Donald Grant finds it difficult to look at the trial in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery through a single lens. Whether he processes it as a Black man, as the father of a young son or as a mental health professional, the feeling is the same: “complex trauma.”
Grant, a clinical psychologist, said that following the trial of Greg McMichael, his son Travis McMichael and William Bryan in Brunswick, Georgia, can conjure up anxiety among Black people hoping for justice while recalling past trials, like the one in Florida that led to George Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013 in the killing of Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager.
“There’s a difference between trauma and complex trauma,” said Grant, the executive director of Mindful Training Solutions, a consulting firm in Los Angeles specializing in wellness and behavioral health. “Black people are experiencing complex trauma because the evidence is contradictory. The evidence says we’re on our way, and evidence says we’re not on your way. That’s a hard thing to reconcile.”
Arbery’s killing last year was documented in a viral video, sparking outrage, an investigation and eventually charges. The state of Georgia reacted by reforming its citizens arrest laws, which had been on the books since the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. After police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 and his slow death was captured in another viral video, the officers in that case were charged in his death. Derek Chauvin was convicted in April and sentenced to 22½ years in prison.
Still, Chauvin’s conviction was rare among police brutality cases, and the changes to Georgia’s citizens arrest laws will not apply to the McMichael-Bryan case.
“It’s like a foster care kid thinking he’s getting moved from an abusive home to a safe home, but then that new home becomes abusive,” Grant said. “That’s what we’re dealing with right now. And that’s complex trauma.”
The McMichaels and Bryan are charged with murder and other counts in connection with the shooting death of Arbery, whom they followed and confronted while he was on a jog on Feb. 23, 2020; the state concluded its case Tuesday. Grant said the combination of a mostly white jury and a history of controversial verdicts creates anxiety among Black onlookers, including demonstrators who have arrived in Brunswick in support of Arbery’s family.
“Thirty years ago, it was always a loss in cases like this,” said Grant, author of the coming book “White on White Crime: Old Lies in Contemporary Times.” “Now we’re just 50-50 at best, and so many of us are disproportionately placing our hope upon the outcomes that we’ve won while forgetting there’s still George Zimmerman’s verdict and all these cases that have historically not gone our way.”
Grant referred to the case of Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch member who followed Martin as he returned from a store during a visit to his father in Florida. Even though he had been told by a 911 operator not to pursue Martin, Zimmerman continued and eventually fatally shot him. Zimmerman’s acquittal was the launching point for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“My fear is that Black America is going to be re-traumatized,” Grant said. “The murders of Black men are the first trauma, but the trial is the second trauma. No matter what the outcome is, pieces of these trials that traumatize us. We’ve curated this space of false hope in the place where white supremacy still exists. My fear is not of Black communities’ being violent. My fear is not of Black communities’ coming out to protest. My fear is of Black communities’ being debilitated by the hopelessness that our judicial system consistently delivers to them.”Dr. Dion Metzler, a psychiatrist in Atlanta, shared similar concerns. She said being the mother of two Black sons makes watching the Arbery trial feel “like human trauma.”
“If you see something that happens to somebody that resembles somebody you love, it’s natural to get that feeling of anger or that feeling of hurt when you’re seeing the images and hearing the stories told in a trial,” she said. “There’s a raw emotion that’s starting to come back up again. And it comes with the fears of what it means if we get a not guilty verdict.”
Meanwhile, in Kyle Rittenhouse’s murder trial in Kenosha, Wisconsin, controversial statements and actions by Judge Bruce Schroeder have led critics like Grant to argue that Black defendants with similar lists of charges would never receive such accommodations. Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time of the shooting in August 2020, was charged with possession of a firearm among seven total charges. Schroeder dropped the charge of possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18 this week.
“I think about all the Black men who I grew up with who were charged with possession of a firearm who have been in the prison system for years,” Grant said. “This is dangerous, because it sends a very specific and deliberate message. The psychologist in me says I get why we are where we are: the lies of white supremacy. They have been so embedded into our space that we can’t escape it. Realizing this creates stress in us.”
Mario Williams, a civil rights lawyer in Atlanta, said that while the Wisconsin and Georgia cases are different, they represent similar racial tropes.
“There is a similarity between these two cases that is rooted in our country’s history, to the detriment of Black people,” Williams said. “Arbery’s trial represents what Black people have become accustomed to: a white male guided by prejudice and racism to such a degree that he senselessly takes the life of an innocent young Black man.
“Rittenhouse’s situation, although nuanced, represents exactly what impedes our country from going forward: a white male acting on prejudice and racist impulses, becoming so angry that he was willing to shoot and kill other whites who support equality and the dignity and humanity of Black people,” he said. “We’ve seen this before, too, whites killing other whites to continue subjecting Blacks to inhuman treatment: the Civil War. Whites killing other whites who stood beside Blacks for greater equality and empowerment: the civil rights movement.”
Because of the history, Metzger said, Black people are intuitively “gearing up our hearts for the possibility.”
“A not guilty verdict would be another punch in the gut for us,” she said. “It would mean that it is OK for this to happen to our sons or brothers, our uncles or fathers. When the George Floyd verdict came out, I was talking to my dad on the phone, and I remember that my heart was racing. That’s our body responding to the anxiety. It’s a trauma when you see people not punished for hurting our people.”
Grant said Black people are so accustomed to disappointments that they reflexively try to downplay the effects of the cases.
“We have to behave like it’s a real thing,” Grant added. “Sometimes we minimize the impact of what this does to us.” He pointed out that the American Psychological Association and other organizations have advised against repeated viewing of Floyd’s murder. “We need to pay attention to the fact that when we are consuming these trials, those things impact us,” he said.
Grant also compared Black people’s current pivotal moment to the period following the Reconstruction era, when their established and viable post-slavery communities were destroyed and racial segregation was enforced by law.
“We’re in the exact same historical position as we were post-Emancipation,” Grant said. “We’re seeing access and other opportunities. But the fear is that we could end up right back up in that Jim Crow setting. That’s the traumatization.”
And, Williams said, the trauma, will persist as long as the “so-called justice system continues to condone injustice in the demonstrable manner we still see to this day.”