Thursday, April 30, 2015

Baltimore is Burning: Is This Mya Hall's Uprising?

"Set the world on fire.
#MatchboxDreams #NoJusticeNoPeace
#FreddieGray #Baltimore 



A Story

On April 1st, 2015, the first day of the month, Mya Hall (27) and Brittany Flemming (20), two trans women living and working in Baltimore were gunned down by police. Hall died. Flemming was injured. "When police initially noted that the two were dressed in women’s clothing, it seemed a strange twist," wrote Peter Herman for the Washington Post. "Later, authorities made a point to say that the garb had not been meant as a disguise." The two were later identified as two trans prostitutes that work near North Charles and 22nd streets. This is no April Fools joke. This strange fruit, this sort of violence, is not restricted to one day.  "Death," writes Herman, "comes too often, too young and too easy to a transgender population marginalized by a society that they say forces some to resort to prostitution, or what they call becoming 'survivor sex workers.'" This is the life and death of trans women of color in Baltimore.

On April 19th, 2015, Freddie Gray, a young black man (25), was killed when his spine was broken by Baltimore police. Immediately an "unrest" begins to swell across the city.

On April 25th, 2015, what was later called protests, riots, and uprisings began in the city citing Gray's death but responding to wider systems of marginalization, oppression, and violence against people of color in Baltimore.

On April 28th, 2015, after calling in the National Guard, flooding Baltimore with armored cars, troops with assault rifles, and around the clock patrolling, a 10PM curfew was set for the city. Peace and safety will be imposed by armed forces at the expense of citizens' liberty. Ignoring the outcry of its people, the city authorities declare a state of emergency, marking its citizens as potential threats. The city effectively became military occupied territory.

On April 30th, 2015, the last day of the month, I sit in my apartment listening to the constant din of sirens as the lights of armored vehicles periodically flash across my screen. It is after 10PM, I am confined to stay in for the night. There will be no going out to bars or the movies. Following updates about the continued protests around Baltimore and in other cities, I am drawn to reflect on the arc of recent events. I am humbled by the specificity of the life and death stories of those like Mya, Brittany, and Freddie. Their joys and pains, and those of their community, are their own. That I want to respect with deference. Yet, I also feel implicated in the narratives of gender, sexuality, class, and race that systematically dictate our shared experiences. That I want to honor with solidarity. I want to be an attentive reader of this wider story that connects lives too often held apart. Isolated, we become all the more vulnerable, oppressed, erased. Mya's circumstances and death are forgotten in discussion of Freddie's, and too many in my communities wish to hold both at arm's length as groups assert their privilege, indifference, and safety. The question is thus raised: who gets to claim this story? In whose memory and on whose grave do we lay down the injustice and uprising in Baltimore? Who gets to be remembered?


A Question

Baltimore is burning and I ask, is this Mya Hall's uprising? It is Freddie Gray who gets his name shouted as protestors march down the streets. His life comes with a tragic death. Yet so too does hers. His story is being told. Hers is forgotten. In raising this question I do not mean to diminish in any way the impact that the systematic oppression and killing of a man of color. Nor do I wish to downplay his marginalization as a black man by playing up Mya's transness. Indeed the intersections of the city in which they live and the intersections of identity by which they died seem too intermeshed to allow us to separate them. To follow on path long enough will require us to cut across the other, even at times to share the road. Yet the authors and readers of this story can and do begin their plot with a cis, hetero man of color and cuts a path around the trans woman of color. In a narrative about unjust systems of difference, such as race, it is still be manicured to keep other systems of difference, such as gender, separate. Whether it is being stated or not, there are reasons that a massive protest that calls upon the sympathies of cities across the country arises in the name of a cis hetero man and not a trans woman. To say the choice was discussed is wild speculation. To say that sexist, transphobic, even homophobic sentiments are at play when the death of one sparks a few articles and the other becomes the rallying point for a large-scale public demonstration testifies to a consistent seclusion and erasure of trans lives from intersecting politics. Put simply, Freddie Gray is a safer poster boy for the Baltimore Uprisings than Mya Hall. 

