New Orleans’ black and transgender community members and advocates complain of rampant and systemic harassment and discrimination from the city’s police force, including sexual violence and arrest without cause. Activists hope that public outrage at recent revelations of widespread police violence and corruption offer an opportunity to make changes in police behavior and practice.
On a recent weekday evening, a group of transgender women met in the Midcity offices of Brotherhood Incorporated, an organization that provides health care and fights the spread of HIV and AIDS in low-income black communities. When the conversation turned to the police, the mood in the room turned to outrage as each woman had a story of harassment and abuse. Tyra Fields, a health worker who facilitated the meeting, told a story of being arrested without cause one night as she walked into a gay bar. “They never give us a reason they are arresting us,” she said, explaining that being black and transgendered is often enough reason for arrest, generally on prostitution-related charges.
A young and soft-spoken transgendered woman named Keyasia told a story of being persecuted by police who followed her as she walked down the street, rushed into her apartment and arrested her in her own home. “Within the last four or five months, I’ve been to jail eight or nine times,” said Keyasia. “All for something I didn’t do. Because I’m a homosexual, that means I’m a prostitute in their eyes.” Expressing the frustration in the room, she added, “I want to go to the French Quarter and hang out and have cocktails just like everyone else. Why can’t I?”
Diamond Morgan, another of the women, said she has faced a pattern of harassment from police that begins, she said, “Once they discover my transgender status.” She said she has been arrested and sexually assaulted by police and by employees of Orleans Parish Prison, who are part of New Orleans Office of Criminal Sheriff. She details her own personal experience of assault and those of friends, adding that Orleans Parish Prison is a site that many women she knows speaks of as especially abusive. She said that sexual assault of transgender women is common at the jail and other women in the room agree.
Tracy Brassfield, a transgender sex worker activist also attending the meeting, has dedicated herself to fighting against discrimination. Originally from Florida, Brassfield moved to New Orleans because she fell in love with the city. “But when I got here,” she said, “I started running into problems with the police.” These problems included what Brassfield calls deliberate harassment from officers who she said are targeting black transgender women not because of any crime they’ve committed, but just because of who they are. “They say, you’re transgendered, you’re a fag, you’re a punk, you’re going to jail,” she said.
Brassfield decided to fight back and organize: “I was raised in an activist family,” she said. “I know my civil rights.” She has contacted local social justice and legal advocacy organizations such as Women With A Vision, Critical Resistance, the ACLU of Louisiana and the Orleans Public Defenders, seeking allies in her struggle. She has also reached out in the community of transgender women. “My thing is put it out there, get it exposed,” she explained. “This is not just about me, this is about everyone.”
Patterns of Violence
Both local and national attention is currently being directed on the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD). In recent months, the city has been rocked by revelations of police murder and cover-ups, with the justice department and FBI investigating at least eight separate cases, and signs that the federal government is headed toward a takeover of the department. Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu is engaged in a national search for a new police chief, telling reporters that the department needs “a complete culture change.”
Although the current federal investigations have not looked into police treatment of the black and transgender community, advocates hope that the justice department will also look into these complaints.
Members of the city’s larger gay community complain about unwarranted arrests and a criminalization of sexuality, with police specifically targeting bars in the gay community. “If a gay man wants consensual sex, the undercover officer lies and said money was offered,” said John Rawls, a gay civil rights attorney who has spent decades in New Orleans fighting on these issues.
Advocates and community members also said that once gay men and transgender women are arrested for offering sex, they are more likely than others arrested in similar circumstances to be charged with a “crime against nature,” a felony charge. The law, which dates back to 1805, makes it a crime against nature to engage in “unnatural copulation” – a term New Orleans police and the district attorney’s office have interpreted to mean soliciting for anal or oral sex. Those who are convicted under this law are issued longer jail sentences and forced to register as sex offenders. They must also carry a driver’s license with the label “sex offender” printed on it. The women’s health care organization Women With A Vision has recently formed a coalition with several advocacy and legal organizations to attempt to fight this use of the sex offender law.
