On Monday, February 2, Taja Gabrielle de Jesus was found stabbed to death in a stairwell in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco. She’s one of seven transgender women, most of whom were of color, reported to be murdered in the US since the beginning of 2015.
Danielle Castro is Taja’s adoptive sister. “Every time I think of her, I keep imagining her fighting for her life, and I just keep getting this graphic image of what she went through, Castro says. “And I don’t want to remember her that way.”
Typical responses in horrible situations like this one include angry demands for the killer to be locked up. More police. Stronger hate crimes laws.
But activists like Castro believe that these are most certainly not the way the community will find real safety, noting that trans people face high rates of abuse by police and correctional officers, and are often turned away by gendered social service operators such as battered women’s shelters and drug rehab centers.
Mirkarimi claims, “Reducing the number of people in jail cannot be achieved by simply reducing the existence of jail facilities.”
Castro was one of the dozens of trans women of color who staged a die-in at the San Francisco City Hall on February 10, as several hundred allies gathered nearby. Another was Janetta Johnson of the Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP). Her organization, operating on a shoestring budget of well under $100,000 per year as mainstream gay rights groups like the Human Rights Campaign monopolize funding for LGBTQ issues, is one of the few resources geared toward the thousands of currently and formerly incarcerated trans people around the country. “We’re kind of like a population of people who have been left behind,” she says.
Anger is part of what spurred 300 or so people to turn up at City Hall in the middle of a weekday to demand more attention around the extreme rates of violence against trans people, especially trans people of color (Murders of community members are so common that in several hundred cities around the world, Trans Day of Remembrance vigils are held to commemorate the many lives cut short each year). But the group calling itself Taja’s Coalition is fueling their rage into a call for a not-so-typical kind of justice: safe, affordable, accessible housing and reentry programs for trans people in San Francisco. “I’m not requesting anyone go fishing for us, but I’m asking people to teach us how to fish, you know what I’m saying?” Johnson says.
At the same time, Taja’s Coalition is also uniting against the local sheriff’s plans for a new jail. The group doesn’t believe that state “tough-on-crime” solutions are making trans people safer.
New jail, new jail beds to fill
In his office, San Francisco County Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi proudly displays a picture of Angela Davis; he claims to be the only sheriff in the country to have a photo of the black power icon and anti-prison activist on his wall. And in San Francisco, symbols of progressivism like these win you points at the ballot box.
“I think before we start building trans-specific pods, we should focus on creating trans-specific reentry programs.”
But the work of Bay Area-based Davis – who recently held a benefit for TGIJP and is co-founder of the anti-prison organization Critical Resistance – is certainly not in line with Mirkarimi’s legacy project: He’s busy lobbying for a state-of-the-art jail that could cost as much as $465 million in public funds by the time of its ribbon-cutting ceremony.
(The sheriff’s current legacy: He is the law officer who kept his job after being arrested and charged with domestic violence battery, child endangerment, and dissuading a witness, after a fight with his wife on New Year’s Eve 2011 left her with visible bruises.)
Why do San Francisco’s four jails – that by the sheriff’s own count sit about half empty – need a new several-hundred-million-dollar sibling?
Mirkarimi gives lip service to the concerns of many of his constituents in an early statement on the new jail proposal: “We must … address the mental health and substance abuse issues that make jail the treatment of last resort, reexamine harsh sentencing laws that disproportionately affect poor people and people of color and provide meaningful employment and housing options for the formerly incarcerated to keep them from returning.”
But, he claims, “Reducing the number of people in jail cannot be achieved by simply reducing the existence of jail facilities,” and notes that increasingly the SF jail serves as a holding pen for people with mental disabilities (The Treatment Advocacy Center found that there are ten times more seriously mentally ill people in California jails and prisons than in health care facilities). “The complexity of those within our care grows significantly,” Mirkarimi said.
“A jailhouse is a jailhouse is a jailhouse. It is never safe. They want to lock us up instead of helping people with our problems.”
However, people with mental illnesses receive better care in the community than in jail, say advocates. And releasing them from jails and prisons could save billions. A report that looked at Michigan’s prison system found that locking a person up was 3.5 to 15 times more expensive than community-based treatment.
Along with more mental health services, blueprints for the new jail include space for a “trans-friendly” pod in the new jail. According to TGIJP’s Johnson, “I think before we start building trans-specific pods, we should focus on creating trans-specific reentry programs.” Programs that would help ex-prisoners once they’re out, with housing, jobs, and more, could help stop the revolving door of imprisonment for trans people.
As “boutique” jail facilities that cater to certain categories of people add to the billions the US spends on incarceration each year, police departments regularly take the top spot in local budgets.
A study by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that almost 1 in 6 trans people has been locked up at some point during their lives (for black trans people the ratio is nearly 1 in 2). Further, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that each year, 40 percent of trans prisoners experience sexual abuse by prison staff or other prisoners.
“A new state-of-the-art facility is irrelevant if it’s filled with deputies who are abusive against us,” read an open letter to the SF Board of Supervisors from women currently housed in the system. “A jailhouse is a jailhouse is a jailhouse. It is never safe. They want to lock us up instead of helping people with our problems.”
Policing and hate crimes laws: propping up an unjust system
As “boutique” jail facilities that cater to certain categories of people add to the billions the US spends on incarceration each year, police departments regularly take the top spot in local budgets. The SFPD estimates it’ll spend $519 million on policing over the current fiscal year. But as the NYPD work stoppage in December and January famously showed, less policing doesn’t necessarily diminish so-called public safety.
