Surviving the Matrix: Why I Became a Psychologist Activist
Updated: Jun 8
In the summer of 2014, I was at a crossroads and the country was on fire. I was in my last month of a two-year clinical post-doc, having just come to terms with the fact that I did not actually want to be a psychotherapist. Long before my pursuit of graduate studies, I had fallen in love with systems psychodynamics and group relations work. However, by consequence of clinical psychology programs often being overly individually focused, I had lost contact with my original sense of purpose – until Michael Brown was killed.
In the height of the initial rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, a young, schizophrenic man by the name of Kajieme Powell was shot to death by police less than one mile from where Brown’s body laid for four hours in the hot summer sun. Kajieme entered a convenient store, mumbling to himself about being “tired of this shit.” He took two cans of soda and a donut, walked outside without paying, and placed the soda cans on the curb keeping the donut in his pocket. He paced, waiting for the police, shouting about being on Instagram and Facebook. A witness who was recording on his phone narrated, “…he like, ‘f*** them’… He straight put them on the ground like daring somebody.” The police pulled up. Kajiemi yelled “Shoot me!” Within 15 seconds the police opened fire, killed Kajiemi, then shot him again. Afterwards they handcuffed his dead body.
After watching the video of Kajieme’s murder, I let out a scream of terror and rage: “Oh my god!” I instantly sobbed, overcome by a flood of terror, helplessness and rage. I couldn’t believe what I had just watched, but it also provoked an instant urgency to act.
I recalled the profound impact group relations has had on how I understand myself in relationship to the world. At 25, I went to my first residential conference. At that time, I took very personally the denigrated public perspectives about my black, bisexual, female body and mind. I had unknowingly embodied those negative projections as if they were my own truths. I was often passively suicidal and understood those projections as fundamental personal flaws.
From that conference I learned that no individual’s experience is only their own. That psychological and emotional experience gets partitioned across group members (joined through work and/or citizenry) and can get lodged into specific sub-groups based on race, class, sexual orientation, etc. Ultimately, groups can unconsciously mobilize its members to carry out enactments that are dangerous and destructive – including martyring oneself on behalf of a larger U.S. society that has yet to fully contend with its historical and persistent dynamic of racial traumatization.
That conference was my awakening to the social matrix and began my training in reading group unconscious code. It saved my life. After I watched Kajiemi die, my mission was clear – become a psychologist-activist and find any and every way to use systems psychodynamics to help save the lives of others, especially the black and brown activists working on behalf of all of us.
(updated June 8, 2020)