TRANSGENDER DAY OF REMEMBRANCE 2020: HONORING BLACK TRANS LIVES AND BLACK TRANS LEGACIES OF REVOLUTIONARY STRUGGLE
by William Lukas for The Abolitionist Law Center
When we mourn for Aaliah Denise Johnson, Nina Pop, Tony McDade, Riah Milton, Dominique Rem’mie Fells, Mia Green, and every Black Trans life taken this year, we are reminded that prior to the Atlantic slave trade and New World organization of racial capitalism thru colonization, christianization, chattel slavery, and gendered labor division, Black Trans people existed and thrived in tribes across Africa and the Global South.
We are reminded that Black Trans people were part of the first rebellions against slaveowners and plantations against white mobs and police during Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Era — Black Trans people have been, are, and will continue to be leaders in the unfinished programs of Queer Liberation and Black Liberation.
We remember that it was Black and brown Transwomen, homeless queer youth, and “street queens”, who were the first to rebel against police terror in the Cooper Do-nuts Riot (1959), the Compton Cafeteria Riot (1966) and the Stonewall Uprising (1969).
Black Trans people are militants, organizers, healers, educators, and cultural producers who have been catalysts in the George Floyd Rebellion and ongoing Black Liberation and abolitionist projects.
Rooting ourselves in Black Trans history, survival, and futurity, we remember Frances Thompson. Frances was a Black Transwoman, free slave, and survivor of the Memphis Massacre of 1866. She boldly testified in front of congress, accounting her experiences of rape by white supremacists and police mobs during the Massacre. When Frances was arrested 10 years later on a “sumptuary” charge (for “being a man dressed in women’s clothing”), her transgender identity was publicly weaponized by the State to discredit her testimonies of sexual assault and survival during the Massacre.
The State used her as an example to deploy white gender hierarchies and invalidate the presence of white supremacy and police terror faced by Black communities in the American South and beyond.
Over 100 years since Frances was sentenced to die in a Memphis chain gang, the State continues to brutalize and silence Black Trans people. In February 2008, Duanna Johnson, a Black Transwoman was brutally beat by two police officers in a Memphis county jail. When the surveillance video of the officers beating Duanna with handcuffs over knuckles and pepper-spraying her in the face went viral on the internet, Duanna spoke out against the realities of police terror in local press and launched a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Memphis Police Department.
But nine months after the FBI opened the inquiry into the MPD and just weeks before her case was set to go to trial, Duanna was found murdered “execution style” near her home in downtown Memphis. Over 10 years have passed since Duanna’s murder, and the police still allegedly have no suspects, have made no arrests and have not determined a motive for her murder…
The degradation of Black Trans people by police is both flagrant and insidious. Police routinely assault Black Trans people in the form of racist and transphobic slurs, humiliating public genital searches, rape and extorted sex in leu of being arrested for “unreasonable noise,” “disorderly conduct”, “loitering”, “obstructing vehicular traffic,” “public lewdness,” “failure to disperse”, “obscenity”, “public nuisance” and “solicitation”. These neoliberal “quality of life” citations and misdemeanors — foiled with contemporary neofascist “emergency curfew laws” — are used to target Black Trans people, specifically those who are poor, homeless, and/or sex workers, and/or have disabilities.
The pre-COVID-19 unemployment rate of Black Trans people in the United States was double that of all trans people, and four times that of the united states general population.
Transphobic workplace conditions under capitalism are coupled by extraordinary rates of domestic violence (deployed by family members and partners) and anti-Black transphobic hate violence (deployed by vigilantes and police). This exacerbates Black Trans homelessness and participation street economies that are criminalized by the State, thus funneling Black Trans people into captivity as part of mass incarceration and the prison industrial-complex. It is also important to note that one in three transgender people are sexually assaulted while incarcerated, with transwomen being 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted in prison than cisgender people.
The State’s “solution” to “protecting” Trans people in prison is solitary confinement — a practice that is considered torture by the United Nations.
“They wanted to force me to be someone that I wasn’t. They wanted me to delegitimize myself as a Trans woman — and I was not taking that. As a Trans woman — as a proud Black Trans woman — I was not going to allow the system to delegitimize and hyper-sexualize and take my identity away from me.”
These are the words of Black Trans abolitionist and survivor CeCe McDonald.
On June 5, 2011, CeCe McDonald and her friends were violently attacked by a group of white supremacists in the Powderhorn neighborhood of Minneapolis — just two miles from where George Floyd was lynched by Minneapolis police. CeCe fought back and stabbed one of the white supremacists in self defense. She was incarcerated for 19 months in mens prisons following the State’s “official gender assessment” (despite international calls for her to be transferred to a women’s prison).
“I felt like they wanted me to hate myself as a Transwoman . . . prisons aren’t safe for anyone, and that’s the key issue.”
Since her release in 2014, CeCe has been integral in bringing to light conditions surrounding Trans prisoners and calls to make policing and prisons obsolete. As calls to “abolish police” and “abolish prisons” are co-opted and watered down to “defund the police” and “reform prison”, we are reminded that total abolition, community control, and collective care must be our platforms. CeCe reminds us,
“Police choose who they want to protect, they choose who they want to serve. Prisons don’t help our communities, police don’t help our communities. They make them worse . . . We keep each other safe.”
