In the wake of yet more anti-Black violence: We must ‘fight the freeze’

In the wake of yet more anti-Black violence: We must ‘fight the freeze’

According to mental health professionals, when human beings encounter a threat we respond in one of three ways: fight, flight or freeze.

We can choose to confront the threat by fighting, either physically or verbally. We can run away from the threat in an act of self preservation; again, this can be literal or it can be an emotional and psychological retreat. Finally, we can freeze, an experience of physical or psychic paralysis that won’t let us fight or flee but temporarily immobilizes us.

The fight, flight or freeze reflex may kick in when people of conscience see or hear about the latest incident of Black death. I had this reaction when I first saw the video of George Floyd’s killing this week. A white cop calmly pressing his knee against the back of the neck of a prostrate Floyd, who was Black. Floyd pleaded with the officer, “I can’t breathe,” until Floyd lost consciousness and soon died.

Another human being reduced to hashtags: #JusticeforGeorge and #Icantbreathe

In the flurry of social media posts once the video became public, many people expressed a sense of helplessness. They said they did not know what to say or do. On Twitter, I tried to express my reaction this way:

“I’m numb. The kind of numb that doesn’t mean you can’t feel anything but that you feel all the things at once and don’t know how to name it or what to do about it.”

A numbness, like when you can’t feel your hands after being outside in the cold without gloves, is honest, even predictable. But as I probed my reaction, I actually discovered a handful of actions that might help get us unfrozen.

Over the past few years, I’ve developed a model called the A.R.C. of Racial Justice that I believe can help us work through feelings of helplessness (and numbness) when we witness racism. It stands for Awareness, Relationships and Commitment. Breaking down racial justice actions into these three areas makes the prospect of moving again more manageable.


So often when we hear about another notorious incident of white supremacy and violence enacted upon Black bodies, we get flooded with emotions: anger, despondency, fear, frustration.

We need to sit with the feelings that come in the wake of an injustice. Taking external action without prior or simultaneous inward action will leave us working from an empty reservoir of emotional fuel.

We need to do the hard work of heart work. This fits under the “awareness” heading because we are increasing our self-knowledge.

When he saw my tweet about feeling numb, a therapist friend of mind recommended writing a letter to whiteness … and then burning it. He said, “The trauma needs somewhere to go and be released.”

I did this and it felt so good. I put words to my inchoate feelings and articulated my emotions. And I really liked the burning part. Black people need to do this because, as James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively aware is to be in a rage almost all the time.” We need to put that rage somewhere.

Hundreds of protesters gather May 26, 2020, near the site of the arrest of George Floyd, who died in police custody Monday night in Minneapolis, after video shared online by a bystander showed a white officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck during his arrest as Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

White folks can do something similar. Writing down your feelings in these moments is healthy. Maybe you have questions of yourself or others that you haven’t been able to verbalize yet. Maybe you have a sense of shame and guilt over your white privilege that you need to put into sentences and paragraphs.

Do it. Put it all out there. Then burn it.

Racism traumatizes both the oppressed and the oppressor, and that trauma needs to go somewhere and be released.


Earlier this week, I learned a new hashtag: #BirdwatchingWhileBlack. It came about because a white woman called the cops on a Black man, Christian Cooper, in New York’s Central Park while he was out birdwatching. The woman had a dog that was not on a leash, as the park rules required. When Cooper asked her to leash the dog, she decided to call the police and act as if the Black man was a threat to her physical safety. Good thing the man had his cellphone camera, so we could see what actually happened.

In the aftermath of #BirdwatchingWhileBlack and the unwelcome reminder that Black folk can literally be doing anything and still become the subject of surveillance and abuse, all I wanted to do was be close to my child. I packed up early from work and spent the rest of the night just hanging out and pouring into that relationship.

In a white supremacist society, Black love is a radical act. Building relationships with other Black people and people of color can be a way to fight back against the despair that hounds us.

So, Black people, love each other. Laugh together. Get on a Zoom call. Write letters. Call. Celebrate the relationships you have with other Black folks who know what it’s like to have their bodies perceived as threats yet can find reasons for hope, joy and love anyway.

