On Monday morning, probably like many others, I hesitated to touch the play button on my screen.
Yet this video footage was what the community had been asking to see. I agreed that transparency was essential in the investigation into the killing of Thurman Blevins by Minneapolis police. Now it was time to witness.
As soon as the video started, I felt my body tense. Within seconds, the police officers yelled at the man sitting on the curb with a woman and a small girl nearby. The video shows no signs of violence or crisis. Until the officers yelled loudly and aggressively at Mr. Blevins.
I am not a black man, but an Asian-American woman. I have not been stopped by the police, and I do not have a personal history in my family of traumatic interactions with the police. But that video raised my heart rate and tensed my body — because I too share the community fear of police violence.
Yelling, swearing, with guns drawn. This is a recipe for escalation and heightening the trauma response in a black man, who then chose to run away, pleading for his life. “Don’t shoot me,” we can hear him say in the video.
What other scenario could have unfolded? Could the officers have approached a nonviolent situation with a calm greeting? “Hello, sir. How are you?” Then, maybe, “We received a call and are wondering if you can tell us anything.”
We live in a country and a state where people have a right to carry a gun with the proper permit. In that moment, there was no knowledge of Blevins’ permit status. Although he may have matched a description of a person shooting a gun into the air, the moment the officers encountered him was not a dangerous one.
A group of Minneapolis organizers, activists, researchers and artists working through the initiative MPD150 (noting the 150th anniversary in 2017 of the formation of the Minneapolis Police Department) have argued that the police have wrongly and without proper training taken on roles that should be filled by other parts of the community. When we break down these roles to truly address mental health, domestic and sexual violence, homelessness and other issues people face, the police become unnecessary and even harmful.
As the MPD150 report “Enough is Enough: A 150 Year Performance Review of the Minneapolis Police Department” argues: “The constant reality of intimidations, harassment and bullying are the wide base of the police misconduct iceberg of which murder by police is just the tip.”
Resmaa Menakem is a therapist and trainer who focuses on our somatic, or body, responses to the world around us. My somatic response to the video was a tightening and an increased heart rate. The somatic response of Mr. Blevins to seeing the police officers approach quickly, yelling aggressively, with guns pointed at him was to flee.
And the somatic response of the police officers to the sight of a black man with a gun in his pocket was to shoot.
Those responses are trauma responses that Menakem describes in his book, “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies,” as coming from our “lizard brains,” which react without pause, only focused on survival. That speed of reaction can be deadly.
Our culture of white supremacy, or white-body supremacy as Menakem describes it, is everywhere in how we interact and move through our lives in America. It is a system of domination that we are all — regardless of race — subject to, and affects the choices we make, the way we communicate and many other unconscious acts every day.
Menakem argues that to unravel the racialized trauma that white supremacy perpetuates, we must metabolize or work through these experiences in our bodies. A practice of awareness, body-centered exercises, discomfort and settling can move us beyond those trauma responses that are stuck in our bodies and our culture.
None of this understanding of trauma takes away from the violent act of the killing of a black man at the hands of police. Trauma is not an excuse for harmful action. But perhaps it can help us understand what we are witnessing in that video, see our collective historical trauma reflected in it and begin moving toward the deeper change we need in our culture to end police violence and heal as a community.
Vina Kay is executive director of Voices for Racial Justice.