In New Orleans, youth organizers like BreakOUT!’s Derwin Wilright, Jr. are making headway outside of the courts. The city has a notorious police department — in fact, things have gotten so bad, the federal government has taken over supervising the department.
As a 21-year-old BreakOUT! member testified before the New Orleans City Council last October, “walking down the street while being young, black, and transgender is considered a crime.” Among black trans women in particular, police stop-and-searches are so common that the community has devised a nickname for the unofficial “crime:” Walking while transgender.
A survey BreakOUT began conducting earlier this year as part of its "We Deserve Better" campaign has already yielded some ugly results: out of 30 trans survivors of violence surveyed, 15 said they were arrested when they were the ones being assaulted.
But BreakOUT!’s persistence seems to be paying off. The group recently met with New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu as part of a coalition to address the violent Orleans Parish Prison, where many transgender women are housed with men, and are at risk for sexual abuse. The group also partners with other organizations whose members are harassed simply because of who they are, such as the immigrant-focused Congress of Day Laborers.
And just days after Wilright expressed wanting to see the NOPD adopt a policy stating that “you can’t treat LGBTQ people differently on the job,” the department released new LGBT-focused regulations, on the anniversary of the Stonewall riots. “Officers shall not use an individual's actual or perceived gender identity, or sexual orientation as reasonable suspicion or probable cause that an individual is or has engaged in any crime,” reads one directive. Whether the officers will put the policies into practice remains to be seen.
In the meantime, many LGBT New Orleanians continue to be wary of the police. “Oftentimes the cops are being more invasive with their searches on LGBTQ folks. Or officers take in the people who actually make these calls," explains Wilright. "That’s definitely not an incentive to make me think that I’m going to call the police, if everyone around me and folks that look like me are being arrested when we’re facing violent situations.”
According to BreakOUT!’s findings from community surveys, it’s also not unusual for police to ignore calls for help from LGBT people.
Jindasurat, whose organization campaigned to get the charges against CeCe McDonald dropped, agrees. “There’s a very real fear in reporting to law enforcement for certain LGBTQ communities, and it’s really rooted in a very real threat of violence from police,” says Jindasurat. Last year, police officers themselves “made up roughly a quarter of…hate violence [offenders],” according to the organization’s annual report on violence against LGBT people nationally. “Particularly trans women of color are more likely to experience hate violence” from police officers, he says.
Self-defense classes to protect against violence from other citizens are one thing, but Wilright stresses that LGBT people need to “know your rights. So that people know what to say when the officer asks certain questions. Policing [of LGBT communities] isn’t going to stop tomorrow.”
In California's Bay Area this spring, a support group for Patreese Johnson and the New Jersey Four began collecting money so that Johnson won’t have to worry about living expenses for a few months while she adjusts to the outside world. A member of the NJ4 Solidarity crew, Xan West, remembers hearing about Johnson’s situation, and fearing that the same thing could happen to her. “This is my worst nightmare,” she remembers writing in an email about the case to a friend.
Growing up in Oakland, California, with its above-average rates of violent crime, “carrying weapons, and thinking about how I can defend myself is familiar” to West, as is the “the feeling to know you can be attacked with no recourse” if you’re from a low-income background, and are thus at increased risk for police targeting. She insists that LGBT advocacy organizations ignored the New Jersey Four and similar controversial cases. She also thinks that since that night in the West Village back in 2006, nothing has changed for queers of color from low-income backgrounds. “I still live with the same fear Patreese was living with the night she placed that knife in her bag,” she says, pointing out that gay “marriage doesn’t really matter to people who are in danger.”
Johnson and McDonalds’ cases are among the few that made it into the edges of the mainstream consciousness, but they know they’re not alone. There’s Luke O’Donovan, the gay man attacked at a New Year’s Eve party in Reynoldstown, Ga., last year. And Christina Sforza, the trans woman beaten by a McDonald’s manager in New York City, the same year the New Jersey Four were arrested. Lesbian Laura Gilbert was the only person arrested in a small-town Alabama bar fight, after a dozen straight patrons apparently ganged up on her. There are countless more LGBT people who stood up for themselves and ended up in handcuffs.
McDonald blogs from prison, via supporters who post her writings online. In an open letter to other women who wound up in prison for defending themselves, she writes:
How can society say that it detest[s] and challenge[s] violence against women, when there is very little, if any, real help for us, and the help we give ourselves result[s] in punishment?
…Patreese Johnson, Charmaine Pfender, Marissa Alexander, and Tanika Dickson. I LOVE YOU ALL! We are all victims of violence and the injustices and oppression of a faulty legal system and the PIC. And in memoriam of all our fallen sisters, this is for you! Our flames of resilience and tenacity burn bright in the efforts of a revolution for women. We will not give up until there are the necessary changes in this world for better protection and equality.
After almost eight years, does Johnson still feel anger toward Dwayne Buckle? “Just a little bit,” she says. “Only because he cannot admit his fault. I think if it wasn’t for God and the men in my life I would probably hate him, but I don’t. I pray for him and his loved ones every day. I wish him well in life.”
When she gets out, her desires are ordinary things those of us on the outside take for granted. Eating some “real food,” and sleeping in a “real bed.” Shopping. And getting to know her 11 nieces and three grand-nieces and nephews, some for the first time. She’s a little worried it’ll be rough adjusting to the outside world, but is mostly optimistic. “I’ve survived prison. I’m sure I can survive any other struggles in life,” she says. “I’ve always said to all the women who are in prison with their heads still high…that if we can get through this ‘world within a world,’ the real world is nothing but a breeze.”