Protesters Against Police Violence Risk the Very Thing They’re Fighting

Protesters Against Police Violence Risk the Very Thing They’re Fighting

Protesters Against Police Violence Risk the Very Thing They’re Fighting

In Baton Rouge, community members protesting Alton Sterling’s death faced police brutality, unjustified arrests, and jail time—and lasting trauma.


In October, Lisa Batiste visited her old home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for the first time since moving out last year—a month and a half after 37-year-old Alton Sterling was killed by police. “I have a pretty decent handle on the English language, but ‘Wow’ is about what I have right now,” she said, welling up with tears, as we stood outside the house together. (Crying is something that Batiste didn’t do much of before last year.) The hedges on either side of the walkway leading up to the house had grown since she’d lived there. In front, Lisa had flown an American flag; now there are two out back. But one is different: Displaying black, white, and blue stripes instead of red and white ones, it’s a so-called “Blue Lives Matter” flag, popularized in 2014 to show solidarity with the police. When Batiste first saw it, waving behind the American flag, she laughed wryly: “How ironic.” But the porch was the same as ever—big and inviting, set back from the boulevard.

On July 10, 2016, Batiste was sitting on this porch with her 27-year-old daughter when a march called to protest Sterling’s death neared her home. The father of five had been shot and killed by police in the parking lot of the Triple S Food Mart, where he sold CDs, five days earlier. Videos of the incident show two police officers wrestling Sterling forcefully to the ground. While he was pinned down, one of the cops yelled, “He’s got a gun!” and fired his weapon six times, hitting Sterling in the chest and back. Yet the owner of the Triple S—who recorded one of the videos—said that Sterling hadn’t been causing trouble outside his store, and also that he considered the sidewalk salesman his friend.

The July 10 protest reached Batiste’s corner, where police in riot gear had formed a line in front of the protesters. Armored vehicles were stationed in adjacent streets. There was only one place for the protesters to go: onto Batiste’s lawn. She counted between 100 and 150 people and, fearful that the police would start arresting the protesters, made a split-second decision. “My anxiety level starts to go up,” Batiste recalled, “and I was just like, ‘You guys come on.’” The protesters took refuge on her lawn. But within a few minutes, the police advanced, despite her objections. “That’s private property,” she recalled telling them. “You can’t [enter].” The cops didn’t listen. Video shows around 100 officers, some in riot gear, storming her lawn, throwing protesters to the ground and arresting them. In an effort to get away from the cops, the protesters backed from Batiste’s lawn onto her porch. One young woman “was like, ‘Oh my God, please let me in,’” Batiste said. “I was like, ‘I’m not gonna risk my family, no.’” The mother of two remembers putting up her arms and blocking her front door. In hindsight, she feels embarrassed about trying to keep the protesters out.

Batiste, who is 51, had been living in Baton Rouge for eight years. She had lived in the city once before, from 1998 to 2006; the second time around, she came for work and stayed for love, marrying an officer on the Baton Rouge police force. After the marriage went south, Batiste and her daughter moved into the house in Beauregard Town—“a transition neighborhood,” as Batiste calls it, with middle-class and poorer residents living side by side. She’d been living in the rental a little over a year when the police charged onto her property without asking.

For most of her life, Batiste prided herself on understanding “both sides” of every situation. “Your uniform, your title, your whatever, it [didn’t] matter,” she said of the way she used to see things. She had “never been an emotional person.” When she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2011, she told me, she didn’t even cry. And she’d always been able to rationalize the police killings of black men like Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. To Batiste, those killings, while rooted in racism, were spurred by a “fear that you cannot extinguish.” She recognized the realities of racism—that cops discriminate against black drivers, that they shoot black men in situations where they wouldn’t shoot a white man—but she didn’t let those realities hinder her everyday life. On the contrary: Living in Baton Rouge “was extremely comfortable,” she said. “If I felt like I needed to go to the grocery store at 3 o’clock in the morning, I would go. I wasn’t looking over my shoulder.”

