Recently there have been a number of news articles published regarding Trayon Christian, a 19 year old African American male college student who was arrested after purchasing a $350.00 belt from at a luxury store in Manhattan (New York City). In this incident, the young man did not appear to do anything wrong other than shopping and thereby was arrested for “shopping while black.”
Such incidents are becoming the new normal for African-Americans. Consequently, certain reactions to what can often be misread as threatening or suspicious behaviors on part of African-Americans, especially men, are now becoming of great concern.
For example, many would consider it absurd that a person would be deemed a threat and subsequently arrested for the simple action of waving—and yet, such an incident did occur.
It was recently reported in the Evansville Courier & Press (8/16/13) that George Madison, a 38-year-old African-American firefighter, was handcuffed by police officers of the Evansville Police Department for waving at the police officers as they drove past him while he was riding his bicycle. The report goes on:
While riding his bike in Evansville, IN, George Madison Jr., 38, waved to a couple of police officers nearby. From where Madison was, the officers looked familiar to him. After all, as a firefighter with the Evansville Fire Department, Madison worked closely with many officers of the Evansville Police Department.
But Madison didn’t look familiar to the officers, and as Madison explains, the officers deemed his friendly wave a threat. “The officer jumped out and says, ‘what are you doing throwing your hands up at us?’ He is talking to me as he is coming toward me. I tried to explain, but I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.”
Madison went on to say that the officer’s attitude made him feel angry and alone. “It was like everything had disappeared, and I was there alone and I got scared,” he said.
Before he knew it, Madison said, the officer had his stun device out. “It was literally maybe inches from my face. I immediately threw my hands in the air. I said, ‘Please don’t hurt me.’ The next thing I know, I’m laying down on the ground and they cuffed me.”
Once they established who Madison was, the officers brought Madison up to his knees and let him go. Madison, who is a father of four and also a youth pastor at Memorial Baptist Church in Evansville, filed a formal complaint with the police’s internal affairs division.
Question: Is this the end of the story for either Christian in New York City or Madison in Evansville, IN?
Answer: No. There is a common theme in both incidents in which either “shopping while black” or “waving while black” may have resulted in both individuals experiencing trauma responses and thus carrying psychological wounds and scars.
The way in which both individuals perceive their worlds moving forward may never be the same. It is conceivable that Madison may be conflicted regarding whether he should extend the professional courtesy of acknowledgement to a “fellow officer” who is white. Or, that Christian would be feeling apprehensive while shopping in a business establishment that sells luxury or expensive items in the future.
Can society truly understand how these men may feel? If such an experience has never happened to us, how can we really understand? Both of these men are known as upstanding and contributing members of their communities. Yet, through no fault of their own, they are forced to endure a humiliating and terrorizing experience which they will never forget.
Can society truly sense the hyper vigilance, the high paced beating of the heart & pulsing of blood as these men await their fate? This would be highly unlikely, unless they are those members who have also experienced the indignities of such incidents. Furthermore, it would be impossible to clearly understand or grasp what the trauma has taken from them.
Trauma, what trauma? What was taken from them? What does either of these mean? Regardless of your age, gender, race or cultural/ethnic identification, just for a moment, imagine yourself in the following situation:
It is a nice day, not a cloud in the sky, life for you is as normal as it gets. You find yourself riding your bicycle or go into the store to buy yourself a belt and then suddenly, the world as you know explodes in your face.
Only moments ago:
You are either “waving” at a police officer or “shopping” at the store and for no clearly identifiable reason, you find yourself arrested, handcuffed and not permitted to move freely. Or, you are being questioned in a manner that is clouded with suspicion, threats and intimidation.
You find yourself attempting to explain, yet no one is willing to listen or believe what you have to say. Then either a weapon is being placed directly in your face or you find yourself being placed in the backseat of a patrol car.
You are scared. You are alone. People are passing by, staring, pointing and taking your picture or taking videos with their cell phone. Your heart is about to explode in your chest. You feel helpless. So you pray, and ask that someone to wake you up from this “nightmare.”
In either occurrence, you may have experienced a little of what Madison & Christian felt. This is trauma. This particular form of trauma is defined as the “just world” theory.
In the “just world” theory, people have a need to believe in a “just world,” one in which they get what they deserve and deserve what they get.
The just world theory corresponds to the principle of “goodness” and that the goodness of an individual is the primary factor determining one’s lot in life. Trauma shatters the just world theory because the traumatic response occurs as a result of an out-of-the-ordinary event that presents itself as a threat to survival and self-preservation. Imagine what could be more out-of-the-ordinary than being arrested for waving or buying yourself a belt.
Let’s return to the scenario for a moment. You have been held in custody for a period ranging from minutes to hours. Then, without warning or introduction, a stranger approaches, saying:
The incident was a “huge misunderstanding and a communication problem.”
Members of society, look within the “psychological self” i.e. your inner being, and ask the following:
- How does this statement make me feel?
- Does this statement remove the memory of the traumatic experience?
- How does this statement prevent this incident from occurring again?
- What did I do to deserve this?
- Why me? (Why did this happen to me?)
Members of society, I will leave it to you to respond to questions 1 through 3. Please allow me to answer questions 4 & 5.
- (What did I do to deserve this?) I did nothing. Absolutely nothing.
- (Why me?) It is not about you. It’s about “living in fear”.
Living in Fear? Yes. Fear is nothing more than a feeling or emotion. It is for the individual member of society to determine how to respond to fear. The incidents in the scenario are both situations in which the responding police officers were going by prejudgments based on their own, and society’s, internalized feelings of “living in fear.”
Such incidents will continue to occur, resulting in innocent persons being psychologically and emotionally wounded and scarred. The terror of a fearful society will cease only when its members seek to empower itself and in doing so, transforms its mode of behavior towards one which seeks to balance its prejudgments and move towards “living with fear.”
However, until this transformation (i.e. from living in fear to living with fear) can occur, it is upon all of us, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender, to take steps that will assist in maintaining our safety. We have common goals with the police– we too want to return home to our loved ones.
Therefore, when interacting with either the police or members of law enforcement agencies, and you feel fear based on aggression from or the intimidating stance of the police officers, it is advisable to take the following actions:
- First, upon realizing the aggressive or intimidating stance being taken by the police officers; assume a posture that reinforces your physical vulnerability & physical exposure. An example of this is keeping your palms up and hands raised away from your body. Maintain your psychological composure while the police control the scene.
- Second, follow the directions given by the police officers without question or hesitation. It is imperative that they be in control of the situation or individual who for whatever reason, they consider to be a danger to themselves. Failure to immediately follow their directive may serve to heighten their fear for their safety.
- Third, never ever resist or give the impression that there is a desire to resist. Any such action on the individual’s part may lead to coming to face with the use of deadly force or actions by the police officers that could result in physical injury or death.
In closing, as one stands at the crossroads, it is for the individual, as a member of “society”, to decide whether to seek a new path, one based on optimism and hope for the future or remain on the old road of the past, holding tightly to that which continues to divide us.
If we are willing to seek balance then we can work to understand the following:
- Fear is an emotion. Fear can be good.
- Learn to live with fear and not in fear.
- Learn to embrace fear and not allow fear to be used against the psychological self.
The journey continues……
Dr. Micheal Kane