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Extended Interview: Christen Smith on How Trauma from Police Violence Is Killing Black Women

Web ExclusiveJanuary 16, 2018
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Extended web-only interview with University of Texas at Austin professor Christen Smith looking at how the trauma of police violence is killing black women like Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, and Venida Browder, the mother of Kalief Browder.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: “The fallout of police violence is killing black women like Erica Garner.” That’s the name of a recent article in The Conversation by Christen Smith. She’s an associate professor of African and African diaspora studies and anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Christen Smith writes, quote, “When we think of police lethality, we typically consider the immediate body count: The people that die from bullets and baton blows. The death toll gives the impression that black men are the disproportionate victims of police killings. But these numbers do not reveal the slow death that black women experience. The long-range trauma police brutality causes can be as deadly as a bullet. The pain of loss kills with heart attacks, strokes, depression and even anemia,” end-quote.

AMY GOODMAN: Christen Smith joins us for Part 2 of our conversation.

Professor Smith, welcome back to Democracy Now!, associate professor of African and African diaspora studies and anthropology at the University of Texas—Austin. You heard about Erica Garner’s death. She’s a well-known activist, did not choose to be an activist, but after her father, Eric Garner, died in a police chokehold, after gasping “I can’t breathe” 11 times—this was July 27, 2014—Erica really moved forward in those next years, demanding justice, demanding to know the record of the officer who put him in the chokehold—Officer Pantaleo—demanding that there be charges brought. They weren’t locally, then now had been fighting for federal civil rights charges to be brought. She just couldn’t stop. She would stop traffic on the Verrazano Bridge. She continually held protests at the site where her father, Eric Garner, was killed. And she talked about her own anxiety and the depression she faced. And she ultimately died four months after giving birth to her little boy, her second child, Eric Garner. Professor Smith, talk about the other examples that you have been looking at, when you heard about Erica’s death.

CHRISTEN SMITH: So, one of the aspects of my research has been talking to the families of victims of police violence. And one of the families that I’ve been speaking with here in Austin, Texas, is the family of Larry Jackson Jr., who was killed by a police officer in July 2014. And just two years ago, I was speaking with his sister, who has, like Erica Garner, been tireless in her fight for justice for her brother. And she was sharing with me the ways that stress, trauma, depression, not eating—all of these things set in for her in the aftermath of her brother’s killing. They were extremely close, and just losing him was enough for her to start to manifest these symptoms. And I think that one of the things that that tells me is that this is something that is repeated over time.

And the reason why this was particularly striking to me, the story of Lakiza was particularly striking striking to me—excuse me—is because, in July of 2016, just after the deaths of Philando Castile Steele and Alton Sterling, a woman named Joselita de Souza in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, died of cardiorespiratory failure as a complication of pneumonia and anemia in the hospital there. And why is this story really striking and important? Well, the story is really striking and important because her anemia and her pneumonia were precipitated by the fact that she had not been eating for four months prior to that. And she had not been eating for four months prior to that because she entered into a deep depression after the—after the police in Rio de Janeiro killed her 16-year-old son in a police ambush on a car full of five young black boys, black—young black men. They shot 111 rounds into the car, killing everyone there.

And what was—what was really devastating about this story is that not only did they kill everyone, not only did they ambush the car, but they then, after that, accused the people that were in the car of actually engaging in a gun battle with them. And the coroner’s report found that that was absolutely not the case. They were not in a gun battle. They were simply—they were simply approached by the police, and the police killed them.

The devastating impact—this story of Roberto de Souza and what we call the chacina of Costa Bajos—excuse me—the chacina of Costa Bajos—this story had repercussions across the country of Brazil. And when I heard about that story, I remembered my conversations with Lakiza. And I remembered my conversations about the fact that she had stopped eating for many—for almost two or three months after her brother died. And that was the same thing that happened to Joselita de Souza. The difference is, thank God, Lakiza is still here with us. But Joselita de Souza succumbed to her—succumbed to her health challenges as a result of that.

And the devastating part of this is that these are stories that are just simply repeated. They’re not always the same. They’re not always exactly the same symptoms or the same manifestations. So it’s not always anemia, it’s not always pneumonia. Sometimes it’s a heart attack. Sometimes it’s a stroke. Dr. Keisha-Khan Perry, who is a professor of anthropology—a professor of anthropology and Africana studies at Brown University, writes in her book about the story of Dona Iraci. And Dona Iraci—this is also in Brazil, because Brazil is one of the places where I also do my research. And so, Dona Iraci, in the city of Salvador, Bahia, in 2002, died of a heart attack when the police tried to enter her home and arrest her young grandson.

