One of the eye-witnesses who testified in the on-going George Floyd trial was Genevieve Hansen, a member of the Minneapolis Fire Department with extensive training in EMT work. This young white woman answered all the prosecutor’s careful questions about her several training programs that qualify her to give immediate and potentially life-saving medical assistance in Minnesota and nationally. When the attorney asked her what she said once she saw Mr. Floyd pinned under the policeman’s knee which was firmly pressing on his neck, I saw small facial tightenings, especially around Ms. Hansen’s mouth. Her reply was clear and specific: she identified herself as a firefighter with medical training to which the officer guarding the scene told her that if she really was a firefighter, she wouldn’t have wanted to get involved–whatever that might mean. The patient attorney continued by asking her what she wanted to do for Mr. Floyd and we heard her go through a list of about five moves she would have performed to open Mr. Floyd’s blocked air ways. As she recited these, she touched her own chest and neck and I saw more facial movements that told me she was feeling constrained breathing herself, there in the courtroom, and I began to grasp that giving this testimony was forcing Ms. Hansen to relive those tense and awful moments when she was forbidden to do what she is so eminently trained to do. In other words, she was reliving her own trauma of that day.
When I teach novels and poems written by Black or Latinx or Indigenous writers, I often help readers see how trauma, both personal and intergenerational/cultural, works. We also discuss how trauma can be re-experienced and set in motion by external details and by speaking about the original moments. So I was witnessing Ms. Hansen’s reawakened memories of what is so clearly one of the most violent examples of trauma as it was being inflicted upon George Floyd. The attorney asked Ms. Hansen how she felt when the police officer insulted her by suggesting she is not what she is–a firefighter with licensed EMT expertise. She replied, exhibiting upper body movements that told me she was feeling deep emotion, “He didn’t believe me,” to which the attorney countered “And how did that make you feel?” “Totally distressed” spilled out off her mouth and she broke down in tears. I could see with my own eyes that her upper body was shaking inside her pristine, starched white uniform shirt.
After some moments of wiping her eyes and trying to get a drink of water from the tiny bottle provided her by the court, she went on. In tears myself in my safe home, the reality of our ability to relive traumatic events broke over me. I just sat and cried for Ms. Hansen, for George Floyd and his girl friend, and for all his relatives. I also realized that I had just been an eye-witness to Ms. Hansen’s account of her own eye-witnessing of the murder of George Floyd by a white policeman who seemed to be feeling a combination of calmness and power as he just kept his very strong knee on one of the weakest parts of a human body. In other words, I had seen the face of trauma, up close and powerfully painful. I will not be able ever again to discuss this phenomenon with the same distance I’ve had until now. Genevieve Hansen has let me see what trauma really looks like as it takes over our bodies and our spirits. I believe not only her words about being a trained fire fighter–I believe every word out of her mouth and every ounce of body language that accompanied those words.