Metro Weekly

D.C.’s Transgender Day of Remembrance service protested over police presence

Ashley Love stormed the stage, outraged that armed MPD officers were at an event to honor slain transgender people

Ashley Love and Earline Budd in a heated exchange at TDOR – Photo: Ward Morrison

A local D.C. woman disrupted a memorial service for Transgender Day of Remembrance on Monday, storming the stage to object to the presence of police officers.

The service, held at Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, D.C. on Monday evening, honored those transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals who lost their lives over the past year to violence, primarily motivated by anti-trans bias or prejudice.

Ashley Love, an journalist, advocate and volunteer with the Black Trans* Women’s Lives Matter campaign, who identifies as intersex and transsexual, felt triggered by the invitation to Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham to speak, and by the presence of dozens of police officers, who were armed with guns, while inside the church. She objected to them attending an event honoring deceased transgender people.

Once on stage, Love grabbed a microphone from Rev. Elder Dwayne Johnson, the pastor of MCC DC, and demanded that Newsham be forced to leave.

Organizers tried to quiet Love, but she insisted that allowing Newsham to speak was disrespectful, given the MPD’s at-times strained relations with some members of the transgender community.

A few dozen among an audience of more than 200 applauded Love’s statements. Newsham then left the stage so as not to disrupt the service any further. Love eventually returned to her seat, occasionally objecting when speakers praised MPD for its outreach efforts to the transgender community.

Earline Budd, a longtime activist and one of the chief organizers of the service, took the podium and pushed back against Love’s claims, arguing that MPD has acted in good faith to try and foster better relationships with the community.

Kayley Whalen with Budd – Photo: Ward Morrison

After a heated verbal exchange with Love, Budd nearly passed out and was briefly escorted to an ambulance in the parking lot. Budd later returned, in much better spirits, and told Metro Weekly that she had been monitored for a brief spike in her blood pressure and high sugar levels.

After the service concluded, Budd expressed regret that Newsham was not given a chance to speak, as she had originally intended.

“I’m going to have to find another platform and way for him to [speak],” she said. “He came because we wanted to hold him accountable, to give us an update on what is happening with these cold cases, these cases where family members have not heard absolutely anything about what’s going on with the murder of their loved ones. And, actually, I was told he was prepared to speak to that. But he did not get a chance because someone else felt like he shouldn’t speak.”

Asked about the divisions in the community that were highlighted by her exchange with Love, Budd maintained that the majority of those in attendance felt that the Transgender Day of Remembrance service was not the place to air grievances against the police.

“This was a solemn event to commemorate those that lost their lives,” Budd said. “It turned into a little fiasco for a moment. But I think, at the end of the day, it turned out to be a successful event because a lot of the transgender women were not the ones speaking out. It was a minority, small group of individuals who came here to disrupt this event. But we have to come together and learn that we’re one, and until we come together, we can’t do anything to affect change.”

While police have typically been invited to participate in D.C.’s celebration of Transgender Day of Remembrance, Love’s actions gave voice to some transgender people who quietly acknowledge their discomfort with the presence of police at an event to honor slain transgender individuals.

Those feelings were exacerbated by three police-involved shootings in 2017: Kiwi Herring, of St. Louis, Mo.; Sean Hake, of Sharon, Pa.; and Scout Shultz, a Maryland native killed on the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Love – Photo: Ward Morrison

Other trans activists pointed to recent incidents where police have been accused of mistreating or using excessive force on transgender people. Most notably, MPD and the District of Columbia settled a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union objecting to the 2016 warrantless arrest of Lourdes Ashley Hunter, the executive director of the TransWomen of Color Collective, in her apartment over a misdemeanor noise complaint.

Hunter, who gave a keynote address at the 2017 Solutions to Wellness Conference awards ceremony on Sunday, said that she would not attend the Transgender Day of Remembrance celebration specifically because of the invitation extended to Newsham and the rest of the MPD, as well as what she called the “co-opting” of the event by cisgender individuals and for-profit LGBTQ institutions.

