On June 16, a Minnesota jury acquitted the police officer who shot an innocent Black man Philando Castile multiple times during a traffic stop. Beloved in his community, Castile was killed for the crime of reaching for his identification.
Hardly anyone was surprised by the verdict. On the same day, a panel in Chicago discussed methods for transgender, intersex and gender nonconforming people of color to protect themselves during an encounter with police.
First Defense Legal Aid ( FDLA ) hosted the event at Grace Episcopal Church in downtown Chicago.
Founded in 1995, the Chicago-based nonprofit provides "free legal representation to people in Chicago Police Department [CPD] custody and educates Chicagoans about how to protect their constitutional rights."
The event was the third in the organization's "What's at Stake" series.
Moderated by Maria Hernandez from Black Lives Matter ( BLM ) and FDLA, the discussion began with compelling poetry from Vita Eye Cleveland and a panel which included Brave Space Alliance director and founder and Trans Liberation Collective member LaSaia Wade, Raise the Floor Policy Director and former FDLA staff attorney Samoane Williams, the FDLA's Phade Wayze and Transformative Justice Law Project ( TJLP ) attorney Tanvi Sheth.
Although Hernandez pointed out that the maximum amount of information anyone detained by police who does wish to exercise their right to remain silent should provide is a name, date-of-birth, address and, in the case of minors, the phone number of a parent or guardian, she added that "for trans individuals it gets complicated in a number of ways."
For a transgender and gender nonconforming individual to match their name with that provided on an official piece of identification is an expensive legal and bureaucratic headache through which Sheth and the TJLP guide people via a free walk-in clinic held at the Daley Center on the last Friday of every month.
Meanwhile, Williams noted that police officers are supposed to respect an individual's desired gender pronouns and name no matter what is reflected on an ID.
Williams suggested documenting any case in which that request is not honored by "getting the officer's name and badge number. If you don't have that, get a clear description of what the officer looked like and the shift the officer was working."
"Don't lie to police," Williams stressed. "If you are calling an organization like FDLA to come and represent you at the police station, and if your loved ones don't know the alias that you gave, that's going to lead to us having problems locating you at the police station."
"The police make contact with me all the time," Wayze said. "I don't care what level of normativity I have to perform, I just want what's happening to end. They have this power to stop me as a person. The more and more questions they have, they start to treat you like a specimen."
"Law enforcement tends to profile trans people," Sheth agreed.
Wade recalled an arrest in Tennessee and having the realization that, "'Oh shit. I'm trans and I'm about to go into a space where I don't know if I'm going to come out.'"
"You're dealing with racism, homophobia and transphobia all at one time," Wade said. "I froze. For me it was like 'here's my ID. Do what you've got to do.' It was a realization that, for me, putting myself and my body on the line, I would always have to worry about my safety with the community that is supposed to protect and serve us. It's a constant traumatic experience."
The dehumanization which occurs during an interaction with law enforcement is further accelerated during a police search, panelists said.
"You have the right to have someone of the same gender search you," Hernandez stated. "Determining your gender for [police] can come down to either your ID or your genitalia."
"When they searched me, they squeezed my genitalia so much that they were bruised," Wayze recalled. "They are going to apply their hands to your body because they have a right to and whatever kind of fucked up thoughts or preconceived notions are in their head are going to be enforced. This is someone who has power, who has a gun, who can hurt me. I don't know if they're going to accept my dissertation on gender."
Sheth noted that the CPD's directives for interactions with transgender, intersex and gender nonconforming individuals "completely ignores the reality of the non-binary community and the fact that the nonbinary community is the majority."
When a transgender or gender nonconforming individual is incarcerated, they can often find themselves placed in the mental and physical torture of solitary confinement or in a facility which does not match their gender identity.
One Black transgender woman Eisha Love was held in a men's maximum-security division of the Cook County Jail for almost four years without a trial.
"In Chicago, there are more facilities for men than for women," Hernandez noted. "We lack the data right now to understand where [trans] people fall through the cracks."
"The girl that I went to jail with, they took her wig, her bra, her underwear and her shirt which they said was showing too much," Wade recalled. "She was stripped of who she was and she had to find that person again after."
"We have to acknowledge that the way the policy exists right now, it simply does not protect trans people," Sheth said. "There should be no reason why trans people should be segregated but that's what has been happening. It is putting trans people at risk. The cycle of abuse and violence continues and is a problem that needs to be fixed."
Wade perfectly summed up the reality with which people of color and in particular transgender and gender nonconforming people of color must live when interacting with law enforcement.
"It's just the realization that you're not human," Wade said.
For more information about FDLA, visit First-defense.org . The hotline phone number 1-800-LAW-REP4 is for you or anyone you know who is in CPD custody to request a free attorney 24/7.