Sasha Alexander

Black, Red, and Blue: Sasha Alexander On the Policing of Black Trans Bodies

August 27, 2014

Sasha Alexander of Black Trans Media speaks to to One+Love about policing, pain, and power. If you can be in Harlem this Friday, don’t miss Black, Red, and Blue, “a night of film, discussion, storytelling, healing, and resistance in honor of Islan Nettles and black trans peoples.”

The policing of black bodies is a hot topic across the political spectrum right now. What do you think is missing from the conversation?

I think across the political spectrum black bodies have always been a hot topic because they are profitable and expendable. The worth of black bodies is what’s missing from this conversation in the media — as well as an intersectional analysis and an historical lens on the ways black bodies have been exploited, brutalized, and systematically denied justice. I also think that non-profits are the ones people look to as organizing tools and these systems are rife with injustice and do not seek to end the root causes of our oppression.

When we speak about intersectional violence on black bodies, it means looking at the policing and criminalization not just as a racial justice issue but at the intersection of our other identities and movements — like gender and class. Black bodies are not just policed around race. The violence enacted on us by the police has everything to do with our poor black bodies, trans black bodies, female or male, or young black bodies, queer black bodies. There are so many cases at the intersection of blackness and policing but many of them are not tied together because of how divisive media and politics can be and how selective cultural memory can work.

Let’s look at Trayvon Martin, a young black man, whose February 2012 case spurred widespread attention to the “stand your ground” laws in Florida. Self-defense laws via George Zimmerman killed 17 year-old Martin. A lot of attention was paid to the case, audio calls were revealed along with facts about each individual, and public knowledge raised.

To compare, let’s look at the May 2012 case of Marissa Alexander, a 31 year-old black woman from Florida who fired a warning shot in the air when her abusive husband showed up at their house. She got a 20-year sentence, while in the case of Martin, the attacker walks free after killing a young black boy. Marissa Alexander’s case received more media attention after the Trayvon Martin murder shed new light on this law, but still she is locked up.

During the same time (Spring 2012), there was also a rash of murders of black trans women (who make up a majority of the U.S.-based names read at the annual Trans Day of Remembrance, which honors those who were murdered or killed due to anti-trans violence and hate). Koko Williams was found brutalized in Detroit, Deoni Jones stabbed in Baltimore, and Brandy Martel in Oakland was shot in the face — all among the list of brutalities underreported, underinvestigated, and unsolved.

Massive protests were sparked after the Trayvon Martin killing, but similar actions were not taken after the murders of black trans women — which sends a message. This sends a message about whose bodies matter to who, and this has to do with media as well as the intersection of oppression. Whose bodies we value and why is critical. With black bodies we see there is a lack of value and worth, especially at the intersections and margins. We are worth more dead and incarcerated: the numbers don’t lie.

What’s interesting is which cases receive attention, especially when there is a black attacker or black-on-black violence. The message is to keep on killing, shooting young people, murdering trans women, and using self-defense laws against women; these are all black folks being deeply impacted by the system and the connections between their murders and the police have not be drawn because the list is too long and the intersection so complex.

Self-defense is also a critical piece of what is not being talked about. That black bodies in our neighborhoods, schools, criminal justice system are under attack, and they always have and always will be unless we change the laws and culture that creates such a system. We are taught that whether we defend ourselves or not we could die, or be locked up for it all.

There’s the May 2003 murder of Sakia Gunn, a 15 year-old black lesbian who was heading home in NYC with a group of friends; she was spat at with epithets and stabbed to death after refusing a man’s catcall. Likewise, Islan Nettles was a 21 year-old black trans woman from Harlem who was also out with a group of friends in August 2013 when she was catcalled by a young man. He yelled anti-trans words at her and then attacked and beat her to death.

Even in the case of black people protecting themselves, they are prosecuted and plea bargain out, don’t even get a trial, and are incarcerated as in Marissa Alexander’s case. The message this sends is that all across the country you cannot defend yourself if you are black: your fate is death.

Lastly, in June 2012 19 year-old Cece Mcdonald was in a fast food restaurant in Minneapolis when she started to receive racial and transphobic slurs. She defended herself when attacked, with scissors she had just happened to carry in her purse and was slated to receive 41 months locked up as a result. She plea bargained out and served 19 months in a men’s facility. The case of Cece McDonald is scary — it shows us how little America understands and loves black people, let alone black trans people. Unlike in other cases, Al Sharpton didn’t respond with a call to action, and so this also shows us when policing matters to our black communities.

