Black and Blue: The All-Too-Often Toxic Relationship Between Communities of Color and Law Enforcement
By Dennis Parker, Director, ACLU Racial Justice Program
Twenty-five years ago, Director Spike Lee released the film "Do the Right Thing" which illustrated with startling realism the racial tensions and uneasy relationship between police and the communities of color in Brooklyn's Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood. The film's message about the need to alter the fraught relationship between communities of color and law enforcement has assumed renewed importance with the events surrounding the tragic killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson this summer.
One clear message that emerges is that the decision by the St. Louis County Grand Jury not to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for that killing cannot be the final word in the discussion about the all-too-often toxic relationship between communities of color and law enforcement.
As an initial matter, the Department of Justice can still conduct an exhaustive investigation about Brown's shooting as well as looking at the broader question of unfair repressive practices in the Ferguson Police Department as a whole. But even though the current focus on police practices was triggered by the Brown shooting, the events that occurred in its aftermath have demonstrated that the underlying problem is neither new nor limited to the shooting of Brown or to the city of Ferguson.
Similar concerns about the use of deadly force in communities of color have appeared throughout the country. The following list is long and by no means exhaustive.
In Staten Island, New York, Eric Garner died after being placed in an illegal choke hold while being arrested for selling loose cigarettes. John Crawford, an African American man, was shot while speaking on his cell phone and holding a toy gun in the toy aisle of a Walmart in Ohio – an open carry state. Milton Hall, a 49-year-old man with mental illness, was surrounded by eight police officers and a police dog and shot and killed in a hail of 46 shots, even though he was armed only with a pen knife and presented no immediate threat to anyone. Levar Jones was shot by a South Carolina State Trooper while reaching into his car to comply with an order to provide his license in a supposed investigation of a seat belt violation. In Oakland, a handcuffed Oscar Grant was shot and killed while laying face down in a Bart station. These and numerous other incidents suggest the existence of a broader systemic problem that demands investigation regardless of the ultimate outcome of the investigation of Officer Darren Wilson.
Spike Lee ended his landmark movie with a dedication to the families of black New Yorkers killed in incidents in which the specter of race loomed large. Included in the list were Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Griffith, Arthur Miller, Edmund Perry, Yvonne Smallwood and Michael Stewart" all of whom except Michael Griffith died at the hands of police officers.
Although those names may be unfamiliar to a younger generation, they are a reminder of the persistence of a problem that existed long before Spike Lee's movie and, sadly, appears to continue unabated up to the present. Like all good movies, Lee's movie continues to speak to us in part because it is well-made, but unfortunately, it's timeliness is also due to the fact that the problems that it documented have not changed.
If there is a silver lining in the tragic cloud that has surrounded Ferguson, it is that it has prompted organizing and discussions about the larger issues of the improper use of force against communities of color, communities that ask nothing more than to be provided the same protection and appreciation of their humanity as is guaranteed by laws and the Constitution.
It would be sad if that momentum were brought to a halt by the lack of an indictment in Ferguson and we found ourselves, 25 years from now, substituting a whole new list of names from locations across the country, for the ones immortalized in Spike Lee's film.
By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project
Taxi-on-demand service Uber ran into hot water last week over reports that company executives have played fast and loose with some of the location data that the service records about its customers. A couple of thoughts about the scandal:
First, it’s a reminder that whenever we allow an institution to collect information about us, we expose ourselves to certain dangers, including the danger that our information will be misused. It’s also a reminder that abuse is a potential problem not just with government but also with companies, which like government agencies have their own incentives and interests and enemies, and if they can gain power via information, they will do so unless something is stopping them.
What struck me most about the reported behavior is just how amateurish Uber comes across (a point that Joe Nocera elaborated on here). The alleged behavior—as well as the flippant way in which it was revealed—smacks of a newbie startup that hasn’t yet begun to understand the power and importance of the data they collect, and the trust they need to earn in their handling of that data—and so doesn’t take privacy seriously. (A good way for any such company to accelerate their maturity in this area is the ACLU of Northern California’s excellent business primer.)
