Ferguson has been on my mind almost non-stop this week. Waiting for the news of whether or not Darren Wilson will be indicted for killing eighteen-year-old Mike Brown, Jr. has brought me closer to the residents, activists and Mike’s family every day. In the 75 days that have passed since Mike Brown’s murder we’ve followed live-tweets, watched Vines and shared livestream links of the militarized responses to peaceful assembly, asking ourselves why an organized front on the part of law enforcement was deemed appropriate or necessary. But what many of us haven’t seen–and perhaps never will, at least not firsthand–is how civilians began the coping process after leaving the courthouses and police stations.
When activists like Deray McKesson tweet that the sun will be setting soon in Ferguson, my mind goes back to August 2014; a time when I would foolishly hope that maybe for one day the sun wouldn’t set on the city, since the weapons utilized against civilians were usually unleashed at night. I go back to the words of journalist Elon James White, who has admitted via social media that he still can’t stand to hear loud noises after a few days of reporting from Ferguson. He was one of many who ran from tear gas and flash grenade deployment, sometimes executed within residential areas far removed from protests.
In those instances I wonder how many stories have gone untold about the trauma suffered by Black civilians practicing civil disobedience for what should be their inalienable rights. It’s no secret that the mental suffering of Black people due to socioeconomic conditions and state-sanctioned violence has received little attention from larger audiences. In recent years we’ve seen the mainstream begin reporting on the traumas suffered by people of color resulting from stop-and-frisk policies, violence and poverty, realities that we’ve known for lifetimes. The mental state of people of color is not at the top of the list of mainstream priorities, so instead I pose the question of what stories are being told within Black and Brown circles.
Within their respective communities protesters are commended for doing this work; for donating their time, money and health to a social issue that has reached its boiling point. They are the heroes; the people that have stared systemic violence in the face and made sacrifices few others will make so the world will remain informed and engaged until justice is served. They march forward while physically and mentally exhausted and processing the events of days passed. This is a problem.
Our society is one that worships the “hero” narrative – the super-human that can overcome inner turmoil and outward adversity to save the day. It’s a narrative that many of us admire because it supersedes the circumstances of our lives that are often uncompromising. We need to believe that there are people who can carry out our fantasies of justice as to not completely lose hope in what often seems a hopeless world. The truth is, we are not superheroes, and promoting this rhetoric is dangerous to our health. The idea of perpetual labor from tireless, indestructible Black bodies has been promoted for centuries. Black activism is now simultaneously revered for its resilience while the fragility of its humanity is disregarded because of this message. Black activists become weary. Black activists can be traumatized. Black activism must compel compassion.
Activists and civilians alike have always suffered psychological trauma from civil disobedience work. Community-based organizations have called for therapists to be present at protests for counseling, as was the case at the March on Washington, where the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR) provided resources for civilians on site. Counselors were also sought out during the August 2014 protests in Ferguson and for the subsequent National Moment of Silence rallies that took place nationwide in the following weeks. These efforts are commendable, and continuing the discourse surrounding mental and emotional health is pivotal.
The Internet has provided us with a glimpse of the psychological abuse that activists have experienced while in Ferguson–co-opting of narratives, erasure from work, harassment from other users of social media increased by hypervisibility, sleep deprivation, verbal and physical harassment in public spaces, and so on. Most of these tactics were used long before the information age. This exposure does not include the physical and psychological effects of living in Ferguson, nor does it consider how those effects will manifest themselves in the future.
At the end of the day, the people attempting to find a new normal while living in Ferguson among the activists working for justice are people first and foremost. They’re people whose trauma lives in the margins because of the higher-prioritized narrative of the struggle and their placement within it as heroes. Protesters need to decompress and process their lived experience. As allies, we need to show them grace and offer any help within our means for the sake of their mental state. The threshold for trauma is not infinite, and the effects of the struggle harbored by residents of and community organizers for Ferguson cannot continue to go unnoticed.