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As protests surrounding the killing of George Floyd and police brutality entered their eighth night, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the historic Stonewall Inn in New York Tuesday yelling the name of another black man killed in a confrontation with police: Tony McDade.
McDade, a 38-year-old black trans man, was shot and killed by police in Tallahassee, Florida, on May 27, two days after Minneapolis police kneeled on Floyd for almost nine minutes until he couldn’t breathe. Tallahassee police said in a press release that McDade was the suspect in a local stabbing and was armed, which led to the shooting.
His death hasn’t received much attention in the wake of Floyd’s killing. Protests have happened in Florida, and national LGBTQ rights organizations including the Human Rights Campaign and the National Black Justice Coalition released statements about the killing.
Now, trans rights advocates are taking to the streets in New York, during Pride Month, to call for an investigation and bring more attention to the killing of black trans people.
“The cis people always take to the streets over all of their deaths, their murders,” said TS Candii, a 26-year-old black trans woman and one of the organizers of the protest at the Stonewall Inn. “We have two different worlds. We’re fed up with the murders. We’re fed up with law enforcement just brutally killing us.”
McDade’s death was at least the 12th killing of a trans or gender-non-conforming person in 2020, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Three of the known killings occurred in the last month — one of which, McDade’s, was at the hands of police.
Black trans women are disproportionately killed by violence, and arrest rates for their murders are significantly lower than for other demographics.
Though most of the killings of black trans women are not at the hands of police, the community does disproportionately experience police harassment. A third of black trans women who interact with police report that officers assume they are sex workers. Nearly 90% of trans women who police assume are sex workers report experiencing police harrassment and abuse, including verbal, physical, and sexual assaults.
Like the nationwide protests since Floyd’s death last month, the stark disparity in the treatment of black people by police was the central theme of the gathering on Tuesday.
Tuesday’s organizers led speeches in Sheridan Square outside the Stonewall Inn, where six days of violent protests against police in 1969 kickstarted the modern gay rights movement. Candii and Tahtianna Fermin, another organizer, recognized trans people of color killed by violence and called out the names of McDade and Nina Pop, a trans woman murdered in May, into the crowd.
Although some of the protests around the country have turned destructive or violent, the organizers of Tuesday’s protest took measures to make it peaceful. They said they received permission from the city to hold the march and collected funds for trans women who attended the protest to hail a ride home before the city’s 8 p.m. curfew went into place.
But as organizers led the march to Union Square, an interaction with a white man who yelled at protesters in the street highlighted just how quickly protests can get out of control. Some protesters rushed toward the man as he provoked the crowd. One was carrying a chain. The man fled as they got closer.
Fermin fell to the ground as she was overwhelmed by the prospect of the march turning violent.
“He was trying to cause chaos and that kind of got me a little emotional because I tried so hard for this protest to go correctly,” said Fermin, a 38-year-old black trans woman. “We don't want it to turn out to be like all the other scenes we've been seeing on TV. We're not trying to create a riot. We're not trying to burn places. We just want to be heard and want to be respected. We want to be able to exist.”
In Union Square, the march merged with several other protests against police brutality happening in the city sparked by the killings of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed in her own home by Kentucky police executing a narcotics warrant. Police presence was heavy, and protesters chanted “no justice, no peace, fuck these racist police” to the asssembled officers, though the confrontations never escalated.
Organizers demanded the repeal of laws across the country that allow police to arrest people for appearing to loiter for the purpose of prostitution In New York, activists have dubbed the state’s law the “Walking While Trans Ban,” which they claim is excessively enforced against trans women. They said things like being caught with a condom could lead to an arrest. Several of the protesters also called for abolishing the police altogether.
“This isn't about reform,” said Olympia Sudan, 29, co-director of the group Black Trans Media. “This isn't about making a better system. This is about abolishing the system that has continued to tear our communities apart.”
Some protesters, however, made it known that they don’t expect such drastic systemic shifts to occur.
“There are too many people, organizations, agencies, coalitions that fund police,” said Kimora Nichols, 21. “There's a lot of people that fund it and it will never go out. They'll always be around.”
While the central focus of the protest was violence against trans people of color, white protesters were also present to show solidarity for groups known to have originated the confrontations that led to the modern gay rights movement.
“Those are my brothers and sisters,” said Bryan Weeks, 31. “And they've fought and laid down their lives for me to have the rights that I even have as a gay man. So I'm here to fight for them.”
Cover: Timothy Barnett, 22, and Kimora Nichols, 21, (from left to right) march in solidarity with killed black trans people in New York, New York, on Tuesday, June 2. (Tomas Navia/VICE News)