Police Brutality Exacts Widespread Trauma on People of Color
Dr. Lawrence Brown and TRNN executive producer Eddie Conway say the protests and conversations around police brutality aren’t just about systemic solutions, but the real and immediate pain
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
With the recent shootings in Minneapolis and then Baton Rouge and then in Dallas, people are once again nationally, the media and such, focused that there actually is such a thing as race in America. We have certain moments where this gets talked about, and we’re in another one.
Now joining us to talk about the significance of these issues are–first of all, in our studio: Eddie Conway is a former Black Panther and a former political prisoner of 44 years. Now he’s an executive producer at The Real News and host of the show Rattling the Bars.
Also joining us is Dr. Lawrence Brown. Lawrence is an activist, a global health consultant, an assistant professor of public health at Morgan State University, and he will soon be hosting a show at The Real News as well.
Thank you both for joining us.
DR. LAWRENCE BROWN, ASST. PROF. PUBLIC HEALTH, MORGAN STATE: Pleasure.
EDDIE CONWAY, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Thanks for having us.
JAY: So, Lawrence, first of all, the shootings in Dallas, just after the shootings I mentioned, how do you react?
BROWN: Well, I mean, it’s a very difficult time, I think, we’re in here in America, where violence, both indirect violence and direct violence, are really manifesting and coming to a head. We’re seeing that with police brutality. We’re seeing that in the response to police brutality.
I think what we’re not really discussing is the impact of trauma, the impact that this has both on the people that are losing victims to police brutality, and then even people who are trying to respond to that. And obviously we had someone respond to that in a very violent way in Dallas last night.
So I think by not having that discussion, by not understanding that this impact of police brutality really has–it exacts real pain. It exacts real anxiety. And many people will respond peacefully, but others not so peacefully. And I think that’s what we have to get to the root of in America is the pain that’s there, so that it can be addressed in a more productive way and we can forestall some of the violence that’s taking place.
JAY: Eddie, same question.
CONWAY: Yes. I think–and certainly the trauma is one of the overriding concerns right now, because I was up last night from one to two o’clock in the morning talking to people that just needed to talk that wasn’t connected to the families, that have just basically seen stuff on the videos. They’ve talked to their coworkers and whatnot.
JAY: One of our young black staff members was crying yesterday.
CONWAY: All day yesterday, the day before, I mean, people just have hurt people because it continues to occur once every 23 hours or so and people are starting to become aware of it. It’s like being in a combat zone, especially–.
JAY: Sorry. Just to add to that: especially in a place like Baltimore, the number of murders that are taking place, which are all symptoms of the same thing.
CONWAY: Yes. And then, when you look to the people that should be protecting you and then they in turn turns around and takes a loved one’s life or just somebody that’s identified as a different color, that’s a concern.
And so the only way I think it can be addressed is that you’ve got to look beyond the incidents theirself and look at the systemic problem of what’s putting this kind of behavior in place.
JAY: Lawrence, I’ve been saying, thinking, there’s almost too much emphasis just on the role of the racist individual cops, even on elements of the culture of the police that are coming out during the Freddie Gray trials. And it’s kind of funny, because one of the main defenses of the cops who are on trial for the murder of Freddie Gray is they’re blaming the culture of the police department–they didn’t have proper instructions, they weren’t told they had to have seatbelts on, and so on.
But the bigger issue is that the police are the easy face of a system based on super-exploitation of people of color. And when I talk to people in town, there’s far more anger and venom directed at the police–and for obvious reasons–but there’s very little discussion about the people that have real power in Baltimore, that have the real money in Baltimore. And then extend that nationally to the elites.
We used to have somebody work here whose father was a cop, and he said to me–I was having this discussion with him, and he said to me, look it, you decide–meaning you, society, decide–what do you want from us? Do you want us to hand out flowers? Or you want us to be the hammer? And it’s pretty clear you’ve told us to be the hammer.
BROWN: Well, I would say it’s not quite accurate to say that elites and the broader systemic issues are being ignored. Personally, I’m more of a housing activist who is looking at how neighborhoods and segregation plays a role. It’s when these incidents of police brutality happens that it’s so gripping, the trauma is so real–race-based trauma, racial battle fatigue, these psychological symptoms that aren’t yet really identified in the DSM manual, for instance, but have a real impact. Vicarious trauma is essentially what they are, looking at the videos that are on the Twitter feed or on Facebook or on the smart phones, on CNN, being played over and over and over. So that trauma, that traumatizes people, because we see ourselves in those videos.
