I first heard Duanna Johnson's name from a friend in the Anarchist People of Color network, in passing conversation during a busy political meeting. The next day, I could only remember the stand-out details: Black trans person. Memphis. Police brutality. From a distance it seemed like any other story of police abuse, in which the state uses racist violence, hetero-sexist violence, or both to divide and control our communities.
But my APOC friend urged me to look closer, and I'm glad I did. I explored some news archives, and then, thanks to a comprehensive article in the most recent issue of Left Turn Magazine, I learned a lot more about the case. I'm now convinced Duanna Johnson's experience carries important lessons for liberation movements in the U.S. On the one hand, it exemplifies how radicals have failed to respond to violence aimed at oppressed people--particularly transgender people of color. At the same time, it points to the courage and resistance we can, and must, build to defeat this violence.
Repression and Resistance
Duanna Johnson was raised as a black boy in impoverished North Memphis, and moved to Chicago at age 12. When she turned 18, Duanna told her family she wasn't a man, and began a transition into living as a woman. She took steps to alter her appearance, including breast implants, but could never afford the expensive surgery that some transgender people desire to alter their sex organs. In 2007, Duanna returned to North Memphis as a transgender woman, to live in the home of her deceased grandmother.
Walking down the street in February of 2008, Duanna was stopped and arrested by Memphis police on prostitution charges. There was no evidence involved in her arrest--no alleged client, no money exchanged--and in this respect it was pretty typical. An excellent toolkit from INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence explains that police tend to profile women of color as "drug users and couriers, as sex workers, and as bad mothers" with little or no justification. The same systemic racism that pushes cops to periodically murder young, unarmed black men fuels police harassment, unjust arrests and sexual assault against black women.
But Duanna's treatment wasn't only due to color. From the moment she was taken into custody, Duanna was subjected to a stream of taunts and slurs specifically targeting her gender representation. Andrea Ritchie's article "Standing with Duanna Johnson against Police Brutality" points out:
Law enforcement officers not only police along racial and class lines, they explicitly enforce the borders of the gender binary by, for instance, violently arresting trans and gender non-conforming people for using the "wrong" restroom, or by harassing and arresting individuals who carry identification representing the "wrong" gender.
Trans women across the country are also routinely subjected to extreme physical violence by police. Similarly, butch lesbians repeatedly report being punched in the chest by officers who justify their violence by saying "you want to act like a man, I'll treat you like a man." In other cases, officers threaten or engage in sexual violence to punish gender nonconformity.
Just walking down the street, transgender people are subject to criminalization, insults or attacks if they visibly defy the gender binary. Some groups estimate that as many as half of all transgender people have been in jail or prison at some point in their lives. In combination with the tradition of racism and genocide against colonized people in the U.S, transgender people of color's interactions with the police can often be traumatizing, brutal or deadly.
Sadly, Duanna's case was no exception. In the processing room at Shelby county jail, Duanna endured a hail of insults. Eventually a white male officer, Bridges McRae, called to her to leave the bench where she'd been sitting and be fingerprinted. But Duanna didn't move. "My mother didn't name me a 'faggot' or a 'he-she!" she said, and refused to stand until the officer called her by her name.
This insubordination infuriated the cops who had her locked up. McRae approached Duanna, slipped handcuffs over his knuckles, and insisted that she stand and be processed. When she again refused to move, McRae started punching. He rained blows on Duanna's face and head as another white cop, James Swain, rushed to hold her down. Blood spurted from Duanna's skull, and when she tried to ward off the blows she was pepper sprayed and beaten further. McRae eventually knocked Duanna to the ground and handcuffed her. As she lay bleeding on the floor, eyes burning, calling out for help, a nurse arrived to treat McRae for a minor cut. "I didn't feel like I was a human being," Duanna would say afterward.
The first time I read details of Duanna's assault, it brought tears to my eyes, but not because of the ferocity of the beating. Rather, it was Duanna's refusal to stand that made me cry. Alone, surrounded by armed enemies who hated her for how she looked and chose to live, Duanna had the courage to sling back a piece of the scorn and viciousness arrayed against her. I thought of my own experience in jails during demonstrations: how intimidating legions of gun-weilding police can be, and how one feels they could do anything to you with impunity and get away with it. I wondered if I could summon the same courage if I were in Duanna's situation.
Unfortunately for the bigot cops who attacked her, brutality alone can't quash a person's rebellious dignity. Once she was released, Duanna publicly threatened to sue the Memphis police department, and a security camera videotape of the attack was soon leaked to the media. The case exploded in the regional headlines, and public scrutiny forced Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin to request a federal investigation into the incident. Yet the response from civil rights groups was muted, even though the case involved a black victim of white police violence.
An Injury To One Is An Injury To All?