But after one of the officers who came onto Batiste’s property shoved her with his shield; after she was separated from her daughter, who, Batiste says, the cops then threw from her porch; after she witnessed Baton Rouge’s finest closing in on her home and leaving no place for the protesters to go, she snapped. Batiste no longer felt like she could go to the grocery store late at night. The sight of a cop set her heart racing. “It triggered some fundamental insecurity,” she said. “No—it created some fundamental insecurities.” She now feels constantly provoked and threatened—anywhere from Facebook to passersby on the street. The events of that July day have “kind of raped me of my ability to find balance,” she said. When she was at home, memories from that day kept flooding back. So about a month and a half later, she moved out of the rental home—and away from Baton Rouge. “I’ve always loved being black, but it was never in opposition to anything,” she told me. It is now.

When Lisa Batiste’s home was rushed by dozens of protesters and police, she experienced a trauma that altered her sense of safety and well-being, even a year and a half later. And she isn’t alone. I spoke with four others, all of them black, who were involved in the protests in Baton Rouge last year. Each of them now reports having similar reactions to police.

On the evening of July 9, 2016, Christopher Brown, then 22, and his sister Brachell, then 21, were at their home on a sleepy street (named after a Confederate general) in a suburban section of Baton Rouge, when they began to see calls for protests against Sterling’s death pop up on their Instagram and Facebook feeds. Neither of the siblings had ever participated in a protest before. But Sterling’s death struck a chord with them: “He was the ‘CD Man’—everybody in the community knew him. He didn’t bother nobody,” Christopher said. “It could have been me,” Brachell remembered thinking. “It could have been anyone that I’m close to.”

They grabbed some signs that Brachell had made (hers read: “Dear police, we are not target practice”) and drove down to join the crowd at a thoroughfare called Airline Highway, near the Baton Rouge Police Department headquarters. “It felt very empowering,” Brachell said. “I know I was doing the right thing. I was making sure my voice was really loud—my poster was held up.”

The two had been protesting for about an hour, Brachell said, when the police showed up in riot gear and began to arrest people at random. Brachell was one of the unlucky ones. “I seen a policeman point toward me—then, before you know it, a few of them just came running at me,” she recalled. Christopher wrapped his arms around his sister to protect her. Police officers threw them both to the ground and tased Christopher, the siblings say. Both of them were arrested.

Christopher and Brachell were placed on a bus and taken to police headquarters. “When I get really, really angry, I begin to shake,” Brachell said. “I was shaking nonstop.” The arrest had happened so quickly, and none of it made sense to her: Why had she been aggressively pursued by police for exercising her First Amendment rights? The siblings were then put in separate vans and driven to the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, a 25-minute drive from where they were arrested. The driver of Brachell’s bus “had the heat on high” with the windows rolled up, Brachell said, exacerbating the extreme heat of Baton Rouge in July. The siblings would be separated for an excruciating night.

While Christopher was in a holding cell, the police pepper-sprayed him and others. The 36 hours he spent there “felt like two weeks. The food was horrible,” he remembered. “I didn’t eat the entire time…. I was tired, restless, hungry. I will never forget it.” (The Baton Rouge Police Department didn’t respond to The Nation’s request for comment on the pepper-spraying incident, or on Brachell’s claim about the excessive heat in the bus.) A report issued by the Promise of Justice Initiative described the jail housing the protesters as full of overcrowded cells “caked with grime and blood.” “The way [corrections officers] talk to you in there—it’s like, you don’t even talk to an animal like that,” Christopher added.

Brachell spent her own 36 hours in jail cold and hungry, talked down to and yelled at by guards. She was too ashamed to use a restroom with no doors. “I carry [jail] with me like a backpack,” she says now. “Pretty much whenever I see a police, I always question their motivation: Am I about to get in trouble for something that never even happened?” Brachell tries to avoid the street where she was arrested. When she does have to pass by it, she finds herself becoming “angry all over again.”

Being tased, arrested, and treated poorly in jail has fundamentally altered Christopher’s view of policing as a profession. Brachell agrees: “I feel like even when I turn 40, I’m still going to relive this moment. I’m still going to try to get people who I’m connected to to pretty much avoid police in any way possible.”

