Five years ago, Ferguson protesters changed the world. But it came at a cost to their mental and physical health.
August 9 marks five years since a white police officer, Darren Wilson, shot and killed an unarmed Black teenager named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. While accounts of exactly what happened vary, Wilson shot Brown at least six times ― twice in the head. Brown’s bloody body was left on a residential street for four hours in broad daylight.
Weeks of demonstrations, vigils and protests followed. These protests eventually turned into riots with militarized police officers on one side and fed-up Black residents on another. We then saw a conversation on race that rippled internationally and launched a movement for Black lives that continues today.
“Back in 2014, I was an elected official, I was an alderman in St. Louis City. My district office was right down the road from where Mike Brown was killed,” Antonio French, now a 40-year-old former alderman and current social entrepreneur, told HuffPost. “[Brown’s] body was on the ground when I arrived and I stayed out there for the better part of two months.”
He said, “I had no idea nor did anybody that it was going to get as big as it did or last as long as it did. The level of escalation on the part of law enforcement, we hadn’t seen anything like that.”
Peaceful demonstrations turned violent when police officers descended on the city dressed in camouflage, riot gear, Kevlar vests and gas masks. Officers were armed with military vehicles, rifles, tear gas, rubber bullets, real bullets and flash-bang grenades. Within a matter of days, the Missouri governor declared a state of emergency, a curfew was set, and the Missouri National Guard was deployed. During those late summer days, dozens of protesters were arrested and jailed.
Then a second wave of protests and unrest hit in November after a grand jury chose not to indict the police officer responsible for Brown’s death.
“I dealt with it day and night, all of the tear gas, all of the demonstrations, all of the late-night activity, even when it got violent and dangerous and destructive,” French said. “I found myself standing between property and looters, trying to keep things calm, trying to stand between police and angry crowds. I was arrested, I spent nights in jail. It was a very busy time.”
“The shit is traumatic,” recalled Johnetta Elzie, a now 30-year-old protester and writer. “At 25, I had to ask myself if [I was] OK with dying. Because there were so many instances where it was like, OK, we might not make it out of this motherfucker tonight. You’re constantly living in fear. And what kind of effect does this have on someone dealing with this all the time?”
It’s a valid question. That level of harrowing activism and exposure to violence can take a serious toll on the bodies and minds of protesters.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, describes trauma as exposure to or experiencing the threat of death, serious injury or violence. It can occur when someone directly undergoes a traumatic event, witnesses it or learns of it.
“To be exposed to what we would call community violence, and then have the police basically take a military stance in the community, is absolutely a traumatic experience,” said Tammy Lewis Wilborn, a board-certified professional counselor and the owner and chief clinical officer of Wilborn Clinical Services in New Orleans.