Memphis, TN – A federal judge in Memphis has ruled for a mistrial in the case of former Memphis Police Officer Bridges McRae, on trial for violating Duanna Johnson’s civil rights. Memphis LGBT advocates are calling the decision “a failure of the justice system,” according to myeyewitnessnews.com. Johnson, a transgender woman of color, was repeatedly punched and beaten by McRae with handcuffs wrapped around his knuckles and pepper-sprayed as she was being processed for a prostitution charge at a Memphis police station on February 12, 2008. The beating was captured on a police surveillance tape, and reaction to the video prompted an immediate investigation resulting in the firing of McRae and a second officer, James Swain. Johnson had filed suit against the city on the basis of the videotape and the testimony of witnesses who declared that the brutal beating was unprovoked. Nine months later, as the New York Times reports, Duanna Johnson was shot to death with a bullet to the head on the night of November 9, 2008. Johnson’s murder, which remains unsolved, prompted intense scrutiny on the original beating case, and charges were filed in federal court for violation of the transwoman’s civil rights. Besides the controversial videotape of her beating, five witnesses testified in court that the attack on the 6’5″ 250 lb. Black transwoman was wanton, there being no reason for it in her behavior. Will Batts of the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Center, who had watched the surveillance tape repeatedly, said to myeyewitnessnews.com, “[The beating] looked to be unprovoked. It looked to be excessive on the part of the police officer. It looked to be just an attack on someone in a police station with other people standing around. And it was just incredibly violent.” McRae’s attorney argued that his client was simply exercising necessary force to subdue Johnson, blaming her for resisting arrest. Eleven jurors were convinced of McRae’s guilt. One was not, however, and after the jury deadlocked, the judge declared the mistrial. The Memphis LGBT community refused to take the news lying down. A rally in protest of the judge’s ruling will take place April 20 in front of the Federal Courthouse. “Would it have been different if Duanna were not transgendered,” Batts asked in a press interview. “If it were just an average person from the suburbs that happened to be sitting in that jail room on that day and had this kind of response from the police, would the decision be different?” Both the prosecution and the defense are to meet with the judge to determine a date for a new trial for McRae.
Like Dallas, Memphis, Tennessee, cannot shake the reputation for violence. The assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in April 1968 will always haunt the city that bills itself “The Home of the Blues/The Birthplace of Rock n’ Roll.”
Four savage attacks against transgender women of color in Memphis reinforce the reputation Memphians would rather forget, and focus the attention of the nation on the terrible price transgender Americans pay for being true to themselves. Tiffany Berry, 21-years-old, was shot three times in the chest by a man who “did not like the way she had touched him.” Berry’s February 16, 2006, murder was a grim prelude to the murders of 20-year-old Ebony Whitaker on July 1, 2008, and 43-year-old Duanna Johnson on November 9, 2008. Johnson made national headlines when her beating by two Memphis Police Officers was captured on a jailhouse video camera earlier in the year. At the time of her murder, Johnson was pursuing a $1.3 million lawsuit against the Memphis Police Department. All three hate crime murder victims were African American transwomen. On Christmas Eve 2008, yet another African American transwoman, Leeneshia Edwards, was shot in the jaw, side and back in a near-fatal attack.
Anti-transgender violence is on the rise throughout the United States. Attacks like these could happen in any city in the country. Ironically, Memphis is served by a liberal Jewish congressman with a 100% rating by the Human Rights Campaign, and the police department is submitting to sensitivity training by LGBT experts. Yet Memphis bears a special responsibility for extending and protecting civil rights.
In March 1968, Memphis garbage workers began carrying placards bearing “I AM A MAN” to underscore their humanity in the struggle for dignity and living wages. After Dr. King’s assassination, that slogan became famous throughout the world, signifying the determination of black people to win their freedom. Four decades later, with the election of America’s first black president, a newer version of that slogan needs to be invented to highlight the struggle of transgender people of color who face violence and indignities of every kind: “I AM A HUMAN BEING.”
Dr. King wrote in his famous Letter From A Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Gay, Bi, Lesbian, Trans or Straight, the freedom and security of all of us depends on the freedom and security of any of us. That makes all of us, on the eve of a new presidency offering hope, inextricably involved with what is happening to our trans sisters in the streets of Memphis.
One day before the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a new NCAVP press release warns about a nationwide increase in severe violence perpetrated against transgender persons.
New York – As the Transgender Day of Remembrance approaches, a day when victims of anti-transgender bias are mourned around the globe, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) has documented increases in severe violence directed at transgender communities across the country, especially against transgender women of color.
- Latiesha Green, 22, was shot on November 14 in Syracuse, New York.
- Duanna Johnson, 43, was shot in Memphis, Tennessee, on November 8.
- Aimee Wilcoxson, 34, was found dead in her apartment on November 3 in Aurora, Colorado, just outside of Denver.
Some of these brutal acts of violence occurred in the same communities that continue to mourn the murders of two transgender people of color earlier this year: Ebony Whitaker, 20, murdered in June also in Tennessee and Angie Zapata, 18, murdered in July also in Colorado.
Organizations such as International Transgender Day of Remembrance and Remembering Our Dead that have helped to initiate Transgender Day of Remembrance (held this year on November 20) also track anti-trans murders. They documented 29 anti-trans murders in 2008, a 65% increase over 2007.
NCAVP wishes to express our sadness and outrage about this ongoing, horrific violence. We stand in solidarity with transgender communities in Tennessee, Syracuse, and Colorado, the victims and survivors, and their loved ones.