Over the course of the past three years, the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement has inspired protests across the country against police violence. Some, like those in Ferguson, Baton Rouge, and Baltimore, were sustained over several weeks and drew a massive, militarized response from law-enforcement agencies. In each city, SWAT teams equipped with tear gas, armored vehicles, and rifles patrolled the streets, and protesters were subject to mass arrests and police brutality. In Ferguson, 10 days of protesting led to 150 arrests—80 percent of them for “failure to disperse.” Nearly 200 protesters were arrested in Baton Rouge. In Baltimore, a group of aggrieved residents sued the city: One man had his arm broken by police and was never even charged; two others, who weren’t taking part in the protests, were beaten by cops with batons anyway. Reporters and TV cameras descended on these communities, capturing the violence meted out to the overwhelmingly black residents. After the protests died out, the media packed up and went away. But the emotional trauma from those incidents remains.

Eddie Hughes and his then 16-year-old daughter, Godavari, were both arrested and sent to jail for protesting in Baton Rouge last summer. Like Batiste and the Browns, neither had a particularly negative perception of the police before that protest—but they do now. Seeing a cop, “I wonder if he’s having a bad day today,” Eddie said. “It’s mainly because of the experience I had, [where] I wasn’t doing anything wrong.” His daughter added, “I just [thought that police] arrest people for bad stuff, but now it’s like, ‘Oh, do they really do that? Do they really have a job?’” She spent the weekend in juvenile detention for “simple obstruction of a highway.”

Having been subjected to the very police violence that they’d taken to the streets to protest, the Hugheses and the Brown siblings, like Lisa Batiste, all now report feelings of wariness and distrust of law enforcement. Batiste says she suffers from a heightened general sense of anxiety. Though there’s a dearth of research on how experiences with militarized police affect community members, a report released last year by mental-health researchers found a link between the amount of exposure to violence during the Ferguson protests and the psychological-trauma symptoms seen among the protesters. That study reported that, out of the 565 Ferguson residents and local law-enforcement officers interviewed, members of the black community “exceeded clinical cutoffs for PTSD and depression significantly more than white community members.” Previous studies have found that having been in close proximity to a traumatic event was a “strong and consistent predictor of negative mental health outcomes.” Of the people that the researchers surveyed in Ferguson, those more impacted by the protests were more likely to have suffered a negative psychological effect.

The psychological impact of violent police interactions doesn’t only hit while the protests are under way. It’s ever-present, says Anton Hart, a psychoanalyst at the William Alanson White Institute. “Absolutely, police profiling and violence has an effect on the people who are members of targeted groups,” he told me. “I’ve worked with people who were hurt by the police, stopped, frisked. Just last week, a client was running to get to a session with me. And because he’s of color and running, police stopped him.” Incidents like this take a toll, Hart says. Some of the people he treats complain of nightmares and flashbacks after witnessing or being involved in incidents with police.

Over the past two decades, the militarization of police forces has given black Americans more to fear. In 1997, the Department of Defense began to supply surplus military equipment to police departments across the country. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, money for military-grade resources ramped up considerably. With grants from the Department of Homeland Security totaling $34 billion, police departments bought drones and armored vehicles. Police now receive military training and use military tactics to manage protesters.

But the police militarization isn’t having a disproportionate impact on communities of color only during protests. “Militarization makes every problem—even a car of teenagers driving away from a party—look like a nail that should be hit with an AR-15 hammer,” The Washington Post concluded in an analysis of whether military equipment made police forces more violent. A 2014 report by the ACLU found that 42 percent of those visited by SWAT teams to execute a search warrant were black, and another 12 percent were Latino. In other words, more than half were people of color.

