feature image via dnainfo.com
Almost exactly a year ago, Islan Nettles, a trans woman of color, was murdered in Harlem. She was attacked by a group of men who found out that she and her friends were transgender, and four days later she died in the hospital.
The investigation into her brutal murder has been egregiously mishandled, a sadly predictable script when it comes to justice for victims of violent transphobia. Even though the attack took place across the street from a police station, with several witnesses, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office has stalled on Nettles’ case. In the days before her death, police arrested a suspect, Paris Wilson, charging him with misdemeanor assault. LGBT groups called for prosecutors to bring additional charges of hate crime and, after Nettles died, homicide, but they never did.
The DA’s investigation was then derailed by a second man who came forward and confessed to the crime after Wilson’s arrest. The unidentified man claimed to be drunk at the time and unable to recall any details. The confession did not convince the police, who believed he may have been “coerced” into it. Nevertheless, the prosecution, citing a lack of certainty, dropped its misdemeanor charge against Wilson. From there, no visible progress has been made, despite the Assistant District Attorney’s assurance that they were still “aggressively investigating” the case.
Though the prosecutors and police seem to have forgotten about Islan Nettles, the trans community hasn’t. On January 30, frustrated with the lack of communication from law enforcement, a crowd of trans activists and allies rallied outside NYPD headquarters, carrying signs that said,”Transgender Lives Matter And Justice For Islan Nettles.” Janet Mock was in the crowd, as well as long-time activists Melissa Sklarz and Madison St. Claire.
However, according to an Out report on the rally, the DA’s office repeatedly told activists that they were actively pursuing the case, when in reality it still hadn’t questioned all the witnesses or released footage of the crime that had been caught on the security cameras from the Harlem police station. In fact, a staffer claimed that evidence still wasn’t clear whether Nettles’ attacker struck her to the ground and continued to beat her or if he just struck her once, but hard enough for her to fall and get a concussion (thus the initial misdemeanor assault charge), though if police had followed up with Nettles in the hospital, they would have seen that her injuries went beyond a concussion.
This past weekend marks one year since Islan Nettles’ attack, and there were several demonstrations held in New York City, including a call to action against violence lead by the Trans Women of Color Collective (TWOCC), which was established after Nettles’ death. Lourdes Ashley Hunter, TWOCC co-founder and its National Director of Organization Development and Operation, told me, “It was very successful in terms of visibility and attendance. It was the first event I’d ever attended that was open to all people where the majority of attendees were trans people of color.” This is significant, especially considering that according to the Anti-Violence Project, “In New York City, transgender and gender non-conforming people reported violence at increasing levels (up 21% from 2012). This violence has a specific impact of transgender people of color: 74% of all reports of hate violence came from people of color.”
Hunter attributes some of the higher rate of violence to a lack of visibility. “It’s easier to mark us and abuse us because society already sees us as not having social support.” She talked about a recent series of attacks on trans women on public transit in cities including Washington, D.C. and New York, some of which were recorded, the videos quickly going viral. “The media continues to victimize us even as we’re being abused. We’re seen as a commodity and as disposable.”
As for the potential for justice through the legal system, she isn’t optimistic.
The system was not designed for us to be successful in the first place. It was designed to marginalize Black and Brown bodies. The oppressors who created the system are never going to give up their power. Even when there are laws that are supposed to protect us from discrimination by public services such as the police, trans women are profiled and targeted in LGBT ‘safe havens’ such as Greenwich Village and Hell’s Kitchen. Things that are considered items of safety, like condoms, are used to accuse trans women of being sex workers. Until we dismantle this broken system, I don’t see any real change happening.
Instead, Hunter and TWOCC seek to create change through raising visibility and awareness, relying on fundraising and donations to bring their voices to different cities. Hunter also emphasizes holding more powerful and successful allies such as the HRC accountable to representing the lived experiences of trans women of color. “Our lives are in danger and our voices are being erased because we’re not being represented in [these organizations’] leadership or their boards, on the levels where decisions are being made about what policies to pursue and what causes to highlight.”
“We cannot wait for trickle down policies to create change for our community. We have to create visibility and accountability so that we have the opportunity to tell our stories and survive another day.”