Stories of Abuse
Wendi Cooper, a black and transgender health care worker, was charged under the law almost ten years ago. Although Cooper only tried prostitution very briefly and has not tried it again since her arrest, she still faces harassment from the police. She is frequently stopped, and when they run her ID through the system and find out about the prostitution charge, they threaten to arrest her again, or, sometimes, she alleged, they demand sex.
“Police will see that I been to jail for the charge,” she said. “And then they’ll try to have me, forcefully, sexually … One I had sex with, because I didn’t want to go to jail.”
Thinking about her experiences with police over the years, Cooper got quiet. “Sometimes I just wanna do something out the ordinary and just expose it, you know?” She sighed. “They hurt me, you know? And I just hope they do something about it.”
In response to the allegations of abuse, NOPD spokesman Bob Young responded, “Persons are charged according to the crime they commit.” He encouraged anyone with complaints to come file them with the department, adding, “the NOPD has not received any complaints against plain clothes officers assigned to the vice squad.”
The New Orleans Office of Criminal Sheriff did not respond to requests for comment. However, a September 2009 report from the US Department of Justice (DOJ) found that, “conditions at OPP violate the constitutional rights of inmates.” The DOJ went on to report; “Inmates confined at OPP are not adequately protected from harm, including physical harm from excessive use of force by staff.” And documented “a pattern and practice of unnecessary and inappropriate use of force by OPP correctional officers.” This included “several examples where OPP officers openly engaged in abusive and retaliatory conduct, which resulted in serious injuries to prisoners. In some instances, the investigation found, the officers’ conduct was so flagrant it clearly constituted calculated abuse.”
Abuse Starts at a Young Age
Wesley Ware, a youth advocate at Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, said that harassment against those who are perceived as gay or gender noncomforming begins at a young age and can include hostility from their parents, fellow students and often from school staff. According to Ware, this leads many of these youths to bring weapons to school to defend themselves. “Gay and bisexual boys and young men are four times more likely to carry a weapon to school,” he said. “Of homeless youth, 50 percent identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Of kids in youth detention, 13 percent are LGBT.” Ware adds that many of these youth face an unsympathetic court, including judges who think that they will help “cure” gay youth by sending them to juvenile detention. “Ninety-nine percent of the kids in youth detention in New Orleans are black,” added Ware. “So obviously what we’re talking about is youth of color.”
“This community is facing systemic discrimination in pretty much every system they deal with,” said Emily Nepon, a staff member of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a legal organization that fights for transgender racial and economic justice. According to Nepon, women in this community deal with intersecting forms of oppression. “High levels of employment discrimination, housing discrimination, overpolicing, profiling that leads to higher incarceration rates and higher levels of abuse within prisons.”
Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu calls criminal justice one of his signature issues. But will he be willing or able to try to change the culture of the New Orleans police? Advocates say change will not come easy. “You can do a million police trainings,” added Nepon. “But in general, that doesn’t have an impact on rampant police homophobia.”
Many advocates believe federal oversight can make a difference in these patterns of police abuse. They are also pressing for an end to the use of the crime against nature statute, as well as a general shift from charging people with nonviolent offenses. Attorney John Rawls, who is generally supportive of current Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, believes the DA understands that the current use of the sex offender statute invites discrimination.
However, added Rawls, it will be hard to get his office to stop charging people under the statute. “People who hold powerful offices have many motives and one of them is they love being powerful,” he said. “Prosecutors get their power from criminal statutes. The more statutes they have, the more ways they can prosecute someone, the more power they have.” If activists are going to challenge this power, they will need to utilize the current public outrage for far-reaching reforms, said Rawls.
Back at the meeting at the Brotherhood Incorporated offices, Brassfield urged women to stand up and fight back. “We need to document,” she said. “What you want to do is illustrate a pattern of harassment and abuse.” She handed out fliers and phone numbers for Women With A Vision, Critical Resistance and a sympathetic lawyer. “We have to look out for each other,” she said. “I want to organize, just what we’re doing now. The girls got to stick together.”