Mixed Criminal / Legal System Responses
Ms. Johnson’s murder comes on the heels of Memphis Police Department’s brutal beating of Ms. Johnson in February 2008. The following Police security camera footage of the beating has been widely circulated since June (warning: clip contains disturbing material):
The Memphis Police Department had been attempting to settle a law suit that Ms. Johnson had filed for the beating she endured while in custody. Former officers Bridges McRae and James Swain were fired only after the video was released, but it is not yet clear whether or not any criminal charges will be filed.
Local community members have speculated that anti-trans bias is likely a factor, not only in the beating itself but in the lack of criminal charges being filed. “This is not the first time the Shelby County District Attorney’s office has shown indifference to brutality against transgender people,” observed Dr. Marisa Richmond, the President of Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition. “When Tiffany Berry was murdered in 2006, her alleged perpetrator, D’Andre Blake, was released on only $20,000 bond.” Dr. Richmond noted that people charged with murder in Tennessee typically get a $100,000 bond.
The FBI is now assisting in the investigation of Ms. Johnson’s murder. NCAVP calls upon the FBI to bring its full resources to in the investigation of not only Ms. Johnson’s murder but also Ms. Ebony Whitaker’s. NCAVP also demands that District Attorney Gibbons bring appropriate charges against former officers McRae and Swain.
In Colorado, the Aurora Sentinel reported that local police have speculated that Ms. Wilcoxson’s death was a suicide. But friends of hers insist that explanation is very unlikely given her life circumstances and also given the condition the body was in when it was discovered. NCAVP is hopeful that local police will conduct a thorough investigation that takes into account these statements from people who knew her.
In Syracuse, Sage Upstate and other local community members report that Syracuse City Police Department Chief Gary Miguel has responded to this crime with sensitivity. The family of Latiesha ‘Tiesh’ Green and LGBT advocates in the Syracuse community are hopeful that the Onondaga County District Attorney’s office will be able to include hate crime charges in the prosecution of this case.
NCAVP commends district attorneys and police who identify and appropriately categorize hate-motivated violence. We are hopeful that district attorneys and law enforcement in other jurisdictions will follow suit and NCAVP will continue to monitor the violence against transgender communities, as well as the police response.
Transgender and gender non-conforming people experience violence and harassment everyday and most of it never makes headlines. NCAVP encourages LGBT people experiencing any form of hate violence, harassment, vandalism, or bullying to contact NCAVP or one of our member programs by calling 212.714.1184 or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Hate Crimes Bill has provided an excellent summary of a new report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs showing anti-LGBT violence has been on the rise since the murder of Lawrence “Larry” King in Oxnard, California, at the beginning of this year.
“The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) reports a recent rash of at least 13 brutal and violent hate crimes that have occurred throughout the country on the heels of the murder of 15 year-old Lawrence King in Los Angeles and the brutal beating of Duanna Johnson, both in February of 2008,” says the Hate Crimes Bill’s website. “NCAVP reports that these hate crimes may indicate a frightening trend of increases in both the number and severity of anti-LGBT violence.”
The NCAVP findings come after several anti-LGBT hate crimes, including the police beating of a transgender woman in Memphis, Tennessee; the harassment and beating of a gay man on a New York subway; the murder of a transgender woman in Memphis, Tennessee; the alleged police beating of a gay man in Greeley, Colorado; the beating of a priest in Queens, New York, for protecting a group of LGBT youth living at a shelter for homeless youth; the midnight home-invasion and arson, in Central New York, by a self-proclaimed Neo-Nazi, who targeted a sleeping 65-year-old gay man (the victim was able to flee the home, unhurt); the fatal bludgeoning of 18-year-old Angie Zapata, a transgender Latina woman in Greeley, Colorado; the beating of gay man Jimmy Lee Dean, in Dallas, Texas, whose injuries were so severe that he was in intensive care and could not be interviewed or identified until five days after the crime; the severe injury of a man in upstate New York, whose two assailants beat, kicked, and shouted anti-gay slurs until they had broken ten bones in their victim’s face; the attack against an 18-year-old living in St Helens, in the United Kingdom, who died a week later from his injuries; the (at least partially) anti-gay-motivated shooting rampage in a Knoxville, Tennessee, church that claimed two lives and wounded seven others; the mob-beating and stabbing of a man perceived to be gay in Staten Island, New York; the ongoing and escalating harassment (for nearly 8 years) of a gay male couple living in Cleveland, Ohio, by anti-gay neighbors; and the ongoing and escalating harassment (for nearly 20 years) of a gay male couple living in a rural Pennsylvania town, who have suffered incidents of gunfire, vandalism, stalking, acts of intimidation, and the indifference from local police.
In a grim coincidence, more than one anti-LGBT hate crime has occurred in both Memphis, Tennessee, and Greeley, Colorado, since the beginning of 2008.
Unfinished Lives also offers our own analysis of the significance of anti-LGBT hate-crime statistics in the United States. The NCAVP’s findings and the Hate Crimes Bill’s detailed summary confirm what has been a growing concern for LGBT persons living in the United States.
According to a July 8 Out & About Newspaper article, the murder of transgender woman Ebony (Rodney) Whitaker has raised concerns about anti-gay violence in Memphis, Tennessee. As Whitaker’s body was laid to rest on Monday, the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition (TTPC) called upon the Memphis Police Department to be more responsive when it comes to crimes committed against the transgender community.
Whitaker’s murder is considered the latest in a string of violent crimes against transgendered persons in Memphis. TTPC president Marisa Richmond said that the unsolved murder of Tiffany Berry and the police beating of Duanna Johnson point to an unacceptable trend of violence. “The lack of response by the Memphis Police Department,” says Richmond, “has set a tone in the community that the lives of transgender people, especially African-American, are irrelevant.”
Watch the video of Duanna Johnson’s beating by Memphis Police in February.
For more information about Ebony (Rodney) Whitaker, read a related article at the Memphis Eyewitness News website.