One question I have been asking myself is “Why did the George Floyd murder take place during the worst public health crisis of most of our lifetimes?” The question came to me during an hour-long phone call with a good friend, Daryl, an African-American senior executive of a Fortune 500 company who lives in Ohio. Daryl shared that he was about to take a week off to process the toxic emotions he was still feeling, eight months after Floyd’s murder. It was like a one-two punch, he told me: the pandemic and then Floyd.
We weren’t talking by Zoom, so we could both let our minds flow instead of numbing them through screen-staring. We were both walking around our respective homes in different parts of the US (I live in southern California) and breaking it down. In the middle of the conversation, I asked him this question.
How did it emerge in my mind? From the collective search for truth he and I were embarked on: the rare event, even during the pandemic when we have much more occasion for such uses of our time, when two people take a break from everything and really open up together, go deep.
“My company has taken a stand on this issue,” Daryl shared. “In fifteen years, I’ve never seen anything like this. They’ve asked me to speak on panels. I’m talking to hundreds of white executives and they’re asking me about my own experiences. When I share some of the incidents of police stopping me randomly, even guns drawn once, they just can’t believe it.”
Daryl’s words reminded me of Van Jones’ admission that he’s spent most of his career attempting to convince small groups of white people about the realities of racism targeting African-Americans, to little avail. The shift in understanding following Floyd’s murder, as Jones declared in a CNN article, was a “‘Great Awakening’ of empathy and solidarity, one without historical precedent.”
Jones was right. But why? That was the question our conversation turned toward. One sentence that Daryl shared illuminated a possible answer: “Because we were all locked inside with the time to watch that video over and over.”
Consider Eric Garner, the African-American man murdered in a chokehold by a white police officer for selling loose cigarettes in Staten Island six years ago. As with Floyd’s murder, it wasn’t a solo act of aggression. Other police officers—and, in the case of Garner, even paramedics who arrived at the scene—did nothing to prevent an innocent African-American man’s life from being slowly taken from him. In many ways, Garner’s murder also galvanized a nation to increase its awareness of systemic racism against African-Americans; yet not inciting mass unrest anywhere near the scale of what transpired following the Floyd tragedy.
So, again, why? It’s a question each of us needs to ask ourselves. Watching a man politely and deferentially plead for his life for almost nine minutes, and another man’s stolid display of a complete lack of empathy—a manifestation of a growing trend in our society to disconnect from what others are experiencing—was enough to move masses of people worldwide to take to the streets in protest despite the dangers to their health of facing exposure during a pandemic.
The technology has also played a role: in 1992, we watched grainy footage of Rodney King being beaten by white and Hispanic police officers. Over two decades later, in 2014, we sat in the twentieth row and heard Eric Garner plead that he couldn’t breathe while a white police officer choked him to death.
None of this prepared anyone for the front-row seats afforded them by an onlooker’s smartphone to view Floyd’s desperate attempts to implore his aggressor to remove his knee from his neck so he could survive. Our phones enabled us to see and hear—and connect with—Floyd with a closeness and vividness impossible in earlier phone-captured police murders of African-American men.
Yet while these reasons may provide a window into how a world finally became aware of and mobilized behind the safety of darker-skinned people during a pandemic, they don’t really tell us why, in a deeper, existential sense, George Floyd was murdered. They don’t tell us what it means in our lives.
To understand why, we have to take a deeper dive into how trauma is experienced. I have been researching trauma over the past eight years and have interviewed hundreds of police officers and front-line nonprofit staff serving disadvantaged members of our society to better understand its role in our lives. Hearing story after story of the horrible things human beings can do to each other has reshaped my own philosophy of life.
I used to believe that “Things happen for a reason.” No longer. I now believe that “things happen.” Like it or not. Each of us is then presented with a choice: how to find meaning (or not) in what has occurred. This choice is at the core of our psychological growth or decay.
Such is the finding of recent research on post-traumatic growth. After extensive interventions with military veterans, two University of North Carolina psychologists, Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, invented this term twenty-five years ago. They define it as “the experience of positive change that the individual experiences as a result of the struggle with a traumatic event.”
Tedeschi and Calhoun subsequently identified three outcomes of post-traumatic growth: a changed sense of oneself; a changed philosophy of life; and a changed sense of relationships with others.
“Yes, but it’s George Floyd who experienced the trauma, not us,” you may be thinking. Actually, we all have. As I highlight in a 2020 study, secondary trauma is an emotional response from observing or interacting with another person experiencing any life-threatening situation (which is primary trauma). It happens through emotion contagion—a process in which we receive the emotion, in this case trauma, verbally or nonverbally. Think second-hand smoke.
Each of us, then, has a choice to make. We can allow the trauma to continue to fester and induce even more rumination and depression around our dismay and disillusionment that MLK’s dream is so stunningly unrealized. Alternatively, we can transform the secondary trauma we experienced through watching Floyd’s murder into our own—and society’s—growth. How? Through concerted, meaningful social action.
We each have to make a critical decision: to become bitter or to become better.
About the Author:
Anthony Silard, Ph.D. is a world-renowned leadership educator and coach. He has coached G-20 cabinet ministers and the CEOs and senior leaders of Fortune 500 companies such as Disney, IBM and GE and the world’s largest nonprofits such as CARE and Save the Children. He has taught leadership at the Monterrey Institute of Technology, California State University San Bernardino, Claremont McKenna College and IESE Business School and has lectured on leadership at Harvard, Stanford and Georgetown. His new book, Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age, was just released in March 2020. You can find more articles on his weekly blog The Art of Living Free.