Occupying the Personal Trauma of Police Brutality


By Zachary Maichuk

Trauma is always a possibility in any conflict. One would think the probability of developing war wounds at the kind of nonviolent actions associated with Occupy Wall Street would be small, but trauma is a reality for activists like Cecily McMillan (below right), who experience both police brutality and the symptoms of trauma they produce.
Occupy has natural buffers to prevent brutal crimes from becoming traumatic episodes, but Occupiers still needs to be trauma-minded enough to look after their own. Especially those who tough it out by pretending nothing hurts them after being physically assaulted by enraged officers they’ve been raised to admire.
What is trauma?
We tend to think of trauma in terms of its symptoms: withdrawal, anxiety and panic, fear, flashbacks, nightmares, mood swings, hyper-vigilance, detachment and the search to numb these experiences through drug use or self harm. But this is all very clinical and dry.

A more human understanding of trauma is that it is an event someone cannot yet write into their personal narrative, which separates that person from him or herself.

Every experience we have in life gets assimilated into our personal understanding of the world. It is, in essence, our life story. Taking an experience and making it part of your story requires that you take it in, apply a meaning to it, and work it into the overall narrative of your life. The process is akin to digesting food in the sense that you need to incorporate it into who you are.

However, some experiences are simply too intense and overwhelming to be assimilated into your story as easily as others. Events of extreme loss, extreme fear, and/or extreme violation are often too difficult for people to assimilate with their normal speed and efficacy.

Physical attacks, sexual abuse, the loss of someone important to you, gas-lighting and emotional abuse are all experiences that can overwhelm. These experiences don’t just have to happen to you directly. Humans are a symbolic and empathetic species, which means that watching a person being attacked or abused, especially someone with whom you identify, can be just as traumatic.

That’s why so many people still can’t bear to see a Hollywood film about 9/11. And that’s why so many people had such a visceral response to the videotaped decapitation of journalist David Pearl in Pakistan in 2002, even those who only heard audio of the brutal event.

Our minds have a few tricks to protect us from intense trauma. We have defenses like denial and dissociation, which kick in automatically to protect us.

However, we still need to eventually assimilate the event, and so there is a slow and often difficult process of dropping our defenses just enough to face a bit of the trauma without being overwhelmed, and then waiting until we can digest a bit more.

The mind has to play a tricky and delicate dance to do this, which is not always executed perfectly. The more frightening or painful the experience, the harder the dance, and the longer it takes to integrate the event into your personal life narrative.

Trauma is the state of incomplete integration.

It’s very much a natural and normal process and most people are able to recover without long-term problems.

From a diagnostic perspective, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) requires a month of severe symptoms, largely in recognition that some reaction is normal, to a degree. After experiencing a traumatic event, many people will heal on their own, others will have acute reactions, and some will develop full-blown PTSD.

The factors that help determine whether someone is able to work through trauma on their own include the severity of the traumatic event, their personal history, and the available social resources.

The factors that promote health and prevent more clinical reactions are often called “buffers,” and usually involve supportive friends and family, good coping skills, and readily available resources.

I refer to the factors that hinder the healing process as “blockages,” because they literally block the natural process of assimilation and healing. The most common blockages I have found are shame and misdirected anger.

In addition, the most frequent question I encounter when working people who are suffering from trauma is “why did it happen?”

This question reflects the quest for meaning, and every story is constructed on its meaning.

If the meaning is ultimately constructive, it enables the process of healing and integration. However, the healing process is blocked when the meaning is destructive and the event can’t be integrated into a personal narrative.

Constructive meanings usually involve great challenges endured or overcome, lessons learned, and new understandings gained. Your story becomes more powerful because in facing the terrifying event because your survival grants you a better understanding and a more powerful stance in the world. The story becomes soul medicine.

However, when the ultimate meaning is destructive the story itself becomes toxic, and your system rejects it each time you try to swallow it down.

This is where shame causes so many problems. If your meaning involves taking on the stigma of shame, that meaning makes you the toxin in your own story.

Meaning has been one of the core struggles in the Occupy Movement, largely because our opponents have desperately tried to obscure our goals and demands in an attempt to discredit us. This tactic of obscuring the meaning of the movement can demoralize protesters and cause them to doubt their own rationality.

There are also more direct ways of making protesters doubt their sanity. Reports have already come in of law enforcement officers threatening protesters with psychiatric hospitalization, essentially committing a form of emotional abuse known as “gas-lighting.”

