Thursday, May 7, 2015

Transgender Rising: Baltimore Riots After Mya Hall

"Trans women of color were on the front lines of Stonewall, 
are leading our movement today 
and are criminalized 
and killed by police #MyaHall"



A Movement

On April 1st, the story broke about the death of Mya Hall, a trans woman of color, when she was gunned down by police in Baltimore. Early reports referred to Hall and her friend, and fellow trans woman who was wounded in the shooting, as "men dressed as women," "cross dressers," "men in drag," and "transvestites." Even in later accounts, Hall continued to be named by her birth name and gender. By casting her gender identity in derogatory and dismissive terms, the stories cast them as divergent criminals who stepped out of line (socially and legally), insinuating that the excessive police violence was somehow deserved. For nearly a month this story has gone unnoticed and unregarded as the Baltimore Uprisings fought back against the police violence that ended the life of Freddie Gray and the systematic marginalization of people of color in and beyond the city. Slowly, as more people begin to tell her story, the violence against the trans community has been recognized as inextricable from the violence against people of color. Among a growing number, the Baltimore Uprising has begun to be recognized as a fight #NoJusticeNoPeace yoking the argument #BlackLivesMatter with coextensive #TransLiveMatter politics. This critical intersection, however, remains in the outskirts of an already marginalized political movement. Even after #MyaHall, Baltimore still struggles to know how to respond to the rise of transgender stories and activism.

On Monday, April 27th, 2015, while marching in the Baltimore Uprisings, Deairra Michelle Venerable, a transgender woman of color, is taken prisoner by the newly militarized police. At first police booked her as a woman, but when they discovered that she was trans, they reprocessed her as a man and moved her to a men's jail. "Officials then forced the woman to remove her bra and hand it over to officials," reports Megan Specia and Colin Daileda. "[S]he was forced to wear the semi-transparent shirt that reveals the outline of her nipples" ( During this move, authorities also upped her bail for participating in the march from $75,000 to $100,000. Reporters note that these charges are unusual for a misdemeanor charge and clearly punitive for a protestor who nets $300 a week working at a salon.

On Friday, May 1st, 2015, Deairra Michelle Venerable is released from jail. Friends of hers worked hard to pay the police the $100,000 ransom bail for her release. That night, as I march the streets of Baltimore with a host of other members of the trans and queer community, I wonder where Venerable finds herself. Is she walking amidst the crowds? Is she at home? Did she leave the city? Can she leave? Indeed, part of the statement of such marches is the display of perambulatory power. As the Baltimore Curfew of 10:00 PM approaches, we will demonstrate through civil disobedience that we will go out where and when we will. The crux of this statement is that this liberty is highly contested and not everyone is free to come and go. At the end of the night, as a white trans woman working on her Ph.D, I got to go home. Walking during a similar march, a few days earlier, Venerable found herself caught up in a mass arrest, held in a jail cell, and now facing substantial financial as well as legal restrictions. After the death of Mya Hall and the Uprising, racism, classism and transphobia all work to limit movement(s) to keep persons and communities in their place.

A Reflection

Even the ability to stop and reflect is a privilege. After weeks of protest, I recently took a pause to travel to Maine for Mother's Day weekend to celebrate with my partner and two little girls. At the airport, a woman of color working at BWI (Baltimore Washington International) asked me about my travel plans and insinuated that a lot of white people are fleeing the city right now. While I would want to argue that isn't my rationale for going up north, I have to admit that a host of liberties that allow me to travel are tied into a systematic segregation of transgender, race and class: there are those who have been given certain resources and can get away (even briefly) from the snares of Baltimore, then there are those who haven't and cannot. 

Mobility is something purchased through social and financial capital. Only recently have I risen from the station of student to Ph.D candidate capable of affording regular flights to be with my family. This small but significant shift in pay bracket has also been marked by a change in social status. Indeed the latter, demonstrates how class is not always tied to wealth. Being a part of the academy means I have access to opportunities (conferences, funding, grants, vacations, remote research) that allow me to move around more as part of my job without necessarily making a substantial amount of money. For instance, I am not tied to  show up to a workspace every day, like my machinist grandfathers and mechanic cousins. Yet I am keenly aware of how precarious is this liberty to travel and reflect. How many gatekeepers continually monitor my worthiness in the academy? How many loans do I have to manage in order to sustain a university lifestyle that remains incommensurate with my pay? Even with institutional support, how often do I get stopped by authorities, literal gatekeepers, the police, or the TSA, who interrogate me about my gender while they examine my body and my possessions? At least once literally holding up my underwear where other TSA agents and airline passengers to see while asking, "why do you want to be a woman if you also want to date women?" I am given some power to travel but its is a liberty that bears the contingency of walking the streets of Baltimore in the previous weeks. Authorities watch me and my communities, their weapons at hand, watching for any of us to step out of place.

