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Excerpted From: Teri Dobbins Baxter, Traumatic Justice, 56 University of Richmond Law Review 331 (Winter, 2022) (206 Footnotes) (Full Document)


TeriDobbinsBaxterIn the recent past, allegations of police misconduct have periodically led to widespread community protests, but usually only when the incident is sufficiently high-profile and the harm is severe, such as when a police officer beats or kills an unarmed Black person. More often the spotlight and outrage have faded quickly, as victims were discredited and no charges were brought, or no convictions obtained. But citizens have increasingly harnessed the power of cell phone videos and social media to bring attention to acts of racial violence and hold accountable those who are responsible, particularly in cases of alleged police misconduct. As violent encounters with police are more frequently filmed, posted, and shared on social media--thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of times--calls for justice and reform grow louder and more sustained.

In addition to using social media to pressure officials to investigate, charge, and prosecute officers, ordinary citizens have used cell phone videos to corroborate claims of police misconduct or disprove official police narratives that blame the victim and justify police violence. Videos allow marginalized communities to counter dominant media narratives that demonize and dehumanize crime victims to garner sympathy and support for the police officers who killed them. They can also disprove characterizations of overwhelmingly peaceful protests against police brutality as violent and destructive. The public outcry from videos showing violent interactions with police has led to unprecedented pressure and support for police reform and accountability. The images also have been used to exonerate police officers whose actions are deemed justifiable, which can calm inflamed tempers and bolster trust in the police.

But the success of these efforts (to the extent they are successful) comes at the cost of the health and well-being of the very communities that are the catalysts and intended beneficiaries of social media activism. A robust body of research over the last several decades has found an association between racism and negative health outcomes for Black Americans. Recent studies have established a causal connection: racism causes racial health disparities. Further evidence has shown that seeing others suffer racist attacks negatively impacts the viewer's physical and mental health even if the viewer is not a target or even present. Although people of all races watch and are emotionally affected by videos showing racial violence, Black people have stronger negative reactions to perceived racism than Whites and, therefore, suffer greater trauma from watching the same videos. Consequently, when videos or images of Black people being targeted, injured, or killed by police are viewed by other Black people, they can cause trauma that leads to short-term and long-term negative health consequences. The mental health consequences are less obvious but still devastating for Black communities.

These days, socially aware individuals can ingest a steady stream of news stories and video depictions of acts of racism and violence against racial minorities. The publicity may be the most effective means of bringing about social change, but it also inflicts repeated trauma on the Black people who read about and view these incidents. The challenge for activists and reform advocates is to bring attention to police misconduct and unlawful violence against Black people in order to bring about change and accountability, while protecting--to the extent possible--the physical and mental health of those who must view and distribute the violent words and images for the ultimate benefit of their communities.

Of course, such efforts should not be necessary. America's history of racism and racial bias has eroded trust between the government and many Black communities and led to the perceived need to protect themselves from those sworn to protect them. Eradicating that distrust requires a transformation of the criminal justice system and its relationship to Black communities to ensure that the Constitution's equal protection mandate becomes a reality. But efforts to reform the criminal justice system have had mixed results at best. True reform is exceedingly difficult when the system is populated by people with biases cultivated over hundreds of years.

More “radical” changes are worth considering. For example, the abolition movement offers a dramatically different vision and a community-based, restorative justice model that would eliminate the structures that created the current carceral state while fostering healing for those communities. In the meantime, increased understanding of the trauma caused by images and stories of racial violence, and increased access to culturally competent mental health counselors, are vital to reducing the damage caused by those images and fostering healing in Black and other marginalized and traumatized communities.

Part I of this article describes research showing the potential mental and physical trauma suffered by Black people when viewing and reading about acts of racial violence. Part II discusses the troubling history between people of African descent and police in America, from slave patrols to the present day. Part III explores the evolution of the use of images and videos to expose racial violence and garner support for racial justice movements. Finally, Part IV briefly considers the types of reforms that might result in safer and healthier Black communities.

[. . .]

Whether and how abolition can work remains to be seen, and, even if possible, if it is a long-term solution. But the seemingly radical proposals move beyond the status quo and refuse to accept incremental changes to a fundamentally flawed system as the end goal. Instead of increasing the police presence and fueling distrust and animosity, it shifts focus to supporting and healing the community. It advocates for laws designed to strengthen families and communities, provide resources for those in need, and reduce contact with the criminal justice system. This healing is crucial to lowering the stress caused by racism and allowing Black people in American to live fuller, healthier lives. If not abolition, then something similarly community-focused is necessary to relieve Black communities of the burden of traumatizing ourselves in order to protect ourselves.

Williford Gragg Distinguished Professor, University of Tennessee College of Law.

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