The Montgomery Brawl: The lasting effects of trauma

OPINION: Dameion Pickett, the riverboat co-captain who was attacked by a group of white men, spoke out for the first time this week. The attack on Pickett was a horrific example of overt racism; and while the physical wounds may heal, the mental and emotional scars will likely last a lifetime.

Dameion Pickett, left, Aaren Hamilton-Rudolph and Roshein "RahRah" Carlton are interviewed by Robin Roberts on "Good Morning America." (Screenshot via "Good Morning America")

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

The Montgomery, Alabama, riverboat brawl is a reminder that racism is alive and well, and a recognition that a bad situation could have ended up far worse. 

Dameion Pickett, a riverboat crew member, was attacked by a group of white men who were blocking a dock. Pickett was trying to do his job by informing them to move so that they didn’t hit a smaller boat. Pickett defended himself, and his friends and co-workers Roshein “RahRah” Carlton and later, 16-year-old Aaren Hamilton-Rudolph (who famously swam to shore to help Pickett) came to his aid. The fight escalated into a massive brawl between Black and White people, symbolizing the long-standing racial tensions that continue to exist.

Racism lingers. Racism kills.

Pickett (co-captain of the Harriott II and lead deckhand), Carlton and Hamilton-Rudolph never imagined they would be at the center of one of the most famous brawls in recent memory. The three spoke about the incident for the first time publicly Monday on “Good Morning America.” 

The victims of the vicious assault reconciled the events of that day, and the events leading up to it, leaving viewers wondering whether the lasting impacts of this trauma will ever go away. 

And the answer is that it may not, because racism kills, both directly and indirectly. The attack on Pickett was a horrific example of overt racism; and while the physical wounds may heal, the mental, emotional, and physical scars will likely last a lifetime.

The lives of Pickett, Carlton, Hamilton-Rudolph, the others who were involved — and even some who viewed the video over and over — have changed forever. Pickett still has bruises on his body, a constant reminder of the day’s events. While he did not comment on his mental health — simply stating that he is still in “shock” — it would not be surprising if he’s experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder such as:

  • Flashbacks (reliving aspects of a traumatic event or feeling as if it is happening now, with or without triggering events) 
  • Panic attacks (an exaggerated response to stress that is often characterized by physical symptoms of sweating, a racing heart, and the feeling of impending doom or as if you are dying)
  • Dissociation (Feeling numb, spaced out, or detached from your body or as though the world around you is unreal.

There’s no doubt that incidents such as the Montgomery Riverboat Brawl and others have a lingering impact. The mental and emotional toll of these events are further compounded by everyday financial, medical, and social stresses such as police misconduct, workplace microaggressions, and political marginalization. 

We now know that chronic and persistent trauma makes Black Americans more vulnerable to physical health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease, a consequence of biological weather or the aging of one’s cells from repeated trauma, chronic stress, self-doubt, anxiety, and fear. A recent study found that Black adults had a biological age that was 2.6 years older than their actual age due to DNA methylation and telomere shortening (signs of cellular aging). These epigenetic changes are so stark that they can be passed onto future generations, serving as a biological thumbprint of generational trauma on our youth. Studies also show that life expectancy is three to four years lower for Black Americans than White Americans, even when differences in socioeconomic status are negligible, symptoms of historical systematic disenfranchisement. 

Overcoming trauma

Trauma can make people feel hopeless and vulnerable. The first step to healing is to acknowledge your feelings, including shock, disbelief, fear, and grief. Finding a support system and accepting that there is no right or wrong way to feel or heal is important. Some people find talking about their trauma, as these men have, helpful.

Ultimately, overcoming personal tragedy requires action, such as seeking professional help, support from loved ones, or simply having a positive outlook, with the goal of making progress every day. The importance of stacking good days cannot be overstated — it’s amazing how uneasy feelings may slowly fade away as life returns to normal in the days or months after the catastrophic event. 

The best way to prevent racism and trauma is to curb racial injustice and hate crimes and bridge the racial wealth gap. However, life is imperfect, and people must find healthy ways to cope with racism and trauma when it does occur. Talking about our traumas staves off the internal deterioration that often occurs when we allow our stress to fester. Let’s hope that the victims of the Montgomery Riverboat Brawl continue to talk so that they can process these events at their own pace and continue to heal.

Dr. Shamard Charles is the executive director of graduate studies in public health at St. Francis College and sits on the Medical Advisory Board of Verywell Health (Dot Dash-Meredith). He is also host of the health podcast, The Revolutions Within Us. He received his medical degree from the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and his Masters of Public Health from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Previously, he spent three years as a senior health journalist for NBC News and served as a Global Press Fellow for the United Nations Foundation. You can follow him on Instagram @askdrcharles or Twitter @DrCharles_NBC.

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