This piece discusses trauma, police violence, drug/alcohol use. There are some phrases used in quotes — these weren’t pulled from specific conversations but are simply phrases I’ve heard said verbatim countless times.
The other night, a friend noted that they’ve observed over the past few months that I’ve been going through it. This didn’t come as news to me — I haven’t been shy about sharing my difficulties coping — but rather, I felt my general baseline for how I now operate was understood. It’s vital context in how I process and interact with everything. When your brain goes on the fritz, having people who can adjust for that and be mindful of it is a lifeboat in a sea of chaos.
I can pinpoint the exact moment the totality of trauma reached a threshold and cemented itself permanently in my mind. As I stood on a swaying scaffold documenting an endless ocean of violent Trump supporters thrash and bash a comparatively tiny line of cops, I let out the only words I said the entire time I was at the Capitol on January 6th: “My god.” There are many aspects of J6 that I still struggle to wrap my head around. These same police spent months brutalizing BLM protestors and yet waved through at least 150 insurrectionists, pausing to smile in selfies with them as they breached the Capitol of the United States. Countless comrades have been thrown down in cuffs simply for existing in a space while I watched a man in swim goggles, reinforced gloves, and a hoodie that read “F*ck Antifa” repeatedly punch cops with no recourse. The takeaway there is an obvious one: If BLM had attempted something like that, live rounds would’ve been used and they never would have been able to breach. Deeper, though, is what I observed in the collective human condition in that crowd. The unparalleled hysteria. The intensity of determination. The rage. People taking selfies in the crowd like it was a party, like they had successfully been on the right side of history. All rooted in a patently obvious lie. If I believed in god, I’d say god died that day. It’s difficult to articulate just how horrifying J6 was. It was like witnessing humans access a part of their psyche that shouldn’t be accessible, a Pandora’s Box of hate and pure evil. It’s horrifying to know people as a whole can get to that point — we prefer to view unmitigated hate as a one-off, an individual fluke, a specific set of circumstances that requires unique influences and extraordinary effort to unlock. Turns out, that’s not true. Thousands of people pushed and cheered and punched and smashed and thrashed that day, all based on a lie. Is it any wonder the only thing I could say was just “My god”?
Everyone’s trauma is unique. How you engage with and process various situations depends on your existing framework of experiences. But after a certain point, you exceed what any brain has the potential to cope with in a healthy way. Talk to any photojournalist who was at the Capitol or any protestor who has been subject to repeat police violence over the past year. A threshold has been crossed.
Recently, people in the protest space in NYC have lamented about leaders and activists showing up to actions drunk or getting drunk at an action. It’s a serious safety concern that poses a lot of risk and it would be nice if people could curb that so as to keep themselves safer. An activist recently shared with me their theory about why people have taken to drinking at actions, which largely gets written off as “people showing up to party.” Instead, they theorize, it’s a coping mechanism.
When you become active in the protest space consistently, two inevitabilities emerge: You become friends with those you see regularly and you witness or experience police violence. The more involved you get, the harder it becomes to hang out with “normies” who don’t even know ICE has facilities in NYC or think black bloc is a group of white anarchists who only show up to break things or think Bill DeBlasio is a good mayor who knows what he’s doing and whose authority the NYPD respects (lmao). The code switching becomes more draining, the burden of providing tons of context so someone understands why you’re frustrated over something is too exhausting. So, you start hanging out with other activists. They speak your language. They have the context for your experiences. Most importantly: Other activists understand your trauma without it needing to be said.
Gradually, your entire social network becomes dominated by activists and actions become where you go to see your friends. These are not healthy places for a social life. Even the mildest actions have the potential for a cop riot that leads to you and people you care about getting hurt. On Malcolm X’s birthday, I was helping with a food and clothing drive. It was sunny and beautiful, casual and fun. Just up the block from where we’d set up, a row of police cars and vans sat with their lights flashing. A reminder that they were watching and, more irritating, a deterrent for community members to come get free groceries or clothes. Throughout the day, people glanced over at the cars when things got fun: Will these guys sledding down the hill as we all cheer prompt those cops to move in? Will they come shut us down because we’re handing out free meals? Will they call for SRG to form a parameter? Thankfully, nothing happened. But the incredible tension and stress among activists who have been getting brutalized for months together absolutely set a tone and minimized the intensity of joy and the spirit of community that the event was supposed to inspire.
It’s no wonder, then, that those who pull up every week (sometimes multiple times a week) would find themselves leaning on things to help them offset the stress in pursuit of spending time with people they love and who love them and who share their language. With every physical activist space vulnerable to cops prepared to crack down, where else can you go? I mean, there was a fair in a park with speakers and performers where people at tables passed out stickers and zines and snacks and collected food donations and the NYPD set up police vans and foot cops at every exit of the park and even had a cop car by the bathrooms facing the fair. When the presence of those who have had a direct hand in your oppression becomes inescapable, what choice do you have than to forge ahead despite them?
My trauma is specific to me but it’s hard to not see myself emerge in others. Once you pass a certain point, it’s all too much to differentiate. Your trauma might stem specifically from MLK Day or Mott Haven or S4 or J6 or curfew or N5 or — but after awhile, the experience of being brutalized and witnessing brutality manifests similarly because our brains all have a finite number of ways to grapple with bad shit. I had anxiety disorder and C-PTSD long before I began protest coverage and I’ve spent a long time learning how to identify when the hard drive is overheating and how to mitigate that. Many activists come from backgrounds rife with trauma — it’s a huge motivator, having firsthand experience with the violence you want to abolish. We’re largely equipped to recognize when things are going topsy-turvy even if the process of mitigating it remains difficult or inaccessible.
Over the winter, I spoke with several activists about their exhaustion from the summer and fall. Without adequate relief amid a pandemic where you can’t do anything or have lots of people over, everyone is unemployed, and it’s too cold outside to blink, a lot of people nestled into the warm comfort of skipping physical actions in lieu of building things “for when it warms up again.” People encouraged each other to “take the winter off” and decompress by pivoting to remote modes of activism and organizing. Like the temperature, protest numbers dwindled into the 20s, sometimes even the teens. That people were able to scale back their on the ground activities is not to say they did so happily. There was a huge uptick in people expressing a sense of guilt for not having gone to a protest in x number of days or “being more active.” Simultaneously, the trauma rot started to take hold. People started taking big steps back because they were too drained. I did so, too.
After J6, I quarantined before heading back to DC to write about hotel workers whose experience as the face of hospitality for thousands of hatemongering Trump supporters was largely ignored by the throngs of media flooding the city. While working on that story, I realized I was in the midst of a multi-day panic attack. When I got back to NYC to quarantine again, my brain went in full meltdown mode. There wasn’t a day that went by I didn’t cry about something. I spent what felt like weeks in bed, too overcome with anxiety to function. I tuned into a livestream of a demonstration that turned violent within moments and the sounds of the yelling and shoving triggered an anxiety attack. It wouldn’t be until a few months later that I’d realize J6 had imparted on me an auditory trigger: I can’t hear sounds of shouting, flash bangs, shoving, and metal clanging without being thrust back to that day. I have to watch cop riot footage on mute or, if it’s information I’m reporting on, I have to rewatch the footage over and over to make sure I report it right and then go lie down and tune out for six hours. If you’re wondering why I shitpost so much now, there’s your answer. I attempted to ease myself back into on the ground reporting by committing to one action a week wherein I would only take hard footage to report out later, rather than taking hard footage that I report as things develop. The idea was to reduce the stress of juggling immediate accuracy, situational awareness, and potential brutality. When I was arrested on F12 while taking hard footage of the non-violent demonstration, I had zero emotional response. My cortisol levels didn’t spike. I wasn’t drained or flinching or looking behind my back the next day. Instead, when I was grabbed for arrest, I continued filming, verbalized I was press, and as I stood in front of the pvan with flexcuffs bruising my wrists, I reported to another reporter on the sidewalk what I witnessed and experienced so they could report it. I thought about how the New York Post would report on my arrest were I to act how I felt: “Antifa “Press” Arrested While Rioting,” they would say, with my mugshot splashed on the front page, despite the fact all I did was document and nobody did anything to justify SRG rushing the sidewalk and tackling, stepping on, and arresting people. The point is: I should’ve had a response. Your brain should react to being arrested because it’s unusual, uncomfortable, and scary. I felt nothing. That troubled me deeply.
I can’t speak for how others cope and it doesn’t feel appropriate to cast assumptions based on actions, so instead I’ll focus on how I cope, manifest joy, and seek to help mitigate the exhaustion of fighting against a white supremacist, capitalist police state.
The first thing I reach for when I’m trying to cope is the reminder that this is a marathon, not a sprint. I forget it constantly and get easily sucked into energy-dumping on meaningless, temporary bullshit. Remembering things like “it’s a marathon” and “water the garden” helps me reformat my perspective into a longview rather than on the short-term: How is what I’m doing today helping a year from now? Ten years from now? After I’m dead? The longview helps me sleep, compartmentalize, not guilt-trip myself for avoiding actions I’m too beaten down to attend.
It also helps me help others.
As my process of applying my skills and knowledge to labor that best suits me overlaps with trauma coping, I find myself shifting toward the invisible work of emotional support. I try to catch myself before I start spiraling and try doing the same for others. “How can we recenter this from a place of growth?” has become a frequent question of mine to help comrades sift through a tricky dilemma. Movie nights, park hangs, photos of my pets, and extreme commitment to Just Vibing have all become core to how I attempt to provide a comfortable space to decompress for others. The well-being of people I care about is deeply rooted to my own sense of joy. If you’re struggling, my heart is breaking and I’m desperate to alleviate your struggle. If you have a good day, I’m over the moon with happiness that you got to experience something positive and uplifting — and I hope you cherish it as such, let it nourish your soul.
Verbalizing when I’ve reached my limit has taken time but is gradually something I feel much more comfortable doing. If it’s 2am and you message me to express frustration over a non-life threatening situation, I don’t brew a pot of coffee and stay up until we’ve worked it all out anymore. I catch myself losing focus and say so as straightforward and empathetically as possible. “I’m sorry, I don’t have the capacity to help with this right now to the degree you deserve but I will tomorrow.” I recently managed to verbalize to someone that I was on the brink of an anxiety attack and what they could do to help me pull out of it. I’ve had anxiety for as long as I can remember and only just got to a point where I can say “Talk to me about anything non-stressful for five minutes so I can pull out of this nosedive.”
Distraction and consumption are other ways I cope, but I try being careful with them because they’ve proven to be the two modes in which I most easily slide into executive dysfunction. I’m not a big drinker and never had much of an appetite for weed. I’m also not typically someone who needs the TV on to fall asleep. At least, not until recently. I’ve found some shows that have a narrow audio field — i.e., you can hear whispers and yells without having to turn the volume up or down — are the easiest to fall asleep to. Parks and Rec, Golden Girls, and documentaries all fit that space. I tried watching true crime docs but found them largely to be extremely aggravating copaganda, often with old school journalists who fall over themselves to do the cops’ jobs for them. I also avoid The Sopranos because I kept having mafia dreams and I urge everyone to never try watching New Girl to fall asleep because it’s 95% yelling. After finding a smoke shop that sells prerolls and edibles, it’s been almost a nightly habit for me to get high so my brain can shut off enough to crash. I still don’t drink much because I was raised in an alcoholic home and it doesn’t make me any happier or give me any sense of relief. Still, the consistency with which I’ve started smoking and relying on the TV to fall asleep is a clear sign I’m operating beyond my usual.
Medication has been a lifesaver. When I noticed I couldn’t go a day without crying or an anxiety attack back in January is when I hopped back on Sertraline, a generic for Zoloft. It doesn’t alter my mood or leave me feeling like a zombie. It just turns obstacle mountains into speed bumps so I can do things like laundry or chores or getting out of bed and staying up instead of simply migrating to the couch until it’s time to go to bed. Coupled with the lifelong process of learning how to articulate my bad brain, I’m more effectively able to compartmentalize, engage, and problem-solve.
Creating opportunities for hanging out with comrades in non-activist environments has been the most beneficial for me. I can hold space and have space held for me or we can goof off while watching a movie on the phone together or crack jokes over lunch. I’m a much different person in real life than my online persona or on the ground. When I’m at an action, my ears are at attention and I’m constantly scanning the environment, explicitly focused on my work. Online, I’m brash and intense and exude a big “don’t fuck with me” attitude to offset the myriad misogynistic micro-aggressions that femmes online are subjected to on a constant basis. In real life, I’m either excruciatingly mellow and down to nap or I’m a goofy ball of absurd fun. Being able to be myself outside the context of an action with people I’ve spent a lot of time on the ground with means being able to reroute my emotional association with comrades from people I only see during times of stress to pals.
Manifesting joy is something I’m constantly working to improve on because it takes a lot of conscious energy. Whether it’s cracking jokes or spontaneous dancing, cooking, or just encouraging examining a difficult situation from a productive space, I have been trying very hard to be someone who adds as much good as I can. Once I went to a jail support following an action I didn’t attend and my energy was totally different. When I’m at JS after an action I’ve been at, my head stays on a swivel, my ears stay alert, I stay tense and focused. But pulling up for comrades without being in that headspace means I pull up “off the clock,” if you will. At that JS, one person told me he thought I was drunk because I was so effusively joyful. He’d never seen me “off the clock” before. That made me realize I needed to get better at switching off the reporter brain and being a person, and I’ve been working on it ever since.
Overall, there’s no activist space you can look at right now and not find a lot of people who are excruciatingly exhausted and fried from the compounding trauma of the fight they’ve poured their whole selves into. It’s not good, it’s not healthy, but it is normal for the circumstances. Everyone has their own way of coping and has to explore what works best for them. The only universally actionable thing we can do is to remember this is a marathon, not a sprint, and to continuously encourage ourselves to be moving from a place of growth and empowerment.
Solidarity is not a contract you sign before committing to the work. It’s a constant process that you have to actively reinforce. It relies on you being able to be there for others — and to do that, you need to be there for yourself.