Dealing with trauma is a process. I think this is as true for a country as it is for an individual.
In 1969, psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross published her theory in On Death and Dying on the “Five Stages of Grief“, as a way to describe her work with terminally-ill patients. The five stages — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — describe just some of the emotions that can be felt. I’ve seen these stages modified to also include separate stages for shock and guilt.
At the center of our conversation recently in the US on change and progress has been the issues of police brutality, mistrust, and unequal treatment of minorities in the name of justice. The nation is upset. Americans are protesting, marching, “dying-in“, and calling for economic boycotts. Mistrust of law enforcement in black communities no doubt has its roots embedded deeply in the annals of our history of Jim Crow, “separate but equal“, and slavery in this country, as well as the de facto discrimination that continues to permeate American’s unconscious bias towards people who — on the surface — they have nothing in common with. The recent deaths of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice at the hands of police officers are not spurious data points in an otherwise perfect system. They are in fact, new manifestations of an old reality this country has grappled with.
As I have observed the public conversation, I have been frustrated. I have witnessed people compare apples to oranges, question the character of Brown and Garner, rationalize their murders by discussing the pressures and stress police officers face, and judge the response of Brown and Garner; you know — “just do what you’re told, and everything will be okay”, or “why did he have to talk back and resist?”
Especially today, as I watched Former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani blame President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio for stoking the fires that led to the assassination of two police officers in Brooklyn, my frustration oscillated between incredulity and disdain.
I wanted to enumerate the ways in which Giuliani had missed the mark. I wanted to lambast those in the public discourse that hid behind the logic and safety that willful ignorance affords. I wanted to write a thesis on the #blacklivesmatter movement, and that it is not simply a legal cause, but a moral imperative.
But then the 7 stages of grief popped into my head. And I realized that everyone deals with the inevitability of progress in their own way. Because the impetus for change can sometimes be traumatic. And the pain associated with the journey can sometimes be ugly. And before real progress can occur, the American psyche has to come to terms with the moral foundation of people’s current outrage.
In response to calls for change on this issue, some in the American public have responded with shock or disbelief. Not disbelief that a black man could get killed over a pack of cigarettes, but the shock that this incident could cause the sustained outrage that it has across the nation.
The American public has some representatives that would deny that this is even an issue. Similar to Giuliani asserting that police brutality is a non-issue because there are statistically fewer incidents than the number of blacks killing blacks, some individuals have opted for denying the existence of one issue by highlighting the existence of another.
Some police officers and public officials have expressed anger at the outcry for justice, and have already seized upon the assassination of these two officers in Brooklyn as the symbolic justification for that anger. And while the deaths of these two officers is certainly an issue to be angry about — innocent people do not deserve to die — attempting to paint their deaths as the “justice” black communities are really seeking nationwide is an angry response to a traumatic event and bastardizes the real conversation that is being avoided but needs to happen.
I truly want this nation to get to the final stage of acceptance and hope. If these past months have been any indication, the journey will not be easy. But true reconciliation is needed and to get there, real change has to be a part of the solution.
Killing innocent men sitting in a car on a job is immoral. Killing men over cigarettes is equally immoral. Killing a boy with a toy gun is immoral. Killing a man holding a gun in a store that sells guns is immoral. Killing a man for having his music up too loud is immoral. Killing a man because he looked suspicious is immoral. Killing a woman in need of assistance for knocking on your door is immoral.
The immorality of these situations should not change with the inclusion of race or role in the equation.
Killing innocent police officers is immoral. Killing black men over cigarettes is equally immoral. Killing a black boy with a toy gun is immoral. Killing a black man holding a gun in a store that sells guns is immoral. Killing a black man for having his music up too loud is immoral. Killing a black man because he looked suspicious is immoral.
Killing a black woman in need of assistance for knocking on your door is immoral.
Dealing with trauma is a process. It is a process we as a country have to move through responsibly in order for real progress to occur.