While the Uber executives look ruthless in their reported behavior, from another perspective they look more naïve in the openness with which they bragged about their abusive plans. It’s hard to picture one of the giant, established technology companies behaving in this way. However, what’s less clear is whether that’s because the established companies would never use their data in such a way, or because they are too smart to let anyone know about it.
I think, standing back from any particular companies, it’s indisputably true that at times, companies of whatever size (just like government agencies) will be led by people who are ethically challenged. And at all times, at lower levels within organizations, there will be a Bell curve of individuals in terms of ethics. Some will inevitably be ethically challenged and will give in to temptation to exploit data in unethical ways.
Larger, more bureaucratic organizations do tend to become more regularized—hemmed in by legal and public-relations considerations that a scrappy startup has not yet developed. The Uber scandal shows how lawyering up can be a good thing. But even big companies should be expected to use data in every way that will bring them an advantage when the benefits of doing so appear to outweigh any legal or public-relations risk. Given the paucity of privacy laws, and the secrecy with which data can easily be used and abused, that may be a disturbing amount of the time.
And of course, the risk of data-abuse in the sense of wrongdoing by particular individuals is never the only one. What is also a risk is that illegitimate uses of data will become baked into the very regularized and legal systems that a company builds its profits around. That’s what we’re seeing in many other areas of the information economy, unfortunately.
Ultimately, as with government, checks and balances are the solution. But when it comes to data in the corporate sector, it can be very hard to enforce those checks. That would be true even if the U.S. had a far more rigorous, EU-style system of rules for the handling of data.
The lesson, once again, is that ultimately the best privacy protection comes from not having your data collected in the first place.
Uber should, at a minimum, take a couple of steps in response to this scandal:
- Put in place limits on the retention of customer data. Data should not be kept indefinitely, and retention should, to the maximum extent possible, be under the control of the customer. As much fun as Uber’s data scientists might have with analytics, their customers must come first. Uber should follow in Google’s footsteps and give their customers visibility into, and ability to delete, the data that is retained about them.
- Along the same lines, Uber might also include the option for a “private trip” for which no data is retained at all by the company. This would be akin to the “private browsing mode” available in most Web browsers. Some people may find it convenient for Uber to retain data about their rides—but want certain rides to be exempted.
- As my colleagues at the ACLU of Northern California point out, Uber (like its competitor Lyft) has never issued a transparency report detailing the quantity and type of government demands for the data it holds. We don’t know how much of the company’s data is demanded by regulators, police, or federal intelligence agencies, and the public should know that. It should begin issuing such reports as soon as possible.
Lyft and any other companies competing in this area should of course do the same.
My heart aches today.
I'm in Ferguson – supporting the incredible work of ACLU of Missouri, meeting with activists, helping out legal observers, handing out Know Your Rights t-shirts and cards to protesters.
And, as a person of color, I'm here bearing witness.
Last night, we stood with thousands of others in Ferguson, listening to St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch make his announcement.
Protesters listening in Ferguson to McCullough's statement
There was a hush over the crowd as we all strained to hear the broadcast. And then... what is there to say? We all had so much energy during the day – energy and solidarity. There was palpable excitement – we were all standing together for a cause. But even though we were all ready for the news, it was just so hard to hear it. And then all of a sudden, everything changed and the quiet was replaced with the crying and weariness of our shared grief.
(To read the ACLU’s response to Ferguson and recommendations for nationwide police reform, click here.)
I woke up this morning to news coverage of buildings burning. But what I saw yesterday and the days before in Ferguson was the passion burning in people's hearts. Early this morning, I attended a clergy-led protest in Clayton, near Ferguson. People were still crying, saying this is not how I want to be treated as a black person. This is not the America I want.
