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'It physically hurts': Black men are in mourning for George Floyd — and themselves

With countless killings of Black people by police, especially after George Floyd, the Derek Chauvin trial is reopening fresh wounds.
Illustration of Black men in a living room watching the Derek Chauvin trial on TV and comforting one another.
In the year since George Floyd's death and through the trial of Derek Chauvin, Black men have shared their grief, fears and solidarity.Jamiel Law / for NBC News

Tears streamed down Kenneth L. Hardin’s face as he watched 61-year-old Charles McMillian weep while testifying in the murder trial connected to George Floyd's death. He couldn’t help it: As a Black man, Hardin said he felt McMillian’s pain.

More than a week later, Hardin watched as Floyd’s brother Philonise broke down on the witness stand when describing his relationship with his older sibling who died last Memorial Day weekend after then-Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee on Floyd's neck for about nine minutes.

Hardin cried again.

His emotions watching the trial and viewing the video of Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck were representative of the trauma many Black men of various ages and locations across America felt during the trial after several weeks of sometimes-riveting testimony.

Some found it difficult to watch. Some found it unbearable to watch. Some could not watch at all.

“We need to watch it,” Hardin, an entrepreneur and former city councilman in Salisbury, North Carolina, said. “Covering our eyes or turning away from the TV and being unwilling to feel raw emotions about it is detrimental to us.”

"We can’t get so desensitized to it and we can’t get so emotionally wrought that we turn away from it," he said. "We have to embrace everything and use it as motivation to help make this stuff stop."

Hardin has three adult sons. “I picture how I would feel if they were victimized like that. I tear up thinking about it,” he said.

A Black man in so much pain that he cries or admits to crying — whether it is because of another Black man testifying in tears or the video of Chauvin’s knee embedded in Floyd’s neck — speaks to the deep agony and trauma that characterizes their lives, according to Alduan Tartt, a psychologist in Atlanta.

Dr. Alduan Tartt.
Dr. Alduan Tartt.Nick Nelson

“It’s not just George Floyd losing his life; it’s the symbolism that, as a Black man, at any point in time you can be pulled over and there’s nothing you can do to save your life,” Tartt said. “That reality can be very emotional.”

The emotion witnessing McMillian break down left Black men feeling "helpless to help him. And we also identify with George Floyd being helpless to stop his life being taken from him," Tartt added. "It’s called 'vicarious traumatization.'"

"These are the same psychological factors that come into play when people see other people shot," he continued. "It’s not happening to us, but it seems like it’s happening to us because we’re watching it."

Tartt, who said he has intentionally tried to avoid viewing the trial and the video, said Black men’s fears are further heightened by the fact that Floyd’s death played out on the street, with people watching.

No one “watching this happen in the crowd could do nothing to stop it,” he said. “So it was like a public lynching.”

Bob White, 56, agreed. He said watching the emotions of Black men spill over during the trial — and the video — caused a tangible response for him.

An engineer in Atlanta, White’s anxiety, he said, ranged from sadness to anger to despair and pain.

“Physical pain,” White said. “It hurts me. It physically hurts. I can barely watch it. It brings home something that’s very disheartening in the broader context: that this trial is about white supremacy versus the humanity of Black men. And as a Black man, that’s a lot.”

Bob White
Bob White.Bob White

McMillian, who saw the police trying to get Floyd into the police car and begged him to cooperate, broke down in sobs as he watched video in court of Floyd calling for his mother. “I couldn’t help but feel helpless,” he said.

For Hardin, McMillian’s breakdown crystalized a larger point.

“It harkened back to a time when our ancestors begged for humanity, begged for mercy, begged to be treated with civility,” he said. “How, in 2021, are we begging for the same thing? Where is the progress?”

"Charles McMillian cried on the stand because he stood on the side as George Floyd was being handled and told him, 'You can’t win. You can’t win.' What he was saying was, 'George, stop. You can’t beat the system,'" Hardin said. "And the systemic racism in this country beat McMillian down to the point where he knew what the end result would be."

Kennard Johnson, 21, said he watched the trial “in bits and pieces” because of work but also because he did not want to relive the trauma and lose control of his emotions.

"My friends, my peers and I talk about it and it’s too emotional," said Johnson, who works in banking in Omaha, Nebraska. "But the truth is, I don’t like talking about it. It makes me mad and sad."

"And I can admit that it makes me scared, too. I mean, that’s Black life in America. A 20-year-old got shot and killed over nothing," he added, referring to Daunte Wright, who was shot in Minnesota last week by Brooklyn Center police Officer Kim Potter. Her police chief, Tim Gannon, said he thought she intended to use a stun gun on Wright during a traffic stop but mistakenly fired her service weapon. Wright died, and Potter and Gannon resigned a day before Potter was charged with second-degree manslaughter.

“If you’re Black in this country, especially a Black man, you can’t help but be emotional about this stuff. We are targets. That’s the painful reality,” Johnson said.

Kenneth L. Hardin
Kenneth L. Hardin.Courtesy of Kenneth L. Hardin

Rodney Coates, a sociologist focusing on social justice and social policy at Miami University in Ohio, said the pain he and other Black men feel is visceral, originating from a history of abuse.

"This whole case is symbolic of the past," Coates said. "I have intentionally tried to not watch the trial and the video. It brings me back to the middle passage and how horrific that was. America has consistently targeted the Black male. Derek Chauvin is not on trial. The American justice system is on trial."

"As Black men, we want affirmation that our lives matter," Coates continued. "I am George Floyd. I am the people who were there watching his life seep out of him after he pleaded for his mother. All of these images are traumatic."

White, the engineer, said the pain of the visual is magnified by the notion that there likely will be another Black man needlessly killed by law enforcement. Worse, he added, is that there are not enough people who feel the Black man’s hurt.

"Racism today is more cerebral," White said. "It’s not the KKK burning down your house. But it’s cases like this, where people believe it’s acceptable for a ‘good white man to harm and kill a bad Black man.’ We’re always the ‘bad’ guy."

"When they have that mentality, they put George Floyd on trial," White continued. "And when they do that, they put all Black men on trial. If you’re a Black man, you know this could happen to you — and no one could be held accountable for it. And that’s unacceptable."

Coates agreed: “This is all a form of white privilege. Their position is ‘It doesn’t impact me. It’s not my kids being killed. I don’t have to worry when I get stopped by a cop. I’m not being traumatized and re-traumatized.’ White people were not particularly concerned when they were lynching Black people, either. And it’s all stressful and emotional.”

For Tartt, a husband and father of two daughters, the emotional impact of Floyd’s death and the effect of the trial confirmed for him that he would not grow his family.

“Someone asked me the other day if I would have more children,” he said. “And I said, ‘I hope not.’ He asked, ‘You don’t want that son?’ And I said, ‘No. No. I don’t want the stress of having to raise a Black boy. I don’t want to have to worry when he gets 13 or 14 about where he is, what’s happening.’ And that about says it all.”

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