Moving Towards Liberation and Away from Criminalization

Back in August 2012, members of a wealthy Atlanta neighborhood joined the Midtown Ponce Security Alliance to lead a campaign against sex work in the city’s Midtown neighborhood. This racist and transphobic campaign was targeted directly at trans and gender non-conforming people, identified by the Alliance as “transvestite thugs.”

Now a Black and trans-led coalition has come up with a solution to fight oppressive attitudes like these and support low-income and marginalized members of the Midtown community.

The Alliance campaign was based on the false claim that prostitution gangs were working throughout the neighborhood, even though crime rates in Midtown showed no such spikes. While these claims were not based in reality, they had a very real impact.

In the year after the campaign was launched, an ordinance was introduced in Atlanta that would allow the city to jail and exile people convicted of sex work from any given neighborhood. The ordinance was so extreme that it gave communities the power to exile people permanently if arrested more than once for sex work. Many Atlanta residents and activists immediately came out in opposition of the bill, not only because of its underlying racism, transphobia, and discrimination against sex workers but also because it didn’t address the systemic oppressions that force so many people to turn to sex work for survival.

Thanks to the work and analysis of local advocates, the ordinance was put on hold by the city, but it didn’t curb the Midtown community leaders from continuing their racist and transphobic campaign. It also didn’t end the profiling of Black trans and gender non-conforming people – particularly trans women – by Atlanta police.

Although the details of this particular campaign and ordinance are unique to Atlanta, the hyper-policing and criminalization of trans and gender non-conforming people of color is not. According to a report recently released by the Center for American Progress and the Movement Advancement Project, trans and gender non-conforming adults make up 5% of the population in the United States, yet 16% of all people who report having experienced at least one period of incarceration. The report highlights that 21% of transgender women and 47% of Black transgender and gender non-conforming adults have reported being incarcerated. These statistics lead me to ask: what could communities look like if policing was done differently? One local Atlanta group is working to find an answer to this question.

The Solutions Not Punishment Coalition (SNaPCo) is a “Black, Trans-led, broad-based coalition working for a new Atlanta where every person has the opportunity to grow and thrive without facing unfair barriers, especially from the criminal justice system.” The coalition and its anchor organizations LaGender, Trans(forming), Women on the Rise, and the Racial Justice Action Center developed a pre-arrest diversion program that works to “divest from policing and re-invest services and resources into communities.”  Instead of making arrests in the cases of low-level, quality-of-life criminal offenses, police officers would connect a person with resources and social services based on their needs.

After presenting the city with the potential solution, a design team was created for the Atlanta-Fulton County Pre-Arrest Diversion Initiative. While the program will be modeled after similar programs in  Santa Fe and Seattle, ultimately the team will be creating an initiative that is tailor-fit to the needs of Atlanta.

This pre-arrest diversion initiative is revolutionary for several reasons. One, noted by Che Johnson-Long, Co-Coordinator of the program, is that it will intervene to stop “repeat offenders” (air quotes used by Johnson-Long) from being circulated through the revolving door of the criminal justice system. Johnson-Long also notes that it will prevent people from being continuously criminalized for being low-income, addicted, or mentally ill. In addition, by reducing the prison population, the program will also reduce the costs of running a jail, money which could be routed towards social services for communities.

Following this line of logic leads me to an abolitionist’s dream: the closing of the Atlanta city jail. If quality-of-life offenses were no longer criminalized, there would be a drastic decrease in the number of people in jail, which could ultimately shut down the jail itself. Through SNaPCo’s harm reduction model, Atlanta could see the end of policing in our communities as we know it, with particularly significant improvements for trans and gender non-conforming people of color. This program will guide Atlanta toward a model of liberation, deconstructing a system which criminalizes the most marginalized among us.

Quita Tinsley is a fat, Black, queer femme that writes, organizes, and overall is working to build sustainable change in the South. She holds a B.A. in Journalism with a minor in Sociology from Georgia State University, and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from her alma mater. She is a member on the board of directors of Access Reproductive Care – Southeast, and is a former content creator for the The Body Is Not An Apology. As a femme, feminist, and queer Black woman, it is through her lived experiences and complex identities that Quita has come to believe in the power of storytelling and the validation of lived experiences.

Quita Tinsley is a fat, Black, queer femme that writes, organizes, and overall is working to build sustainable change in the South.

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