White people, invest in the Black people you know. Ever since the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which served as a racial awakening for a lot of white people, I’ve had a handful of white folks call, text or email me whenever another horrendous act of racism makes national headlines. They’re not asking for anything. They’re expressing their grief along with mine, they’re asking what I need, they’re letting me know they’re praying for me.

Their words don’t bring dead Black bodies to life. They don’t indict police officers for murder. They don’t change the danger I face as a Black man whenever I leave my house. But they do matter to me. They are a slight sign that others know this is hard, and they don’t want me to feel alone.

So reach out. Be gentle. Don’t demand attention or affirmation. Just let the people of color in your life know you’re present when they’re in pain, and that you’re in pain, too.


That feeling of being frozen in the face of Black death comes from the regularity of the tragedy. It’s 2020. I vividly recall the national moment when 17-year old Trayvon Martin was killed for having brown skin and wearing a hoodie — and became a proxy for everyone’s thoughts about race and justice in America. That was eight years ago. Then there was a string of Black deaths, from Sandra Bland and Alton Sterling to Rekia Boyd and the Emanuel Nine.

When does it ever stop? Does anything we do make a difference? Will Black lives ever matter?

If we want to see widespread change in the racial structure of this nation then we have to commit to changing racist policies and practices. In the case of George Floyd’s death, which involved yet another police officer, we need to deeply probe policing in this country.

People participate in a rally May 8, 2020, in Brunswick, Georgia, to protest the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man. Two men have been charged with murder in the February shooting death of Arbery, whom they had pursued in a truck after spotting him running in their neighborhood. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Activists have an abundance of recommendations. Campaign Zero, a nonprofit dedicated to ending police violence, lists 10 practices to achieve this goal, including: establishing independent review boards for local police departments; better training for police, including implicit bias and de-escalation training; and demilitarizing the police force’s weaponry.

Beyond reforming policing as it currently exists, some activists insist that the entire enterprise, rooted as it is in slave patrols and controlling Black bodies, should be abolished. They advocate defunding police departments and diverting the money to other areas such as mental health care, using restorative justice teams for help resolving conflicts, and decriminalizing many behaviors so that law enforcement is not required.

Some actions to affect policing at a broad level include:

  • Financially supporting organizations dedicated to eliminating police violence
  • Calling state and local officials to advocate for changes in their law enforcement platform
  • Meeting with local mayors, council members, and law enforcement leaders to hear their thoughts on policing and the community and to make your thoughts known
  • Demanding public transparency in the negotiation of police union contracts

Acclaimed writer Anne Lamott keeps a 1-inch picture frame on the desk where she writes. Whenever she struggles getting started writing, she looks at that 1-inch picture frame. “And it reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.”

We can do the same with fighting for racial justice.

Whenever the massive problem of fighting white supremacy, racism or police violence freezes us in place, we don’t need a grand vision for reform and revolution. All we have to do is think of a “1-inch” action to get us going. It can be increasing your awareness of an issue, building a relationship or committing to reforming a policy or practice. If we keep going, then the 1-inch actions we take to fight racism can paint a beautiful portrait of justice and equity.

(Jemar Tisby is the president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective and co-host of the “Pass The Mic” podcast. He is the author of “The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)


In the second installment of a two-part series, Urban Faith Writer Katelin Hansen gives our readers an intimate, behind-the-scenes look into the lives of the family and friends of those who are incarcerated. Be sure to check out Part 1 of this compelling story, in case you missed it. 

Mental Health in the Prison System

One of the biggest concerns for family members is for the mental health of their loved ones inside. “I feel that the reason my son’s life spiraled like it did was that my nephew was killed right in front of him,” Kim explains. “That was never dealt with. I feel like he had PTSD and then he made a bunch of bad choices. He was a different person.”

PJ remains deeply concerned for her nephew’s mental health. “He’s a cutter, I mean a severe cutter,” PJ says. “It’s nothing for him to get 30-40 stitches for a one of his cuts.”

She worries about him.

