16 October 2011

Thoughts at the end of the Summer of Violence

I was asked to provide commentary on anti-LGBTQ hate violence in DC following the September 29 performance of STOP KISS, produced by No Rules Theatre Company. I was joined on a panel by Hassan Naveed of GLOV, and we made a few remarks and took questions from the audience and cast. Below are the notes I developed to shape my comments.

I was sitting in one of my countless activist meetings one night, when my good friend, a long-time trans community leader, started weeping beside me. “I’m so tired of picking up bodies!” she wailed, and buried her face in her hands. We were in the midst of two brutal months, filled with shootings, beatings, muggings, and, yes, killings. Nerves were -- and are -- frighteningly thin. Our days have been spent planning vigils, visiting victims in hospitals, and identifying the dead. Our nights are interrupted by calls we don’t want to answer, uniformly featuring some grim news from some police official whose number we wish we didn’t have to save. In the thick of all that, the murders go unsolved, we sit in meetings with a coldly insensitive police chief that get us nowhere, and we get a morbid media following that is both essential and that we wish we never had.

Welcome to DC’s latest Summer of Violence. Studies show that transgender women of color bear the brunt of anti-LGBT hate violence. Recent events in DC seem to be going out of their way to reinforce that fact.

It started with shots fired on Dix Street NE in the early morning hours of Wednesday, July 20. Lashai McLean, all of 23 years old, was dead. The friend she was with ran to safety -- outside DC -- and took days to find. Less than two weeks later, less than a block away, two young men approached another trans woman, asked her for money, then opened fire. She was able to flee unharmed. The two attacks are nearly identical in terms of location, time of day, and description of perpetrators. Police now say they’re unrelated.

Then it continued. Early on August 26, Kenneth Furr, a drunk, off-duty police officer, climbed on top of a car at First and Pierce Streets NW, and fired five shots at the three trans women and two men in the vehicle. Three people were hospitalized. Furr was pissed off that one of the women had failed to live up to stereotype by refusing his proposition for sex an hour earlier. In Officer Furr’s world, if a trans woman refuses to give a blowjob for a little cash, she deserves to die. Police say it’s not a hate crime.

Throughout all this, there were multiple robberies at gun point, some with shots fired. HIPS, an outreach organization for sex workers and others on the streets, reports a 300% increase in “bad date” reports from 2010 to 2011. That pattern of violence is nothing new, but the volume most certainly is.

Still, it continued. On September 10, a body was found on 11th Street NW, between Fairmont and Euclid. Police told us the deceased was an unidentified Latina trans woman. We spent the morning, and again that night, working the phones, taking inventory of literally every Latina trans woman in town. If we knew of someone who lived nearby who didn’t answer her phone, we went and knocked on her door. We sat at the crime scene for hours, talking to neighbors, trying to figure out what happened, and to whom. We laid flowers on the tree beside where the body was found. 

Two days later, another woman was shot in the neck by someone she knew. She was able to get herself to a police station for help. That afternoon, the police held a press conference, where they released an autopsy photo of the person found dead on 11th Street. You could hear the sinister disgust in the assistant police chief’s voice as he described the victim as “a man in women’s clothes.” Activists standing right beside him raised eyebrows. I muttered a string of expletives under my breath. Within a day, the victim was identified as GiGi Gopalan, originally from Nepal, who had come out as trans to friends in a letter just 12 days before her death. About 200 people showed up at a candlelight vigil this past Sunday. Police still don’t know what happened, and I doubt they ever will.

After weeks and weeks of this, suddenly it was my turn to weep. On Friday, September 16, some people burned the memorial to Lashai McLean that had been put up in the days after her death. There was a giant teddy bear, flowers, and a picture, all placed against a tree. All that was left were two charred paws. The thought of not just taking a life, but taking a memorial too, was just too much.

In tonight’s show, we saw just how much hate violence can tear lives apart in an instant. Violence doesn’t just hurt victims -- it rips through whole communities. Though Stop Kiss is a work of fiction, I want you to remember that it reflects an all too common reality. In the first phase of the DC Trans Coalition’s needs assessment study, we found a pervasive concern about safety and risk that was expressed by every single participant. When they are victimized, trans people are often reluctant to call the police, because they know all too well that there is more than one Officer Furr out there.

It’s time to be blunt about why this violence keeps happening. Our society has a long history of criminalizing queer and trans people, and DC is no different. When it’s easy to be profiled, picked up, and arrested for some sort of perceived deviance, it makes it that much harder for someone to secure a job in the formal economy. When our schools are unsafe and people are forced to drop out, it makes earning a living that much more difficult. With healthcare costs perpetually soaring upwards, people have to do whatever they can to meet their medical needs. These circumstances often force people to work the streets, which both jeopardizes their personal safety and perpetuates the cycle of criminalization and poverty.

DC is particularly aggressive in its enforcement of anti-sex work laws, and frequently declares spaces as “Prostitution Free Zones.” These profiling zones, where trans women can effectively be arrested for “walking while transgender,” force those who do work the streets -- and the many folks who hang out with them there to provide support and build community -- into less safe areas. Many of this summer’s crime scenes are on the peripheries of these Prostitution Free Zones. Thus the campaign to curtail a nonviolent crime that merely irritates this city’s gentrifying classes directly leads to the violent, bloody loss of trans lives.

This Summer of Violence, then, is nothing new. Systemic discrimination in this country has always led to the deaths of those deemed to be disposable. We will continue to resist this violent degradation, and we will continue demanding justice. We will force the police to take crimes against us seriously, and we will insist upon solutions to break these cycles.

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