In 2013, I was robbed in Washington, DC, and was immediately thrust into the criminal punishment system after calling 911.
Police officers were able to catch the suspect hours after the incident, beginning my own journey of having to tell my story to officials again and again, needing to write my story, and testifying before a grand jury and again at trial. While to some, this is justice — for me it felt like nothing more than revictimization.
The fallout from my action in calling the police leading to the arrest, trial, and now detention of another still incarcerated Black man. And for what? A 30-second interaction and a new cell phone I purchased. While I do not want to erase the harm he caused me that evening — and the genuine fear that I might lose my life — his treatment by the criminal legal system has since made me wish that I wish I knew another way. And now I do.
In the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a movement to defund the police has captured international attention. It’s a clear demand to cut funding and resources from police departments and other law enforcement (yes, even down to zero) and instead invest in programs, services, and interventions that actually make our communities safer and push us to ask ourselves: In what ways can we invest in the community so crime wouldn’t occur in the first place?
As a Black queer man in America, I know far too well that the police have only continued to hurt bodies like mine throughout history even after many alleged reforms. And I know that my queerness and Blackness — and the history tied to both — are a place we can all begin to look to really understand why we must dream alternatives to police and policing.
1. Police have historically (and continue to) raid LGBTQ bars. It wasn’t just Stonewall.
If the Stonewall Riots taught us anything, it’s that police violence and the carceral state are also queer issues.
Through the late 1960s, police consistently raided gay establishments simply to destroy LGBTQ-friendly spaces. In 1969, hundreds of LGBTQ people of color led the first major action against the NYPD in Greenwich Village at the Stonewall Inn. Though the historical record of Stonewall is often debated, Marsha P. Johnson, a Black transgender woman, is frequently credited with throwing the first brick at Stonewall and Stormé DeLarverie with throwing the first fist.
Stonewall was one of many LGBTQ protests against police raids and law enforcement brutality. In 1959, Cooper Donuts Riot was a small uprising in Los Angeles in response to police harassment. In 1966, at Compton Cafeteria, LGBTQ people, and transgender individuals in particular, fought back against police violence after vehement anti-trans harassment. And in 1967, two years before Stonewall, the LAPD entered the Black Cat Tavern as undercover police officers and started beating patrons as they were ringing in the New Year.
Though police now march with us at Pride, there is a decades long history of over-policing of the LGBTQ community. And these raids are not simply a thing of the past. This month, Bryan Smith, co-owner of “The Blazing Saddle,” Des Moines’ long-standing LGBTQ bar, said police raided his business. Police arrived with their weapons drawn, and ordered everyone out at gunpoint, claiming they were protecting the bar.
These raids and subsequent protests against police violence and discrimination are what started what we popularly refer to as Pride and it’s clear we have a long way to go. These demonstrations and vocal dissent of law enforcement invading our public spaces should not be forgotten.
2. Trans and Gender Non Conforming folk are mistreated by police everyday.
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 US Transgender survey, 58% of respondents who interacted with police who knew they were transgender experienced mistreatment, including verbal harassment, persistent misgendering, physical/sexual assault, and being forced to perform sexual acts to avoid arrest. Nearly half of transgender survey respondents said they feel uncomfortable seeking police assistance.
Respondents who were held in jail, prison, or juvenile detention in the past year of taking the survey faced high rates of physical and sexual assault by facility staff and other inmates. Nearly one-quarter were physically assaulted by staff or other inmates, and 1 in 5, or 20 percent, were sexually assaulted. Respondents were over five times more likely to be sexually assaulted by facility staff than the U.S. population in jails and prisons, and over nine times more likely to be sexually assaulted by other inmates.
Alongside high rates of assault by law enforcement, transgender women are also frequently misgendered in police reports. This disturbing trend highlights the perpetuation of harm among transgender people by law enforcement. Unfortunately, we know this isn’t a matter of training or programs, it’s because of white supremacy and patriarchal violence that permeates police and prisons.
3. Homeless LGBTQ youth are routinely criminalized by police.
LGBTQ youth continue to be disproportionately represented among unhoused youth in our country, and their experiences of homelessness continue to be characterized by violence, discrimination, poor health, and unmet needs.
According to Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America, LGBTQ youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness. This data was reflected in True Color United’s own research showing an estimated 7% of youth in the United States are LGBTQ, while 40% of youth experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ.
The lack of safe, free housing often leaves young Black and brown LGBTQ people on the street, leading to more interactions with police. There are well-documented connections between youth homelessness and law enforcement, including quality-of-life enforcement. The causes of homelessness vary, but experts agree it is largely based on structural and individual factors, such as inadequate housing, limited access to affordable healthcare, and discrimination (based on race and sexual orientation/gender identity, among others). And these are some of the same factors the laws criminalize and that police enforce.
Begging, sleeping in public, lying in vehicles, and panhandling are all criminalized in some way across the United States. These conditions make the over-policing of LGBTQ people experiencing homelessness an every day reality.
Policing young LGBTQ people does nothing to help them and doesn’t address the root cause of homelessness. These young queer and transgender people need services, particularly long-term housing, not criminal laws that enforce harm, and that can’t happen with police officers or the system of policing.
4. The over-policing of people living with HIV.
According to the CDC, HIV-specific criminalization laws largely refer to the use of criminal laws to penalize perceived or potential HIV exposure; alleged nondisclosure of a person who is knowingly living with HIV prior to sexual contact; or unintentional HIV transmission.
Across the country, prosecutors’ offices have attempted to criminalize people living with HIV. And the 2015 case against Michael Johnson, the Black collegiate wrestler also known as “Tiger Mandingo,” is an all too perfect example of why this is an outdated, racist, and homophobic policing tactic.
