Internet erupts over video of trans woman attacked at McDonald’s

Late last week video of a trans woman being beaten by two cis women in a Baltimore area McDonald’s made its way online. The video was shot by Vernon Hackett, who put the video out in public, basically trying to turn the brutal attack into torture porn. Hackett has since been fired.

The posting of the video and subsequent e-media storm has forced Chrissy Lee Polis, the woman who was attacked, out into the open and made her more fearful for her safety. The beating was brutal enough already, and Polis says it was not the only transphobic violence she has experienced. The internet reaction, where Polis’ personal information has been dug up and she’s been put in a position where she felt the need to speak up publicly is a disturbing heaping on of injury. Reactions to the attackers, two young women of color, and the creator of the video, a man of color, have also been disturbing. Many have focused on race, painting a picture of people of color as violent or racist themselves, instead of recognizing this as obviously an incident of transmisogyny.

The push for criminalization has also been troublesome. I would not stand in the way of any actions Polis wants to take as a result of this cruel attack. But the state attorney is speaking about pursuing hate crime charges in a way that is typical of how these laws are applied: framing it as a race-based attack by people of color against a white person. Hate crime laws are disproportionately used in this way, to target those with less power along a specific identity line. The attack was clearly about gender, but hate crime laws exist in a system that criminalizes people simply for being trans or a person of color – or very often both.

I’m also disturbed by the push by e-organizers like folks at Change.org to have the McDonald’s employees who stood by during the attack charged as accessories to a hate crime (the original petition called for the employees to both be fired and charged as accessories – it has since been changed to remove the call for criminal charges). The police and criminal justice system mean very different things to people who have experienced these systems as existing to protect them than they do to low income people of color working at a fast food restaurant. And the fact is, locking people up in prison doesn’t protect trans folks. Because trans people, especially trans women of color, are targeted by the police at disproportionate numbers. There are far too many trans folks in prisons, and they are almost universally locked up in the wrong gender facilities, where they face extraordinary violence, lose access to medical care and their support systems, and have very little recourse. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project is doing vital work highlighting prisons as a site of violence experienced by trans folks. Locking up violent transphobes and people who cheer them on doesn’t actually protect trans folks from violence – there’s a great potential for exposing the most vulnerable in our community to increased attacks inside prisons. Police and prisons aren’t there to protect marginalized folks, and those who have had the privilege to experience these systems as working for them, not against them, would do well to consider the reality of folks with less relative power and privilege.

This attack is incredibly disturbing, and the fact that an asshole would tape it and put it online, thinking this was OK because of the victim’s gender is beyond fucked. This is also the kind of violence trans folks face way too frequently, and it seldom gets this sort of attention. We desperately need to change the way our culture thinks about gender, need to move away from a reality where folks feel the need to violently defend the compulsory gender binary and think breaking out of our assigned gender boxes erases our humanity. And the answer is certainly not to further victimize a trans woman who’s already experienced too much violence by digging up her personal information, to allow gender-based hatred to become an excuse to increase race-based hatred, or to support a criminal justice system that is a system of violence against trans and gender non-conforming folks and people of color.

There will be a vigil tonight at the McDonald’s where the attack took place to stand in condemnation of the attack and advocate for Polis’ “privacy, safety and well being.” More information here if you are in the area and wish to attend.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    Incarceration doesn’t increase trans literacy, if you will. The issue here is that there are not yet established effective channels by which trans-related bigotry can be addressed and correct information disseminated. The misinformation that exists everywhere is incredible.

    I wonder how many people would undergo transition if they weren’t afraid of these sorts of attacks?

  • http://feministing.com/members/caveneil/ Neil

    I don’t see any reason why assault charges against the female attackers would not be warranted here. I do think they should be charged but I do not think the sentence should be very harsh.