And so, when we think about the death toll, we don’t think about Joselita de Souza, we don’t think about Venida Browder, we don’t think about Dona Iraci. We don’t count these people when we count police killings. And we absolutely must. We absolutely must, because just because somebody is not dying from an actual bullet that the police are shooting and just because somebody is not dying from a beating doesn’t mean they’re not dying from the trauma of police violence. And if they’re dying from the trauma of police violence, then they, too, are victims, in the same way that the 214 black men, for example, that died of police—that were killed by police in 2017 are victims. And so, if we think about it in this way, then we need to really shift the playing field for how we talk about this crisis. And it really is a crisis. And I think I really want to emphasize that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, in one of her last interviews before Erica Garner died of an asthma-induced heart attack four months after giving birth, Erica spoke to journalist Ben Dixon about the stresses families face.

ERICA GARNER: Look at Kalief Browder’s mother.


ERICA GARNER: She died of a broken heart. She had heart problems because she kept on fighting for her son, like I’m struggling right now with the stress and everything or whatever, because this thing, it beats you down. The system beats you down to where you can’t win, where you’re ready to say, “You know what? I’m going to take this money. Just forget about it.”

No, my father will not be forgotten. My father, you know, he died. He died on national TV. I had to see him die on national TV. A lot of people don’t get to see their parents die, you know, don’t know why. They’re just gone, and, you know, you don’t get to say goodbye. But I felt the same pain that my father felt on that day, when he was screaming “I can’t breathe!” When he was saying that, he was tired of being harassed, tired of freaking being arrested, his money being stole from him. …

Like I’m not giving up, and this is the fight. I’m in this fight forever. And no matter how long it takes, 20 years from now, we deserve justice. And I want to get justice for other people. And I want other families, you know, to know like it’s hard, but you’ve got to keep on. You’ve got to keep the name out there, because people will forget.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that was Erica Garner in the last interview she gave before she died. She was 27 years old. In October 2016, Venida Browder died at the age of 63. Her son, Kalief Browder, committed suicide in 2015, after spending three years at New York’s Rikers Island jail without trial, after he was accused at the age of 16 of stealing a backpack. The family’s lawyer, Paul Prestia, praised Venida for tirelessly fighting for justice for her son Kalief. He said, quote, “The stress from this crusade coupled with the strain of the pending lawsuits against the city and the pain from the death were too much for her to bear. In my opinion she literally died of a broken heart.” In early 2016, Venida Browder spoke at the American Justice Summit and described the day she found her son’s body hanging from the side of their home.

VENIDA BROWDER: I was home alone with him. And he—we had a little discussion earlier, and I was at a loss as to what to do. I didn’t know what to do, how to really, you know, help him, because he became very paranoid. Very paranoid.

JUJU CHANG: Worried about getting beaten or attacked.

VENIDA BROWDER: Yes. And I tried talking to him. So, he went upstairs. And I was just laying on my bed, and he came in. He said, “Ma”—that was his thing. “Ma, you all right?” I said, “Yeah, I’m OK.” He went back upstairs. And I hear all this moving. So I figure, you know, he was in his brother’s room. He’s situating the room so he could get comfortable and watch TV. Then I hear him pacing from one room to the other. But when Kalief is upset, he paces. So I didn’t pay attention. Then, all of a sudden, I hear this loud noise. And I’m like, “Oh, my goodness. The child done threw his brother’s TV out the window.” But I say, “He can’t, because there’s bars.” So I say, “Wait a minute.” I go upstairs. I went in his brother’s room. Nothing. Then I went in the other room, and he had kicked out the air conditioner covers. And I saw this gold rope thing. And I ran downstairs, and when I opened the backyard door, his foot—one of his feet was on the bar of the gate. And I said, “Kalief, stop playing. This is not a joke. It’s not funny.” I said, “Kalief!” And then I got afraid to open the door all the way, in case it was my fault that, you know, he snapped. But when I looked up, his head was just hanging back. He was gone. And that loud noise was his body banging up against the house.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Venida Browder, the mother of Kalief Browder. Kalief Browder was beaten repeatedly while he was in jail, both by prison guards and by inmates. Venida Browder died nine months after that interview. Professor Smith, could you respond to both what Venida Browder and Erica Garner said?

CHRISTEN SMITH: I mean, I think listening to their voices, now that they are gone, is just devastating. It’s just devastating, because they were literally crying for help, and they were literally saying, “This is hurting me. This is hurting my family.” I’ve listened to other interviews by Venida Browder prior to this point, and she talked about the fact that Kalief was really struggling with depression and with the trauma that he experienced in Rikers, because of all of the injustices and the torture that he experienced there, as well, and obviously that—understandably so, right?

