BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The space around the Brooklyn Museum was a sea of white outfits Sunday as thousands of people turned out for a rally to protest the killing of black transgender people.
The Black Trans Lives Matter rally, also dubbed the “Brooklyn Liberation,” had an estimated 15,000 participants, making it the largest transgender-based protest in history, according to Fran Tirado, one of the organizers. The New York Times reported that the event was the brainchild of West Dakota, a drag queen from Brooklyn.
“Something just sort of clicked for me,” Dakota told the Times. “We don’t have to wait for that to happen. We can do it ourselves.”
The rally was held two days after the Trump administration finalized a regulation erasing health care protections for transgender patients. The protections, put in place under the Affordable Care Act, had established protections against discrimination by doctors, hospitals and health insurance companies based on gender identity.
The reversal came on the fourth anniversary of the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando in which 49 patrons of the gay venue were shot and killed.
Organizers of the Brooklyn Liberation event were stunned by the turnout. Eliel Cruz, of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, told the Times that previous rallies have seen 600 or 700 people show up.
“The violence that’s affecting black trans women and black trans folks is finally getting the attention that it deserves,” Cruz said.
The team of about 150 organizers included volunteers under the direction of groups such as The Okra Project, which provides black transgender people with “home-cooked, healthy and culturally specific meals and resources,” and the Marsha P. Johnson Institute.
Johnson, an activist and self-identified drag queen, was a prominent figure in the Stonewall uprising of 1969, according to the institute. The uprising began following a police raid June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in Greenwich Village.
As police officers pushed customers and employees of the club into police vehicles, a lesbian who was fighting her arrest pleaded with the gathering crowd to do something, the Harvard Gazette reported last year for the 50th anniversary of the riots.
“The air grew thick with chants – along with bottles and bricks,” the Gazette’s story read. “The officers barricaded themselves in the bar and radioed for back-up as a riot flared. More violent demonstrations shook the neighborhood in the following days.”
The subsequent six days of protests led to the modern LGBTQ rights movement. Stonewall is also the reason LGBTQ Pride Month is celebrated in June.
Johnson, 46, was pulled from the Hudson River in 1992. According to the Times, her death was initially ruled a suicide but her friends believed she had been slain. Authorities later reclassified the manner of her death to drowning from undetermined causes, the newspaper said.
Sunday’s peaceful protest, which came amid Black Lives Matter protests across the country and around the world, was organized to honor transgender people of color, who experience a high level of violence, particularly black transgender women. The Human Rights Campaign reported that in 2019, at least 26 transgender or gender non-conforming people were killed in the U.S.
The majority were black women.
“We say ‘at least’ because too often these stories go unreported – or misreported,” the HRC website states.
So far in 2020, there have been at least 15 transgender or gender non-conforming people who have died by violence, the HRC reports. Two of those deaths took place last week.
Riah Milton, 25, was shot and killed June 9 after being lured to a park in Liberty Township, Ohio, to be robbed of her vehicle. According to the HRC, Milton was a home health aide and student at the University of Cincinnati.
“She was a loving sister and aunt, often posting photos of her family,” the campaign’s memorial for Milton reads. “In March, she posted the status ‘Never been scared to struggle. Imma get it eventually.’ – a comment highlighting her resilience and optimism as a person facing a transphobic, misogynist and racist society.”
Milton’s family and friends spoke out against Butler County officials, who used her “dead name,” or name assigned at birth, to identify her in reports of her death. Local media followed suit.
Her sister, Ariel Mary Ann, who is also transgender, described it as “a slap in the face,” and said that watching the media misgender her sister “was like seeing someone just wipe her existence clean away.”
“It says that you don’t care about the humanity and respect that transgender people deserve,” Mary Ann said in a statement circulated on Facebook.
Kaleb Marshall Tooson, 18, and a 14-year-old girl have been arrested in connection with Milton’s killing and a warrant was issued for a third, 25-year-old Jeffrey Cross, according to investigators.
The day before Milton died, Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, 27, was found dismembered alongside the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. According to PhillyVoice, Fells’ legs were severed mid-thigh, and she suffered trauma to her head and face.
Friends described Fells as a social butterfly who had plans to return to school to be a fashion designer, the media site reported.
“Rem’mie’s life was cut short,” friend Kendall Stephens said. “She lived her truth so loud that you could hear her a mile away.”
No suspects have been named in Fells’ death. The Philadelphia Department of Public Health issued a plea for information Wednesday on its Facebook page.
“The investigation into Dominique ‘Rem’mie’ Fells’ murder remains active,” the post read. “If you or someone you know have information about this case, call the PPD anonymous tip line at 215-686-TIPS or contact Philadelphia Office of LGBT Affairs if you’re not comfortable contacting police directly.”
The Office of LGBT Affairs issued its own statement on Fells’ slaying. The statement said the pain of the community’s loss is particularly deep because it took place during Pride Month and in the midst of demonstrations in honor of black lives.
“As thousands take to the streets to proclaim that Black Lives Matter, it is critical we remember that this includes Black trans lives. Dominique Rem’mie Fells’ life mattered,” the statement read. “We are reminded with this, and countless other painful losses – especially within our transgender communities – that there is much left to do until we achieve full equality, respect, and support for us all.
“The murder of transgender people – especially those of color – is truly an epidemic, and a crisis that we cannot afford to allow to persist any further.”
Sunday’s protest in Brooklyn was inspired by the NAACP’s 1917 Silent Protest Parade, which stemmed from a racially motivated attack on the expanding black community in East St. Louis.
“On July 28, nearly 10,000 black men, women, and children wordlessly paraded down New York’s Fifth Avenue,” the NAACP’s website reads. “Silently marching to the beat of a drum, the throngs of protesters clutched picket signs declaring their purpose and demanding justice.”
Watch video of Sunday’s march and rally below, courtesy of The New York Times.
One of the speakers at Sunday’s rally was Melania Brown, sister of Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender Dominican-American woman who died of an epileptic seizure while in solitary confinement last June at the Rose M. Singer Center on New York’s Riker’s Island.
“Black trans lives matter. My sister’s life mattered.” Brown said to cheers from the crowd. “All of the loved ones that we have lost, all of these beautiful girls that we have lost, their lives matter.
“If one goes down, we all go down. And I’m not going nowhere.”
Cox Media Group