When it comes to the psychological impacts of militarized policing on black Americans, “we’re a little bit behind on really understanding these things at a psychological level,” says Monnica Williams, a professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut who studies the effects of racism on African Americans. “Especially when it comes to people of color, the research is way behind where it needs to be.” But there is research on the disparities in health, both mental and physical, suffered by black communities. According to a 2009 study, 9.1 percent of black Americans experienced post-traumatic-stress disorder, compared with 6.8 percent of white Americans. The American Heart Association has found that nearly 43 percent of black American adults have high blood pressure, compared with just over 33 percent of white non-Hispanic American adults. And according to the National Stroke Association, black Americans are more likely to suffer strokes than any other race. The stress of living in the United States, Williams argues, makes African Americans much less healthy than their white counterparts. “There’s a lot of evidence that it’s the social milieu that is causing [these diseases],” she says. “You take those same people out of the United States and put them in other countries, and those conditions disappear.”

While specific traumatic encounters with police can provoke mental-health problems, so can the mere awareness that the cops aren’t necessarily on your side. That awareness can manifest in the form of anxiety, depression, or fear—of law enforcement, authority figures, or what might happen to the members of your family, Williams says. Those conditions can lead to substance abuse and binge eating. Sometimes black Americans develop paranoia and psychosis from trauma. “There’s a cultural mistrust of white society in communities that are alienated and marginalized,” adds Shawn O. Utsey, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. “It can impact work, school, and family life. And it can limit opportunities, because folks begin to become nervous to venture outside their own communities.”

It is difficult to determine precisely how many black Americans living in heavily policed communities experience PTSD. “A lot of these symptoms aren’t captured by standard mental-health [evaluations] because, when people are looking at what counts as a traumatic event, we’re often looking at an event that happened one time—so we’re not considering the cultural trauma” of living in a community targeted by police, Williams points out. And that means episodes of police harassment are omitted as indicators when researchers look into the rates of psychopathology.

Poor treatment by law-enforcement officers has been a reality of African-American life since before the United States existed. Even after the many successes of the civil-rights movement, police brutality and discrimination in the criminal-justice system didn’t end; they just became less transparent and more insidious. Today, black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, and black women more than twice as likely as white women. Black men are three times more likely than white men to die at the hands of law enforcement. And when black communities like Baton Rouge have objected to living under these conditions through protests and demonstrations, the response from law enforcement has been more aggression, more brutality, and more jail time.

The psychology professors I spoke with suggested that the psychological impacts on black protesters confronted by militarized police forces can’t be truly addressed until discriminatory policing practices are eradicated. Until that happens, Williams notes, a less dramatic change is for police forces to shift their approach from a “warrior” mentality to a “guardian” one, as suggested in an Obama-era report issued by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. But with a new administration focused on undoing Obama’s efforts to reform law-enforcement tactics, there is little incentive for police forces to change.

Improved mental-health services for communities of color can also be helpful, Utsey suggests. Black psychologists are training their peers to conduct “emotional emancipation circles,” which are designed to help black communities process trauma. These workshops “really took off after the publicized murders [by police],” says Cheryl Grills, former president of the Association of Black Psychologists. “And we were on the ground in all those places—in New York, Ferguson, Baltimore. At the height of the community stress, we were on the ground providing safe-space meetings.”

Lisa Batiste, the Hugheses, and the Browns have all brought related lawsuits against the city of Baton Rouge, its police department, and the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association. “We hope to expose the decades-long oppression of black people by Baton Rouge–area law enforcement, and to hold them accountable for their unconstitutional treatment of black people and those who stood in solidarity with them in July 2016,” said James Craig, the co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center, which is representing the plaintiffs. The lawsuits accuse the defendants of violating the protesters’ rights to free speech and free assembly; they also assert that demonstrators were arrested on trumped-up charges of traffic obstruction, and that black protesters were targeted based on their race. (Both cases await responses from the defendants.)

For Batiste, the trauma hasn’t only erased her confidence around police; her lifelong sense of patriotism is gone, too. For years, she flew an American flag outside her home. “Not only did I have one—when the anchor of it broke, I called my landlord” to come fix it, she told me. Her favorite thing about being an American? “Freedom—the ability to do any damn thing that I want.” But Batiste doesn’t fly a flag outside her new home in Houston, Texas. “It’s not representative of me—nor is it representative of the things that I was sold about what it is to be an American.” The deep pain from that realization is one that she’ll carry for the rest of her life.

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