The same day Johnson told a former sexual partner he was living with HIV, he was pulled out of his class and led away in handcuffs by the St. Charles Police.
He was later charged with one count of "recklessly infecting another with HIV" and four counts of "attempting to recklessly infect another with HIV," felonies in Missouri. Despite pleading not guilty, Johnson was originally sentenced to 30.5 years before a Missouri appeals court overturned the conviction, ruling that the prosecuting attorney failed to disclose evidence in a timely fashion to Johnson’s attorney.
Johnson’s trial was doomed from the start. It was held in the St. Louis suburb of St. Charles, which is more than 90% white and was tried and convicted before an almost all-white jury that included jurors who believed that “homosexuality is a sin,” reported Buzzfeed’s Steven Thrasher.
Unfortunately, Johnson isn’t the first — and won’t be the last — LGBTQ person harmed by outdated HIV criminalization laws. According to the CDC, a much higher proportion of gay, bisexual, and queer men are living with HIV compared to any other group in the US. That means there’s also an increased chance of having sexual partners living with HIV, and therefore are more impacted by HIV over-policing, from arrest to sentencing.
Instead of paying officers to arrest people for potential exposure, money should go to Black-led research, advocacy, and grassroots organizations doing work on HIV prevention, treatment, and care so we can eventually get to an AIDS-free generation that the United States espouses to the world.
5. Police have historically arrested queer folks for just having sex.
Many people have loosely heard of the 2003 case Lawrence v. Texas as a watershed moment for the right to privacy of LGBTQ people. But what’s often untold is the story that led to the groundbreaking case that found its way at the Supreme Court — a false weapons disturbance call that allowed the police to forcibly enter into the private residence of John Lawrence one late night.
After officer’s made an unlawful entry, the police saw him and Tyron Garner, engaging in private, consensual sex and arrested them both, for violating a Texas law forbidding certain intimate sexual conduct among two persons of the same sex.
It doesn’t escape me that police unlawfully breaking into 26-year-old Breonna Taylor’s home is how they killed her more than three months ago. Unfortunately, police have a violent history of breaking into homes unannounced and without cause. In 2014, researchers at the ACLU studied more than 800 SWAT raids by law enforcement around the country. In total, they found that 42% of people affected by search-warrant raids were Black, and 12% were Latino.
Black people and Latinos accounted for 61% of the people targeted by SWAT drug raids and only found contraband in one-third of these cases.
6. LGBTQ students in schools have interactions with police that cause pushouts.
There is no evidence to show that adding police officers in schools actually makes students feel safer. In fact, the data highlights the exact opposite.
School discipline policies, especially those rooted in “zero tolerance,” have a disproportionate impact on students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ youth. These rigid school policies often lead to suspensions and expulsions of students for even the most minor offenses and perpetuate a school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately criminalizes marginalized students at an intersection.
These policies also don’t take into account how LGBTQ students are treated in schools. Many LGBTQ students experience harassment, assault, and bullying from peers, faculty, and administrators. Recent studies have found police in schools and several other surveillance measures to have no impact on the rates of homophobic bullying. And when LGBTQ students of color, in particular, stop attending school, cops and prosecutors enforce truancy laws and other disciplinary measures against students and their families.
Other research focuses on increased personal interaction between school security officers and LGBTQ students. For example, Lambda Legal’s 2012 study found that security officers, mainly appointed to protect students, may have actually contributed to a hostile or indifferent climate for LGBTQ students. Fourteen percent of all survey respondents said that the attitudes of police officers in schools toward them were hostile.
According to GLSEN’s 2017 National School Climate Survey, 83.7% of transgender and 69.9% of gender nonconforming students reported bullying and harassment based on gender. In addition, nearly 50% of transgender students were forced to use the incorrect bathroom.
Transgender and gender nonconforming students in schools with supportive and inclusive policies, including enumerated policies on anti-bullying, face less discrimination and are more engaged. Recent GLSEN data show they are 13% less likely to miss school than students in schools without such policies. And when LGBTQ students miss school, they are more likely to face interaction with police due to truancy laws.
LGBTQ students who reported high levels of victimization, absenteeism, or discrimination were more likely to have been involved with the justice system as a result of school discipline. According to the GLSEN report Educational Exclusion: Drop Out, Push Out, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline among LGBTQ Youth, the likelihood of this involvement was five times higher for LGBTQ students experiencing homelessness than for those who lived with a parent or guardian.
LGBTQ students, especially young people of color, need resources, positive interventions, and behavioral support to perform well and feel safe.
We need police-free schools.
LGBTQ people of color live intersectional lives. Intersectionality, however, is more than words on paper or streets being painted with Black Lives Matter. It’s not just an identity or political buzzword, but also a politic unto itself. That’s why I think back to the night I was robbed often. I was forced to reconcile accountability. I was forced to think about whether punishment worked for behavioral change. It doesn’t.
Abolition is the ultimate goal; defunding will free the necessary funds to invest in many vital things that will curb violence before it occurs. It is now my obligation to ensure that others know police and prisons don’t have to be our option. There are unarmed mediation and intervention teams, the decriminalization of crimes of poverty and survival, transformative and restorative justice, community accountability, and real mental healthcare services.
We must start by understanding we don’t need cops in the first place, but rather we need community.
Preston Mitchum is the Director of Policy with URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity. URGE is a multistate reproductive justice organization powered by young people in the South and Midwest. He is also an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center instructing on LGBTQ Health Law and Policy.