The Toll Activism Takes on Your Body
Trying to make the world a better place can ravage your body, one protest at a time.
Photo: Kena Betancur via Getty
Scout and I paced outside of the Mecklenburg County Jail in late September. It was about three in the afternoon, but it might as well have been three in the morning. We were tired, and we couldn't resist the temptation to eat the Doritos, Fritos and bananas we'd brought for our friend—one of the 82 protesters arrested over a span of ten days in the Charlotte Uprising—who was being released from jail.
It was the day after Scout (who uses they/them/their pronouns), had been on the front lines of one of the most intense protests of the week. They told me how they'd stood with locked arms across I-77 as riot police beat their wooden batons on shields. How they ran up an almost-vertical hill to escape arrest. Scout rubbed the yellow marks on their hands, the lingering effects of the tear gas they couldn't wash off.
While this was traumatic for all of us, protests that have erupted all over the country and world recently have shown us that our situation could have been worse. Just this week, more than 150 protesters were injured at the Dakota Pipeline when authorities fired water cannons (think 23 degree water in 20 degree weather) at 400 of them, in an attempt to subdue and disperse. They used rubber bullets, concussion grenades and tear gas too.
I saw my reflection in the jail administration office window, noticing the disheveled wig my hair had become. I wasn't even wearing real pants: They were purple stretch bottoms with elastic around the ankles. On my shirt was a cartoon pug with the phrase, "Pugs Not Drugs" under his stubby legs, and real Doritos dusted his chest.
The stress of those ten days left a marble on the right side of my head. Or at least that's how it felt, vibrating around like a lost ball in an arcade pinball machine. This happened when I worried about my friends, my girlfriend and myself during the seemingly endless first nights of the Charlotte Uprising, a protest which stemmed from the police shooting and killing of a black man named Keith Lamont Scott on Sept. 20, which became the latest in a year ravaged by similar crimes in the United States.
Clearly, protesting in this uprising and in general had become a physical and mental war for us. The toll activism takes on our bodies and minds seemed to build, especially since we weren't taking time off to fully deal with the death, destruction and unrest we had seen at levels many of us had never experienced before.
"Exposure to that type of environment of heightened police presence, National Guard, guns, dogs, flash bombs, tear gas, just that experience alone people are experiencing a trauma response," says Reia Chapman, a licensed social worker and founder and director of the Center of Family & Maternal Wellness, an outpatient psychotherapy practice for people of color, including their LGBTQ community.
Before the Charlotte Uprising, I had been involved in direct action. When House Bill 2 passed in North Carolina earlier this year, I helped shut down a busy intersection along with the Queer and Trans People of Color Collective. I stood in front of the North Carolina General Assembly with a sign that read, "No More Miss Nice Gay!" I traveled across North Carolina to city council meetings, concerts and actions, and up to New York City to talk about how HB2 affected queer North Carolinians.
The second night of the uprising, I planned to protest with my friends in uptown Charlotte. But a sudden wave of heaviness and dread gripped me, keeping me glued to the couch.Instead of leaving the house, I watched the Facebook Live stream of one of my friends at the local Omni hotel. Without any warning, a shot was fired and the crowd erupted. The man later identified as Justin Carr hit the ground, his blood seeping into the pavement.
"You shot him! You shot him!" my friend on the feed screamed, a speck of Justin's blood on his glasses. Cold, primitive fear strangled me. I texted my girlfriend who was on the scene with her camera, begging her to come home.
When she walked through the door one long hour later, she was covered in tear gas, dirt and the shell-shock of surviving a war in the streets. I washed her clothes. She made tea. I stepped into the kitchen to cut up a peach, arranging the slices in a porcelain bowl. That's when I started to cry, alone. I suddenly worried that none of my friends would ever feel safe walking down the street, and yet I didn't want to express how traumatized I felt since I hadn't physically been there that night.
Over the next week, my girlfriend was like a war correspondent, covering a 7 pm to 1 am shift for almost two fiery weeks, participating as protesters faced off with SWAT teams, the National Guard and police in riot gear. My job from outside of the protests was to listen to the police scanner and alert protesters to potential dangers and to join the jail solidarity effort, where we welcomed protesters as they were processed out of jail.
I had to accept my limits: I couldn't be a protester scurrying up a vertical hill to evade the riot police on I-77. I wasn't built for success at it, physically. But I could be supportive and vigilant on the outside.
Protesters at the front line of direct actions are especially vulnerable to negative long-term health effects, especially when they must remain in a state of hypervigilance. They often lack the training of professionals who work in a heightened tension state. This means they are risking their own mental health, livelihoods and can become overwhelmed by watching acts of violence against their friends.
On a medical level, protesters in direct actions for extended periods of time may experience physical highs and lows. Rhett Brown, a family health physician in Charlotte, says people in these fight or flight states with high adrenaline levels may immediately experience racing heart, faster breathing, elevated blood pressure, stomach cramps and the inability to digest their food as well. They may also experience feelings of anxiety and fear, and lose the ability to make sound decisions if they can't relax and reason through what they are facing.
Over time, this wears out protesters and increases their cortisol levels, which can lead to lack of sleep, anxiety, paranoid feelings and distrust of things that would normally make them feel safe, Brown says. During times of protest, they may also make poor food choices and lack the fuel to keep going, instead overcompensating with caffeine to stay alert in that heightened environment.
Those who consistently protested for almost two weeks—as they did after the police murder of Scott—could potentially "crash" once the adrenaline fight or flight response subsides, leaving them with residual depression and anxiety after after all of the energy and hope surrounding the cause at that time has declined.
The key for long-term mental and physical self-care is to find your niche in the community and to not, as Chapman notes, sail from "one travesty to another." Chapman created virtual and in-person mental health resources for people in Charlotte struggling with the effects of activism. Ashley Williams, one of the leaders of the uprising on the front lines, says protesters are also taking care of each other by sharing meals and providing spaces for each other to talk, hang out and relax.
As for me, I went to a doctor about the little ball in my head. It was a chronic migraine, and the doctor told me I needed to reduce my stress. I try to eat a healthy breakfast, take frequent walks and talk with friends. It's a start for me, and I want to see a therapist soon or force myself to take time off at the end of the year.
Protests every night have morphed into court watches and raising money for jail solidarity. There are still protesters in jail, so I can't imagine not doing anything at all. I have to find people who support what I've done and make sure to take care of myself so I can keep working in my community the best way I can.