    One likely defense that the female attackers lawyers may try is that the girls thought a man dressed as a woman was trying to creep on them in the bathroom. If they were so mad cause it was a “pervy white man”, then race based enhancements might be warranted. Charging a race based hate crimes enhancement would make that defense, essentially that they were justified in attacking the victim, a double edged sword because much of the evidence supporting that theory could be used to win the hate crimes enhancement if they lose on the justification defense. It looks more likely that it was a gender identity based hate crime, and if the prosecutor wants to throw the book at them I believe she can charge both enhancements.

    Charging the onlookers as accomplices is not warranted as it appears they took no affirmative action to help the girls beat the victim, and they were not under a duty to rescue the victim.

    I wonder how long it will be before the victim sues McDonalds.

    • http://feministing.com/members/catt/ Cathy Brown

      I absolutely agree-this is an assault. Having a trans victim or a black perp does not exempt assault liability, nor should it. Come on, let’s be fucking serious, it is not zealous prosecution of violent assaults that causes US prisons to be crowded, it is our bizarre and unevenly applied drug laws. As to the hate crime issue, if the hate crime being charge is anti-trans violence, then that is fine as well. The race issue is rather silly though, because there is no evidence that the victim was targeted because she is white or that whites are routinely singled out for violent attacks by people of color.

      As to accomplice liability, there is none to begin with (standing silently is not encouraging nor is it aiding and abetting-cheering could be considered encouragement, but is rarely prosecuted as such), so the hate crime sentencing enhancement is a moot issue.

    • http://feministing.com/members/laraemily/ Lara Emily Foley

      “I don’t see any reason why assault charges against the female attackers would not be warranted here. I do think they should be charged but I do not think the sentence should be very harsh.

      One likely defense that the female attackers lawyers may try is that the girls thought a man dressed as a woman was trying to creep on them in the bathroom. ”

      This woman could easily have been killed just for apparently going pee and maybe talking to a guy and all you can say is the sentence shouldn’t be harsh? Are you serious? This is a violent crime, she easily could have been killed had someone not finally intervened. There is a strong indication that they attacked just for being trans. This should be tried as a hate crime pure and simple. The punishment should be harsh and I’ll tell you why this wasn’t just a moment of fury this was a calculated assault they left, came back, left came back, dragged her body around and beat her until she seizured, they wanted to hurt her and they were gonna take nay shot they could get but now you’re gonna say the attackers shouldn’t be punished too harshly? Fuck that.

      This should be used as a rallying cry for stronger protection of Trans people and instead all you can say is don’t punish them too hard?

  • http://feministing.com/members/toongrrl/ Jessica “Jess” Victoria Carillo

    Oh my God, I hope she’s okay (attack survivor). Also I can’t really blame employees and other bystanders for not doing anything: I’ve always been told that the best thing to do when there’s a fight is to stay out of the way. Also I’ve been told that (when it’s fellow peers using drugs, mostly) not to tell the police or I’d (you know the whistle-blower) would get hurt physically by them. It’s pretty scary to go to the police when reporting a crime, especially because you’d have no protection. Godspeed

  • http://feministing.com/members/westcoastdem/ Theo

    I hope they lock up the assailants and throw away the key. I want to make an example of ANYONE who assaults a trans person. I don’t care how the hate crime issue is frames I just want trans haters taken off the street for as long as possible and I want anyone who hears about it to get into their heads that assaulting trans folks leads to LONG prison sentence. The violence faced by trans folks is not going to be prevented by coming up with excuses for why their assailants should get off easy. If you don’t want a long prison sentence don’t assault a trans person.

    • http://feministing.com/members/ant721/ Anthony

      I agree. But as far as a hate crime is concerned, is there any evidence this was done because the victim was transgender, or was it some other reason?

