Rainbow-Washing’s True Colors
Rainbow-Washing’s True Colors

Abolition for the People

The Queer and Trans Fight for Liberation — and Abolition

LGBTQ activists have a long history of protesting against the violence of police and prisons

This article is part of Abolition for the People, a series brought to you by a partnership between Kaepernick Publishing and LEVEL, a Medium publication for and about the lives of Black and Brown men. The series, which comprises 30 essays and conversations over four weeks, points to the crucial conclusion that policing and prisons are not solutions for the issues and people the state deems social problems — and calls for a future that puts justice and the needs of the community first.

In recent years, more and more police departments have rolled out rainbow-painted cop cars for Pride, “Safe Place” campaigns with rainbow cop-shield stickers, and other messaging that portrays cops as pro-LGBT. Is this progress? Are the police a positive force for queer and trans well-being?

Queer and trans activists have a long history of protesting against police violence. In fact, annual Pride celebrations mark the anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion: In June 1969, at a bar called the Stonewall Inn in New York City, queer and trans people fought back against the ongoing violence they faced at the hands of the police. For a long time, queer and trans people, especially Black and Indigenous people and other people of color, have been some of the leading activists in movements for police and prison abolition (think of Angela Davis, Miss Major, Andrea Ritchie, adrienne maree brown, Mia Mingus, Alisa Bierria, Angélica Cházaro, Tourmaline, and Beth Richie).

In the half-century since Stonewall, much has changed for queer and trans people. Social norms, media representations, and some laws have reduced the stigma associated with our communities. However, poverty, housing insecurity, discrimination, and violence are all still a reality for queer and trans people, especially trans people of color, queer and trans immigrants, and queer and trans people with disabilities. Unfortunately, police harassment and violence, as well as brutal violence in prisons, jails, and detention centers, remain a central source of harm for queer and trans people.

For these reasons, many queer and trans activists have rightfully pushed back on law enforcement’s new pro-LGBT branding. Grand marshals and awardees at Pride celebrations have withdrawn in opposition to police participation at Pride. Protesters have blocked police contingents and created alternative events rejecting the idea that police are LGBT-friendly and should be part of Pride celebrations. The fight over whether police belong in the annual celebrations that mark the anniversary of fighting back against the NYPD at Stonewall are but a sliver of the broader work queer and trans people are doing to abolish police, prisons, and borders.

We are abolitionists because we know it is not a broken system that needs to be fixed — it is a system operating exactly as it was designed to operate and hurting the people it has always hurt, and it needs to be dismantled.

Why is abolition so important to queer and trans resistance, and why have queer and trans people and communities been leaders and visionaries in the fight for abolition? First, because queer and trans people have been and remain targets of the police. Forty-eight percent of LGBTQ people responding to the National Crime Victimization Survey report experiencing police misconduct. Other studies have shown that trans people are nearly four times more likely than cisgender people to experience police violence and seven times more likely to experience physical violence when interacting with the police.

This violence is even more severe and targeted for Black and Latinx trans people. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, 38% of Black trans people report having been harassed by police, and 15% report having been assaulted by police. While 16% of all trans people are involved in underground economies or criminalized work like sex work to survive, 34% of Latinx trans people and 53% of Black trans people are involved — and for these people, police violence levels are even higher. Police profiling and targeting, as well as reduced pathways to citizenship through family due to widespread family rejection, means that queer and trans migrants are more likely to be undocumented and get swept up in detention and deportation proceedings. In juvenile jails, adult jails and prisons, and immigration prisons, queer and trans prisoners are targeted for violence and have an increased likelihood of solitary confinement. Our communities live with the stories of Tony McDade, Layleen Polanco, Patreese Johnson, Renata Hill, CeCe McDonald, Ky Peterson, Johana Medina Leon, Roxana Hernández, and many others — queer and trans people who have died in ICE custody, were killed by police, or were criminalized for defending themselves.

We don’t trust the police. We fear them.

Second, queer and trans people fight for abolition because we refuse to have our movement for liberation co-opted by law enforcement as a public relations strategy. Hundreds of cities have adopted the police-initiated Safe Place campaign since it was invented in 2014 by Officer Jim Ritter at the East Precinct of the Seattle Police Department (SPD). Ritter created the pro-SPD propaganda campaign four years after Seattle erupted in protests over the police killing of Native woodcarver John T. Williams and three years after the Department of Justice launched an investigation of the SPD that found “systemic use of force violations” and bias. The Safe Place campaign encourages businesses to put a rainbow police-shield sticker in their windows to let anyone fleeing anti-LGBT attacks know that if they come inside, the business will call the cops for them. Like rainbow-painted cop cars, the Safe Place logo takes a symbol of the queer and trans liberation movement—the rainbow flag—and puts it on a police badge to declare that the police are our protectors. But the police are leading perpetrators of violence against queer and trans people, not our protectors. Instead, we want businesses to agree not to call the police as a way to make our communities safer. We don’t want our lives and the violence we experience used to legitimize the police or expand their ever-growing budgets in our names.

The third reason queer and trans resistance is tied up with abolishing prisons, police, and borders is that our movement emerged from and is completely intertwined with movements for racial and economic justice and against colonialism worldwide. The uprising at Stonewall happened in the context of widespread resistance to policing in the United States, and to war and colonialism globally. Queer and trans liberation is inextricable from other leftist liberation movements — feminism, migrant justice, Black liberation, disability justice, and more. All marginalized and targeted groups face not only poverty and housing insecurity, but also police violence and targeted criminalization and deportation. All these movements imagine another world where all people have what they need, no one is exploited to enrich others, and we don’t live with a violent standing army of police endangering our lives and using resources that could be better put toward housing, health care, and childcare.

For decades, we have watched as police budgets and the numbers of people locked up have grown. A 2017 study showed that Oakland spent 41% of the city’s general fund on policing that year — and that Minneapolis spent almost 36%, Houston 35%, and Chicago nearly 39%. Many of us live in cities where more than half the budget goes to policing people, processing them through courts, locking them up, forcing them into electronic monitoring or mandatory services, or other forms of racist control.

Often police and prison expansions have happened in the name of fixing or reforming purportedly “broken” systems. They have hired cops of color, women cops, even LGBT cops. They have added training. They have created countless policies prohibiting police violence. They have created special cages for vulnerable groups. Each reform adds more cops, more cells, or more dollars to a system that is devouring our communities.

We are abolitionists because we know it is not a broken system that needs to be fixed — it is a system operating exactly as it was designed to operate and hurting the people it has always hurt, and it needs to be dismantled. We want to see police, ICE, courts, and cages defunded so that everyone has a safe place to stay, food on the table, and health care. That is entirely achievable, and it is the only pathway to real safety for queer and trans people and everyone.

Dean Spade is author of Normal Life (2015) and Mutual Aid (2020). You can find his writing and videos at deanspade.net.

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