Civil rights groups and prominent pastors in Memphis made few public comments about Duanna's case. Dwight Montgomery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, claimed in an interview that "Duanna as an individual, as a human being has our support," but quickly backpedaled on any statement of solidarity by insisting "I certainly don't condone transgender or homosexuality, but it would be a dishonor to Dr. King not to speak out." The message was clear: high profile leaders may rally around young black men who have been attacked by police, but black folks who defy the hetero gender binary can't count on the same support.
The same message has been delivered time and again to queer radicals of color. In this case, many of the organizations that claim leadership over black movement in the U.S, whether religious or nationalist in orientation, consider fixed gender roles and family structures an integral part of black empowerment. Their thinking responds to very real attacks against families of color by the Prison Industrial Complex and the conditions of poverty, but it unfairly conflates queerness in the black community with the effects of white supremacy. When they ignore the struggles of queer and trans people of color, these groups effectively police the boundaries of black liberation, and exclude black folks of varying genders and sexualities from their own liberation movement.
Thankfully, social movement in Memphis did respond, even without the support of large, national formations. A coalition of feminist, queer and trans groups from around the state soon joined together to host a town hall meeting in Memphis against racist, transphobic attacks. The event connected Duanna's individual struggle with collective resistance, and created a venue for queer and trans people across Memphis to share their own stories of police brutality. An organizer with Women's Action Coalition Memphis noted that "every single person who came forward was black and almost all of the cops involved were white."
The grassroots response stood out from dominant trends in gay rights movement too. Just as people of color-led groups can leave queer and trans issues off their agendas, mainstream gay rights organizations often sideline trans or non-white queer folks. Advocacy groups like the Human Rights Campaign are often criticized for focusing exclusively on gay rights in the professional workplace, in the military, and in marriage--that is, in venues that perpetuate the capitalist, imperialist or heteronormative status quo. Just as many second-wave feminist groups prioritized issues that were relevant to white, middle class women, many gay rights organizations work to assimilate white, middle class gay men into dominant U.S. society, and throw queer people of color and trans folks from the train.
Duanna's case contained within it implicit challenges to many sectors of U.S. social movement. But even as her struggle opened venues for social change, Duanna faced serious personal and economic hardship. By late 2008, her house in North Memphis had no electricity or running water, and Duanna was relying on an elderly neighbor for help with an extension cord and access to periodic showers. She had extreme difficulty finding a job, and was arrested on sex work charges a second time.
In an excellent interview entitled "Trans Politics and Anti-Capitalism," Dan Irving outlines some of the intersections of class politics and trans identity:
The politics of passing are laden with class divisions. Those who can afford immensely expensive medical procedures and non-medical means of gender modification – clothing, binders, cosmetics – are more likely to be read as either men or women if that is their goal. The economic privileges that are likely to accompany professional class locations are linked directly to accessibility and safety. It’s much easier for a trans person who passes as either a man or a woman to move through public spaces free of harassment and violence. It’s also easier for them to access essential services. Nevertheless, the risk of being “discovered” as sex and/or gender- variant continues to cut across class divisions.
When understood through one’s relationship to production, class location itself is also mediated by sex/gender identity. Trans people, especially those who are unintelligible as either “men” or “women,” have immense difficulty obtaining and maintaining employment. Transgressing the hegemonic sex/gender binary can have a devastating impact on trans people, especially when considered in light of other relations of dominance mediating their identity. While we usually hear of “successful” trans people who – in spite of their transition – were able to maintain their jobs as professionals, many trans people work precarious jobs in the service industry, in high tech industries where they are not visible to corporate clients, or in criminalized sectors of the economy like the sex and drug trades.
Duanna faced economic strife as a black person in the U.S, and also as someone who lived outside the gender role she was assigned at birth. In late 2008, these hardships drove Duanna to buy a bus ticket back to Chicago--but tragically, she would never get there. On November 9th, Duanna was found dead, shot execution style, just a few blocks from her home.
News of Duanna's murder hit the internet, and the questions started to fly: why was she killed? Who killed her? Was it a vengeful execution by corrupt cops? Or was it a random right-wing attack, in response to the media notoriety Duanna had gained in her fight against racist transphobia? Many in the trans community believed Memphis police were directly responsible for her murder, and that the truth would never come to light through official channels--a theory that's hard to discount, considering the MPD has seen at least 40 officers reassigned or resign due to investigations since 2004.
To this day, the Memphis police have made no significant progress in investigating Duanna's murder. Nor have they made progress in any of the other transphobic attacks that occurred in Memphis that year. Duanna wasn't the only black trans woman attacked or killed in 2008: first there was Ebony Whitaker, a 20-year old sex worker found shot to death in a parking lot; then there was Leeneshia Edwards, who survived being shot in the face the day before Christmas. None of these attacks have been solved by the authorities, and ultimately, it seems we can't rely on them to do so.