And so what happens is is there is a fight against the broader systemic issues, but we actually get pulled away by the immediacy of police brutality and by the gripping pain that sort of just snatches you. I mean the anxiety I personally feel in my heart, the clenching that I felt on April 27 last year when Baltimore police and the youth begin to clash and they deployed rubber bullets and tear gas. And my heart clenched. And I’ve been having symptoms along those lines ever since.
And so what do you do when you have anxiety, when you have trauma? People respond in different ways. And I think that’s what we’re seeing with a lot of the protests. It’s an outcry. It’s people saying, this hurts, this hurts us in a very real and visceral way. And they’re trying to make sure that in America people can live and not be judge, jury, and executioner when they’re interacting with the police.
JAY: And one of the reasons that happens is ’cause police know they can get away with this 99.9 percent of the time. And I think that’s part of what I was getting at is that the police departments are given this space because if, quote, society, meaning the elites who have the power in society, are saying, “Be the hammer,” you can’t punish people for being the hammer, or they won’t be the hammer for you.
The cops sent a bit of a message in Baltimore after the cops were charged with Freddie Gray. I mean, most mostly acknowledged that they stepped back a little bit just to send a message. It seems to me the message they’re really sending is is that if you start charging us for being the hammer, then if this violence starts to spill off into Roland Park, for example, which is a wealthy neighborhood of Baltimore, or Federal Hill or one of these other areas, well, maybe we’ll eat doughnuts then, too. So the message is: you’d better not punish us for doing what you’re asking us to do.
CONWAY: And the other side of that is that they are the point of the spear. They are actually not just doing the job of protecting the elite and the property owners, but also they’re that shield. And that shield is to distract the public and the populations from looking beyond them. So what happens is that because they are the point of this spear, the focus is on them.
And like Dr. Brown was saying, the trauma is immediate for down on the ground. The media reports it that way and draws that focus right there at the point of the spear, and they keep the dialog and the discussion around that, and no one looks beyond to the elite, to the people that’s actually being protected.
And what’s surprising–and this dawned on me–is that the people down on the ground that’s being murdered, in some cases, beat, or abused, they’re the ones that’s paying the taxes, and the people that’s being protected have all kinds of loopholes to get out of paying taxes, and they’re not even paying the people that’s protecting and serving their interests. But yet we are paying, down on the ground. And the media is making sure that the discussion and the focus stay there.
JAY: The trauma that comes from seeing this videotape and the abuse and the trauma of living in situations, there’s got to be barely a family in black Baltimore that doesn’t have a family member–or at least a cousin or a friend–that doesn’t either directly know someone or had a direct member of their family murdered in the last four or five years. I mean, if we’re talking 300-some-odd murders every year, we’re into thousands over the last four or five years. Talk a bit about the trauma of this entire landscape people are living in.
BROWN: Well, trauma runs deep. You can start with historical trauma, the trauma of the slave trade, of enslavement, of Jim Crow. Many people that live in Baltimore now were migrants, refugees, if you will, from the great migrations, leaving the lynchings of the South and the destraction of almost 100 independent black districts like Tulsa or Rosewood. And so that trauma, we carry it with us. And then we arrive here in a city like Baltimore and the police brutality is still there.
So what happens is the trauma’s really intergenerational and it’s never really resolved. The grief is unresolved. And so you have a situation like we’ve had in Baltimore on April 27: the day that Freddie Gray is laid to rest, the police release the gang memo, they release purge meme, and then used that as the pretext to move on the community with the riot mobilization on the day that people are grieving.
JAY: Just for people that don’t know, the reason he did like this around the gang memo is ’cause there was a supposed agreement between the gangs to go out and shoot cops during those Freddie Gray event days, and there’s absolutely zero evidence there was. In fact, I think there’s now evidence there was no such memo. And the purge thing, which was supposed to be a social media thing to get kids to go to Mondawmin Mall, it’s still completely unclear who actually released that purge thing. And one would think these days one could go down to your neighborhood fusion NSA center and find out, and they don’t seem to have wanted to do that.
BROWN: Right. And so just last week, on June 27, we had a murder of a local rapper here named Lor Scoota–his rap name was Lor Scoota. And the police again, as black youth were celebrating his life, mobilized in riot gear here in Baltimore, having on riot gear, driving out military vehicles, having rifles that they pointed at dirt bikers who rode by. And so even in the middle of grief, in the midst of grief itself, grief is interrupted in black communities. And so that’s where the trauma is never really addressed.