“MPD has a history of violence against trans women in Washington, D.C.,” Hunter said in an early morning interview the next day. “More specifically, Chief Newsham is the one who set up prostitution stings and is pushing for harsher criminalization of sex workers in Washington, D.C., who particularly happen to be trans women of color.

“TDOR is a healing event, it’s a sacred event to honor the deaths of trans people and to celebrate the lives of trans people and the trans movement. So extending an invitation to a known abuser, to an entity that continues to not have favorable relationships with trans community members, is a slap in the face. It’s blasphemous to have the police chief on the stage in the same year that they settled a case for dragging a black trans woman out of her own home,” she said, referring to her own lawsuit against MPD.

“This is not an event for politics,” she added. “TDOR has become this photo opportunity for D.C. politicals to act as if they care about trans people, not even realizing the violence, death, discrimination, harassment, and poverty that we experience right here in the District.”

Love echoed those concerns.

“In 2017 alone three trans people were killed by police — Kiwi Herring, Sean Hake and Scout Shultz, and the D.C. Police paid a $40,000 settlement to the ACLU after unjustly arresting trans woman Lourdes Hunter,” Love said via email, “so for the D.C. Police to then usurp the sacred TDOR, despite the objections of most trans people of color, is both inappropriate and traumatizing and why the crowd applauded Chief Newsham being asked to vacate our ceremony’s stage and not speak….[F]olks came for a vigil, not a cop press conference or political charade, but to actually pay homage to lives stolen by violence, including trans people killed by those in uniform.”

At Budd’s request, the service continued as she was outside the church recovering. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Councilmember David Grosso (I-At-Large) presented organizers with official city declarations recognizing Nov. 20 as the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Later, trans activist Shereese Mone presented Grosso with a T-shirt reading “Trans at Heart” for his efforts to push pro-transgender legislation, including a bill to decriminalize sex work, a key piece of legislation for those transgender people forced into survival sex.

Family members of some of the transgender women slain in recent years addressed the crowd and expressed their appreciation for the support they had received from the LGBTQ community, transgender activists, political leaders, and even the police department.

Love (right), with Judean Jones (center) – Photo: Ward Morrison

Alvin Bethea and Judean Jones, the parents of murder victim Deoni Jones, attempted to brighten the mood of the service from one of somber reflection to the celebration of the lives of the deceased, leading those assembled in a sing-along to the gospel tune “Rough Side of the Mountain” and Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.”

At least 25 transgender people have been killed so far in the United States in 2017, meaning that the number of deaths is on pace to meet or exceed the 27 recorded deaths in 2016. Activists have pointed out that the number of deaths may be even higher, as some people’s transgender status may have been kept quiet by family members or friends after their passing.

While there were no reported murders of transgender people in D.C. in 2017, the D.C. metropolitan area has not been immune to the uptick in anti-transgender violence — including the killings of Jones in 2012,  Zella Ziona in Gaithersburg in 2015, and Deeniquia “Dee Dee” Dodds in Southeast D.C., and Keyonna Blakeney in Rockville in 2016.

Additionally, many in the local transgender community were horrified or traumatized by the acquittal of the man suspected of killing Jones in August, and the recent guilty plea of a 19-year-old D.C. man who admitted he intentionally hit transgender woman Boo Boo Washington with his car on July 5, putting her on a respirator for a couple of weeks before she eventually regained consciousness.

Rev. Abena McCray (rear) and Love – Photo: Ward Morrison

For Budd, the importance of holding the TDOR event is that it serves as catharsis for a community that is under attack, not only from physical violence, but from government officials, particularly under the Trump administration.

“This event sends a clear message that we will not be silent,” Budd said to Metro Weekly. “It gives us the opportunity to remember those women who have fallen due to hatred and transphobia. I put my life into this, wanting to see it be successful. But it’s more about the families and the individuals who are survivors of violence, to give them a platform to speak, and to heal.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com