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Police shootings and social media: Why some black people believe no one cares (+video)

How others see it

For some African-Americans, videos of shootings have become a mental and emotional drain that underscores a persistent lack of empathy for people of color. Others say such videos are necessary to raise broader awareness and foster solidarity.

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Brooklyne Gipson loves social media: she’s on Snap, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter multiple times a day.

But when an officer-involved shooting of a black person hits the headlines, she’s learned to avoid social networks. The inevitable onslaught of graphic photos and videos, she says, causes her to spiral into a mess of anger, grief, and fear – as though she’s hearing of a death in the family over and over again.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I won’t watch anything,” says Ms. Gipson, an African-American doctoral student in communications at a local university. “That sounds very callous, but I can’t be sitting here thinking about this all day and be scared.”

The sentiment skims the surface of a complex web of emotions expressed by members of black communities across the country, as videos and images of police shootings flood the Internet and social media.

For some, like Gipson, the barrage has become a form of trauma, a mental and emotional drain that underscores a persistent lack of empathy for people of color. Others say such videos, while heartbreaking, are necessary to raise broader awareness of the struggle black Americans continue to face. Still others see the communal reliving of violence as a means of fostering solidarity within their communities.

Woven through these narratives is a shared experience of fearing and being feared, passed down through generations, that shapes the relationship that African-Americans and other black communities have with law enforcement today.

“It’s not usually the one video that traumatizes. It’s a lifetime of experiences,” says Monnica Williams, a clinical psychologist and University of Connecticut professor who specializes in the intersection of race, culture, and mental illness.

“African-Americans have been dealing with historical trauma and community trauma and individual trauma in the form of racism and discrimination” for centuries, she says. “These videos are the icing on the cake.”  

•••

For Tinbite Tamiru, it began in 2013 with the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. At first, she says, she felt shocked and sad. But as the shootings continued and videos, images, and commentary began streaming into her social media feeds, Ms. Tamiru says her grief transformed into anger, and then into a call to action.

Soon she was spending hours online, devouring articles around police use-of-force and racial discrimination and sharing her own views. The habit gave her anxiety, and for a brief period she deleted her social media apps in an effort to tend to her own mental health.

“If a video has gone viral of a shooting, I can’t sleep that whole night,” says Tamiru, an event planner in Falls Church, Va. “I’m perpetually upset that people aren’t upset [along] with me. It’s a lot of frustration.”

Research has begun to tie symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to the experience of racism. In 2012, a study out of Boston University found that perceived discrimination was “significantly higher” among African-Americans than Asian-Americans and Hispanics. At 9.1 percent, African-Americans – who are considered to be at less risk for other anxiety disorders – also had a higher prevalence rate of PTSD than the other groups surveyed, the study found.

Perceived racism by way of social media sites can also have negative effects on individuals’ physical well-being, says Morgan Maxwell, a social psychologist who examined the issue in her doctoral dissertation at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

“People are not only experiencing anger; they’re also experiencing a bodily response to the racism that they’re seeing on social media,” says Maxwell, now a post-doc at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County.

The physical symptoms are often accompanied by a range of emotions that for some, devolve into numbness or despair.

“You get angry, you get sad, and then you get desensitized. And you go, ‘Well that’s kind of just what happens,’ ” says Travon Epps, a television and film producer in New York City. “Because you start to think that no matter if you’re guilty or innocent, if you have weapons or not, if you cooperate or you don’t, you’re going to get shot.”

•••

The feelings elicited by videos and graphic images online speak to deeper concerns and older traumas that those without the lived experience of black communities may fail to truly grasp, psychologists say.

“I don’t think many white people can really understand how terrifying this is for most black people in this country, and how this is a chronic thing that is associated deeply with identity and self and goes back through hundreds of years,” says Jonathan Kanter, director of the Center for the Science of Social Connection at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“There’s a gap in empathy and perspective,” he says.

'I’ve gotten to the point where I won’t watch anything,' says Brooklyne Gipson, a doctoral student in communications at a Los Angeles university, shown on Oct. 8, 2016. 'I can’t be sitting here thinking about this all day and be scared.' Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor

Gipson, the Los Angeles doctoral student, recalls one of her mother’s key commandments when she and her siblings were growing up: Never play with toy guns.

“You know the little orange water guns?” she says. “Our parents were like, ‘No, you can’t play with those, because someone might think it’s a real gun and something might happen.’ ”

Gipson says the rule stems from her mother's anxieties from a childhood spent in rural Mississippi in the 1960s and ’70s. Gipson used to think her mom’s fears were relics of the past. Then in November 2014, Gipson watched a video that showed police officers shooting 12-year-old Tamir Rice as he was playing with a BB gun one snowy day in Cleveland.

Suddenly her mother’s concerns seemed less overblown.

“Just thinking about my little cousins who may not be listening to auntie telling them not to to do that – it’s really scary,” Gipson says.

Across the country in Atlanta, David Mitchell stresses over how to talk to his son about how to behave when police stop him in traffic. The boy is only 9, but Mr. Mitchell says someday his son’s life might hinge on the success of that conversation.

“I have to give him different tools,” Mitchell says. “ ‘What would you do when you encounter law enforcement? What do you do when you’re about to deal with conflict with someone else and the police come?’ ”

“That’s a whole different level of anxiety around raising your kids, the kind of stuff my white counterpart is not having to tell his son,” he says.

Even when parents do manage that conversation with their children, it can serve to confuse instead of clarify. Gregory Hector, another Los Angeles resident, remembers talking with his mother about how to get around gang activity in their neighborhood when he was a young boy.  

“Then right after gangs, we talked about how to interact with police – the people who were supposed to protect me from those gangs,” Mr. Hector says. “How am I supposed to fight these people who disregard the law if I’m afraid of the people who are supposed to be helping me? It’s a feeling you’re not supposed to have.”

•••

Calls for transparency are among the reasons footage of officer-involved shootings have become so ubiquitous online. By urging the release of such videos, advocates had hoped to pressure law enforcement into accountability.

But some have begun to wonder if constantly subjecting black communities to images of violence on black bodies is doing more harm than good.

“Here is the thing I’ve been hearing from black people: Too much. That is what people are saying at this point right now,” says Lanita Jacobs, a professor of anthropology who teaches African-American culture and interethnic violence at the University of Southern California.

“It’s become so pervasive that other important conversations that need to be had can’t be had,” adds Mitchell, the father from Atlanta, who works in community services and education. Poor black families in his community, he says, “can’t talk about education and what it takes to get involved with their kids because they’re stuck with, ‘Are my kids even safe in the neighborhood?’ ”

Others say that as exhausting and painful as the discourse has become, it needs to continue until those outside black communities embrace the message of accountability and empathy that these videos seek to send.  

“I see people who have a comment about every other tragedy that happens, except black ones. I think [that] silence is very loud,” Gipson says.

Some would like to see coverage and commentary that focuses less on shock value and more on urging people to empathize and understand.

“There can be a real danger in watching these videos from behind a computer screen but not talking to our black neighbor,” says Stephanie, a graduate student of public health at Tulane University in New Orleans, who asked that her last name be omitted. “How narratives are framed is very essential to reaching understanding.”

Others, like Tamiru in Virginia, are struggling to reconcile the negativity they see online with a worldview that gives people the benefit of the doubt.

“The country as a whole isn’t Twitter, isn’t Instagram. There are people who are empathetic,” she says.

“And there’s this resurgence of black and African pride, aesthetically in hairstyles and fashion, and of being proud of slogans you wear on your shirt and stuff,” she adds. “People are feeling proud and resilient and strong. It’s heartening.”

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