Police are among the top committers of violence against LGBTQ people, particularly when it comes to LGBTQ people of color.
Prison scholar and activist Eric A. Stanley, who edited the anthology Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, told Truthout that transgender sensitivity trainings for police officers are a resource-suck that “not only do not make trans people safer, but can help teach cops how to more easily locate trans people, putting them in increased danger.”
Year after year, statistics from the Anti-Violence Project, which tracks violence against LGBTQ people around the country, shape an ugly pattern: police are among the top committers of violence against LGBTQ people, particularly when it comes to LGBTQ people of color. It’s no wonder many LGBTQ people don’t feel comfortable going to the police when faced with a problem.
The expansion of hate crimes laws is another non-solution, say groups like New York’s Sylvia Rivera Law Project and San Francisco’s Gay Shame. Stanley reasons that “even the most conservative criminologist no longer argues that enhanced sentencing deters future harms.” The ineffectiveness of increased sentences as a deterrent, along with many indicators that show that the prison system is one of the primary perpetrators of violence against trans women of color, have brought Stanley to assert that “It’s not until we let go of our deep attachment to the US justice system as an arbiter of redress that we can begin to ask what we want and need.”
Community approaches to stopping harm
Plenty of studies show that proactive approaches to public safety that address the reasons people commit what society classes as “crimes” are better than reactive solutions like policing. Proactive solutions include increased funding for priorities like education and health care.
Take education. As the Washington DC-based think tank Justice Policy Institute found in a 2007 study: “Research has shown a relationship between high school graduation rates and crime rates, and a relationship between educational attainment and the likelihood of incarceration.” In California, the state that incarcerates more people than any other, high school dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested than people who graduate.
According to the California Budget Project, California spends about $62,000 per year locking a person up, about seven times the $9,200 it spends on each K-12 student. And prison budgets are one of the last to be slashed, while austerity policies around the country have meant decreasing funding for schools and astronomical rises in tuition rates for college.
Taja’s Coalition’s final demand relates to a problem that much of the country is already aware of: the rent in San Francisco is too damn high, and as a result, people are ending up in jail because homelessness is so criminalized. Get caught squatting in an empty building, even sitting on the sidewalk, and you could face an expensive fine and jail time. They see local politicians as being in the pocket of real estate and tech interests that are fueling unprecedented gentrification in the area. “I’m not OK with Twitter taking over,” Danielle Castro declared at the February 10 rally, referencing the multimillion dollar tax breaks that the tech giant and other companies received to set up office in the central part of the city, as part of a mayor-led revitalization project.
“It’s not until we let go of our deep attachment to the US justice system as an arbiter of redress that we can begin to ask what we want and need.”
The rising cost of living in San Francisco, fueled by municipal protections for corporate interests at the expense of our most vulnerable residents, has forced countless trans people into unsafe living situations… San Francisco must shift its priorities away from protecting corporations and toward providing affordable housing for all who need it and particularly creating affordable housing services, safe housing programs and more safe spaces for trans people.
Clearly, there’s no way to stop all harm before it starts, but Bay Area groups that include some of the people who formed Taja’s Coalition are seeking accountability for harm in unique ways. STOP – the StoryTelling & Organizing Project – outlines dozens of cases where individuals and their communities (of all sexualities) created alternative accountability practices for harm, forgoing the traditional justice system. Likewise, QUARREL, a loose group of Bay Areaites with an “anti-colonial, queer, feminist” bent described how they dealt with a serial sex abuser in the Bay Area in their zine. About 50 people showed up to the club where the abuser in question was deejaying and presented him with a statement saying he’d be isolated from some of the places and social circles he had frequented:
Over the next few months, we will be speaking with communities on campuses, in radical spaces, in collectives, and queer safe spaces, to let people know that you are not to participate in solidarity with women’s causes until we can reevaluate your pattern of abuse… If you refuse to abide by these guidelines or emotionally torment survivors of your abuse, we are prepared to take more serious, public action.
These are by no means the only examples of people using grassroots approaches to accountability; countless more never made it into writing. And the groups mentioned in this piece are working to make sure they’re just the tip of the iceberg.
On the afternoon of February 10, spurred by the die-in and protest outside, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors held a memorial for de Jesus inside City Hall, making a commitment to use people from the Coalition as advisers on how to make San Francisco a better place for trans people. “It’s unprecedented,” Castro says, happily (Supporters are currently raising money to cover the costs of a community memorial for de Jesus).But it’s too early to see whether the Board will make good on its promise, so the actions aren’t going to cease just yet, according to Castro. “We’re not stopping. We’re planning to do another protest, and this time block traffic. There will be more.”
Over the phone, en route to a funeral for de Jesus, Castro shares one of her favorite times she had with her sister:
I remember [Taja and I] sitting in my car outside of this rehabilitation center for elders, and we were about to visit an old-timer from Alcoholics Anonymous and just bring him some hope and love. We were sitting in the car and Madonna was playing and we were just singing – we both adore Madonna, and Prince, so that’s what I remember of her, having so much and her laughing, and giggling and singing.
It’s a memory Castro is hoping will displace the imagined image she has of Taja in the final moments of her life. Working for positive change with her trans sisters is helping. “I’m filled with hope and love – these incredible people, our allies and our community came together and made it happen in 72 hours. It was surreal.”