A moment of silence at the clergy-led action in Clayton, near Ferguson
I met Larry Fellows III in Ferguson – he's a 29-year old organizer from St. Louis. Larry had never seen himself as an activist before. He told me that it wasn't till he went to a protest in Ferguson where there were rubber bullets and M-16s aimed at him that he was called to action. Larry was hit with tear gas – "these weird Pokémon balls that spit out gas. All this stuff I had never seen before in my life."
Larry told me that "it just showed me we should be able to fight for our constitutional rights without being terrorized by the police." And he's done just that, becoming part of the next generation of the American civil rights movement.
Larry Fellows III, a 29-year old organizer from St. Louis City
Because we're not just talking about Ferguson. The demonstrations across the country are about all the unarmed black and brown civilians killed by the police. They're about Akai Gurley, shot by a rookie police officer in a stairwell last week in Brooklyn. They're about Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy shot dead by police on a playground in Cleveland two days ago. They're about Eric Garner, who died after NYPD officers held him in an illegal chokehold in Staten Island this summer. They're about each and every person of color who has experienced this nationwide pattern of police using excessive force with impunity.
Is there hope to be had? I'm not sure – it feels like a hopeless moment, but a hopeless moment can be a seed for change. We're angry and mourning today, yet we need to make this the turning point. We need to fix the system. We need to make this the America we want.
By Steven M. Watt, Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU Human Rights Program
The U.S. Senate failed last week to act to protect the privacy rights of Americans when the USA Freedom Act was rejected, but today, the United Nations took another step towards recognizing privacy rights for everyone.
This afternoon, a committee of the U.N. General Assembly adopted by consensus a resolution urging all member states to take concrete action to better protect the human right to privacy in the digital age. It also called on the U.N. Human Rights Council to establish a special procedure to ensure that digital privacy continues to be a priority issue internationally; a crucial measure to ensure the proper development of the human right to privacy.
The resolution also identifies various surveillance practices, including mass spying, as particularly harmful to privacy and other human rights such as the right to freedom of expression. The resolution doesn't impose binding obligations, but it urges U.N. members to take steps to better respect and protect the human right to privacy. This includes ending practices that violate the right and reviewing existing laws and practices on the interception and collection of personal data.
The human right to privacy imposes important restrictions on surveillance, which is permissible only when undertaken pursuant to laws that are public, clear, and non-discriminatory. Surveillance must be employed only to further legitimate state objectives, such as law enforcement or national security, and it must also be proportionate to those ends. As the resolution also highlights, countries must put in place measures – including independent and effective judicial, administrative, and legislative oversight of surveillance operations – to prevent abusive practices and that provide effective remedies to victims when abuses occur.
As the ACLU and others have argued, U.S. surveillance practices fall far short of these exacting standards. If the United States is to remain "at the forefront of defending personal privacy and human dignity," it should heed the U.N.'s call to action and support the U.N. General Assembly’s request to the U.N. Human Rights Council to establish a special procedure on digital privacy. In particular, the U.S. government, should seek the appointment of an independent expert on privacy (a special rapporteur as they’re called at the U.N.) by the Council in March.
In an age of rapidly evolving technologies and potential harmful impacts on the human right to privacy, a special rapporteur will serve a vital role in promoting and protecting the privacy rights of everyone worldwide.
By Tanya Greene, Advocacy and Policy Counsel, ACLU
When I was a kid, my cousin, Stevie, came to live with us in Memphis. My brothers and I were intrigued by our almost-adult cousin who never really came out of the back bedroom. We’d sneak along the hall and listen to him arguing with himself—long, angry, complicated tirades that made no sense. We first-hand saw his fear of electrical outlets, avoidance of the sun, refusal to bathe, and real consternation about his food and what might be in it. My parents tried what they could to help him; my aunt and uncle had not been successful. I heard “schizophrenia” float around the house but didn’t understand that his brain didn’t work like mine.
Then suddenly he was gone.
