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Black St. Louisans Turn To Therapy, Nature And Family To Heal From Police Violence

Janett Lewis finds peace working on her farm at Rustic Roots Sanctuary in Spanish Lake.
Janett Lewis finds peace working on her farm at Rustic Roots Sanctuary in Spanish Lake.

When a Minneapolis jury found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd, Janett Lewis wanted to jump up and down.

Like other African Americans in the St. Louis region, Lewis is long accustomed to seeing juries acquit police officers charged with killing Black people. For a moment, last week, Lewis thought the justice system might start holding police officers accountable.

But as Chauvin’s trial drew to a close, a police officer in suburban Minneapolis killed Daunte Wright. Minutes before the court announced the verdict, a police officer in Columbus, Ohio, shot and killed 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant. The next day, deputies in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr.

“It felt great that things are changing in the right direction,” Lewis said of her elation after the Chauvin verdict. “But then after that, heaviness sinks in where it's like this happens way too much. And one time we get justice. That's great. But it's not enough.”

A week after the Minneapolis jury’s verdict, Black people in the St. Louis region are struggling to reconcile a brief moment of relief with painful reminders that police continue to use deadly force against Black people. They’re also seeking ways to heal from generational trauma — through therapy, yoga, meditation and spending time outdoors.

Lewis found peace by connecting with her community, playing with her farm animals and working the land on her farm, Rustic Roots Sanctuary in Spanish Lake. In the process, she’s found healing for herself and others too.

“I feel like I'm on the right path,” Lewis said. “I'm doing everything I want to do, everything I love. From eating good food to healing through whole foods to teaching people about nutrition and health and also doing these empowerment workshops where we actually get to work through our crap because I feel like we got to deconstruct, to reconstruct.”

A year ago, after Chauvin killed Floyd and Louisville police killed Breonna Taylor, people across the country took to the streets to demand an end to such deaths — and that officers responsible for them be brought to justice. As hard as it is to accept that Black people continue to die at the hands of police officers, people are still elated by the Minneapolis jury’s decision, said Sherita Love, founder and executive director of the Education Equity Center of St. Louis.

“Lock him up,” Love said. “It was great to see the visual of him being handcuffed and sent off to the place he belongs.”

But in the St. Louis region, the fact that people are still dying at the hands of police is a source of pain. For many Black people, they are stingings of 2014, when then-Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown Jr. — and of a grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson.

“It just continues to be this heavy weight of reality that won't even allow you to be able to celebrate something as momentous as [the Chauvin verdict] was,” Love said.

A need for healing

Even as they continue to fight for justice and police accountability, many Black St. Louisans say seeing police repeatedly kill Black people is a mental burden they need help to recover from.

“As a Black man in America, we are made to be strong,” said Jerome Harris Jr., president of Urban Golf of Greater St. Louis. “We're made to not cry. And we haven't been given the space to be vulnerable. We haven't been given the space to restore — to heal.”

In 2013, police shot and killed his younger brother, Jared Harris, whom they suspected of dealing drugs. After a high-speed chase, his brother crashed the car he was driving and then shot at police.

Jerome Harris said watching footage of countless Black people die at the hands of police in recent years has taken a toll on his mental health.

“It feels as if we have been hunted for sport,” he said. “And when you see it on a regular, it desensitizes you, especially when it's you being hunted.”

To find healing, Harris goes to weekly therapy sessions, practices yoga with his children and golfs.

“It gives me time to just reflect and just kind of get away,” he said.

Many Black people have seen decades of police violence against Black people, said Demarco Davidson, an organizer with Metropolitan Congregations United in St. Louis.

Davidson can’t forget how, as a boy in the early 1990s, he woke up on his birthday and screamed at the television as he watched Los Angeles police officers beat Rodney King.

Davidson said police have racially profiled him during traffic stops. In 2014, police punched him in the face and hit him with a baton during two protests. Thinking of those encounters has been mentally draining.

“I've thought about planning my funeral more than I plan my wedding,” Davidson said. “That's what we think about. We think about how old we are going to be in the caskets, cause we see more of our friends in caskets than that’s actually getting married.”

Prolonged trauma in Black people is far too common, said Candice Cox, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist. Cox said constantly seeing videos and images of Black people being killed by the police is retraumatizing and can lead to depression, stress, insomnia, high blood pressure and body pain.

“Inside, we have this feeling of not being physically [safe], but also not being emotionally safe,” Cox said. “And it's continuous because we don't know when and if it's ever going to end."

She said some of her clients are afraid that their children and spouses won’t make it home alive if they have a run-in with police.

“I have a lot of parents who are afraid because they don't know how to protect their children to make it past 18,” Cox said.

The fears and anxieties many Black people carry could stem from generational trauma rooted in the oppression and violence African Americans have endured over centuries, she said.

That makes it hard to find healing in an environment where the trauma continues, Cox said.

Accountability is rare

The Chauvin verdict is a hopeful sign that police accountability can happen, said Daniel Harawa, an associate professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis. But he said Chauvin’s conviction was as historic as it was rare.

“There's a systemic issue there,” Harawa said. “Where the people who are in charge of bringing ‘justice,’ it isn't necessarily in their best interest to prosecute police officers. ... Over the years, we have given police officers extreme leeway and breadth in terms of how they do their jobs. And that's both within the legal system and in kind of public perception of what policing is.”

This rare conviction had prosecutors willing to prosecute a police officer, expert and witness testimony, a damning video, and police officers willing to go against one of their own. Harawa said the likelihood of a police officer being convicted again by this playbook is slim.

“I think it will be extremely hard to replicate a trial like this and to have prosecutors who are willing to go to the mat to prosecute and to have a police department that is willing to testify against their officer,” Harawa said.

Tapping into peace

Even as Black people continue to fight for change, it’s important for people to know when to step away. Cox said taking a walk, listening to music, therapy, practicing yoga and meditation are helpful and healthy ways to work through trauma.

Sherita Love found solace in therapy, where she’s able to work through her problems. She also spends a lot of time outside. Love said it brings her needed peace.

“Just looking in nature and connecting and grounding myself in nature has certainly been something I've done to take care of myself,” Love said.

Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @Marissanne2011

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Janett Lewis works around the farm at Rustic Roots Sanctuary on April 25, 2021 in Spanish Lake.
Michael B. Thomas / Special to St. Louis Public Radio
Janett Lewis works around the farm at Rustic Roots Sanctuary on April 25, 2021 in Spanish Lake.
  Jerome Harris, president of Urban Golf of Greater St. Louis, says practicing yoga and playing golf are among the activities he finds healing in.
Jerome Harris /
Jerome Harris, president of Urban Golf of Greater St. Louis, says practicing yoga and playing golf are among the activities he finds healing in.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio