The Rev. Stephen “Cue” Jn-Marie could feel the heaviness of his stress like water in his chest.
The leader of the Church Without Walls in skid row had tried to stay strong in the days since hearing the news that a self-described white supremacist killed 10 people and wounded three others at a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store mostly patronized by Black people. But as Jn-Marie continued working and providing words of comfort to others concerned about the shooting and intensified racist violence that Black people and communities of color are facing, the stress and trauma was too much to bear.
“It finally hit me like a ton of bricks,” Jn-Marie said.
He found himself taking more naps to rest, working out to clear his mind and praying. He has actively blocked commenters on his Instagram page who try to argue that the shooting was not about race. He even posted on his Facebook page asking for people to pray for him, something he said he rarely does.
But taking care of himself this week became even more important as he prepares to travel more than 2,000 miles this weekend to visit Buffalo and meet with local community activists, clergy, attend a vigil for the victims and see how he can be of help.
“I knew this one kind of hit me a little bit differently only because I realized, this is a new era of white supremacy,” Jn-Marie said. “This is white supremacy remixed and so it’s disheartening, it’s hard, so I definitely have to take care of myself, spend time with people, talk to people that get it.”
The racist violence in Buffalo is nothing new for Black communities in Los Angeles or nationwide, where generations of families are still living with the historical traumas of lynchings and watching various forms of brutalities of racism in America.
But the Buffalo shooting, including the accused gunman driving hundreds of miles to target Black people and seeing community members gunned down while doing the ordinary act of weekend grocery shopping, is fueling anxieties among Black communities that their safety will always be compromised.
When Dr. Denese Shervington, chair of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at Charles Drew University School of Medicine in Willowbrook, heard about the shooting in Buffalo, all she could think was “here we go again.”
She said sometimes Black people don’t always realize they have deep-rooted anxieties about their safety or the safety of their loved ones. But she pointed out that Black communities are often facing a sense of loss or feeling overwhelmed about the possibilities of being in the wrong place at the wrong time or the potential of a police interaction turning deadly.
The Buffalo shooting may hit home for Black people who shop in predominantly Black neighborhoods in other parts of the country because they realize that could’ve been them.
A 2017 survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Black people were more likely than white people to experience feelings of sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness, or that everything is an effort, all or most of the time.
“We have to look at how both come together, the racial trauma, the trauma of never being sure in that micro-aggression space, the trauma of never feeling safe, because you don’t know when or by whom you could be attacked…it keeps us slightly on edge,” Shervington said. “I think it’s the constant tension of knowing, whether we keep it very conscious or in the subconscious, that our Blackness is devalued.”
But Shervington said the amount of violence Black communities are witnessing and experiencing is similar to a fighter in a boxing ring having to get up round after round after being knocked down.
She said that at this point Black people are “tired of the stress and the suffering” and that finding safe spaces to talk about the collective trauma and pains from white supremacy are becoming more difficult to come by.
“At some point, the legs are gonna be broken and you can’t get back up,” Shervington said. “We’ve been so beaten down and asked to be so resilient over these centuries that we might be at the stage where we we are weathered, we don’t have the energy to tap into all that amazing resilience that has gotten us to this point.”
As soon as he heard about the shooting in Buffalo, Jn-Marie said he felt compelled to go there and try to help the community make sense of what happened.
He’s never been to Buffalo before, but inspired by Scripture about the story of Cain and Abel, he said that “the blood of those who have been slain are calling on those who seek justice to speak verbally what they are speaking spiritually.”
The importance of traveling from California, Jn-Marie said, is to show support and solidarity, “because we have to really understand that this could happen to anybody.”
“I tell people all the time, the difference between an Afro-Caribbean American, which is me, and an African American is where the boat stopped. The difference between me and a Haitian is where the boat stopped,” Jn-Marie said. “We’re always compelled to go and see about our people because we know there’s anti-Blackness around the world.”
The Rev. Najuma Smith-Pollard, assistant director of community and public engagement at USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, said incidents like the Buffalo shooting often are trauma triggers and hit home for people who have lost loved ones in gun violence.
“Even though we understand this particular incident, or this incident in Buffalo where the perpetrator was a white supremacist, having a loved one’s life snatched like that from a shooting, it hits home for anyone who’s had that happen to them,” Smith-Pollard said. “You’re going to be triggered by it even if you don’t want to be because you know what it’s like to experience that kind of loss.”
She said Black residents and leaders in Los Angeles and nationwide are looking at Buffalo as another case study for why they have to keep fighting and that “we’re not crazy, that this country is at its core racist and full of white supremacy and it hasn’t gone away.”
She pointed out that part of the work being done includes incorporating talking about how to address trauma around violence and white supremacy as part of social justice work and activism.
“It’s the re-traumatizing of the lie that you keep telling us racism doesn’t exist, and that we’re crazy,” Pollard-Smith said. “It’s multi-layered trauma, and conversations, and things that need to be continued to be addressed and then at the other side of it is like this feeling of when does it stop?”
For now, as he looks ahead to his days in Buffalo, Jn-Marie said he’s considered his own safety. Inspired by a song from the late rap artist Notorious B.I.G.’s 1997 album “Life After Death,” Jn-Marie started thinking about what he calls “street commandments” Black people have long used to try to stay safe.
This includes looking for the exit when walking into a building, never having your back turned to the door if you’re sitting in a restaurant, staying vigilant if you live in an area where white supremacy is more prevalent and making sure you think about what you’re going to do if someone starts shooting. He said he knows it’s not the way to live, but it’s necessary for survival, particularly since more attacks could happen.
“What I’m most worried about is when is the next one?,” Jn-Marie said. “Is somebody who’s been planning to cause harm, are they going to do that? Because we know, violent people already are praised as heroes.”