I’ve sent plans to our Baltimore city health department to–I’ve written a verdict preparedness plan with my students, and we said that there needs to be a real trauma response on the streets–not just violence prevention that Safe Street does, but actually taking out social workers, mental health professionals, public health folk, and going out on the street and helping alleviate trauma, because the trauma’s still there. Now, our commissioner, Dr. Wen, has done trauma training for city employees, but there hasn’t been that engagement on the street. And so the trauma’s still there. It’s unresolved. People are hurting. People are in pain. And we know from our literature this: the trauma, the grief, the stress, the anxiety, all of that wears on the body system, it wears on the mind, and it literally results in deaths, whether by suicide, homicide, or peoples just not living up to the higher quality of life.
JAY: I interviewed Gerald Horne, the historian, just a few minutes ago, and I thought he made a very interesting point towards the end of the interview. Since the 1960s, you’ve had the destruction of mass organizations in the civil rights movement, you’d have the weakening and almost destruction of much of the trade union movement, and the movement’s been kind of in a lull in terms of the people’s movement. There’s very few ways to express the anger in a constructive way, in a way that might change society, and it kind of creates fertile soil for these kinds of individual acts of retribution, if you will, because it’s hard to see how you do it in a more movement-organized way, which I guess suggests that what people should do is get organized.
CONWAY: Well, yes, that’s true. But also I think during that same period of time you had the government program COINTELPRO, the counterintelligence program. They use a lot of agents provocateurs, they use saboteurs, they use informers. And when you look at what happened in Seattle, Washington, at the World Trade thing, if you look up in Canada, if you look at other things, you’ll see that a lot of the reaction that occurs down on the ground has been manipulated, in some cases, by law enforcement agencies. And like Dr. Brown was just saying, that was true around the Mondawmin situation on April 27. And so not only have they taken away the ability of people to work through mass organizations to address their problems, but they have manipulated individual activities that lead to disruptions that they can then contain and control. And this has been noted in case after case after case.
And there’s no question people need to get organized. But part of the result of COINTELPRO is that it’s intimidated people about organizing. And people need to get beyond that, because they don’t know how to actually network in a larger scale. So unions have to come back on board. People have to get back into these organizations and start working again.
JAY: There’s a lot of good public policy that people have thought out about what to do, from housing to even the issue of trauma and other things. You can’t get that stuff funded. You can’t get it passed. So something has to change at the political level. What should people do?
BROWN: Well, first of all you realize that this is what happens, that invisible violence, the violence through policies and practices, leads to direct violence that we see. And so the accumulation of historical trauma manifests itself in either inward self-destruction or outward violence. So I think once you realize that apartheid policies breed social pathologies, then you say, well, we do need to pass policies and practices.
JAY: Let me just say, when you say “apartheid policies”, we’ve talked a lot–not everybody knows–you’re talking about when Baltimore–a history of very deliberate segregation in this city.
BROWN: Right. And to connect it with what you were saying with Eddie, that in the ’60s we had viable communities. Even though there was segregation, you didn’t have forced displacement on the scale that we’ve seen since then–urban renewal, highways moving, built through the middle of black communities, the public housing that’s been torn down, actually, since then, and the public housing that’s been disinvested in all that time.
So a lot of these policies have led to the systemic sort of disintegration of a community system that would also undergird the movement-building and would also help mitigate the impact of trauma. So when communities are torn down, people are left to sort of fend for themselves; then you see more violent activities.
So I think what we need to do, then, is to figure out how we can build up communities, how we can make black neighborhoods matter until we desegregate here in America, because what we have is what you said and what James Baldwin said: police are an occupying force in black communities. But the reason why there is black communities is ’cause we still have segregation in this society. So we’ve got to find a way to nourish and nurture the communities themselves so that people can be built up and have the sort of economic, social, political wherewithal to address the issues that they have and become healthy and whole.
JAY: OK. Well, this is just the beginning of a conversation. As I said, Eddie hosts a show on The Real News. Lawrence hosts a show on The Real News. And we’re going to start–you’ll see in the fall–building our Baltimore Bureau to take this conversation, including town halls, more investigative journalism, with the real fundamental mission trying to answer the question that if you ran Maryland and Baltimore in the interests of the majority of its people, what would you do, and start actually trying to find solutions as a community process. So I hope you’ll join us for that.
And let me also say we’re in our summer fundraising campaign now, and none of this happens without your support. Every dollar you donate, we get another one from a generous donor, a matching campaign trying to get us to $200,000. So somewhere around here is a donate button.
And, anyway, this is just the beginning.
Thanks very much for joining us.
CONWAY: OK. Thanks for having us.
JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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