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This week Derek Chauvin, a white former-police officer was convicted of second-degree and third-degree murder, as well as manslaughter, after killing George Floyd in Minneapolis last year. Before the guilty verdict was announced my expectations were low. Of course they were. Since the testimony in the trial began, at least 64 people have died at the hands of law enforcement in the US, with Black and Latino people representing more than half of the dead. That’s more than three lives per day. Police officers rarely get convicted.
I went to bed the night the verdict was announced with a surprised, relieved, and tentatively hopeful feeling of momentary peace. I permitted myself that. Then I woke up to the news that yet another Black person had lost their life at the hands of the police: Ma’Khia Bryant. She was 16-years-old. She was killed moments before the Derek Chauvin verdict was announced.
This is why it is impossible for the guilty verdict of the Derek Chauvin trial to be heralded as something it’s not. As Minnesota Attorney Keith Ellison said, this is the display of a perpetrator of white violence being held accountable, but it is not sufficient action to heal centuries of intergenerational racial trauma. The event, in and of itself, has shaken a community across the world in a profoundly damaging way. High profile police brutality has been documented to have mental health impacts on the Black community where white people experience none, with most recent research suggesting there may have been a rise in suicides in African American people in the past year.
This is not surprising given the vicarious trauma we’ve had to endure. Not only were we made to witness the murder of someone who looked like us - our brothers, fathers, friends and neighbours - as gruesome, heart-wrenching footage circulated around every social media platform. We were then made to witness to the aftermath - 331 days of waiting for a semblance of justice which, when served, left us empty.
Trauma like this surpasses transnational boundaries and impacts all Black people who have related to, empathised with, and suffered alongside the American experience. For those of us in the UK we have been victim to the injustice and indignity of our own political and criminal justice system. Black people make up 3% of the British population, but 8% of all deaths in police custody - yet since 1969, only one police officer has been convicted of the death of someone in their care. They received a suspended sentence.
We watched as police officers were suspended for taking selfies with the dead bodies of sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry who were found in a Wembley park. We heard how the mother of Richard Okorogheye, the 19-year-old who went missing and was later found dead, was told by the police, “If you can’t find your son, how do you expect police officers to find him for you?”
Our outrage and anger has been weaponised and our mobilisation punished as proposed legislation within the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill offers more power to the police and limits our right to protest. If that wasn’t enough, we were then racially gaslighted, the collective lived experiences of an entire community dismissed within each page of The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities Report which declared that the UK is not institutionally racist.
To truly understand racial trauma, however, is to recognise the way these structural forces impact the individual; how the political is personal. It manifests in depression-like symptoms - apathy and anomie. Since George Floyd’s death I have been exhausted under the weight of a melancholy which despairs of the current state we are forced to exist within. It was the Black Lives Matter march I attended in Sheffield which broke my last resolve. George Floyd’s face adorned placards, banners and posters and the voice breaking screams of, “I can’t breathe” seemed to come from those images in a way that was too painful to empathise with. Even now, I’m unable to look at images of George Floyd without feeling compelled to cry. Every time I see his almost ethereal image, my stomach flips. I feel the same pang of sadness that overcomes me when looking through a family photo album filled with pictures of loved ones who have passed – there is a moment of grief I allow myself to hold before quickly drawing myself back from the pain. This pain is real, visceral, and it weighs heavy on my chest.
For racial justice to be truly achieved, it must be trauma informed. When it isn’t, small wins like Derek Chauvin’s conviction don’t feel like a cause for celebration, they render us numb. Many of us - myself included - don’t feel any more healed from the graphic video that displayed George Floyd’s death almost a year ago. We haven’t healed from the collective pain that was felt in the Black Lives Matter marches over summer, nor have we healed from having racism and our lived experiences debated across every media outlet, or from being gaslighted by our own governments.
The conviction of one cop has not achieved this. All we have achieved this week is the plucking of a bad apple from an entire orchard of rotten trees. In order to do so, the entire foundations must be uprooted. It should not be a radical request to ask that, rather than more police be convicted of killing us - they simply don’t kill us in the first place.
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