Justice Horn was in broad daylight, but he could not see as he rose from the ground and blindly stumbled through darkness and pain.
The pain was the fire the community activist felt in his face and eyes in June 2020, as he had just been pepper-sprayed by a Kansas City police officer while peacefully protesting the death of George Floyd. “I’ve never felt any pain like that before,” Horn said. “Just to be standing there with no weapons — I don’t own a gun — but with a sign and just to turn and get Maced.”
At the protest, attendees chanted and held signs. They were standing on the sidewalks, not antagonizing the police, when hundreds of protesters were pepper-sprayed, pushed down, shoved into cop cars or shot with rubber bullets, he said.
A fellow activist called an Uber for Horn, who “remained blind for the rest of the day” and went to bed because he couldn’t see anything. “You hear stories and have family that have run-ins with law enforcement, but it’s another thing when you have personal experience,” Horn said. “Even if that cop’s gone, you’re always going to remember that.”
As shocked Americans watched a predominantly White insurrection at the US Capitol lead to domestic terrorists storming the building, many decried the threat to safety and democracy. But for some people of color — Black, Native American and Latinx — these events amid an international reckoning of racial injustice were also another infuriating, sobering reminder of White supremacy and privilege. As Horn watched the insurrection unfold, he remembered the aggression he and other activists experienced last summer.
Their fight was the “bare minimum Black Lives Matter,” Horn said. “And the fact that that gets challenged, that we get beaten … and then seeing people … get grace, get escorts, get selfies and don’t get the back end of a police stick for a protest or for a mask mandate shows that there are two different Americas.”
“I’m just asking for police to give us grace,” he added, “the same way they do with Trump supporters.”
If witnessing the insurrection took a toll on your mental health, there are ways you can try to manage alone and with others.
Why the insurrection was triggering for some people of color
What might also be disturbing and stressful for people of color to hear are statements that equate the Capitol insurrection to protests for racial justice. The fundamental differences lie within the motivations of the movements.
“Black Lives Matter protesters are protesting for justice and equality,” said clinical psychologist Monnica Williams, a Canada research chair in mental health disparities and associate professor at the University of Ottawa. “If your candidate doesn’t win in a society where you do have an ability to assert yourself … OK, sorry. You try again next time. That’s very different from protesting a situation where your voice doesn’t matter.”
One movement “is to protect our rights and to push for democracy,” said Helen Neville, a professor of educational psychology and African American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “The other is to dismantle democracy.”
The boldness of those who stormed the Capitol with weapons and lived likely would have been a “death sentence” for Black and brown people, Williams said, and that may have happened on the front steps, not inside the building. “It really reinforces what we as a Black community have known all along, that rather than being respected and valued members of our society, we’re mostly hated and feared.”
The potential impact of witnessing the imagery of the noose and gallows, Confederate flags and anti-Semitic garb on the mental health of people of color is not yet measurable, Williams said. She and her colleagues, however, have seen how shaken, emotional and depressed many of their clients are from observing those historical symbols of hate and violence.
“The images are painful because they’re intended to be painful. They’re symbols of hate,” Neville said. “They can have a visceral effect on people, whether it makes them feel physically ill as they look at it” or whether that adds to their trauma.
Many Americans who care about the function, race relations and leaders of this nation were affected by what happened that day, but “a lot of White people seem to be surprised and shocked,” Williams said. “A lot of people of color are not so surprised as much as disappointed and maybe feeling a little more defeated than they did before.”
Some people cope by ignoring events or numbing their emotions while others become fearful. As Inauguration Day and threats of riots draw closer, Williams worries for her children’s safety. “A lot of us feel worried like, what if this doesn’t settle down?” she said. “You hear rumors about other protests that are planned (and) being organized regionally. Does this mean that law enforcement is going to take such a lax approach when people like this act out? It’s scary.”
What both ignites these fears and potentially had underlain the inadequate police response at the Capitol was “a combination of White-skin privilege and ideological coherence,” meaning that some police shared the beliefs of the insurgents, said Sundiata Cha-Jua, an associate professor in the department of history and in African American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“Now they’re unleashed,” said Luis Zayas, the dean of the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin. “If they could do that to a fortified place like the Capitol, what it would be for a small community. You could be subject to being attacked by a much larger group that’s unruly and even the police could not control them.”
How to cope
One of the most important ways of coping with prejudice-based trauma is social support, these experts said. That includes from people with whom you can share your feelings and fears, and receive validation, Williams said. “There’s a lot of really strange things that have been going on these last four years that have become normal, but they shouldn’t be normal,” she added. “It’s almost like noise in the background,” but acknowledging these abnormalities is part of not dismissing fears.
“A cultural way of coping could be to talk to an older community member … to hear stories about how they have dealt with racial oppression and discrimination,” Neville said. “People have lived through Jim Crow in the South. Hearing those stories about resilience and about resistance can also be helpful.”
Stay informed as you need to but limit your news exposure if it becomes too much to handle, Williams said. When you are checking in, read clear analyses from credible sources, Neville said, so that “we are not buying in to analyses that blame us.”
Also try to set aside time to engage in spiritual comfort or relaxing activities as temporary distractions, which can be healthy if balanced with social awareness. Horn, the community activist, puts his phone on do not disturb while he exercises for at least an hour daily. When he’s feeling exhausted or defeated, he talks with his family and is honest about his struggles.
As you distance yourself from news, try not to log into social media feeds inundated with the same content. Social media can be a source of support, Williams said, or a black hole of contention, negativity and hate. Limit the time you spend in online conflict zones unless you have the capacity for constructive debate, and limit your viewing of visuals depicting police violence, which can be traumatizing.
Educating yourself on your heritage and the trailblazers in your history can help you heal from any internalized White supremacy you may be dealing with, Neville said.
Also, create safe spaces with others. “What we’ve seen in the past is that communities like this will create their own means of communication, where the safe places are, where to walk, where not to walk,” Zayas said. That could be via phone, text or Facebook group.
Emblems of hope
When President-elect Joe Biden was projected the winner of the 2020 US presidential election, some people of color celebrated, finding hope in the fact that there is a new, more diverse administration coming at the end of another challenging few years for racial justice.
At the same time, there are caveats. “Realistically, our country has been controlled by White men since its inception,” Williams said. “So, although yes, Trump’s reign has been traumatic, Joe Biden’s not a savior. And I think that we will be setting ourselves up for disappointment if we think that he’s going to fix everything that’s broken, because our country has been broken for maybe 300 years.
“Yes, we celebrate the end of the Trump trauma, but keep in mind we still have a lot of work to do.”
That work could be spurred by radical hope, which is the belief that our collective future will be better than it is now, Neville said. It requires reimagining what a “multiracial democracy” looks like.
“The ways in which democracy is working is not working for Black, Indigenous and people of color,” Neville added. “This radical hope incorporates our critical understanding of our past oppression and our resistance to that oppression. … We, as BIPOC folks, are going to have to carry on the traditions of our ancestors (and) work incredibly hard so that we can leave this country better.”
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“Then people can feel like they’re taking the bad things that have happened and are using that energy for good,” Williams said. “That’s really important that people can make meaning from their pain.”
CNN’s Nicquel Terry Ellis contributed to this story.