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Black, Butch, and a Target

Black, Butch, and a Target

OMISE'EKE NATASHA TINSLEY

A Black Lives Matter protester was convicted of "attempted lynching" after she confronted police. Was her punishment related to her appearance?

Jasmine Richards, the BlackLivesMatter activist who recently became the first African-American convicted of felony "attempted lynching" charges, is a lesbian who believes in black love. Photos of Richards at a pretrial conference show her in a black button-down shirt, tie, and backward-facing black baseball cap, at once unapologetically black and unapologetically butch.

BlackLivesMatter Los Angeles claims Richards is a political prisoner and suggests it was no coincidence that Richards -- founder of BLM's Pasadena chapter -- was the only person arrested when activists tried to prevent police from detaining a woman in La Pintoresca Park in September. It's no coincidence the first political prisoner of the BlackLivesMatter movement is queer, either.

BlackLivesMatter has always been a queer movement. That is, its leaders have always centered ways misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia intersect with racism. Two of the movement's three founders -- Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors -- are blackqueer women, and other influential queer and trans BLM activists include strategic partner Elle Hearns and organizer Arielle Newton. For these women, as for Richards, being out activists means being vulnerable to increased homophobic and transphobic violence. But because they are feminine-of-center women, this violence takes particular gendered forms. Hearns, for example, describes the "oversexualization of who we are" and the consequent undervaluing of her work as a challenge she faces as a black trans woman activist. For masculine-of-center Richards, though, the gendered backlash looks different.

"BlackLivesMatter has helped me see myself as powerful and beautiful. That's what I'm trying to show everyone else," Richards said in an interview with Helen Zhao last year.

Expressing her power and beauty includes presenting as visibly masculine-of-center. A month prior to Richards's arrest, Los Angeles Wave published a picture of the activist in her signature backward-facing baseball cap, black men's T-shirt, and gold chains, squaring her shoulders and gazing directly at a police officer as she raises her hands, gesturing and speaking. The caption: "Jasmine Richards of BlackLivesMatter gets in the face of a Los Angeles police officer." In other words, Richards meets white male privilege with her own posture of masculine assertiveness -- a black female masculinity that reads too easily as a threat.

When interviewed after the jury returned a guilty verdict, Richards's lawyer Nana Gyamfi speculated that Richards was judged not for her actions but for her assertiveness, her unapologetic style of protest.

"What I tried to get the jury to do is not equate blackness with violence. Just because you see black bodies and the black bodies are angry or disappointed or angry or cussing, that is not a crime," Gyamfi explained. "Unfortunately, I was not able to do that."

And if blackness is always already linked to violence, the stereotypical angry black dyke -- imaginary crazy cousin to the angry black woman -- is always already presumed doubly out of control. Had Richards appeared in court in pearls, lipstick, and a skirt with a husband seated behind her, would Gyamfi have had an easier time convincing the jury she might be something other than a belligerent, (white) man-hating radical run amok?

Richards's conviction and imminent sentencing are opening crucial conversations around "the repercussions of black protest," as Ricardo Hazell titles his piece about her case. "I feel targeted. I feel like a brick is on my heart, on my chest. ... I like to tell people when I was gangbanging, I never got into any of this type of trouble," Richards told Zhao while awaiting trial. But Richards' political imprisonment offers a window into the repercussions of protesting not just while black, but while triply vulnerable -- while black, female, and (gender) queer.

"The #BlackLivesMatter movement has shed a much needed light on how brutal and unsafe life in America is for black men, black trans women and of course black cis women," black femme Zamara Perri writes. "However, I believe black butches face equal, if not a higher risk of dangerous encounters than black cis men. They need a hashtag, too!"

#BlackButchLivesMatter or simply: #FreeJasmine.

stuartsymingtonOMISE'EKE NATASHA TINSLEY, Ph.D., is a University of Texas Public Voices Fellow and associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies.

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