And I think what’s interesting is that she knew that that had changed him forever and that he would never be the same and that it had taken a devastating toll. And as she knew that, she also was aware that it was taking a toll on her. And I think that that’s really the story of black women who are the family members of people who are the victims of police violence.

I think when we listen to Erica talk about Venida Browder and talk about the stresses that she’s going through and the way that the system beats you down, we can’t help but realize that this is something that is preventable. It’s absolutely preventable. It’s something that, beyond just completely eradicating the problem of police violence, which is something that is a priority and something that we must do, as a Band-Aid to the problem, while we are fixing that broader problem, at the very least we can try to figure out a way to support these families, so that these deaths don’t have a devastating and deadly impact on the people who are left behind.

And that’s the one thing that comes to my mind when I listen to this. You know, this keeps happening. This keeps happening. And so, at what point are we going to say, “This is enough, and we need to stop this, and this can’t happen anymore”? And so, you know, it’s one of those things where we really have to start listening. And if you don’t want to listen to me, listen to these women. Listen to what they’re saying. Listen to what they were saying when they were alive about what they were feeling and what they were experiencing. And that will tell you enough about the problems that this particular issue is creating for our community.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Smith, let’s do just that. Let’s go back to Erica Garner in her own words. She was on Democracy Now! two years ago this month.

ERICA GARNER: Well, when you deal with grief, when you talk about grief and you talk about family and how regular families deal with it, you know, families have problems. Family has trouble to—with coping with it. But it makes it so different because now we are part of this national scale. …

And it’s like families that’s put in my position, black families that’s on public assistance, that doesn’t have the income, to get therapy is $300 an hour, and I don’t think that’s fair, and it’s not made for the white—I mean, for the black population, because how are we supposed to cope with this if we don’t have someone to talk to, someone professionally to talk to? So, now my family is trying to figure out how—well, me, personally, I’m trying to figure out how can I, you know, get past that barrier and find someone to talk to to deal with this, because this is trauma. This is—my 3-year-old niece bashed a boy in the head with a book at school and said that “I’m angry the cops killed my grandfather. That’s the reason why I did it.” She wasn’t mad at the kid. But it’s—she’s so young, and for her to say that, it hurts my heart. And now she’s in—you know, she’s got to talk to someone out of her day care, whatever, and it’s just not fair. And we just need whatever put into place for mental health to take care of our mental health, because it’s very important. It’s very important, you know, dealing with grief.

I still haven’t accepted that my father is gone, even though I talk about my dad, but I talk about him in a case study, like I’ve been studying his case. … And, you know, you can see I’m constantly reading articles and doing the research on my dad’s case. But I’m not taking care of me.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that was Eric Garner—Erica Garner speaking on Democracy Now! almost exactly two years ago, in January 2016. So, Professor Smith, I want to ask you, because you’ve done this research on the trauma faced by families of victims of police violence, both here and in Brazil, whether you think that there’s a specific kind of trauma associated with deaths induced by police violence as against deaths induced by other forms of lethal violence.

CHRISTEN SMITH: Absolutely. I think when we look at the case, for example, of Eric Garner and Erica Garner, you hear Erica talking about the trauma of watching her father die over and over and over and over again. So our media culture is such that we reproduce these deaths constantly. And what we don’t think about when we’re doing that is the traumatic effect that that has on the families. I think that it has a traumatic effect on black people generally. I think that people have written about that and talked about that extensively. But the families, in particular, experience that trauma. I remember when I spoke to Lakiza just after the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. And she talked to me about how that was—she almost had a panic attack when she saw that on television. She felt like everything that happened with Larry was coming back. And that’s how these families feel.

And I think it’s important to note two things. So, one, not every case, obviously, gets national attention. So not every case is getting looped constantly. Nevertheless, these families are still experiencing extreme trauma. Every time they see a police officer, it’s traumatic for them. Imagine the trauma. Imagine the panic that Erica Garner must have felt when she couldn’t breathe, when she had the asthma attack that basically induced her heart attack. So, imagine the trauma of not being able to breathe, knowing that your father died saying, “I can’t breathe.” Just imagine what that would be like. This is something that affects people’s entire lives. And it is unique. It’s unique because the nature of police violence is unique.

And so, yes, homicide victims experience trauma. Yes, the victims of people—the people whose family members die prematurely experience trauma. But there’s something about the very unique nature of state-sponsored killing that is very devastating to people and affects your whole life. And so, even the way you walk through the world, when you go into a supermarket and you’re followed by a security guard, for most of us, it’s a little annoying. It may be a little bit traumatic, but not extremely traumatic. But imagine how that feels for somebody for whom somebody dressed up just like that security officer killed their family member.

