'A Tsunami of Trauma:' For Black Americans, There Is No Escaping Harmful Racial Injustices

Levelle Moton
Levelle Moton, a basketball coach at North Carolina Central University, shared his story of police brutality publicly for the first time after the death of George Floyd.

The death of George Floyd at the hands of police has been triggering for many people of color, whether they've been victims of police violence or not.

As LeVelle Moton drove through Raleigh, North Carolina, chatting on the phone with his mother, he grew tense when he noticed a police car in the rearview mirror of his Yukon Denali. Passing by the housing projects near where he grew up around 8 p.m., he was headed to an all-white party with Raymond Felton, point guard at the University of North Carolina, who was fresh off a 2005 championship win. 

Police pulled the pair over, and Moton, a basketball coach at Sanderson High at the time, put his mom on speaker phone as a precaution. Moton said an officer yanked open his unlocked door and pulled him from his truck before anyone had a chance to ask questions. Another officer put a gun to Moton’s head, he said. Moton said the officers hadn’t realized Felton was in the passenger seat, because the windows of his SUV were tinted. 

“I turned around to ask them, ‘What's going on?’” Moton told Inside Edition Digital. “Because mind you, they didn't follow no protocol. It was no routine, no, ‘Driver's license, registration?’ It was straight zero to a hundred.” he said. “Every time I turned around,” Moton said, “he pointed the gun closer to my head, and the initial officer is kicking my ankles for me to spread eagle. He's like, ‘You got dope in that damn car. You got dope in that car. Don't you?”’

Moton told them there were no drugs in his car. Officers asked to search his truck, and Moton declined, because they didn’t have a warrant or a declared reason for his stop. Moton said the officers put him in handcuffs and sat him on the curb with a gun still pointed at him. He could hear his mother crying on the phone. Another officer arrived on the scene and drew his gun as well, but Moton said the officer instantly gave him a look of recognition. The other officers quickly realized who Moton was, and noticed that Felton, who was known around town, was with him.

“So they said, ‘Man, that's Raymond Felton and LeVelle Moton,’” Moton said. “They go back, they run the plates and do everything that they’re supposed to do. And now the initial cop, he comes up and he uncuffs me. Then he extends his hand to say, ‘Man, I'm sorry. We just got a call that y'all fit the description.’” 

Moton did not shake his hand. 

“When they left, I sat on that curb for what seemed like 30 minutes,” Moton said. “I’ve never felt less than a man at the hands of another man. It was just one of those feelings… It just didn't sit well with me.”

At the time, Moton said he didn’t report the incident because Felton was going to declare for the NBA draft, and he didn’t want to interfere with that.

Moton, who now coaches basketball at North Carolina Central University, put the incident behind him. But the death of George Floyd reignited the feelings from that day 15 years ago.    

Experts who spoke with Inside Edition Digital noted Moton is far from alone in his experience of trauma, and he’s certainly not the only person in the Black community triggered by the death of  Floyd. One therapist referred to what people of color may be experiencing as race-based trauma or stress, which can be likened to PTSD, and says it is deeply affecting the Black community.

A Combination of Trauma

Floyd, 46, was arrested on May 25, 2020, and a video that has now been viewed across the world showed a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as he laid handcuffed on the ground. Floyd told officers repeatedly that he couldn’t breathe. He later died at a hospital and four officers involved were fired and subsequently charged with murder after mass protests calling for justice. The officers have all pleaded not guilty.

The video of Floyd’s death caused great despair in the Black community, as it was an acute reminder of the disregard for Black life in America, especially at the hands of police. And for many — whether they have been victims of police brutality like Moton, had family members who have been victims, or have been victimized by watching Black death played out incessantly in the news and on social media — the video was deeply triggering. 

“I kept that all this time,” Moton said of his 2005 encounter. “And when I saw the George Floyd situation, the part when he cried out for his mom, it was like my mom was crying. I couldn't sleep. I didn't have an appetite. I was dreaming about it, and I was waking up in cold sweats and it was bothering me.”

Moton said his therapist, who he has seen for more than a year, is helping him grapple with his emotions during this time. Rhodena Mesadieu, a trauma therapist in Royal Palm Beach, Florida said studies show that videos of violent police encounters like we saw with George Floyd can cause PTSD for people who watch them.

