MINNEAPOLIS — When Black teenagers talk about how George Floyd’s death affected them, many use the same word: trauma.
Floyd’s death, on top of the countless other high-profile police killings of Black Americans in recent years, was painful for many people of color, and Black people in particular.
But as protests died down and attention faded, trauma lingered for Black teenagers living in the city where he was killed. Many were already afraid of interacting with police. Now they’re anxious about the outcome of the trial and the potential for more violence if former police officer Derek Chauvin is acquitted.
Opening statements in the trial were set to begin Monday; Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
“I haven’t really even fully dealt with it,” said 17-year-old Marcus Hunter, who lives in North Minneapolis.
As he sat in his home recently and talked about the fear he felt during the riots that followed some of the protests last summer, 17 gunshots rung out on a nearby street, another reminder of the violence that rocked Minneapolis.He paused to alert his guardians so they could call the police, which has become a routine.
Before Floyd’s death, Hunter had been in therapy and was developing coping mechanisms to handle stress. But he still has trouble processing the anger, confusion, frustration and sadness stirred by Floyd’s death.
“It’s still weighing on my heart,” he said, “which is why this trial is such a big deal.”
Black youth particularly vulnerable to racial trauma
Mental health experts say Chauvin’s trial could retraumatize teenagers who are still learning what it means to be Black in America and still developing an understanding of the legal system, policing and justice.
The trial teaches children at an early age “that they need to be vigilant and wary, and the world’s not fair, and that it’s very dangerous,” said Monnica Williams, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Ottawa in Canada who studies African American mental health.
“A lot of children of color become anxious or depressed or sad because they start to learn that there’s dangers that they’re at risk of experiencing that maybe other kids aren’t,” she added.
Decades of research shows that exposure to racism, either directly or vicariously — which could include watching the video of Floyd’s death — has harmful mental and physical effects. Repeated exposure can cause psychological trauma and post traumatic stress disorder.
For communities of color with a history of trauma, emotional stress can be passed down generationally, manifesting as body aches, high blood pressure, stroke and heart attacks, Williams said. For kids who can’t fully articulate their feelings, symptoms of trauma often manifest as headaches or stomachaches, she said.
“You already have a layer of stress built into your genetic makeup,” Williams said.
Black youth are particularly vulnerable.
A study found suicide attempts rose by 73% between 1991-2017 for Black adolescents; exposure to racism was listed as a factor, according to the report from the Congressional Black Caucus.
George Floyd video adds to trauma: ‘When is the last time you saw a white person killed online?’
Jason Clopton, a Minneapolis-based mental health counselor who works with Black youth and families, said he’s seen a variety of responses to Floyd’s death and the start of the trial. Some kids are absorbing anxiety from family and community members. Others don’t know how to talk about what happened. And some don’t know if they are affected at all.
“There’s this worry about what happens next,” he said. “It’s hard to really process. Teens don’t feel the impacts until later in life, until they have similar experiences.”
Hunter, the high school senior, said the trial will “definitely be retraumatizing.” He hopes the officers involved in Floyd’s death will be convicted, but he suspects they won’t be.
He said he constantly thinks about how “everyone sees us as the same, as criminals, as thugs.”
If Chauvin is acquitted, he said it will be a repeat of similar situations in which a Black man was killed by police on camera, with no apparent consequences.
“You start to develop a feeling of loneliness and feeling unsafe like there’s no one else to turn to,” he said.
Marcus Hunter, 17, said he's still processing the death of George Floyd and that's why the trial of Derek Chauvin is so important. (Photo: N'dea Yancey-Bragg)
Trial is ‘first real insight’ into court system for many
The trial will be a particularly traumatic experience for the teens directly involved in the case as witnesses, said Andrew Gordon, deputy director for community legal services at the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis.
The bystander video of Floyd’s death that went viral was captured by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, a Minneapolis high school senior. Frazier was taking her 9-year-old cousin to nearby Cup Foods when she saw four officers taking Floyd from his vehicle. She pulled out her phone to record, her attorney Seth Cobin told the Star Tribune in June. She returned to the scene the next day, visibly distraught in an emotional moment captured by NowThis.
“Everybody’s asking me how do I feel? I don’t know how to feel, ‘cause it’s so sad, bro,” she said through sobs in the video.
Gordon said he’s spoken to teenagers who are “desperate not to testify” because they don’t want to be involved in the court system.
“There is a sense of historical trauma that is attached to being involved in the criminal legal system. That trauma doesn’t necessarily go away,” he said. “They’re going to connect to what’s happening because of their race.”
