The nation collectively recoiled at the death of George Floyd. We were not prepared to watch a man suffer and die while officers held him down. In that moment, our country was unified. First, in disbelief. Then helplessness. Then outrage.
For those who have seen arrests and medical emergencies handled thousands of times, this wasn’t normal. For those who have been serving their communities selflessly and with honor, this was enraging.
Even now, we cannot make sense of what we saw. Experts, who have learned to be circumspect and wait for facts, are struggling to imagine any fact that could adequately explain the treatment of George Floyd.
For many, Mr. Floyd’s death was a call to action. Experts in police practices were joined by those who knew little about policing. But how much did they need to know—they saw the video, they didn’t like it, and they are anxious to do something about it.
As we move forward during this national crisis, we are going to have hard conversations. Some will require us to humbly listen. Others will require us to courageously speak up. All will require us to sift through the competing media coverage to distinguish cases of injustice from rampant distortions.
But our challenges in the weeks ahead go beyond proving statistics or verifying facts. If we are to engage our community in a meaningful way, we have to relentlessly test and, when necessary, be willing to adjust our own understanding of the world.
It is this “sensemaking” process that allows us to confidently defend well-considered perspectives, while remaining intellectually agile, willing to learn, and willing to grow. Cultural sensitivity requires us to admit that others, sometimes with vastly different experiences, are engaged in their own sensemaking—and their view of the world may look nothing like ours.
To add to the complexity, for many who have been thrust into this conversation, sensemaking is being experienced through a lens, not only of personal trauma, but of vicarious trauma. Trauma that resulted from stories of actual and perceived injustice traditionally shared from house to house, generation to generation, and now endlessly recycled through social media.
For some, these stories and experiences result in emotional injury, fear, and a perpetual sense of injustice. They perceive police as unjustly targeting their community, their family, and their lives. Many are convinced that abuse, even death, at the hands of the police is common—even likely.
Through this lens, it is easy to see how even the most routine police actions can generate intense emotional responses, violent resistance, and outrage from those convinced they are defending an unjustly targeted community. Unreasonable police conduct even more so.
Seek to Understand
Many readers may not be convinced of the anti-police narrative but understanding “sensemaking” and vicarious trauma does not require accepting that premise. It is simply the willingness to hear from those who sincerely mistrust, fear, or view the police as instruments of a unjust system. It means understanding that whatever a person might experience with the police, it is exponentially worse when malevolence, betrayal, injustice, and immorality are presumed.
For those of us who have spent careers shielding people from the worst parts of society, we may have inadvertently kept them from seeing the best parts of policing. We have countless stories of compassion, selflessness, courage, and sacrifice yet to be told, and more than ever it is important that we do.
But whatever influence we hope to have in the current national discussion, it will be most enduring when it reflects our shared interests and common identity. Something we all may be struggling to recognize amidst competing narratives.
Even so, unless we prioritize our common humanity and aligned goals—until we are seen as trusted allies—facts and personal anecdotes will fail to persuade. Instead, we are reminded to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger—to seek first to understand, then to be understood.1
- New Testament, James 1:19