In an importance sense, Baltimore is not burning for Mya Hall. The trans community reaches out to claim her narrative, asking the critical questions that sparked the Uprising. Who claimed Hall’s body? What did her parents say? How many times was she shot? Why did the police have to shoot her?  Yet the wider community does not remember nor tell her story. Neither the fires nor the passions are claiming her story as fuel. People ask, "Who Is Freddie Gray?" but not "Who is Mya Hall?" The tragic figure to spark and fuel the Baltimore Uprising has been chosen. Yet the choice of exclusively cis-male propellent is by no means compulsory or finalized. The unrest in our hearts may yet find room for more life than one. Indeed, it is in our own best interest not to isolate our joint narrative to either Freddie or Mya. Already those seeking to secure the city and the story are working to discredit Freddie Gray as no fallen hero. They are trying to reduce a mass movement against systematic oppression into a narrative that rises and falls with Freddie Gray. By limiting the story to Freddie's crime record, the systems of marginalization that made crime a presumed path become mostly elided and the systems of violence that killed him are partially exculpated. 

If Mya was considered on her own, reduction to the life and death of a single individual would be no less a part of the program of extinguishing the movement. Readers would forget, as Bryanna A Jenkins, who runs a trans advocacy group in Baltimore testifies, “[Trans women] are being driven to their deaths. Out here, you can be attacked. You can be raped. You can be arrested for being trans.” Likely the same agents that work to discredit Freddie and the Baltimore Uprisings would not write more sympathetically following the story that Mya was "a friendly but troubled loner," that she worked as a prostitute, that "she was high and looking for a date," that she was driving "a stolen car" when she encountered the police, that she had "a history of theft and assault," and that she "did not obey a guards instructions" which put her in the situation that served as the trigger for police to open fire (The Huffington Post). What little consideration of the cultural contexts and systematic violences that were given in the stories covering Mya's death would be drowned by character attacks if she was instead held up as the spark of the Baltimore Uprising. 

Anyone singled out as a hero could be pulled apart by cutting out and showcasing the least sympathetic parts of their lives. As much as supporters choosing Freddie Gray over Mya Hall, the oppositions' obsession with isolating narratives to individuals testifies that our story needs more than one protagonist can offer.


A Call

What we learn from considering Mya Hall's place in the story of the Baltimore Uprising is that our call to action may come from many directions at once. Already LGBT activists, in particular trans activists, are relating the Baltimore Uprising to the Stonewall Riots that fueled (not started) a movement. Might we look again at the reasons Baltimore is Burning in the light of such histories as is captured in Paris is Burning? Might the trans community become ignited in solidarity, drawn by the inextricability, with the fires of race and class already being fanned around the country? Whose else may have her story remembered in the flashing beams of the armored vehicles? Who else have have their story re-written in the flickering incandescence of the burning police van? To who else might our blaze call? What dark corner might answer it with fresh tinder?

The system of oppression and violence is too big to be brought down by an individual, living or dead, even with the force of mass movement behind him. Such an expansive problem requires a response just as complex. We need solidarity. We need as many matches as the powderkeg has fuses. The more of us willing to risk our safety by catching fire for change the more we can not only break down roadblocks towards justice, but we can avoid rebuilding the same systems of exclusion that we oppose. This means we have to give up the things that we suppose excludes our stories from intersecting with those of Freddie Gray, Mya Hall, and the rest of Baltimore burning around us. We need to step out of our apartments, our privilege, our individual narratives that make us feel secure. We need to surrender our safety if we are going to be dangerous, if we are going to be powerful. If we think critically about policing borders of identity, community, politics, and narrative, we discover that safety is not only a privilege, it is a weapon, a system of authority that separates us from you. The few become the tyrants of the many. All those made to feel outside that protection, the queer, crip, trans, femme, people of color, know how it is to live penned in by violence. Anything with power is dangerous, the difference now is that the authorities have momentarily lost control over that power. Moments like this, when the people awake, arise, and remember their strength, reveal how those authorities are dependent on the power of the masses. We have control over how our stories will be told and who gets included. Before those burning for justice are extinguished, may the fires find a home in you. Burn with us.


What Story Will You Tell 
in Response?


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