When the video first surfaced, 67-year-old Samuel Wright couldn’t watch.
Ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was kneeling on the neck of a Black man begging for his life.
“I don’t need to get sick watching the George Floyd video,” Wright told himself a year ago.
But the clip played repeatedly during the 2020 protests. And it played throughout Chauvin’s trial — sometimes in slow motion.
When Wright, a community activist who lives in Temple Terrace, finally decided to watch, the video devastated him. “It just tore my insides completely out,” he said.
Many other Black people have shied away from watching it, refusing to traumatize themselves by witnessing the murder of a man who looks like them.
It has been a year since Floyd, a 46-year-old father of five, was killed on May 25, 2020. In response, protesters filled streets across the world, thrusting the movement for racial justice back to the forefront.
The searing video forced a new reckoning on racism, just as past images have.
More than six decades ago, after being accused of offending a white lady, 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered by the woman’s relatives. His mother insisted on an open casket. “Let the people see what they did to my boy,” she said in 1955, according to historic accounts. Funeral photos of Till’s nearly unrecognizable body flooded Black media, then mainstream media.
So did images of police dogs attacking demonstrators, officers striking Black Americans and children being sprayed with high-pressure water hoses. Those pictures fueled the civil rights movement that ended legal segregation and enfranchised Black voters.
Decades later, smartphones and social media drive a new wave of outrage and activism, documenting Black men killed by police. Eric Garner. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. George Floyd.
But what has served as an awakening for some is too painful for others.
Charlie Jenkins, a 36-year-old racial justice organizer from Tampa, still refuses to watch the video, fearing the psychological toll.
“I don’t need to see it to believe it,” she said.
During Chauvin’s trial, her mental distress turned physical. Her muscles tensed, and her teeth clenched. But the tears didn’t come.
“If I do emote,” said Jenkins, “I’ll never stop crying.”
‘It’s like I’m watching my uncle being murdered’
Viewing death and violence takes its toll. Various studies show that repeated exposure to these kinds of images can cause an increase in one’s stress response. That, in turn, can exacerbate mental illness and physical ailments like high blood pressure and heart problems — both of which disproportionately impact Black Americans.
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And while Black and brown adults are as likely as white adults to experience symptoms of depression, they’re less likely to receive mental health treatment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Early academic research also indicates children who see violence on television may be less sensitive to the pain and suffering of peers, more afraid of their surroundings and behave more aggressively.
Bearing witness to Floyd’s death allowed some people to speak out in new ways, said St. Petersburg mental health counselor LaDonna Butler. But “for some,” she said, “they are angered by almost the exploitation of our death and our pain and our trauma.”
Videos of death stick with those who consume them, shifting the way they see and navigate the world, Butler said. She has chosen not to watch videos of Black people being killed in encounters with police or absorb imagery that devalues people who look like her.
“The risk of consuming it is that we become less reactive to it,” she said. “And as a nation and as a people, we can’t afford to be desensitized to a loss of human life.”
“The very notion we are talking about death at the hand of someone who is supposed to protect, it’s weathering.”
The details of the Floyd video were so widely reported, some can recount the scene without having watched it.
Tampa attorney Suzanne DeCopain doesn’t watch videos of police brutality when they surface to protect her mental health. But the discussion that follows is usually unavoidable.
DeCopain, 39, didn’t watch the Floyd video until the April trial 10 months later. Then, she was hit with more emotions of anger, disbelief and helplessness.
University of South Florida staff psychologist Reuben Faloughi said people may not even realize the impact those videos can have. “It can harm people physiologically, and a lot of the time, it looks like post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Flashbacks. Self-destructive behavior. Disrupted eating and sleeping. Avoidance of reminders of their own racial trauma.
Tamarra Maurasse, a 31-year-old software trainer in Tampa, says she will never watch the Floyd video. As the clip permeated social media, Maurasse grew angry. For her, the ease with which people shared the video showed a lack of respect.
“It’s not like I’m watching a stranger,” she said. “It’s like I’m watching my uncle being murdered.”
Maurasse said watching Floyd’s murder would exacerbate the anxiety and depression she already struggles with as a Black woman.
“The easiest thing to do is to just be numb,” she said.
So many images of racial violence have circulated in recent years that it has left many unable to heal.
“There is a trauma that’s almost stagnant, because the crisis hasn’t been averted,” said Natasha Pierre, the executive director of the Hillsborough affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“The threat is still active.”
‘It torments me’
In the 1890s, journalist Ida B. Wells investigated lynchings across the country, writing about the gruesome deaths and compiling data for her pamphlets “Southern Horrors” and “The Red Record.”
A century later, a Sony camcorder recorded the 1991 beating of Rodney King, a Black man, by Los Angeles police officers. The clip — one of the first viral videos to show police violence against Black Americans — first aired on local TV, went worldwide and led to another viral event: The 1992 riots that took place after a jury acquitted the four officers involved.
In the year since Floyd’s murder, the disturbing images kept coming. Daunte Wright. Adam Toledo. Ma’Khia Bryant.
The speed with which the videos surfaced, coupled with the increased focus on their mental health impacts, forced newsrooms to grapple with whether to air the violent footage. Some opted to withhold detailed graphics or include trigger warnings before content appears (the Tampa Bay Times uses such warnings).
“There is no question in my mind that these kinds of images matter,” said David Ponton, an assistant professor of race and society at the University of South Florida.
Camera phones have become “a technology of power that challenges the authority that police are typically given by default,” Ponton said. They allow bystanders and those interacting with police to create their own record of what happened, and if needed, evidence.
Many times it’s their only defense, he said. To intervene or fight back would put their lives at risk. But what happens when the price of justice is immense suffering?
It was Breonna Taylor’s death that hit Brianna Smith of Plant City particularly hard.
Louisville police shot and killed Taylor, who was a 26-year-old emergency room technician, while serving a no-knock search warrant on her apartment in March 2020.
Same age. Similar name. Same dark skin. “That could’ve been me,” she thought.
Then when Smith watched the Floyd video, she cried. A grown man her dad’s age on film begging for his mother.
“It torments me,” she said.
Once when she got pulled over by police, her 9-year-old son asked the officer: “Are you going to shoot my mom?”
Shaken, the officer let them go, she said.
“It’s traumatizing for our kids,” said Smith, 27. Now, she’s having talks with her son about what to do when he encounters officers. She’s prepared to have the same discussions in the years to come with her 3-year-old twins.
“I’m stressed being a Black woman,” she said. “I’m stressed being a Black mother raising Black sons. I’m stressed. I’m stressed being a Black woman dating a Black man, having a Black dad, having Black brothers.”
Community mentors also have taken notice of how the constant stream of police brutality videos has impacted youth.
“Our kids have no chance to just grow up and be a kid,” said Lewis Stephens Jr., founder and executive director of I Support Youth in St. Petersburg. “When they see videos like this, it impacts them.”
Smith, the mom of three, has kept her son from downloading Instagram in hopes that it will shield him from seeing violent videos pop up and play automatically.
“When children watch the news as their parents watch, what trauma is the child experiencing that they don’t have the vocabulary to articulate?” said Pierre, of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Bedwetting and insomnia can be symptoms of stress that children don’t know how to process.
A Minnesota jury found Chauvin guilty on April 20. Just over 24 hours later, Jenkins stood in Tampa’s Lykes Gaslight Park at dusk for a vigil for Black lives.
Why, she asked, does it still take such dehumanizing images to move the needle on racial justice?
“We saw it happen to Emmett Till,” she said. “What more do you need?”
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.