And even more suddenly we heard whispers he had killed someone who disturbed his sleep one night in a park in Nashville. And that the dead man was a policeman.
Our society has thousands of untreated mentally ill people; our criminal justice system is overloaded with even more. The legal system is not equipped to handle the burden. The capital system is not designed with a treatment goal, which is what all mentally ill people—including those who commit crimes—need so desperately.
Scott Panetti is yet another instance of a severely mentally ill man hopelessly embroiled in the criminal justice system. He has suffered from schizophrenia for decades; his terrible capital crimes illustrate it, his behavior during trial and in prison confirm it. Even a young child knows how crazy it is to dress as a cowboy and flip a coin to pick jurors while representing yourself in trial for your life.
Mental illness is not an excuse to behave badly—it can be an explanation for the behavior. Often we cannot see the depth and breadth of mental health issues like we can see physical impairments. But just like we wouldn’t ask a woman with a broken leg to run a footrace, we cannot expect normal brain behavior from someone with a damaged or otherwise dys-functioning brain.
I’m not sure how but Stevie’s parents, my father, and another aunt were able to testify at a hearing about his illness and his inability to understand and function in the “real” world, and the judge concluded he was too crazy to kill. Stevie avoided a death sentence in court. Instead, he was sent to a hospital for the criminally insane, where he was actually treated. He was an exception; he was lucky in that instance.
Years later, there was talk that he was cured and that he was coming home to us again. But the week my father was to go pick him up, we got word he had been found hanging from a sheet in his cell, an apparent suicide. Other prisoners my father had met over the years there confirmed the guards had something to do with it—that there was no way a Black man would “get away with” killing a white cop, no matter how crazy he was.
So Stevie was executed in the end.
Today, more than 20 years later, the state of Texas is poised to execute another mentally ill human being. If the state of Texas executes Scott Panetti next week, as a society we have abdicated our responsibility to one more of the most helpless among us.
My father used to tell a story of when he and my uncle Louis took Stevie and his brother Danny fishing in upstate New York, long before I was born. One time they were stopped by a park ranger who bent down to ask Stevie, “Now where are you all from, little boy?”
And Stevie answered, “Home,” and wondered why they all laughed.
Tell Texas Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles that they should stop the execution of mentally ill Scott Panetti.
Sign the Change.org petition created by Scott’s sister to join the 80,000+ people who say Texas should not execute a schizophrenic man.
By Diana Scholl, Communications Strategist, ACLU
As we wait for the St. Louis county grand jury to reach a decision on whether or not to indict Officer Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, ACLU national staff is in Ferguson, Missouri, to support the work of the ACLU of Missouri and to share the stories of who have been on the ground since August.
Larry Fellows III, a 29-year-old accidental organizer from St. Louis City, talks to the ACLU about his experience organizing in Ferguson in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing.
How did you get into organizing in the aftermath of the Ferguson tragedy?
The Sunday after Mike was killed, I met friends and went to the memorial. Later that night, we were supposed to go to the vigil. My friend lives a block away from where it happened, so we parked at his house an hour and a half before the vigil. We didn’t make it to the vigil.
When we arrived there, the police were blocking off the streets. There were guard dogs. They already had riot gear. For them to block off a major street was crazy.
Did that surprise you?
Oh yeah. That is not a common thing in this area for police brigades. They made things very uneasy, not just for me, but for everybody. I checked in with my friend, and was like, “Is everything okay?” He said, “Yeah, we’re at the vigil.” Then your mind starts going in a different space. Like, what are they really preparing for? They know we’re angry. They know we’re upset. They know we have a legitimate reason to be uneasy right now. They didn’t seem to understand that people are mourning here.
Had you seen yourself as an activist before?
No, never. It wasn’t until the next day I went to a protest. That was the first being shot at with rubber bullets and having M-16s aimed at me, and seeing armored vehicles, and being teargased, with, like, these weird Pokémon balls that spit out gas. All this stuff I had never seen before in my life.