Gas-lighting occurs when the manipulations of the other, in this case an officer, reframe rational reactions as irrational. In the process, they force their target to doubt his or her hold on reality.
These tactics are often used by abusers who would rather support the status quo than admit to the harm they are doing. The award-winning movie “Changeling” reminds us of our nation’s – and sadly, my own field’s – dark history of using this tactic. In the years immediately after the Women’s Suffrage Movement secured the right for women to vote via the 19th Amerndment in 1920, women were sometimes institutionalized for trying to use their new legal rights. Release was conditional on them denying rationality of the rights they were demanding.
Likewise, survivors of abuse often assimilate the false meanings handed to them by their abusers in their quest for meaning. Sayings like “you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” “you broke the law,” “you’re losers” and “that’s what you deserve” are common rationalizations used by anyone justifying abuse, from schoolyard bullies to totalitarian regimes.

These sayings allow opressors to hide from the dark truth about the harm they are doing to their own countrymeen and women by dressing up the abuse of their power in the guise of  the status quo.

Victims sometimes accept this rationale to, making the plea, “if I agree, maybe you won’t hurt me again.” The price to pay for this subconscious deal with the devil is a sense of shame as you take on the guilt that rightfully belongs with your attacker.
The resulting attack on the survivor’s sense of power can place them at risk. There is an important reason the term “survivor” is used instead of “victim” in many circles. “Victim” denotes passivity. “Survivor” denotes resistance and, in many ways, accomplishment.

Occupiers describe ourselves as “victims” of police brutality in the public forum to spur our fellow Americans to action and to emphasize the misconduct of the law enforcement officers attacking us. However, in our own minds it’s important to see ourselves as survivors from a mental health perspective. Not victims.
Because when people feel like victims they lose their own personal sense of control and power. Fear and depression can quickly set in when a person is powerless.
Direct targets of violence are not the only ones at risk during police attacks. Occupiers wouldn’t be Occupiers if they were content to watch others suffer and such empathetic souls can be traumatized merely by witnessing the suffering of their fellow activists.

Occupiers are not bystanders in their own society, they know the hard lesson taught by the killing of Kitty Genovese – a 29-year-old Queens woman who was stabbed to death in her home as fearful neighbors listened to her screams for help and did nothing. I’m proud to say that almost every Occupier I have ever met would step up to help Genovese if such an attacked occurred today.

We don’t ignore the suffering of our fellow humans as we try to live the mantra that “a better world is possible.” That alone makes us special.
However, this sense of empowered empathy also means that each of us is more susceptible to trauma when a fellow Occupier gets assaulted by an officer. When we’re unable to step in and stop the abuse in our roles as nonviolent protesters, there is an elevated risk of integrating a theme of weakness into our own personal narratives.

The dangers associated the word “should” kick in.

As in “I should have done more to protect him/her,” “I should have stopped that officer,” and “I should have rescued him/her.” These experiences and thoughts can injure those observing another’s victimization just as much as experiencing the abuse directly.

Third-world dictators and warlords use this tactic as a form of torture because it is so diabolically effective. By assaulting a wife or child in front of a chained-up husband they can break both in a single attack.

Anger is also an important issue to face when processing trauma. When you are attacked, anger is a normal, natural, and valid reaction. In fact, it can be a powerful tool for both identifying an injustice and energizing your efforts to right it. However, anger is tricky, and it is often confused with hatred, rage, and violence.

Many people divorce themselves from their anger because of this confusion, leaving them unable to tell their whole story, and blocking the healing process. On the other side are the people who give in and commit acts of violence and rage. Even though this seems like an expression of anger, it doesn’t help the healing process.

As nonviolent protesters, we often struggle to tightly control our natural impulses toward rage and violence. We need to continue to control them because a person who gives into rage, hatred, and violence is engaging the most primal part of their brain and suppressing the part that weaves their life story – the part unique to our humanity. We can’t give ourselves meaning when we lose control and act out, and our story remains incomplete.

Just as participating in the Occupy movement means risking trauma, it also means having access to its potential resources to buffer against the trauma. Occupy is exceptional at empowering people to speak out and express their righteous indignation in a nonviolent way.

When survivors of police violence are given the opportunity to speak out, they are given a powerful tool. Occupy has also shown itself to be quite successful at adopting and spreading new ideas while adapting to changing situations.