“Some of the impacts could be experiencing the same grief, sorrow, and anger that you would if you experienced a death,” Mesadieu told Inside Edition Digital. “It can also cause fear of death yourself, fear of someone being hurt badly or someone dying. There's a lot of shame for Black people as well, witnessing black bodies being killed, because there's a self-identification there.”

Mesadieu explained that a large number of Black people live with the fear that police brutality may happen to them or their family members. People can also suffer symptoms similar to what Moton described — difficulty sleeping at night, mentally replaying images of the brutality repeatedly, flashbacks to how they felt when they watched a video showing police brutality or experienced it themselves.

While watching videos of other Black people dying from brutality can cause PTSD, Mesadieu said the Black community is also dealing with race-based trauma. Race-based trauma or stress can be caused by a combination of experiences that can include: microaggressions, police brutality, hearing family members’ experiences of racism and racial discrimination in the workplace, among other things.

A 2010 study found that racial and ethnic minority adults who reported direct experiences with racism reported higher levels of anxiety, guilt, shame and hypervigilance in comparison to people who had not been a victim of racism.

“It’s intergenerational and it’s continual because it's embedded in our country,” Mesadieu said of racism. “So, at times, we can have some feelings of humiliation, feeling demoralized. It can interrupt our identity and how we see ourselves as Black people. We talk a lot about depression, especially with Black men, that is internalized. And we don't have many safe spaces for them to externalize it.”

Black women experience the same struggles, but their names are often drowned out in the broader narrative of police brutality. Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT in Kentucky, was shot to death in her apartment by police carrying out a no-knock warrant after midnight on March 13. Only one of three officers who shot into Taylor’s home that day, was fired after protesters called for justice. Amid the deaths of Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger who was killed by a white man in Georgia, many initially felt Taylor’s death didn’t receive the same attention. 

The effects of race-based trauma do not bypass Black women, and many feel as though their pain remains unseen and unaddressed.

Elise Antoine, a social worker in New Jersey, said the last few months have been especially hard for her with the killings of Black people and a pandemic occurring simultaneously. When she saw the George Floyd video, she decided not to continue watching it. 

“I purposely didn't watch the whole video because I know it would be super traumatizing and I felt like I was already traumatized,” Antoine told Inside Edition Digital. “From what I saw, I felt completely numb and vulnerable, as if I was violated. I was like, ‘Did God make a mistake by creating me being Black?”’

To help cope, Antoine said she saw a therapist, journaled and talked with her colleagues.

“I'm really an extrovert,” Antoine said. “With this pandemic we have to practice physical distance, so being in an environment where you have to stay there all the time and then you're seeing all this police brutality, being Black, it's like a tsunami of trauma,” Antoine said.

Over-policing and Its Impact on Health

People of color have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, and in June the hospitalization rates of Black people were approximately 5 times that of white people, according to the CDC. The numbers reflect long-standing inequalities in the American social and economic systems. For example, Black people in America make up a high percentage of essential workers, resulting in higher exposure to the virus. They also have less access to healthcare and statistically are more vulnerable to lower qualities of life and therefore disease. What COVID-19 also highlighted, though, was the historic pattern of over-policing in Black communities. 

As social distancing rules were enforced by police, several videotaped encounters displayed officers singling out Black people for violations. In Philadelphia, a Black man who was not wearing a mask was roughly dragged off a bus by four police officers. In New York, a video of a police officer punching and slapping a man for an alleged social distancing violation garnered national attention. More than 80% of people who were ticketed for social distancing violations by the NYPD were Black and Latino, according to the department. 

Officials called out the discrimination and compared it to New York’s previous “stop-and-frisk” policy, which was later deemed unconstitutional in the way it unfairly singled out Black people and Latinos. Practices like stop-and-frisk have a direct impact on the mental health of people who are targeted, according to studies. 

One study, “Living under surveillance: Gender, psychological distress, and stop-question-and-frisk policing in New York City,” found that “neighborhood-level frisk and use of force proportions are linked to higher levels of non-specific psychological distress among men.” The study also found men exhibit more non-specific psychological distress and more severe feelings of nervousness and worthlessness in aggressively surveilled neighborhoods.

