Black and Blue: Healing & the Scars of Broken Trust

 “I am not poison, no I am not poison, just a boy from the hood that…

Got my hands in the air in despair don’t shoot, I just wanna do good.”     

                                                                                                                   -Jay Z “Spiritual”

In Our Feelings

During the last few weeks we as a nation in the U.S. have been gripped by shocking police-involved deaths brought to us through our televisions, our computer screens, our tablets, and our phones. Most notably, have been the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Dallas police officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa. Amid the shock, fear, anger, and utter sadness generated from these events, have been a range of suggestions for how to cope. In this space, I argue that we must focus on coping to thrive as a society for the long-term, and not just to survive for the moment.

A recent article from the Los Angeles Daily news cited researchers and mental health experts that recommend taking a break from media to feel better and protect our mental health. “Just turn off the TV” is the recommendation, based on research pointing out the risks associated with media overexposure, including stress, anxiety, and feelings of helplessness.

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At an extreme, overexposure has the potential to trigger Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Another recommendation is to connect with others to share concerns and sadness. They suggest that these strategies can act as “a magic pill” to help people to feel better, quell their anxieties, and help with mood instability.

However, we are no longer in a situation to unplug, tune out, and distract ourselves to feel better. In fact, that is the problem. It has been too easy to go back to the status quo after being confronted with these videos of policing tactics gone awry and ending in more Black and Brown dehumanization and death. Instead, we must tune in, watch these events, listen to these voices, take stock of our relationships and roles, and act. We must recognize the reality of what is, and what needs to be different. These events happened. More importantly, these events happen. Most importantly, these events have to stop.

Depressed girl with bad make-up concept

Jay Z’s recently released “Spiritual” – a song of grief, coping, family, and solidarity around policing and the Black community. It was actually written more than one year ago in the wake of the Mike Brown death. Despite pressure to release it earlier, he felt, “this issue will always be relevant.”

Trust: Me, You, Us

President Obama convened a Taskforce on 21st Century Policing in 2014 amid the many events exposing significant tension between law enforcement and the communities they served. The first of the six pillars of action recommended in their Final Report is Building Trust and Legitimacy. Ultimately, this is where we must roll up our sleeves and begin the work toward better.

trust circle hand drawn on whiteboard

We have to collectively improve how we show up in the world, how we consider the realities of others, and how we relate to one another –in positive and supportive ways- on a daily basis. We have to build trust. We must identify ways to be empowered as groups and communities without exploiting and taking advantage of other groups or communities. If there is going to be compassion and forgiveness in an effort to build bridges of trust, it must be alongside a commitment to a future where all people are healthy, well, treated equitably, and in this case alive regardless of racial, ethnic, social, or economic status. Forgiveness does not condone prior behavior, but it allows room to work toward unity, and an accountable mission for better. A major step toward this reality is to honor and validate each other’s stories in the quest toward re-establishing trust.

Trust is a heavy bond. Think about the significance of a friend or family member that has violated your trust. Think about how your relationship with this person changed after trust was violated, and how your relationship evolved over time.

Philando’s Story: Four

Close up Barrel Snub Nose Revolver Gun Weapon pointed at You

The first time I watched the video of the shooting of Philando Castile, I couldn’t help but notice the agony he was in, the obvious pain, and that nobody was helping him. In fact, most of the time, the gun of the officer was still focused and pointing at Castile and Diamond Reynolds, his girlfriend.

The second time I watched the video, I was drawn to the incredible calm of Ms. Reynolds, narrating the scene while still visibly shaken and confused as to how this could be happening. It was similar to the calm of the eye of a hurricane with this incredible madness swirling around her. She was documenting the events while at the same time pleading for clarity, some answers, some understanding from the officers. All of this while Mr. Castile lay bleeding, actually lay dying, next to her. I couldn’t do it. Well actually I have no idea of what I would do in that situation. I think I would be a certain way, but actually I do not know. Most of us do not.

Still, the gun focused and pointed.

