In April 2015, Moka Dawkins was one of a few dozen people who attended a candlelight vigil for Sumaya Dalmar, a trans woman and sex worker from Toronto who died under mysterious circumstances.
As the candles lit up the crowd, and tears welled up in everyone’s eyes, Dawkins decided to leave the vigil and mourn the passing of her friend near “trans block,” a section of Jarvis Street, in downtown Toronto, where trans sex workers are known to find clients.
“Sumaya was a turn-up girl, she wouldn’t want nobody crying over her,” Dawkins told a jury. “So I decided to take my candle down to the block and I said my goodbyes.”
Soon after Dawkins was approached by a man in a car who asked for her services. She agreed and got in the passenger seat and the pair drove a few blocks away to an empty parking lot.
But after Dawkins listed the cost of her services, she claims things took a left turn.
The man became violent and started to punch and bite her before she managed to escape the car and into a nearby convenience store.
This wasn’t the first time that she would be assaulted by one of her clients. And it wouldn't be her last. Months later, on a call that would turn horribly ugly, Dawkins fought back — with deadly consequences.
She stabbed her client, Jamie Foster, multiple times. He died of his wounds, and police charged Dawkins with second degree murder.
She is pleading not guilty, in a trial that supporters say is casting new light on the dangerous reality faced by transgender women in the sex trade, and testing the limits — or exposing a double standard — of who gets to claim self defence.
“He kept attacking me so I swung back.”
“I thought he was going to kill me,” Dawkins testified in a Toronto courtroom earlier this month. “He kept attacking me so I swung back.”
Now, the 28-year-old who has identified as a woman since she was a teenager is sitting in a men’s prison as she awaits a verdict.
There was nothing particularly out of the ordinary about August 3, 2015 for Dawkins.
She had been attending a Caribana party at FLY Nightclub in Toronto and decided to step out and grab some weed before her friends reached the scene.
She had been communicating with her client, Jamie Foster, who she met on the block a month prior.
According to Dawkins, Foster offered her some weed and she agreed to go pick it up with the intention of heading back to the club to meet her friends, and with the possibility of scheduling an appointment with him at the end of the night. However, upon arriving at his apartment, she noticed that Foster was drunk and slurring his words.
The pair started kissing and made their way into his bedroom but according to Dawkins, when she explained that she had to leave, Foster became aggressive and demanded that she stay.
She exited the bedroom and put on her shoes and according to Dawkins, that’s when Foster yelled out, “I told you, you’re not going anywhere,” before stabbing her in the face with a kitchen knife.
With blood spewing out of her face and into her eyes, Dawkins claims that a struggle ensued and the two began to tussle back and forth before she was able to take control of the knife and stab Foster three to five times.
“He didn’t stop, he just kept coming at me,” Dawkins explained to the jury earlier this month, as supporters from Maggie’s Sex Workers Action Project, a centre that advocates for the rights of sex workers in Toronto, looked on. “He was kicking and punching me [and] I was screaming for help out the balcony door.”
What happened next is unclear but Dawkins claims that Foster — naked and bleeding — went back into his bedroom and used his body to barricade the door. Dawkins, who at the time was suffering from homelessness and sleeping at a nearby shelter — collected what few belongings she had and ran into the bathroom to rinse the blood out of her eyes.
It was at that moment that she noticed a pool of blood flowing out from under the bedroom door.
Trans sex workers find themselves at a precarious intersection, as members of different marginalized communities that are vulnerable to violence and distrustful of the police.
They see stories of women like them winding up dead, yet those instances rarely spark public outrage outside of the community.
There have been four such recent cases in Canada alone: Rosa Ribut was beaten to death in Edmonton in 2013; Sumaya Dalmar was murdered in Toronto’s east-end in 2015; in June 2017, Alloura Wells was found dead in a ravine in Toronto’s Rosedale neighbourhood; and in September of that year, Sisi Thibert was stabbed to death in Montreal. All these women worked in the sex trade.
