Charlottesville: Acknowledging the Trauma and Getting Our Normal Back

Minutes before James Fields slammed his Dodge Charger into the crowd, we had been marching jubilantly down Water Street.

Two marching groups of anti-racists/anti-fascists had merged near the Charlottesville Downtown Mall and as we converged, so did our chants. The crowd was celebrating the fact that large groups of white supremacists and nazis had been driven from downtown: “Whose streets? Our streets!”

Our group paused at 4th and Water. Several members were calling for a mic check, but their calls were drowned out by the noise of the crowd. We were standing in the middle of the intersection. The crowd looked as though it was about to turn up 4th Street toward the Mall, only one block away. My partner turned to me and shouted in my ear, “Let’s move to the side. I don’t like this. We shouldn’t be in the middle of this crowd.” She had noticed a few white supremacists infiltrating the group.

As she said this, the screams and quick series of sickening loud thuds happened almost simultaneously. My first thought was that a bomb or grenade had gone off, and more were on the way. What registered in my mind as bricks being hurled through the air at us were in fact not bricks, but people’s shoes that had been knocked off their feet upon impact. In the panic, we tried to run for shelter, but not before my foot snagged on a banner that had been dropped behind me. We both hit the pavement.

What registered in my mind as bricks being hurled through the air at us were in fact not bricks, but people’s shoes that had been knocked off their feet upon impact.

We crouched under a tree on the corner sidewalk and checked each other for damage. My body felt numb and sharply aching at the same time. Horrified, my partner said, “I swear to god I saw legs flying up in the air. I think those were legs. I swear they were legs.” She said the words over and over, as though repeating it would help it make more sense. We looked back at the scene. A burgundy minivan that had earlier been hidden in the crush of the crowd had lurched several yards into the intersection upon impact (trigger warning: drone video). It now rested a few feet from where we had been standing.

There were so many people hurt. So many people screaming. I called 911. I counted the time the line rang on the other end. 15 rings, no response.

36569860635_b0c2768e17_k flowers in road-Bob Mical

Getty Images

If you were part of or an observer in the counter protest in Charlottesville this weekend, you were likely either a target of violence or you bore witness to violence. Both can be traumatic experiences. Watching the scenes unfold on television can be traumatic too.

If you are a person of color, you have likely lived through being a target of traumatic racist oppression, and experienced the psychological and physical toll that racism exacts on people of color on a daily basis.

As advocates for survivors of sexual and domestic violence, many of us are familiar with the host of reactions that follow trauma. While everyone’s particular reactions to trauma are unique, the range of types of experiences is common. Here are four types of normal reactions to trauma that you may be experiencing after living through what Jelani Cobb has now called, “The Battle of Charlottesville“, along with some tips for helping yourself or a friend move through it over the next few days or weeks.

  1. A nervous system on high alert

What it looks like: Hyper-vigilance is a heightened state of awareness, which is part of our instinctual fight/flight response. It feels like being constantly on guard. Your brain is trying to protect you by constantly scanning your environment for danger (“That guy walking toward me with the short hair and khaki pants: is he a nazi?” “Do those tattoos/slogans on a shirt/bumper sticker tell me whether that person is a white supremacist?” “Am I close to an exit in case I need to run?”). An exaggerated startle reflex may mean you nearly jump out of your skin at the sound of a loud noise or startling sight. As a heightened state of anxiety and physiological tension, hyper-vigilance can be exhausting for both your body and mind.

What to do: Remember that this is your brain’s way of practicing risk assessment by gauging people, situations, and potential harm. Breathe; mindful breathing is a calming technique always available to us. If you need to, disengage with the stressor. As with any kind of healing, sleep is crucial. Reduce caffeine and/or alcohol consumption to promote better sleep and reduce jumpiness. Go for a walk or try any other physical activity that you enjoy, whether it’s sports, dancing, gardening, etc. Get some fresh air. Play outside.