The third time I watched the video, I noticed something new. The harsh tones of multiple officers continued, telling her to exit the vehicle and get on her knees -with zero compassion, zero empathy, zero understanding. However, I also heard, “Where’s my daughter?” Wait, What?! A little girl was in the backseat watching this happen! The officers continued, “Keep walking. Get on the ground.” And that quickly, Diamond was now in handcuffs.

“It’s okay mommy… It’s okay I’m right here with you.”

These words from her Ms. Reynolds’ four year old daughter echo with the deafening boom of a cannon. Now, while in the back of the police car with her mother handcuffed, after witnessing police shoot Mr. Castile, this young girl is trying to console her mother. She is the only one, because it is clear that nobody else is. And no one is consoling her.

One final vivid point resonated during the fourth time I watched the video. During all of the interactions, throughout the arrest, there was little overt expression of humanity. There was no immediate first aid, not a single word of remorse or concern, and no visible desire to help Mr. Castile, Ms. Reynolds, or her daughter. Each was treated only as a criminal. There was no apparent regard for the child present or what that child might need amid a traumatic experience like this. Evidence is strong about the compounding influence of traumatic childhood experiences like these.


Suspended Disbelief

I have grown accustomed to the unbelievable happening to Black and Brown people at the hand of law enforcement. I have also developed a cynicism that there will likely not be an indictment. Although, new research suggests that in 2016 the tide maybe shifting toward greater officer accountability for questionable shootings. The highest profile cases have yet to support this trend. When I started writing my book, “The Healing Power of Hip Hop” in 2014, the national spotlight was focused on the Mike Brown case. By the time I finished in late 2015, there was an entire list of names and cases that followed suit with the predictably outrageous use-of-force, death, protest, and non-indictment pattern. The list of reasons why the encounters took place in the first place are so mundane that it is almost comical. The victims’ names are now household names… Brown, Garner, Rice, Bland [the one year anniversary of Bland’s death was July 13, 2016], and now Sterling and Castile and so many more. And this is the crux of the issue.

For many in Black and Brown communities, there is a lack of trust that anything will happen to officers that use the most vicious examples of excessive force. This is often coupled with fear, and anger, that the most mundane encounter (read: any encounter) can escalate to the most extreme level regardless of how one acts. It is perceived as an officer-driven interaction. This is a bias, the belief that law enforcement will not give you the same benefit of the doubt as the average citizen, and that you cannot assume you will receive treatment with the most basic levels of human decency. In other words, your basic level of treatment is highly variable.

At the same time, law enforcement is also often fearful in these encounters. Biases exist on both sides, with one key difference. Law enforcement has the support of the rest of the force, their superiors, their union, public opinion, and ultimately the law, to protect, support, and defend them. Citizens have support of… the law, and… the police, to protect, support, and defend them. And there’s the rub. Trust has been violated. So who’s left until trust is re-established? Each other.

Doubt barrier or sign for skepticism, uncertainty, confusion or lack of confidence

Faces of Death

So what about those individuals that still have misconceptions about and a hard time grasping why so many organize and advocate with each other under the banner of #BlackLivesMatter for dignity, justice, and respect? What about the people that do not understand the urgency with which people want to stop the killing of people that look like them by people charged with protecting them? Would watching the video four times help them understand the pain, the utter distrust, and the trauma of watching the people paid to protect you routinely violate people that look like you, like your family, and like your friends – without penalty and without remorse? Would they better understand the cumulative effect of these deadly encounters, where an ordinary citizen dies at the hands of people paid to protect and serve you… on video for all to see?

Maybe they will understand. Or, maybe not.

Scholarly debate exists about whether excessive force is actually as disproportionate as it seems toward Blacks. For example, research from Cody Ross showing substantial bias at the county level, especially in large metro areas with large Black populations and significant income disparities. Joseph Cesario’s work disputes this suggesting that more localized data indicates little difference between Black and White citizens being shot by police officers once criminality is taken into account. In the court of public opinion the debate is over who is more at fault, the police, or the Black community.