Right now, there is call to action to #FreeEisha. Eisha Love, a black trans woman from Chicago, was defending herself outside a gas station when attacked and is now being detained. Blackness has a lot in common, and no one wants to pay attention.

All those who put their hoodies up and came out to support Michael Brown and Ferguson also need to support gender justice and stand with trans people of color — especially black trans women — and create the same kind of visibility. We need to understand the policies and analysis of the media, police, and court systems are racist, sexist, and transphobic — and do not have the interests of black community or empowerment in mind.

The trouble is, many of the organizations that are funded to support black communities do not have an analysis around violence, policing, or injustice that helps build an understanding of the ways all black people are impacted and how specific communities become targets. These non-profits are profiting from the pain and oppression in our communities without having to really serve the people who are most impacted. There is no level of accountability and often these organizations do not even employ black people in roles of power. Look at the National Action Network or key media outlets. They do little to change the depiction of black folks and our struggles. These non-profit organizations get caught in a cycle of perpetuating the same systems they claim to work against.

It’s 2019. What has Black Trans Media been up to? What is being created?

By September 2019, Black Trans Media will be organizing into our seventh year.

  • Our annual Black Trans Media Festival, dedicated to the film, video, music, photography, and writing of black trans folks, will be growing with an ever larger presence as we highlight the artistry, collaboration, visibility,  and power of black trans people.
  • We will have connected our community and public to thousands of black trans artists and individuals, creating platforms for storytelling, media, and community justice, and including community workshops on facilitation, media making, and leadership development.
  • We will have gone global by 2019! We’ve been building with black trans people across the country and the world and we’re hoping to be engaged in a global campaign to raise visibility and awareness of black trans people and our struggles.
  • We will have grown in many ways, because right now all of Black Trans Media organizing is done in “free” and “off” time by me and my wife, who are both black trans folks. We refuse to contribute to the non-profit industrial complex and we’ll be keeping our work community-based and growing from there.
  • We will have more space! We want to create space where folks can learn to edit, come eat a meal with black trans folks, see black trans films projected, and build a powerful community. Right now we organize out of our living room — we house our community here and cook and pay for meals when we can, but we’d like to expand our reach and work. We do not believe in being a service agency; we are for the people, by the people.
  • Our cultural organizing message, “black trans everything,” (similar to “black is beautiful”) will have gone viral and been instrumental in the cultural shift surrounding the visibility and language of black trans people.
  • Black Trans Media will be working to highlight the violence, policing, and criminalization our communities face and supporting the community with the production of media and resources for our communities about these topics. We will be at the forefront of a black trans analysis.

You’ve got the mic. Got any PSAs?

Policing isn’t just done by police. Individuals instill these messages of racism, fear, and violence in our communities and on our bodies. From walking through the block and getting catcalled, to being followed in a store, punished by teachers and school staff for how we behave in school, to having racial and gendered epithets yelled at you by strangers — much from your own racial community. This is black life: on top of the violence we face from outside of our community, we are so deeply wounded that we further inflict that violence. Cis black people on trans black people, black men on black women, straight black folks on queer black folks, among other injustices. We are a vulnerable and powerful community and we are being taught to devour ourselves whole, by not finding unity in our communities, not by holding our history in our present, by not learning and putting the pieces together to develop an analysis and understanding that empowers us.

I always say, Black Trans Media is not just here to educate folks about trans issues, but also what it is to be black. The intersection of being black and trans is to be misunderstood, to be murdered, to be undervalued — and assumed to know that your black body does not matter, your trans body does not matter, and your black trans body could get you killed.

Nikki Giovanni said, “Black love is black wealth.” In a system that denies us economic riches along with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to work out of love and to hold love is to do the work of justice. To love and be black is to be rich in a world that only wants to see us dead or in jail. We have richness beyond belief to share. We cannot embrace fear — we must be all of ourselves or die.

When you say you’re black, it means all black people — not just the ones that you want to call your community. Look outside your immediate relationship to blackness, as black people we have been taught to hate ourselves, to think that we are the root of issues when we are not. We are the impact. We have always seen the impact in this country and world and continue to do so. Colonization has instilled policing on our bodies, and as a people who come from a history of slavery and a legacy of action, in Assata Shakur’s words: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

I used to teach on Rikers Island. This is where I met black “jailers” who made careers out of working in the prison industrial complex. I met an older man who had worked in the system for over 20 years. With eyes bugged out, he told me that he has to beat the young men because that’s all they respond to. Policing has been ingrained in our bodies, which have endured so much trauma and pain that we cannot even hold it all. Will we take to the streets? Organize in our communities? Educate ourselves and each other?