“I don’t know if they’re addressing his mental health issues. The first thing is to be prisoner, above everything else,” PJ explains. “And whatever mental health problems you have are compounded by the trauma of being in prison.”

In many ways, Kim’s son has grown up in the system. “Mental health is a piece that really needs to be considered,” she insists. “Until they address that inside, or as part of re-entry, I don’t think we’ll be effective in preventing them from going back.”

A Broken System

Navigating the multifaceted labyrinth that is the prison system can be exhausting.

Cheryl’s experience is that it is “very tedious and time-consuming and hard on your emotions, your heart,” Cheryl explains. “It just seems like the system just drags.”

She’s been trying to get answers for months now, and has been given no indication of how long the pre-trial phase is going to last.

Inmates do serve time during their pre-trial period, so if they are convicted, they may be able to reduce the total time that they’re on the inside. But, if they’re found not guilty, they’ve lost potentially months of their lives.

“I just wish it didn’t take so long,” Cheryl says. “It just takes a lot out of you, both the person being incarcerated, but also for family and friends. It becomes very hard because you don’t want to see your loved ones there.”

PJ feels like the whole system is set up for failure. “You take people who are poor, and when they work you pay them minimum wage,” she says. “There’s a way to make a whole lot more, but with the risk of being locked up. But a lot of times the desperation of being poor is greater than the fear of being locked up.”

PJ says she was afraid to do anything that would land her behind bars. “I’d hear about the interacting with other people inside and how scary that was,” she says. When asked if that meant prison served as a successful deterrent, she replied “It might be, but only if 1 out of 6 siblings is what we consider success.”

Life After Release

Having a criminal record means losing access to many of the support structures that are necessary to getting back on one’s feet after incarceration. After release, ex-offenders face severe discrimination in finding jobs or applying to schools.

They often cannot qualify for food stamps or public housing. And family members risk losing their benefits if they are found to be housing felons.

PJ notes that “if you make it so hard for them when they come home, maybe they don’t have the fight in them to make it through without going back to what they know.” She receives messages every day from people asking which companies are willing to hire felons.

“Maybe if they were given an opportunity to know what it feels like to have paid their debt and then be free of the judgment, there wouldn’t be such a high recidivism rate,” PJ says.

Kim’s son has been in for 12 years and he’s about to get out. “Were excited about him coming home,” she says. “But, I’m still concerned about his mental health. It’s taken its toll.”

And, she knows it could get harder.

“Now there are all the barriers around being a felon.” Friends have recommended programs and pathways, but there is no central place to even see what is available, or to compare programs’ success rates. “We’re excited about him coming home,” she reiterates, “but is has been a heart breaking experience for our family.”

Church as a Resource

Scripture tells us that we are to “remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them” (Hebrews 13:3). Sometimes the church struggles with even this much, but what about the families on the outside as well?

When Molly spent some time in jail a couple years back, her church was there for her. “They gave support, cards, love, books. It affected people at church because no one wants to see their friend in jail,” Molly explains.

As she’s gotten more involved in the life of her church community, she’s become more diligent about completing her required reporting to the authorities. She doesn’t want to get locked up again.

“Besides myself, it affects other people,” Molly says. “If all of the sudden you’re gone for 30 days, there’s a gap to fill in your role at the church. I’m not here by myself.”

As was the case for Molly, churches have tremendous potential to walk alongside both the incarcerated and their families. When churches form meaningful and authentic relationships with their communities, many of these caring partnerships happen naturally, offering spiritual and emotional support during difficult times of forced separation.

More formal ministries, like support groups and resource centers, can also be put into place. For example, there are organizations like Healing Communities, a nationwide, faith-based organization that is “building relationships of healing, redemption and reconciliation in families and communities impacted by crime and mass incarceration.” Then, there are other organizations, like Casa De Paz, that support families specifically affected by immigration detention.

Kim says discovering ministry resources for she and her family has been a learning experience. “I feel like some blanks have been filled in about how incarceration affects the whole family,” she explains.

Encourage your church to learn more and to discover what local agencies are assisting with family visitation or providing support services for children with incarcerated parents in your own community.

Read the first part of this two-part series here.