Add to that the already fraught relationship between the LGBTQ community and the police. In Toronto specifically, police have been heavily criticized for ignoring fears that a serial killer was targeting the Gay Village before the arrest of Bruce McArthur, who has been charged in the murder of eight people.
“Violence is something that’s ongoing within the [sex work] community,” says Monica Forrester, a program coordinator at Maggie’s, a centre that advocates for the rights of sex workers in Toronto. “I hear new reports at least once a month.”
“Violence is something that’s ongoing within the [sex work] community.”
She says she just settled a case with Toronto police over a person who attacked her with a knife last October.
The police were called, but no one ever followed up, she said. “They didn’t get any surveillance footage, they just closed the case and allowed this guy to still walk the streets, which may put other sex workers at risk.”
Toronto Police did not respond to a request for comment. Audrey Huntley, of Aboriginal Legal Services and Forrester’s lawyer, told VICE News that “in the course of pursuing an informal resolution to her police complaint, a representative of the TPS recognized that he erred in his interactions with our client specifically with regard to the timeliness of his response to her.” Huntley said the surveillance footage had been erased by the time the officer requested it, and no one was ever arrested in the case.
“That’s why sex workers don’t report things to the police,” Forrester added. “Because they’re either not believed or nothing is done about it.”
“I kept yelling Jay, Jay, are you OK?” Dawkins told the court. After a few minutes of silence, she decided to use a shower curtain rod and wedge it in between the bedroom door so that she could forcibly enter the room.
Once inside Dawkins used Foster’s phone to make an emergency call. But as soon as she told the 911 operator that she needed the assistance of paramedics and police, the situation once again turned violent.
According to Dawkins, once Foster heard the police were coming he stood up. That’s when she took one of his collectible swords and flung it back at him before he was able to run out of the apartment.
It is unclear whether or not the sword made contact with Foster. He died a short time later in the hallway of the building.
The Crown rejects that this was self defence, arguing that once Dawkins had the knife in her hand, she was in control of the situation.
Before that, Dawkins, who says she was scared for her life, went into the kitchen and put a few knives in her purse before exiting the building. That’s when she was confronted by two police officers who directed her to drop her weapons. Dawkins claims that she obliged and started to walk towards them.
“I was trying to explain, I’m the one who called you guys. Then I got maced,” said Dawkins, who was arrested for Foster’s murder while being treated by paramedics in an ambulance.
Crown prosecutors, Maeve Mungovan and Lindsay Kromm painted a different picture of what happened that night, and Dawkins’ motivations. They alleged that she wanted things to turn violent.
“Ms. Dawkins, I’m going to suggest to you that a fight ensued that night not because you wanted to leave the apartment but instead because you wanted more money, and you went back into Jamie’s bedroom because you wanted payback.” Kromm argued.
“Why would I want payback? You’re wrong,” Dawkins said.
When asked if she was enraged or angry at the time of the murder, Dawkins responded, “I’m mad and hurt that this happened to me. I have the right to be mad.”
This week, while delivering closing arguments, the Crown urged the jury to reject Dawkins' testimony that she acted in self-defence, noting that once Dawkins had the knife in her hand, she was in control of the situation.
For her supporters, who gathered inside the courthouse, this case is about more than one person. Members of Black Lives Matter TO have voiced their solidarity with Dawkins, along with The 519, an advocacy organization for the LGBTQ communities.
"The laws in Canada seem to protect Johns over the safety of sex workers. And now here is a case of a trans woman who was attacked by one of her clients and now she’s being charged with second degree murder for defending herself,” said Monica Forrester.
"We have to keep in mind that the police and the justice system may have their own ideas and presumptions about Moka because she is a trans woman of colour and a sex worker. When it comes to street-based workers, people look at us as though we're a menace to society and responsible for our own violence due to the work we're doing."
Cover image courtesy of Maggie's.