Attacks like those against Duanna, Ebony and Leeneshia occur every day in the U.S, and they emerge from the web of violence that governs gender and sexuality in our society. Some of this violence is perpetrated by individuals in our own communities, reproducing the hetero-patriarchy and pervasive fear that global elites find so useful. But much of it is actively fueled and maintained by the state itself, whether through homophobic legislative campaigns like those surrounding Proposition 8 in California, or through the utter impunity of transphobic cops. As long as state institutions are complicit in attacks against trans people of color, it seems unlikely they can be counted on to prevent them.
How, then, will autonomous social movement respond to racist, transphobic attacks? The question is an urgent one because, as Duanna's case teaches us, people's lives are at stake. Who will dismantle a white supremacist hetero-patriarchy that is literally built upon the dead bodies of trans people of color?
Social Movement Bashes Back
Thankfully, queer and trans movement in the U.S. continues to grow. National organizations like Critical Resistance and INCITE! now foreground the struggles of queer and trans people in their publications, actions and conference. In 2007, the Transforming Justice conference brought together trans and gender variant people from across the U.S. to oppose the Prison Industrial Complex, supported by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. In New York, the Safe OUTside the System collective has hosted a series of summits to counter violence against queer and trans people of color without relying on law enforcement. S.O.S. has run violence intervention, copwatch and self defense workshops, and has organized a network of "Safe Spaces" throughout Brooklyn that will intervene to prevent harassment on their premises.
Queer and trans anarchists have also joined the fight with the formation of Bash Back!, a national network that emerged in 2007. Since its inception, the network has become known for its incendiary rhetoric and confrontational actions against institutions that perpetuate homohpobia and transphobia. Bash Back! groups have taken action against conservative gay formations like the HRC, fought against queer assimilation into the imperialist U.S. military, and engaged in direct confrontations with churches and they see as having indoctrinated and produced bigots that routinely assault and murder queer and trans people.
I became familiar with Bash Back! because its founding conference featured a people of color caucus that some of my APOC friends attended. I was struck by the network's points of unity, to which any group acting under the Bash Back! banner must adhere:
1. Fight for liberation. Nothing more, nothing less. State recognition in the form of oppressive institutions such as marriage and militarism are not steps toward liberation but rather towards heteronormative assimilation.
2. A rejection of Capitalism, Imperialism, and all forms of State power.
3. Actively oppose oppression both in and out of the “movement.” All oppressive behavior is not to be tolerated.
4. Respect a diversity of tactics in the struggle for liberation. Do not solely condemn an action on the grounds that the State deems it to be illegal.
With these core principles, Bash Back! affinity groups across the country have responded to homophobic and transphobic violence. When Proposition 8 banned gay marriage in California and fueled homophobic mobilizations across the country, Bash Back! groups vandalized conservative churches in Washington, Utah, California and Colorado. Later that year, Bash Back! affinity groups from across the country converged in St. Paul to help blockade the Republican National Convention.
In my home state of Michigan, Bash Back! affinity groups disrupted a megachurch outside Lansing known for its reeducation programs for queer youth. They threw fliers, made out and and chanted slogans against invisibility in the middle of a service, while others dropped banners from the mezzanine. The action was vilified as "urban fascism come to America's heartland" in church statements, but a communique released by Bash Back! groups retorted that "so long as bigots kill us in the streets, this pack of wolves will continue to BASH BACK!"
The Bash Back! network also called a national day of action following Duanna's murder, to coincide with the Transgender Day of Rememberance. In Philadelphia, a Bash Back! affinity group blocked traffic and flyered against police murder. In Milwaukee, Bash Back!ers dropped a banner reading "RIP Duanna." In Memphis, a newly-formed Bash Back! chapter had roses, a hearse and a casket delived to Duanna's assailant, Bridges McRae.
Bash Back!'s response to Duanna's murder are bolstered, in large part, by the participation of anarchist people of color in Bash Back! organizing. Along with the work of groups like Critical Resistance, INCITE!, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and S.O.S, their efforts are building institutions of collective self-defense and community response against racist, transphobic terror. Radicals of color can and should fight in solidarity with these struggles--and for liberation and self-determination in the broadest sense, in which everyone in our communities is free to determine their own genders and sexualities.
Everywhere the machinery of violence is arrayed against them, trans people of color are eluding their persecutors, surviving and fighting back. These struggles are all the more remarkable for being commonplace, and Duanna Johnson's story stands out among them. I've been both shocked and inspired by Duanna's struggle, and I sincerely hope her memory will will inspire radical queer and trans movement in the fights ahead.
Long Live the Rebellious Dignity of Duanna Johnson!
Long Live Queer and Trans Resistance in the United States!
All Power Through The People!
Chino is a NYC-based writer, activist and media-maker currently galavanting across North America in search of radical social movement.