2. Re-experiencing the trauma

What it looks like: This can often take the shape of intrusive thoughts: an unbidden replaying of the trauma-inducing scene(s) over and over again, often especially when falling asleep. Flashbacks may make you feel as though you are back in the situation, reliving the memory. Traumatic memories are heavily sensory-related; intrusive thoughts and/or flashbacks will often replay or are triggered by sights, sounds, and/or smells.

What to do: Mindfulness, breathing, and other grounding sensory strategies can help. Consciously slow down and deepen your breathing. Feel the weight of your body sitting in a chair, or your feet holding you to the ground. Rather than fighting the encroaching thought, notice that it is simply a thought, a way of your brain healing itself by trying to make sense of the event; there is no need to react to it. Do yoga. Turn off your screen and stretch before bed to help prepare your body for deep sleep.

  1. Problems concentrating

What it looks like: Inability to focus, or feeling mentally foggy. You may pause a task to start another and then wonder, “What was I supposed to be doing?” You may also notice impaired short-term memory and/or “checking out”.  You may constantly want to check news reports or other accounts of the incident (or avoid the topic altogether): the wealth of commentary and perspectives about the events and impact of what happened in Charlottesville seems limitless. It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of news stories, videos, eyewitness accounts, analyses, and troll comments, especially when the incident has captured national attention.

What to do: Consciously carve out a set time for no news consumption. Give yourself a time limit and then put down your phone. If possible, choose work and home tasks this week that don’t require a lot of mental focus. If you must focus to accomplish a series of tasks, keep a running list to help you remember. Get fresh air. Rest. Know that this will pass.

 4. Emotional responses

What it looks like: Anger, fear, sadness, guilt, numbness, feeling overwhelmed. Avoidance of things that remind of you of the trauma. Perhaps thinking the world is more dangerous than you did before. Guilt in the form of criticizing yourself for how you handled the trauma. Survivor’s guilt: feeling guilty for surviving the trauma when others were killed/seriously harmed. Isolation/traumatic bonding: feeling as though only the people who were there can truly understand how it felt. Isolating yourself from people who didn’t share the traumatic experience with you because words are insufficient for conveying the experience to others.

What to do: Activate your support system; find a friend to talk to and share your experience. Journal and/or make artwork about what you experienced and how you feel now. Make plans to expand your actions to build racial justice, and find a community who is working on the same thing. Seek physical comfort by cuddling with a loved one (person or animal). Cook (or order) a delicious and nourishing meal. Tap into your community (whether that community is family, faith, political, academic, athletic, etc). Make time to do activities that normally bring you joy.

Most of us will at some point in our lives encounter and be affected by trauma. Whether you are experiencing a few or many of these symptoms, often understanding that they are all related to the same source will help the symptoms feel more manageable. Most people will discover that the symptoms subside over a period of days to months. If you find yourself struggling to get back on track, seek a survivor advocate or other professional trained in responding to trauma reactions. It will get better.

Healing is happening right now; help it take root. There is much work to be done to confront and dismantle overt and covert racism and oppression; we need you here for the long haul…strong, resilient, feisty, and compassionate…to help build the world that serves and nourishes all of us. We need you here to help build collective liberation.


Helpful resources:

4 Self-Care Resources for Days When the World is Terrible (Self-care for people of color after trauma)

21 Common Reactions to Trauma: It helps to know what to expect after a terrifying event

Emotional and Psychological Trauma: Healing from Trauma and Moving On

Simple Self-Care Practices for When It Feels Like the World is Falling Apart

Featured image: Tasos Katopodis/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

#Charlottesville #racialjustice #whitesupremacy #DefendCville

Kate McCord is the Movement Strategy & Communications Director for the Action Alliance, a member of the Action Alliance’s Racial Justice Task Force, and has been working in the movement to end gender-based violence for over 25 years. Kate is working with other coalition leaders as part of the Move to End Violence initiative to mobilize against state violence and build racial justice nationally and in Virginia.


One thought on “Charlottesville: Acknowledging the Trauma and Getting Our Normal Back

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s