  • http://feministing.com/members/radicalstarfish/ sandra

    I feel like it is also important to recognize that other types of petitions are being circulated on change.org– not all of them are calling on police to do more policing. There is one petition circulating that is calling for McDonald’s to put their money where their mouth is by including gender expression and identity within their anti-discrimination policy.

    http://www.change.org/petitions/tell-mcdonalds-no-anti-transgender-violence-protect-gender-identityexpression

  • http://feministing.com/members/veroniqueb/ Véronique

    Many have focused on race, painting a picture of people of color as violent or racist themselves, instead of recognizing this as obviously an incident of transmisogyny.

    I don’t think anything is obvious about this incident other than that a young woman was attacked and beaten by two younger females. The Baltimore Sun story that I read mentioned the transgender angle, but in the video interview Polis herself gave to the Sun, she made it sound as though this was about two girls looking to pick a fight and had an excuse to do so when Polis said something to a man who turned out to be one of the girls’ boyfriend. So I’m not sure what to believe about the sequence or cause of events.

    (I have not watched the video, so perhaps I’m missing some information from that.)

    • http://feministing.com/members/laraemily/ Lara Emily Foley

      Come on people to say there’s not enough evidence to suggest this was related to her being trans? Did you not see this tweet from the guy who filmed the attack (and laughed while she seizured and was more worried that the assailants would get arrested if they stayed)

      http://i.cdn.turner.com/dr/teg/tsg/release/sites/default/files/assets/1fbgrabsizedforinside.jpg

      Have you read this article?

      http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/bs-md-mcdonalds-beating-20110423,0,3336656.story

      A transgender woman beaten at a Baltimore County McDonald’s spoke out on Saturday, saying that the attack was “definitely a hate crime” and that she’s been afraid to go out in public ever since.

      “They said, ‘That’s a dude, that’s a dude and she’s in the female bathroom,’ ” said Chrissy Lee Polis, 22, who said she stopped at the Rosedale restaurant to use the restroom. “They spit in my face.

      [...]

      The police report does not provide a motive but quotes one of the suspects saying that the fight was “over using a bathroom.”

      What is that not good enough to warrant a hate crime charge? Or is beating up on a transperson for being trans not hateful enough? Trans people risk their lives just going to the bathroom and we’re just gonna sit back on this and say we don’t know enough if this should be tried as a hate crime? Really? Are you serious? This is about as close to a blatant case of anti-trans violence as you’ll ever see . As in both attacker, victim and witness all refer to it being about that. We shouldn’t ignore this, fuck we can’t ignore this.

      • http://feministing.com/members/veroniqueb/ Véronique

        OK, that’s a different video interview than I saw early on the Baltimore Sun site, or a different part of the interview, and it’s definitely clearer about the motivation of the attackers. In the video I saw, Polis didn’t mention gender at all. She mentioned the part about talking to the boyfriend, and that she thought the two girls were just looking for a fight. This video is very different.

  • http://feministing.com/members/queerhummingbird/ queerhummingbird

    there was a rally earlier tonight at the mcdonalds near baltimore. stayed tuned for coverage: http://indyreader.org/content/gender-violence-attack-chrissy-lee-polis

    thanks for the solidarity from around the country.

  • http://feministing.com/members/noah/ Noah

    We desperately need to change the way our culture thinks about gender, need to move away from a reality where folks feel the need to violently defend the compulsory gender binary and think breaking out of our assigned gender boxes erases our humanity.

    This reflects cis supremacy and a view that trans women are not fully women. We don’t need to erase the gender binary to stop the oppression of trans women. We simply need to stop thinking trans womanhood is somehow lesser than cis womanhood. Trans women are women. Period.

    Trans women are born female and incorrectly assigned male by cissexual people. They are not a third gender nor are they are “breaking out of gender boxes” (i.e., gender nonconforming men). It is sentiments like that that perpetuate fear of trans women and directly justify the harassment and violence perpetuated by cis women against trans women.