It just showed me we should be able to fight for our constitutional rights without being terrorized by the police. That’s initially when I became upset and angry with everything that was going on.
How did you start organizing?
Initially, it would just be that we would show up for protests, and the next day we’d clean up the streets. A lot of the same people were out at the protests and going out to lunch and talking about what was happening. That became a cycle until a lot of us figured out we needed to have a strategy. The police would come with different tactics every day, so we needed to figure out other tactics of how to protest. Then a lot of organizers from across the country started to come in to help us do the planning and do the strategizing. That helped us start doing it on our own, and planning out actions and what our narratives were going to be. Our meetings and actions are geared toward getting something accomplished.
What are your fears or hopes of what is going to happen when the grand jury decision comes down?
My main focus has always been our safety. The safety of the protesters; the safety of the residents in St. Louis County. The fact that we are being painted as violent, but when you look at photos: Who’s been showing up with gear? Who’s been showing up with weapons? It’s been the police.
One thing the ACLU has focused on is how the militarization of police has a disparate impact on communities of color. Is that something you feel in your personal experience?
Most definitely. It’s sad we have to look at it that way. A bunch of black people unified — people automatically think something violent is going to happen. Why would you assume that? When groups of white people do show up and are rioting the same tactics aren’t used. Look at the New Hampshire pumpkin riots a couple months ago. Look at any NHL championship game.
If anything good can come of this tragedy, what do you hope it will be?
I think something good has already come of it. I’ve definitely built relationships and friendships with so many different people I hadn’t crossed paths with before, or if I did, we hadn’t noticed each other.
And it’s definitely opened our eyes to what is going on in St. Louis. There’s been this thing for years that hasn't been blatant racism. Since August, l’ve seen black people, including myself, be called ugly names. I’ve seen people spit on. It’s made people more open to be racist. So having to have these conversations about race, it’s definitely happening way more often now.
Which American police force had an officer arrested for misconduct almost every single day between 2005 and 2012?
Hint: It’s the same one that was responsible for at least 31 fatal encounters with private individuals since 2010, without a single instance of public accountability. It’s also the one that claims authority to reduce Americans’ constitutional rights within 100 miles of any external land or sea boundary.
No idea? The agency I’m talking about is Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
It’s a little known fact that CBP is the largest law enforcement agency in the country, with more than 21,000 port-of-entry officers and 21,000 Border Patrol agents. What’s becoming clearer all the time is that CBP is a police force in crisis. According to its former head of Internal Affairs, James F. Tomsheck, thousands of CBP personnel hired in the last decade’s massive growth are “potentially unfit to carry a badge and gun.” Furthermore, he says seven or more of CBP’s shooting deaths are “highly suspect.”
CBP’s pattern of abuse and misconduct is exacerbated by an unprecedented militarization of our borders. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has called border spending – on everything from drone surveillance to equipment intended for war zones – a “mini industrial complex syndrome.” In this context, the last thing I’d expect as a Las Cruces, New Mexico-based advocate for border communities is more enforcement resources.
President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson are readying the country for another “surge” in border-security resources as part of the administration’s welcome announcement of administrative relief for undocumented immigrants. But their plan isn’t rooted in true border- security needs: The administration has regularly touted its tough enforcement record as producing the most secure border in American history. Nor was this summer’s migration of families and children fleeing violence in Central America a border-security problem: CBP leadership correctly identified moms and kids turning themselves in as a humanitarian matter.
The president and his top officials seem to be accepting a mistaken perception of border communities. Rather than celebrating these communities’ top-of-the-charts safety, economic vitality, and diversity, the administration has treated border residents as second-class citizens, suspects rather than people deserving equal respect and dignity. President Obama needs to make clear that he will not increase the number of Border Patrol agents or otherwise worsen the effect of border security on our communities.
