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.