Bias and Humanity

Research on implicit bias show that people even act in ways that contradict their best interests due to implicit racial bias. Often, implicit biases are so pervasive that without focused energy they influence behaviors. For example, simple exposure to black male faces has shown to influence decision-making to perceive harm/fear. This even occurs for exposure to little boys faces as young as five years old. It puts Tamir Rice’s death in perspective (remember, 2 seconds?). Research shows that individuals that fear Black people are more likely to shoot them over other groups. The likelihood is even greater if they have low empathy or if they tend to dehumanize them.

But, there is hope with research that suggests that with greater understanding, shared experiences, and deliberate effort we can chip away at some of these biases. And new research also highlights that when we want to be better, we can be.  Awareness and concern about bias, and the desire to be better as a person has shown to reduce implicit bias. We must continue to allow ourselves to empathize with and humanize the lived experiences of others, especially those we are not as familiar with culturally, and may even have biases against.

Just Us

While the effort to avoid excess stress and trauma must be accounted for, it is not only the exposure to this unique form of media violence that should be of concern. More distressing and potentially traumatizing is the lack of systemic justice and accountability for Black humanity. It has entrenched a belief that police tactics reinforce the idea that Black and Brown lives have little value in the eyes of the broader public; that it is okay to dehumanize men, women, and children with impunity.

Despite the current headlines, when it comes to equity and justice, excessive force by police is actually only one of the many concerns about bias and disparity throughout the overall criminal justice system, from encounter to sentencing. Further, equity and justice in the criminal justice system is only one of the many dimensions of equity and justice being pursued on a daily basis in communities around the United States. It falls alongside educational justice, economic justice, racial justice, health justice, environmental justice, immigration rights, and LGBTQ rights. All of these issue areas are places that you can make a difference. Especially in an election cycle that may fuel ideological tensions, please make your voice heard.

Not Business as Usual

Again, the recommendation by some is to “just turn off the TV.” But it is not that simple. It is not just about “feeling better” in the moment. It is about investing in healthy coping strategies that directly confront problematic social realities. It is about hiring policies, training policies, funding policies, evaluation policies, oversight policies, and ultimately our willingness to invest in a new compact between law enforcement and Black and Brown communities. Invest in the commitment for every citizen to be free, treated equitably, and treated with humanity.

The White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing has also provided a user friendly outline of “Things We Can Do” on top of their report recommendations to help each of us can get involved… government, law enforcement, and community members. We must help to pressure our criminal justice system so that this is the last unjust murder or use of excessive force. The ability to move forward will be about forgiveness and compassion, but in partnership with an explicit declaration of value for Black and Brown lives, and a commitment to normalizing equity and justice throughout the criminal justice system, from encounter to sentencing. That is how trust is established.

Hello I Am Accountable words on a name tag sticker showing you accept responsibility or blame for a problem

  • It is also about each of us becoming better as individuals to ensure we’re not complicit in the circumstances (and system) generating these traumatic community encounters. We are each accountable.
  • It is about determining how the various groups we’re a part contribute to the culture of these interactions, to the culture of our community spaces, and whether these group values and norms are a part of the problem or the solution.
  • We must be critical of ourselves, the groups we identify with, and our role in these groups.
  • Ultimately, we are each responsible for determining which of the many areas of change that we can help improve, and then acting.

That includes me. That includes entertainers like Beyoncé and friends… That includes athletes like LeBron James and friends at the 2016 ESPYS… That includes you.

Keep the TV on. Instead of turning it off, moving on with business as usual, and forgetting, let us help improve our criminal justice system by remembering, respecting, and acting. And then you can help with some of the other equity and justice issue areas after that.

Remember… Listen (and Watch). Think. Act.


Raphael Travis is Executive Director of FlowStory, PLLC, providing resources and consultation with youth-serving professionals on how to promote positive youth development and health, especially through music. He is also an Associate Professor at Texas State University in the School of Social Work His research, practice and consultancy work focuses on positive youth development over the life-course, adolescent resilience and youth civic engagement. He also investigates the role of music in people’s lives, especially Hip-Hop culture as a source of well-being.
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