The president’s new immigration plan is an opportunity to ameliorate CBP’s dismal six-year track record under his watch. He can bring CBP in line with best police practices using the agency’s fresh leadership. He can stop the daily harassment of U.S. citizens and lawful residents at interior CBP checkpoints, end racial profiling and brutal treatment meted out by CBP roving patrols far from any border, and eradicate abusive, demeaning behavior by some port-of-entry officers.
Border communities have long promoted an affirmative agenda to reform CBP through transparency and oversight reforms including body-worn cameras, reduction of the 100-mile zone, and improved complaint and custody policies. The president should not succumb to uninformed pressure about the border, but act with a vision to revitalize the militarized zone of heavy-handed law enforcement our communities have become. His pledge to bring humane enforcement to DHS operations won’t be realized if he increases border-security resources at the height of CBP’s problems.
As border residents, we’re tired of being forsaken.
See ACLU’s webpage, Border Communities Under Siege at https://www.aclu.org/border-communities-under-siege-border-patrol-agents-ride-roughshod-over-civil-rights
By Nusrat Choudhury, Staff Attorney, ACLU Racial Justice Program
“Everyone is aware of race. Dealing with racism is another matter,” said a keynote speaker at Facing Race 2014: A Multi-Racial, Intergenerational Gathering for Racial Justice Advocates. I joined almost 1,600 people from across the United States and several countries in Dallas last weekend for the conference, which marked the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The sheer power of the gathering lay in the diversity of its participants, who ranged from veterans of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to DREAMers in high school and young people from Ferguson, as well as people of every race, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity working in some way to promote racial justice.
Facing Race 2014 addressed both successes – such as the emergence of a strong, multi-racial coalition to challenge biased policing in New York and the recent win in Minnesota to ban the criminal history box on employment applications – as well as challenges – including the enduring myth that America has entered a “post-racial” era and ongoing obstacles to comprehensive immigration reform.
Advocates debated strategy on issues as wide-ranging as mass incarceration, immigration reform, racial profiling, voting rights, economic development, housing, and labor rights. A running theme throughout was how addressing the role of race within organizations and coalitions had led to effective collaboration between different racial communities and across issues, effectively countering efforts to divide progressive movements along the lines of race, citizenship, or sexual orientation. Advocates from Mississippi, Texas, and North Carolina explained how even in the face of daunting political challenges, they have secured advances for poor people, undocumented construction workers, and low-income LGBTQ communities of color.
Facing Race 2014 powerfully underscored that advocates working on seemingly distinct issues are in fact part of a broader movement to transform our country to be more just and equitable, one with roots in the struggle to uproot slavery and legalized racial segregation and a vision of equality that embraces the ever-increasing diversity of our society.
This point was brought home when Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers and founder and leader of Sweet Honey in the Rock, took the stage with her daughter, Toshi Reagon, a composer, producer and ensemble leader. Together, they led attendees in song:
We who believe in
freedom cannot rest.
We who believe in
freedom cannot rest until it comes.
Until the killing of Black men,
Black mothers’ sons,
Is an important as the killing of White men,
White mothers’ sons.
. . .
Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot.
I come to realize,
That teaching others to stand up and fight
Is the only way my struggle survive.
Written in 1988, these lyrics continue to resonate. Sung by racial justice advocates today, as our country awaits a grand jury’s decision whether to indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, these lyrics are profound. They remind us that, in the past, communities of color and racial justice advocates of all stripes showed tremendous strength in the face of seemingly insurmountable barriers to equality.
This is a lesson we must keep close to us today. So too are the lessons on resisting divide-and-conquer tactics, strengthening multi-racial coalitions, working across issues, and continuing to fight – and win – battles for racial justice, despite setbacks and no matter what the odds.
Van Jones, CNN host and president of Rebuild the Dream, said at the conference’s close: “There are many futures out there. You get the one you fight for.” Facing Race 2014 showed that so many people and communities are deeply engaged in the fight for a future where all people live with hope, dignity, and opportunity.