“We keep each other safe” is the anthem that pulsed thru the radical queer and Trans collective, S.T.A.R. — Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. STAR was founded in 1970 in NYC by Latinx Transwoman activist Sylvia Rivera, and Black Transwoman activist, Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson — both of whom were survivors of state violence and had been powerful forces in the Stonewall Rebellion and subsequent formation of the Gay Liberation Front. Sylvia and Marsha created STAR to address the immediate material needs of queer and Trans people in the face of state violence and regularly collaborated with the Puerto Rican Young Lords and the Black Panther Party. Sylvia and Marsha funded STAR primarily thru sex work and transformed abandoned buildings and hotel rooms into temporary communal living spaces — housing up to 50 community members at a time — “street kids”, sex workers, and homeless and formerly incarcerated queer and Trans people. Eventually STAR purchased a four-bedroom apartment — STAR House — to continue self-organizing projects in food and money distribution, educational events on police terror and Queer Liberation, a queer and Trans bail fund, and their own STAR lawyer.
“We always felt that the police were the real enemy. We expected nothing better than to be treated like we were animals and we were.” — Sylvia Rivera
In the most recent report on LGBTQ and HIV-affected hate and partner violence, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, found that 6% (or 3 of 52) of the documented hate violence homicides involving a LGBTQ victims in need of support, resulted in the police killing them.
Three of the fifty-two queer and Trans victims in 2017 who had called the police to receive relief during an act of hate violence, were then MURDERED by police responding to their calls.
STAR folded in the 1973. Marsha was found dead in the Hudson River on July 6, 1992. Her death was ruled suicide by the police, despite eye witnesses accounts stating she was harassed by a group of men and a neighbor days before her body was found. The case was shrugged off by law enforcement and investigators who claimed they wanted little to do with “a gay black man”. Sylvia died 10 years later from liver cancer. Marsha’s case has since been reopened by the Manhattan District Attorney — her death being reclassified from “suicide” to “undetermined” in 2012.
We honor Marsha, Sylvia and STAR — legacies of militancy and community care in the form defense, housing, food and resource distribution rooted in abolitionist horizons now flow thru works of The Marsha P Johnson Institute, The Audre Lorde Project, The Okra Project, The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, INCITE! — and perhaps most notably during the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing Black Uprising: GLITS Inc.
GLITS Inc., was founded by Black Transwoman activist, sex worker rights advocate and survivor of state violence and incarceration, Ceyenne Doroshow. This summer, GLITS Inc. crowdfunded over $1,000,000 to provide permanent housing and support Black Trans people recently released from Rikers. Early this fall, Ceyenne purchased an 11-unit, 3-floor building complex in Queens.
Thirty years in the making, GLITS Inc. held their ribbon cutting ceremony last week, celebrating the opening of the first ever housing complex by and for Black Trans people.
When we dream up worlds without police and prisons, and develop campaigns with absolute liberation as the shared horizon, we remember Frances Thompson, Duanna Johnson and all Black Trans people existing and resisting at the nexus of racial capitalism and cisheteropatriarchy. Thru a Black transfeminist analysis, we begin to finally understand the totality of violence that is inherent to police and prisons, and the colonial project that is the United States. We celebrate CeCe and Ceyenne, showing us what Black Trans Abolitionist Power looks like; we learn from you.
“Layleen Polanco’s Mother Sues NYC After Her Daughter’s Death at Rikers” by Kate Sosin at LOGO. (2019)
“Before Stonewall, There Was the Cooper’s Donuts and the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots” by Daniel Vilarreal at Queerty (2011).
Who Killed Duanna Johnson? film documentary by Theodore James (2011).
Transgender History & Geography: Crossdressing in Context, Volume 3. G.G. Bolich (2007)
Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility edited by Tourmaline, Eric A. Stanley and Johanna Burton (2017)
Witches, Witch-Hunting and Women by Silvia Federici (2018).
This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, anthology edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa (1981).
“2015 U.S. Transgender Survey Report”, Executive Summary, National Center for Transgender Equality.
Terror in the Heart of Freedom : Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South by Hannah Rosen (2009).
“CeCe McDonald, Reina Gossett, and Dean Spade: Police + Prisons Don’t Keep Us Safe — We Keep Each Other Safe” live at the Barnard Center for Research on Women (2014).
“Reclaiming Our Lineage: Organized Queer, Gender-Nonconforming, and Transgender Resistance to Police Violence.” by Che Gossett, Reina Gossett, and AJ Lewis in A New Queer Agenda, The Scholar & Feminist Online (2012).
“A National Epidemic: Fatal Anti-Transgender Violence in America in 2018” report from The Human Rights Campaign.
“Still at the Back of the Bus’: Sylvia Rivera’s Struggle” by Jessi Gan in CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies (2007).
“Failing to Protect and Serve: Police Department Policies Towards Transgender People” executive summary by the National Center for Transgender Equality (2019).
“Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries: Survival, Revolt, and Queer Antagonist Struggle” from Untorelli Press (2013).
“Law Enforcement Violence Against Women Of Color & Trans People Of Color: A Critical Intersection Of Gender Violence & State Violence” report and toolkit by INCITE! Women Of Color Against Violence (2008).
“Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and HIV-affected Hate and Intimate Partner Violence in 2017” report from The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.
“I’m Glad I was in the Stonewall Riots” Leslie Feinberg interviews Sylvia Rivera, Worker’s World (1998).
Interview: Rae Carey, Laverne Cox, CeCe McDonald and Katie Burgess on the Melissa Harris Perry Show ( 2014 ).