The uncertainty of my ability to leave Baltimore for a time demonstrates that mobility is not only a privilege, it is a bribe. Control over my body and where it may go is constantly under threat of various physical and institutional lashes, which makes the carrot of a plane ticket all the more alluring. By allowing some bodies to leave Baltimore, systems buy their complicity in the oppression that keeps other bodies tied to a city, a job, a jail-cell, a coffin. By allowing some bodies to march in the Baltimore Uprisings, authorities drive a wedge between allies they push to the sidelines and those on the frontline who they arrest, abuse, or kill. What then is the significance of the BWI worker's observation that a large number of white people are fleeing Baltimore? Even if we grant that many may be traveling for Mother's Day, like me, what does it mean that they can take this respite? How does giving power of flight to some de-power those who stay grounded in Baltimore? Beyond marking privilege, how does my absence from Baltimore this week affect the Uprising's power of presence? Can I stand in solidarity while I walk away? Can I shout in the streets while I pause and reflect?

A Resource

A bribe is not destructive because it offers someone something nice, but because it circumvents the just distribution of resources. These divested resources may come in the form of money, jobs, people, or time and consideration. The movement of one of these bodies away from a community, by choice or by force, diminishes its power. Authorities took Mya Hall off the streets with a gunshot, Deairra Venerable with a jail-cell, and me with a holiday plane-ticket. Through carrots and sticks we have been further separated from one another. Yet how might we reconcile through these divisions? How might we subvert the forces that pull us in different directions? How might be maintain solidarity even while the resources of our community become scattered? By remaining loyal where and when we can do the most for each other.

After her death, how are we to stand with Mya Hall? By remembering her story and her communities. Remembering does not only mean thinking about or recounting her life. Re-membering also means reconstituting a community. A life has been taken away. Let us fill that void by redoubling the lives we devote and support. This is the significance of the #BlackLivesMatter and #TransLivesMatter movements. We need to rebuild the social value of these communities by also rebuilding physical and financial capital. We need to rebuild the system to give homes, jobs, healthcare, education to give more lives the opportunities denied to Mya Hall. We cannot bring Mya Hall back from death, but we can make sure more trans women of color do not need to die in poverty. We can make sure more trans people do not need to sell their bodies on the streets in order to buy their bodies in over-priced doctor's offices. We can make sure that stealing a car will not be the only way for a trans woman of color to travel the streets of Baltimore. We can make sure that when trans women of color find themselves in the wrong place and time that they are not gunned down by police. We can rebuild our world so that fewer places are considered the wrong or right place for trans women of color. These are depleted needs that we can resource by surrendering those securities, mobilities, and bribes that divide us. We can make re-sourcing a part of re-membering.

How can we stand with Deairra Venerable? In the end, raising money is a great direct action campaign. A lack of financial resources to fight back at a big factor in how people are being oppressed and exploited in Baltimore. We can assist in her legal fund after her community has expended vital resources in paying her $100,000 bail. Funding such battles and communities do more than placate a justice department that arrest vulnerable persons in order to extort money from the citizens. Together we can fight the systems and hold them accountable. We can demand the system pay reparations for its histories of taking lives and resources from those it claimed to protect. It may be that the movement does not need our physical presence as much as it needs our financial and social capital. It may not need our voices as much as it needs active listening. It may not need more leaders or martyrs, as much as it needs community members. It may not need plane tickets away from Baltimore, as much as it needs good neighbors. We should not despair at the overwhelming demands of justice but be humbled by the countless ways that we can contribute. We can turn our bribes into resources for those to whom power and mobility is denied. The system has separated us through our individual vulnerabilities, but through a common movement we can come together in power.


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