverage of the graphic police body camera footage from Alton Sterling's murder in Baton Rouge and the coroner's report from Stephon Clark's murder in Sacramento have called me to focus on a much more salient topic. Regrettably, these stories are not unique. In fact, they are all too familiar. The Guardian has a page called "The Counted," which tracks the number of citizens shot and killed by law enforcement. Last year, 1093 people were killed by law enforcement. Of those, 170 were unarmed; of those, 85—more than 50%--were African American. African Americans only make up 12.1% of the US population, so obviously African Americans are disproportionately affected by police action shootings.

These shootings are devastating to the victims' families, friends, co-workers, and peers. However, communities as a whole are also affected. Being injured at the hands of someone who is supposed to protect you is terrifying and always causes deep, long-lasting harm. Law enforcement's entire purpose is to protect and serve communities to ensure public safety. When police murder people who are innocently walking to the store, sitting in their own backyards, or coming home from night clubs, a sacred trust is violated. Fear and powerless result. Such treatment is devaluing and implies that the lives being threatened, damaged, and stolen do not matter.

Human beings need to feel that life is predictable, patterned, and safe. Trusting, letting your guard down, and feeling safe are difficult when at any time your life (or the lives of those you love) might be senselessly ended. Wanting to demonize or classify groups of people as dangerous and unsafe—so that we can "plan ahead and protect ourselves"—is perfectly normal.

Police shootings—much like lynchings—are forms of racial terrorism. Terrorism is defined as the unlawful use of violence and intimidation—especially against civilians—in the pursuit of political aims. Living with racial terror affects a community's mental and physical health. Because the pain is inflicted by those who are supposed to protect, the impact is even more severe. The term for a trauma that is inflicted by someone who was supposed to protect is called complex trauma; it can result in complex PTSD. Typical responses include anger, aggression, numbing, shutting down, drug use, self-medicating behavior (eating too much, sleeping too much), and hypervigilance. Living in such a state of hyper-awareness has significant adverse health outcomes and causes significant stress.

Incidences of racialized terror don't just affect a local community. Thanks to media and technology, these stories are transmitted across the nation and reinforce feelings of powerlessness and hopeless throughout the entire African American community. These stories do not go away. Studies have found that communities affected by police action shootings have greater reported rates of stress and signs of PTSD. Because of the reach of these stories, experts have theorized that those higher rates of anxiety and PTSD can be found throughout the entire African American community. Therefore, having some reticence about interacting with the police is probably normal—possibly even healthy—for most African Americans. The brain categories memories and experiences and tells us how to keep ourselves safe. Not only adults but also children are affected—probably even more so! Surviving terrorism is no simple task. However, we know that surviving—and even thriving—in the wake of terror is possible. Here’s how:

  • Talk about the issues and their impacts openly and honestly.

  • Find ways to channel any feelings of anger and rage (Acknowledge those feelings in your friends and loved ones.

  • Sometimes, take a social media detox—cut off the news.

  • Most importantly, look for and find ways to reclaim your power.

  • Get involved. Speak up. Focus on what you can control. If you find yourself feeling "numb," not talking about your feelings, or not being affected by images of and stories about this terrorism, then remember that "all politics are local." City councils, mayors, and elected officials are the "bosses" of every police department. Make sure such officials know that you are affected by the violence, the terrorism, and the cost.

People banded together to end legal lynching. The monumental task involved legal battles, media battles, and battles for the hearts and minds of everyday Americans. We must do the same to stop this racial terrorism.

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