Content warnings: suicide, solitary confinement, racist violence, sexist violence, ableist violence, jails
When I went to a vigil for the victims of the Charleston shooting last Sunday, one speaker stood out to me. I think he was Jumaane Williams, but I could be wrong. He spoke directly to us white people in the audience, saying that it was fine we were standing with them that night and mourning, but asking us where we would be the next morning. He said–and I could be getting this wrong, but my memory is that he said–don’t you dare stand with us tonight and cry if you aren’t willing to stand with us tomorrow, when we demand police reform, affordable housing, welfare rights, and more.
Yesterday I went to the Trans Day of Action. I loved it. I have been away from my NYC community for too long. I got to see so many beautiful people–some I knew, many I didn’t. People carried signs like Stand with Jennicet, End Deportation Now, Arm Trans Women Disarm Cops, Trans Power. Trans people of color led the march and rally. I could be wrong, but I thought more people participated in the march using wheelchairs this year than past years. I found myself able to state my own access needs better than I had in the past. Our chants filled the air–like “No Justice, No Peace, No Transphobic Police.”
As I left, I saw a huge gathering of people carrying the HRC equals sign. It felt like a punch in the gut, even though as soon as I saw it I realized I should have predicted it given the gay marriage decision.
Gay marriage, of course, has been all over the news and my social media feeds. I thought I would feel something learning about the decision, but I felt nothing. Or at least, I didn’t feel anything at first, but eventually felt guilty for not feeling anything, and somewhat–antsy? anxious?–as the stories kept scrolling.
I thought I might feel some happiness, because I know many people in our communities–and not only white cis gay men–have fought for this and found it meaningful. I thought I might feel some relief, because the intense homophobic opposition to gay marriage had not won out. I thought I might feel contempt for the national gay organizations that have pushed this issue ahead of so many more pressing ones. I thought I might feel frustration with the way the decision shores up marriage and continues to privilege it over other relationship configurations. I thought I might feel rage that people claimed victory when Gutiérrez was shushed, when Peterson is in prison, when Hall is dead, and when so many Black people, trans people, disabled people, and Black trans disabled people are imprisoned, deported, hurt, homeless, killed. I didn’t expect to feel…blank.
Today was the Dyke March, which I have never attended. As I was considering what to do today, I decided that it felt most important to me to join the Resist Rikers march. I’ve been out to Riker’s many times, but always as a lawyer visiting a client. I would go on the long trip, go into the main entrance where “ordinary” visitors are not allowed, show my attorney ID, take a shuttle bus, go through security, and usually eventually get to meet with the person I came to see in some tiny room. My client, almost always a poor trans woman of color, often someone disabled, young, or an immigrant, would tell me about horrible things. And I would talk to her, do my best to show compassion and respect, take notes, share any advice I could, offer ideas for next steps in our work together, and then leave. Going back today as a part of a protest, shouting that this jail and all jails must be shut down, seemed important. And I didn’t know if I could handle doing anything explicitly gay, given my reaction to HRC logos and marriage discussions. And I thought of the speaker at the Charleston vigil, and asked myself if I was going to be one of the hypocrites he spoke about, or whether I would at least do this much–just a tiny drop in the ocean of what white people need to do for racial justice, but something that is probably easier for me to do than for many others. And so I went.
It was a fairly small group of protesters. It was unseasonably cold and rainy, and many of us were not dressed warmly enough. I didn’t know anyone there. I don’t know how many trans people there were, but I feel confident I was not the only one. A beautiful person across from me held a beautiful sign that said “No Trans Liberation Without Prison Abolition.” One of the chants we shouted was “Arm Trans Women Disarm Cops,” echoing the sign I had seen the day before. It was a multiracial group, although it seemed somewhat whiter to me than the Trans Day of Action. It seemed like there was a lot of press at the action, but I have only seen one story so far.
During the rally, I was reminded of how much jail issues are disability issues, at the same time they are race and gender issues. I didn’t catch the name of any of the speakers, but I mostly remember the speeches by Black women. The first Black woman who spoke shared her experiences as a prisoner on Riker’s Island. She talked about how officers called her “bitch” so much it came to seem like a second name. She talked about trying to help out when a prisoner and officer were having some sort of conflict, and how officers physically attacked her for it. She talked about how after that she was placed in solitary confinement, where guards would take away her phone call, her shower, and her meals on a whim. She talked about how, as a certified nurse assistant. she used to always speak up when she or someone else wasn’t getting the health care they needed, but how Riker’s took that from her. They shamed her and punished her for that sort of advocacy so much she came to feel it was wrong. She talked about how they refused her medical attention for her injuries from the officer attack, and how it took two months for them to finally X-ray her ankle, admit it was broken, and put it in a cast. She talked about how she used a wheelchair for four months–until she was released. When she was released, they said that she couldn’t take the wheelchair, because it was their property. She wanted to leave so much that she literally crawled off the island without the wheelchair, and finally made it home.
Another Black woman told us about Kalief Browder. He was a Black teenaged boy accused of stealing a back pack. He refused to take a plea bargain, so he stayed on Riker’s Island for three years until he finally had a trial. Of the three years he spent on Riker’s Island, two of them were in solitary confinement, a form of torture he wrote about. While in solitary confinement, he became suicidal for the first time in his life. He attempted suicide more than once. Some time after he was finally released from jail, he completed suicide. A big part of the protest was naming the Department of Correction as his murderer, delivering a symbolic coffin, and demanding that every person on the Island be released.