We are a force to be reckoned with. And that gives me hope.
This piece originally ran at Al Jazeera America.
On Nov. 20, 1989, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a landmark human rights treaty protecting children’s rights. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was negotiated for more than a decade, a process in which the U.S. played a critical role. The administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush contributed provisions to the convention, and in its final form, the treaty incorporates numerous elements of U.S. law and practices.
Upon circulation, the convention was widely adopted and became the most ratified human rights treaty in history. Now, 25 years later, as the world celebrates Universal Children’s Day, only three countries bear the shame of not having ratified the CRC: Somalia, South Sudan and the United States. In failing to ratify, the U.S. has lost an important opportunity to shape international law and improve its human rights record here at home.
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At least 10 transgender women of color have been murdered in the United States since June.
Today, on the Transgender Day of Remembrance & Resilience we honor their lives and mourn their deaths. These women - Kandy Hall, Zoraida Reyes, Yaz’min Shancez, Tiff Edwards, Mia Henderson, Alejandra Leos, Aniya Parker, Ashley Sherman, and another yet to be identified person – had their lives taken from them because they lived in this world that too often fails to value black, brown, and gender non-conforming bodies.
Started in 1999 to honor the life of Rita Hester – a black transwoman, who was murdered in Boston, Massachusetts – the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) is a time to say the names of and reflect upon the lives of our trans brothers and sisters lost to violence. It is a time to raise awareness about the epidemic of violence and systemic rejection that the trans community faces in our country and around the world.
At the same time that we mourn these losses and lament this violence, it is important that we also honor the brave resistance of so many trans people, who organize, fight, and take care of one another in the face of so much. Remembering trans people of color in death and as victims is not enough. We must stand besides and hold up trans communities, particularly communities of color, in life. We must continue to work to end mass incarceration and the criminalization of poverty, gender non-conformity, and blackness.
Last week, we joined colleagues at Columbia University Law School to celebrate the work of incarcerated trans woman, Dee Farmer, who filed a lawsuit to challenge the violent abuses she experienced in federal prison. The conference opened with Dee Farmer herself speaking from prison about the case she brought all the way to the Supreme Court in 1994. She told the audience of lawyers, prison administrators, organizers and other activists: “The transgender community in prison very much needs support of transgenders outside of prison.”
From a panel on sexual assault in detention, prison survivor and Just Detention International Survival Council member, Troy Isaac, echoed Dee’s sentiment: “People are being abused in detention & people don't care. As I sit here on this panel, not everyone cares.”
We care. But we can and should care more. And do more.
On Monday, black trans activist Monica Jones will head back to court in Phoenix, Arizona, for the appeal of her conviction for “manifesting intent” to solicit prostitution. In Phoenix, almost anything – from waving one’s hands to stopping and talking to passersby – can be used as evidence that a person is “manifesting” an intent to engage in prostitution.
Without clear standards of what conduct is made criminal, police often stop and target people based on bias. Assumed to be sex workers, transgender woman of color face widespread targeting under these vague and overbroad laws. Like so many trans women of color, Monica was assumed to be engaging in sex work because of where she lived and how she was dressed.
In August when Monica’s appeal was filed, we joined her and Emmy-nominated actress Laverne Cox in Phoenix to raise awareness of the profiling of trans women of color by police. We wrote “We #StandWithMonica because transgender women of color should be able to walk down the street in their neighborhoods without being arrested, or worse, for simply being themselves.” We will continue to stand with Monica on Monday and throughout her appeals, and we ask you to join us.
Follow the hashtags #translivesmatter and #standwithmonica. Watch the Deliberate Resistance: LGBT Prisoner Rights 20 Years After Farmer v. Brennan Symposium.
While we remember, we must also resist. There are so many trans people who are doing the amazing work of surviving, caretaking, organizing, and transforming.
Today is a day to support that work and those fights.