This skill enables the movement to begin to spread narratives that can be used to help survivors adopt beneficial meanings for their life stories. Advancing the greater good is the powerful and beneficial meaning that underpins the entire Occupy movement.

That’s why it’s so important that we view those who suffer trauma in the course of our efforts to change the status quo as wounded warriors, not helpless victims. By helping our own view their suffering in this context, we can help them digest their trauma in a way that is more constructive to their personal narrative and ultimately more reflective of the sacrifices they make.

One message I have found that frequently helps the survivors I work with is that the abuse is never about them. This may seem dehumanizing, as it takes the survivor’s uniqueness out of the equation, but it’s also a useful mindset because it places the responsibility for the abuse on the abuser and the unfair system they are defending.

Occupy’s dedication to nonviolent action can be a real aid in helping survivors heal, because it’s no easy thing to remain nonviolent in the face of physical domination. The temptation towards rage can be strong, and ultimately damaging. The non-violent alternative should remain a source of pride.

Being both non-violent and non-passive affords Occupiers the opportunity to express their anger in the face of abuse in a productive world-changing way, and channel their anger constructively without losing control.

Finally, Occupy has a great strength in that it is a community. The people I’ve met were generally reach out and look out for each other. The moment an officer abuses a protester the community comes together with cameras drawn to pressure them with communal condemnation. The manner in which officers seem to fade in the face of this righteous indignation is the best evidence of its usefulness as a tool for change.

We also have medics wo are ready and willing to look after injured occupiers. The Occupy movement can use this strength to identify members who are having difficulties and help them get the support they need to heal and finish their stories. Some Occupy groups, such as the Occupy Oakland Safer Spaces Committee, already have integrated trauma support into their medics’ skillset.

Other Occupy groups should follow Oakland’s lead by preparing their medics to care for both physical and psychical wounds.

We also need to channel our deep well of empathy into a better understanding of the trauma being suffered by police officers charged with executing abhorrent and repressive orders. It may seem odd to express concern for the NYPD in an article about the trauma caused by police brutality, but it’s in keeping with one of the fundamental tenets of the Occupy movement, which is that no American is disposable.

As trauma hardens our own attitudes toward police, it’s important that we keep this tenet in mind and remember that compassion for our countrymen and women is a huge part of our collective strength.

It’s important for us to understand that police are injuring themselves when they abuse protesters. This isn’t just rhetoric. Police are being put in the same situations as our soldiers are being put in during war by their superiors – from Michael Bloomberg down to the street commanders in the field.

They are being ordered to hurt another human being and we aren’t wired to do that easily. I saw the harm they are doing to themselves during the conflicts in Zuccotti Park. One example occured in the video at right, which captured an officer kicking protester Brandon Watts as he wa son the ground at the 2:51 mark. The kid was carried out with a bloody wound to his head in the video below right.

I was off to the side, and didn’t see most of what occurred. I did see a police officer punch one young woman struggling to reach her friend on the ground. Those of us near the recipient of that blow pulled her to safety.

Moments later, I found myself locking eyes with another officer. She was in full riot gear, baton positioned horizontally across her chest. My hands were up non-threateningly. The girl walked past us screaming in rage. The officer in front of me didn’t seem to know how to respond.

“Just let her go,” I said. “She just got punched by an officer.”

The officer was between torn between her orders and her humanity. Her eyes dropped and she assumed the look of shame I’ve seen hundreds of times while treating trauma patients in my office.

The officer was in a situation that was out of control. She was being pushed into situations where good people were getting hurt and felt powerless to stop it.

It was all in her eyes.

It’s the same kind of trauma we put our soldiers through. David Grossman’s book On Killing discusses this type of trauma in depth. In fact, the modern concept of trauma actually was discovered through studies of soldiers. Researchers found that violence against another human violates a deeply seated human taboo.
Every time a police officer is ordered to break that taboo, they lose a piece of their own story. That’s no easy thing for a group whose collective honor is derived from the notion that they serve and protect the greater good.

It definitely was anything but easy for that officer in front of me, even though I never saw her do anything but hold her baton. It’s also not easy for officers who actually engage in physical attacks on nonviolent Occupiers trying to advance the greater good.

Some officers seek to preserve their personal story when confronted by their own violation of this taboo by projecting their own sense of shame and self-anger onto Occupiers. But you can never lie to yourself about something like that, without creating a debilitating cycle of anger and abuse that leaves you disconnected from yourself, and ultimately even more traumatized.