The trial is being livestreamed, so many of the young people of color who engaged in protests last summer and who have continued to push for change will be following developments closely, Gordon said.
Gordon, who does youth advocacy work, said he worries some children will suffer from increased anxiety about being “abused”,as he put it, by the court system and will be discouraged from becoming the next generation of lawyers.
“I’m concerned that they’re going to see the court system and they’re going to be turned off,” he said. “It’s going to be their first real insight into what adult court looks like.”
Still, Gordon hopes some young people may be inspired to reform the system because of the trial.
New protests could trigger teens who have been on the front lines
Rawan Abdalla is one of many teenagers demanding change. The 18-year-old spent May and June protesting nearly every day even after getting pepper-sprayed, hit with tear gas, and shot with rubber bullets.
Most of the nights blur together, but she vividly recalls the more terrifying moments from the summer: rushing a friend to the hospital who was bleeding after being hit in the head with a tear gas canister; jumping off a bridge to avoid being arrested for breaking curfew because it could cost her a college scholarship; watching a semitruck plow into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators on Interstate 35.
When police sirens started to trigger panic attacks, Abdalla decided to take a break and leave her home in Burnsville, Minnesota, to stay with a relative in Washington for three months.
“Even to this day, when I see police officers I get really uncomfortable, I get shaky. Over the summer, I kept having nightmares about police, police sirens, seeing smoke,” she said. “Once July came around, I was so drained and traumatized.”
Frustrated by the shrinking size of protests in the city, Abdalla began protesting again after the police killing of Dolal Idd in December, the first fatal incident involving Minneapolis police since Floyd died.
Police said a 27-second clip from one officer’s body-camera video showed that Idd shot first before officers opened fire during an attempted felony traffic stop. Family members and activists are demanding more transparency from the Dakota County Attorney’s Office investigation of the incident.
She worries, though, that if Chauvin is acquitted and mass protests erupt again, it could be a trigger for her anxiety. A trigger is a psychological stimulus that causes a person to recall the memory of a previous traumatic experience.
“I’m really glad to be protesting again because I really feel like it’s in my blood, it’s part of me now,” she said. “If there were to be a riot where buildings were burning down and there’s like National Guard, police, tear gas, rubber bullets, mace and everything I think maybe that would trigger me, but for now I’m OK.”
Rawan Abdalla is worried that if Derek Chauvin is acquitted and mass protests break out, it could trigger that anxiety. (Photo: Rawan Abdalla)
Community stepping up to provide mental health resources
Marlee Dorsey, a Minneapolis-based therapist who focuses on the African American community, typically sees 20 patients per week, but after Floyd’s death she had nearly 75 people on her waiting list.
She did her best to offer other resources and referrals, but the situation contributed to her feeling powerless. She said many of those seeking therapy were protesters and activists, some of whom are fighting for change but do not expect Chauvin to be convicted.
“I think that that sense of hopelessness prevails,” she said. “Most of the people that I’m seeing now, they kind of are burnt out on even the belief that something’s going to be different.”
Dorsey said the three biggest criteria her clients look for in a therapist is someone who shares their racial background, someone with a social justice focus and someone who is financially accessible.
Community members and institutions around the city are stepping up to make mental health resources more accessible.
Clopton is partnering with Black student unions in Minneapolis high schools to host a series of virtual student-led discussions for students to talk about what’s affecting them.
Gordon also said he has created additional spaces in high schools for students to process what they’ve seen and talk about what it means to be involved in the criminal justice system. On Minneapolis’ north side, Shiloh Temple International Ministries will livestream the trial and offer counseling in its sanctuary.
Emo Ismail, 18, and his friends are in the process of creating a resource guide on social media for young Black people who need mental health resources. Ismail, whose parents immigrated from Sudan, said there’s a stigma in the Black community, among men in particular, about going to therapy that he believes needs to change.
Emo Ismail, 18, watches a protest in honor of George Floyd on Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis. (Photo: Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY)
Ismail said he’s always been open to talking about his feelings, but it wasn’t until last summer’s protests that he and his friends talked about the trauma that Floyd’s death caused.
“It definitely took a toll on me,” he said. “That conversation broke us down. It was terrifying. Like we got into just the idea of like, that could have been us, our family, our loved ones.”
He worries that the barricades erected around the Hennepin County Government Center, where Chauvin’s trial will take place, indicate that protests will flare up again if Chauvin is acquitted.
“It’s definitely been a traumatizing time to say the least,” he said. “I’m honestly a little bit worried that it could happen again ’cause I don’t want to go back to that place.”
Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg
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