Please watch this before you read my article.
Folks – I’m going to try very hard to stay in my swim lane on this one. But there is just so much to say. People have written, are writing, and will write books about these subjects. This article is being written to (hopefully) generate conversations that will ultimately do more good than harm in the world. We need conversations. To quote from one of the more recent episodes of The Making Sense Podcast with Sam Harris, “Conversation is the only tool we have for making progress, I firmly believe that. But many of the things we most need to talk about, seem impossible to talk about.” I am open to speaking with anyone who wishes to share the space in civil discourse. Your comments, feedback, questions, links, etc. are very much welcomed.
I’ve been enjoying listening to the conversations that Conan O’Brien has had with people in the black community, W Kamau Bell, Van Jones, Nicole Byer, just to name a few. I watched them all back to back and I don’t recall who said it, but one of Conan’s guests made a really important point that resonated with me. The guest said something to the effect of, “White people can’t let the fear of ‘getting it wrong’ get in the way of talking about this.” In other words, don’t let your fear keep you from engaging in the conversation. I welcomed the invitation and 100% agreed with it. Let’s talk.
The response around the world following the killing of George Floyd is something I haven’t seen since the international response of Women’s Marches following the election of President Donald Trump. After the Trump election, after the global pandemic, after the Black Lives Matter global awakening – or whatever we will end up calling this movement years from now – there is no doubt that we are living through a moment in modern history that won’t soon be forgotten.
It took me weeks before watching the full video of Officer Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck. Little did I know that while I was celebrating my 36th birthday that May 25th, the date Floyd was pronounced dead will carry new meaning this year and years to come. After consuming so many reports throughout various media channels, the time came where I eventually felt it as a responsibility as a citizen living through these times to expose myself to the full video. It wasn’t smart to watch it after lunch and before going into session. I was disgusted at what I had just witnessed; Sick to my stomach, and in tears.
I sat on the couch crying as my wife tried to comfort me, trying to tell her what I was experiencing. What was I experiencing? Anger, Sadness, Fear, Shame… And then I said to her, “If I’m experiencing this, I can’t imagine what it must be like for black mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers to watch and re-experience again, and again the trauma of violence and loss inflicted upon the black community.
It’s actually worth it to pause here – because I don’t know my audience very well – some readers might read the word violence and disagree. There is an objective video of an event, and varying subjective interpretations of what happened. Some say this was a lynching, caught on camera, the whole way through for the very first time. Others say this was police protocol gone wrong. Bad training. Bad apples. What did I see? My emotional brain saw a murder. My rational brain saw… well that’s just it, when I watched the video I wasn’t thinking with a rational mind. I was horrified; Deeply sickened.
And before I write too much more, it’s important to point out, this article is being written before any trial has happened. Derek Chauvin, the officer charged with second degree murder and second degree manslaughter in the killing of George Floyd could face up to 40 years in prison. And he deserves a fair trial. When “No Justice! No Peace!” is shouted from the back of one’s lungs, one is describing the relationship between requiring justice as a prerequisite for peaceful living. And, if we are to have a productive conversation through this process, we all need to mean the same thing when we speak, and read about justice.
Revising Police Protocol: Yes, And …
Now, one could make the case that it wasn’t necessarily Chauvin who was responsible for the death, but rather the police protocol that killed Floyd, and many other men and boys that span the color spectrum; I am not making that case, necessarily. I cannot know what was in Chauvin’s heart.
Chauvin is responsible for executing his role in that encounter, as are the other officers. They will have to live with their choices (by the way, it’s worth considering what you would have done in that situation if it was your second day on the job, and you as a subordinate in the chain of command felt conflicted about what is expected of you). Floyd’s survivors will too. And it seems to me self-evident that this encounter is a symptom of training that is insufficient. Review for yourself the six facts to know about in this case.
Retired Navy Seal Jocko Willink says the Police force in this country needs to invest more hours on the job in training. Seal Teams train 18 months for a 6 month deployment compared to cops who get 2 – 4 hours of combatives training a year. “That’s complete insanity. Cops should train one fifth of the time” according to Willink. Combatives, Simunition, de-escalation drills, these all sound great. I think everyone can get behind reform, it’s just a matter of agreeing on what’s most effective.
We Have to Talk About Race As Well
Let me be very honest with you, my dear reader. I am not here to cite the data to bolster an argument that runs contrary to, or in line with my intuitions about racial disparities in the justice system. In a one-on-one encounter between two people who have a disagreement, my job as a marriage and family therapist is not to establish what objective reality is. My job is to work with the subjective experiences of – let’s say a couple – both people in the room, so that we can de-escalate the situation and find common ground that gives way to a deeper understanding. Obviously there’s more to it than just that, but this illustrates what I’m trying to get at regarding higher levels of analysis than the dyad.
Zoom way out to the level of the group of protestors and tell me if discussing facts and objective reality is what settles the souls and spirit of the angry, exhausted, and righteously indignant. The phenomenological reality of what we are seeing in the world today is, to my eye, a collective stress response from a group of people. Black Americans (leading the movement with so many others around the world joining in support) have carried a weight across oceans of time. The voices have collectively decided that the River that is the Black Struggle for Freedom must roil once more.
And since I already talked about my experiences “waking up” in grad school to many blind spots in my racial awareness in Why Racism Has Persisted, I won’t get into that here. Let’s talk about how intergenerational trauma borne out of systemic racial oppression is carried by so many individuals in this group.
Black Americans have been oppressed because of the belief that they are inferior. The illusion of superiority and inferiority that has pervaded the minds of so many can give rise to an emergent phenomenon which is, what is objectively not true, is subjectively believed to be true. That is, Black Americans are not inferior, but if everyone – or at least, enough people – believes the lie, then we get a society riddled with structural and institutional racism that oppresses Black Americans.
Now let me see if I can thread this needle: Take a society indoctrinated with this illusion and it’s compounded debts over the years, add unconscious threat detection (our perceptual systems’ ability to fast track responses for quick action to keep ourselves safe), the current training standard for our men and women in blue, the ubiquity of video recording technology, and the complex stressors of a global pandemic and … well, the reckoning that follows the killing of George Floyd makes complete sense.
The conversations must continue. Your comments, shares, etc. are welcomed.
Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD. As an MFT, he specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His areas of expertise include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, fellow psychotherapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.