The officer kicking the protester is probably locked into that cycle.

He lost control, and had to build justifications to absolve himself, pushing his own sense of guilt under until it bubbled up again as hate. He doesn’t actually hate the  protesters, he hates what he has been turned into by his response to the protests. If he doesn’t face that, he’ll lose control again and like anyone in rage – he’ll cut himself off from his own story.

The officer should be angry with himself for giving in to his anger, but he should be even more angry with the supervisors who have abandoned the protocols meant to help him remain under control. And with Bloomberg for giving placing him and other officers in these situations.

Police survive by the notion that they cover each other, but he was abandoned when he forced to confront nonviolent advocates for the greater good and violated a severe taboo of humanity as a result.

A whole lot has to be going wrong for officers to be placed into the situation where they get this abusive. If we don’t see that, we are abandoning them in very much the way their superiors have abandoned them.

People pursue law enforcment careers with the expectation they will be protecting and serving society. Not with the idea they’ll be employed to supress free speech and assembly.

As Occupier Ray Lewis, a retired Philadephia police captain has observed: “Nobody joins the police to beat up decent working-class kids.”

As long as police officers continue to be employed to protect the concentration of wealth in the hands of the 1% and to supress legitimate, nonviolent protests against such societal inequities they will continue to run an elevated risk of being stuck in traumatic cycles of rage, like the kicking officer, or in traumatic cycles of shame and powerlessness, like the officer with the baton.

Police brass and political leaders have to accept their responsibility for their part in this relationship.

The ability of Occupiers to help the officers brutalizing us is limited, but we aren’t powerless.

I found myself next to a pair of Community Affairs officers during one protest march. And I felt their pain as protesters screamed obscenities and made rude hand gestures toward one of their comrades in riot gear.

“I know you’re not all assholes,” I said.

“Thank you,” one said, sighing in cathartic relief.

“I actually support what you are doing,” the second officer told me.

We talked more and accepted one another as human beings. We helped one another write our stories of the day.

It was a small act, but a powerful one and something we all can do.

Finally, here are two useful lists for trauma. The first is comprised of some things you can do to help someone you care about who has been in a potentially traumatizing event:

  1. Establish safety
  2. Connect the traumatized loved one to professional resources while remembering that you are a friend/family member – not a trained therapist.
  3. Connect the loved one to their own coping and social resources. By getting them to identify and use their own strengths, and by keeping them connected to others who are caring and helpful, you are providing them with necessary and protective buffers.
  4. Encourage without forcing. Your traumatized loved one is trying to re-establish a sense of control. Unless their life is at risk, don’t take that control away from them by forcing them into doing something “for their own good.”
  5. Listen to your traumatized loved one, but don’t force them to talk. If a person is ready to tell their story, you can support them by listening, accepting and loving. Be careful not to traumatize them further by forcing a story before they’re ready to verbally revisit it. Even if they aren’t speaking, you can still accept and love them.
  6. Be aware of the messages you send them. Your loved one will incorporate the messages they hear into their personal narratives. Call them “strong,” and they will become strong. Shame them, and they will adopt that shame.

This second list is comprised of trauma warning symptoms. Remember, much of this is a normal and natural part of the healing process. However, the more severe the reaction to trauma, especially among those engaging in self-harm, the more pressing the need to seek professional help.

  1. Symptoms of depression, including crying, irritability, loss of interest in activities, shortened sense of future, and feeling down.
  2. Symptoms of anxiety, including panic attacks, fear of situations and places, sleep problems, hyper-vigilance, anger, being easily startled, trying to avoid thoughts or conversations.
  3. Symptoms of avoidance, such as the inability to recall events, feelings of detachment from self or emotions, coping through drug use.
  4. Symptoms of re-experiencing, such as flashbacks, intrusive thoughts/memories, and nightmares
  5. Severe and dangerous behaviors such as cutting and suicidal ideations.

If you or a loved one are suffering from trauma you can seek assistance by phone at 1-800-THERAPIST, 1-800-494-8100, 1-888-826-9438 and 1-800-273-8255. Additional information is available online at http://www.ptsdhotline.com

Zachary Maichuk is a Doctor of Psychology, therapist, writer, artist, storyteller, and wandering do-gooder. He has worked with the Peace Corps in Africa, with Americorps in Paterson, N.J., and wherever else he can lend a hand.