In 2009, Black and Latino people in New York were nine times as likely to be stopped by police compared to white people. Not only do many men of color fear being stopped, but the fear of death is real, considering one in 1,000 Black men in the United States are killed by police, according to studies. Not only does over-policing affect the mental health of a community, but their overall health as well.

“We obviously see the direct impact and outcomes associated with experiencing violence from police, but there's also emotional, psychological and physiological effects on individuals and on entire communities as a result of police brutality. The feeling of being surveilled, witnessing and experiencing harassment at a daily level, and even hearing stories of community members experiencing police brutality, all have long-term detrimental health impacts,” said Brandon D.L. Marshall, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health.

“They’re damaging to mental health and elevate stress at the population level, which can lead to increased chronic disease outcomes and mental health conditions in a population.”

A Way Forward

A multi-pronged approach is necessary to bring an end to police brutality and the over-policing of communities of color, as well as achieve equity in the systems designed to serve communities, experts say.

One clear call among protesters in the past few months has been to defund the police, which has a different meaning based upon who you ask, but is essentially focused on cutting police budgets and reallocating the money to things like social services. The hope is that doing so will quell police violence by lowering the number of encounters with police. 

“We use the police so much to solve these social problems much at the expense of other budgetary items like public health, education, mental health care, services for youth and community-based services. Reforming the police is less interesting of a question for me than reducing police contact,” said Abdullah Shihipar, a master’s degree candidate at the Brown University School of Public Health.

Many in the public health sphere agree that there needs to be a re-evaluation of the role of police service in our society.

“We need to fundamentally think about where law enforcement and policing might be effective, or at the very least, potentially not harmful,” Marshall said. “For a long time we have deployed police for issues around social problems like homelessness, overdose, addiction.That's not an efficient or effective use of society's resources to address those problems. Police are not trained to appropriately address fundamentally public health issues.”

For people like Moton and Antoine, therapy has helped them grapple with the inner turmoil brought about by witnessing police brutality, but studies show therapy isn’t an option for many Black people due to a lack of access to mental healthcare in the U.S. for communities of color. 

A study titled, “Mental Health, Culture, Race and Ethnicity” found that racial minorities “are less likely to receive needed care and are more likely to receive poor quality care when treated.” 

There is also a lack of diversity in the mental health and health communities and a mistrust of healthcare workers in general in communities of color. Part of the solution begins with filling that gap.

“Black and brown folks need to see people that look like them providing care, but also because when you think about structural inequity and how it's perpetuated, so much of it is tied to employment and people not having jobs and not having the opportunities for social and economic mobility,” said Rachel Hardeman, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.

While not negating the deep impact experiencing racial inequality can have on people, Mesadieu said there are initiatives people of color can take to protect their mental health. Mesadieu mentioned that even little changes can make a difference, including: limiting their intake of triggering videos that include the deaths of Black people, eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep. She added people can create safe spaces for themselves with friends or family to lament. She also encouraged activism as a form of empowerment for people who may be feeling helpless.

“Bring hope into the conversation,” she said. “That could mean protesting, voting, donating to organizations that are supporting anti-racist or racial equity initiatives, choosing books you want to read, posting on social media, having conversations with your children, that’s [all] part of activism and are ways to feel empowered in the midst of a stressful situation.”

Mesadieu also stressed the importance of grounding oneself in the present in a place of safety.

“We don't want to make ourselves sicker, so we have to make sure that we create safe spaces where we acknowledge that we're in pain, but we feel safe, we feel supported, we feel valued, and we feel seen,” she said. “Remind yourself that although you don't know when it could be you next, we don't want to walk around constantly feeling unsafe because that's walking around in a fight or flight response, which builds cortisol in our body and is linked to health conditions.”

When someone is part of a marginalized group in society that is targeted by police, though, that is easier said than done.

“Now when I see a cop, it's the scariest thing, man,” Moton said. "When I drive on the highway, I'm the guy you honk the horn and you pass and you look back and cuss him out because I'm going so slow. I don't want no problems. I don't even want to put myself in that situation or give cops a built in excuse to have a reason to pull me over. Because once they pull you over, there's no trust.”

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