And the other thing that I think I really want to point out, because you mentioned families, and I think that it’s important to recognize what children are experiencing. You know, Erica talks about her niece, in that particular clip. The children of these—the children of people who are being killed by the police—the nieces, the nephews, the grandchildren—they are being completely and irreversibly affected by this. And we are not talking about it. We’re not paying attention. And so, I can see how a daycare, like the daycare where Erica Garner’s niece is, if they did not understand what was going on, they might think that she was just a problem child because of what she did, because of the lashing out. But, in fact, this is part of the trauma. And so, you can see how that can then produce other stressors. It can then produce other problems. And so, this is something that we really need to think about within the context of this unique situation.

And I think that, in Brazil, one of the things that I find really quite devastating is that many of the police killings that I have talked about in my work have also been connected to death squads. And so, one of the things that then happens is that families are petrified of death squads coming at any point and taking their children away. And that creates this sense of panic. People don’t leave the house. People don’t want to do anything. They don’t work. They don’t do anything else. And I think that these are the ways that the uniqueness of police violence is really affecting these families.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this is a critical point you’re raising. I mean, you talk about death squads. Now, in the United States, in some communities, police are their saviors. They look to police for safety. They know if there’s a police officer on the corner, they will be safe. In other communities, that often need that kind of security, they perceive police as actually death squads. Can you talk about that, Christen Smith?

CHRISTEN SMITH: Absolutely. I mean, I think that, you know, we don’t want to make a blanket statement about anyone. So, we don’t want to ever say every police officer in the nation is somebody who’s problematic. We can’t say that. But what we can say is that the behavior of several, many police officers has caused people, particularly black people living in the United States, to fear the police and to feel like the police aren’t always there to protect their safety.

And so, there’s this really interesting paradox. On the one hand, many people live in communities where they absolutely need police protection, at least in their—the way that they approach things, the way that they imagine things, they need police protection. But at the same time, those very protectors are often the people who are responsible for the kinds of violence they see around them all the time. And so, people tend to feel like this is the police officer—police in certain communities are acting like basically contracted killers. And I know that that sounds really harsh, and I don’t mean that to be a blanket statement, but I will say that, for many people, that’s what they feel. And I think that they feel that way because of the experiences they have.

And so, I think that we have to be very sensitive to that. And we have to be sensitive to the fact that these traumas are things that people are carrying with them and things that are shaping the way that people view the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Smith, we only have a minute, but the issue of playing the video on television, on the one hand, as you say, it just traumatizes communities and families; on the other hand, if you didn’t show the video, like Walter Scott, killed by Michael Slager, who ultimately was convicted of murder, who was running away from him, stopped at a traffic stop in North Charleston, South Carolina, you see this video over and over. He’s clearly shot in the back. The officer is convicted. And it is actually the proof, the video—not that it got the officers who put Erica Garner’s father in a chokehold arrested. I mean, in fact, one of the issues, to her dying breath, was that Officer Pantaleo kept getting raises and working on the New York police force. But what do you say about showing these videos? It’s what makes people aware and galvanized.

CHRISTEN SMITH: I think that there is something deeper there that we have to reflect on and think about. And that is the way that we rely on these videos in order to humanize black life. And I think that part of what is really disturbing and difficult is that people don’t seem to be able to empathize or sympathize with black people being shot and killed by the police, unless there’s some sort of video proof of it. And that, to me, means that we need to do some work, as a nation, to try to think about how we can address this issue without having to proliferate these images of violence. I think that these images of violence are very traumatic. I know that they’ve been traumatic to me. I’ve watched many of them. And at this point, I can’t watch them anymore, even though I realize that they are an important archive, they’re an important record. And that’s really the only thing we have sometimes in order to prove the kinds of injustices that are happening in our communities. But that being said, I think that we can’t—we can’t leave it there. That can’t be the end game. We have to start to work towards thinking about ways to be able to archive this violence without reproducing and retraumatizing communities and families.

AMY GOODMAN: Christen Smith, we want to thank you so much for being with us. Christen A. Smith is associate professor of African and African diaspora studies and anthropology at the University of Texas—Austin.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to link to your piece that you wrote for The Conversation, headlined “The fallout of police violence is killing black women like Erica Garner.” Professor Smith is also the author of Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence, and Performance in Brazil. This is Democracy Now!

CHRISTEN SMITH: Thank you so much for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: To see Part 1 of our conversation with Professor Smith, you can go to democracy now. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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