  • http://feministing.com/members/jiujitsubuddah/ jiujitsubuddah

    If the attackers were not aware the victim was trans, it was not a hate crime based on gender identity. But, I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to suggest that it may be a hate crime based on race. Feministing posts have on numerous occasions pointed out instances of hate crimes when the perpetrator is white and the victim is black. Just because blacks have more often are the victims or racial violence, does not mean we should or can ignore the possibility that a black person could be racist against whites and attack them for that reason… from what I saw in the video, this sure-as-hell looks like a racially-based hate crime to me.

    I also think it’s pretty racist that if black person does something violent and is socially reprimanded for it, that we call that racist and suggest they should not be punished, or that if they are punished, that punishment is racist.

    What kind of world do we live in? These ideas are not the way to end racism. These ideas are why OJ Simpson is free.

  • http://feministing.com/members/laraemily/ Lara Emily Foley

    Oh and just if anyone cares for my evidence here’s some more. Thoms is the woman who steps in during the video

    Thoms told The Baltimore Sun she watched for about two minutes but decided to step in because she thought Polis would be killed. When she stepped up and asked the girls to stop, Thoms ended up getting punched in the face herself, she said.

    “She hit me like a man would hit and she was 14 years old,” she said.

    Afterward, a man behind the counter asked Thoms if she realized the person being beaten was not a woman and was transgendered.

    “I told him, ‘No I didn’t and I don’t care,’” she said. “He said he worked with her and she had a smart mouth — in other words, she deserved it.”
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/witness-to-transgender-womans-beating-at-mcdonalds-in-md-praised-for-trying-to-help-victim/2011/04/26/AFcKCinE_story.html

    Teonna Monae Brown, 18, was arrested Friday and charged with first- and second-degree assault. A 14-year-old girl has been charged as a juvenile. Prosecutors are reviewing other charges are warranted including hate crimes counts.

    Polis, told The Baltimore Sun that before she was attacked, she heard a teen say Polis was a man using the women’s restroom and accused Polis of talking to her man. The 14-year-old told police she and Brown fought with Polis over using the restroom, according to charging documents.

    Seriously how much more do we need to hear before we acknowledge that this was a anti-Trans hate crime.

    I’m sorry to post so many posts in a row but if I could edit I would have

  • http://feministing.com/members/someone/ Someone

    Thanks so much for this post. I totally agree with what you’re saying about criminalizing and firing. To me locking people up and firing people just makes it seem like the issue is a few “bad apples” not a whole system that’s transphobic and oppressive. These teenagers and employees, as misguided and terrible as their actions were, were just playing out what they see in society all around them.

    They should be held accountable – but there’s lots of different types of accountability, not just prisons and losing one’s minimum wage fast food job. And its really much larger than just a few people who need to be held accountable. Some other ideas for accountability: McDonalds should include gender variance in their anti-discrimination statement and should have anti-oppression training. The state of Maryland (and all states) should pass anti-discrimination laws. The employees and attackers should have to go through training. The school systems these young women attended should have anti-oppression curriculums. These are just some ideas, I’m sure there’s many more ways to have accountability and justice without resorting to criminalizing and firing.

    These kinds of demands are harder to organize around because they’re not “quick fixes” that let everyone else off the hook – but I think ultimately they’re more effective and will actually lead us towards the changes needed.

  • http://feministing.com/members/caseyb/ Casey Merie

    I really do not see the problem with sending people to jail who beat people up in restaurants. Having the perpetrators tried for a hatecrime seems fitting. Is jail violent? Yes. Does jail solve everything or protect trans people? No. But will letting people who do this roam free protect trans people, or anyone else who may happen to get on these two women’s bad sides on a given day? No. Giving them community service or some sort of education on how transphobia is wrong is definitely a good start, but as unfortunate as it is, not locking them up shows that transpeople just don’t matter enough for their cases to be prosecuted. It is sad that this probably wouldn’t be getting the same media attention if it were white guys who attacked the woman, and that these two black women will face much more time and probably have a rougher time in jail. And that is also an injustice. But I do not see the justice in saying people should not be held accountable for their actions because they are also oppressed.