Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers arrested a transgender woman on Wednesday evening during a protest in which a number of transgender women and their allies blocked a major intersection in the District’s Columbia Heights neighborhood.
In an ironic twist, organizers said they held the demonstration in part to call attention to mistreatment of transgender individuals, particularly at the hands of law enforcement.
The protest was one of several actions planned during Transgender Awareness Week, in the run-up to the Transgender Day of Remembrance, the annual event held on Nov. 20 that commemorates individuals lost to anti-transgender violence.
Video taken by the National LGBTQ Task Force shows transgender woman Jes Grobman, one of the co-organizers of the event who is affiliated with DC Trans Power, being yanked forward and dragged away, first by one and then two officers, pressed up against a police car, handcuffed, and escorted away. Witnesses say that just prior to the video being shot, the arresting officer had pushed Grobman.
Alexa Rodriguez, co-director of the D.C. chapter of the Translatina Coalition, which had planned Wednesday’s demonstration in coalition with several other transgender groups, says that the protest had initially started at the Columbia Heights Metro Station Plaza. But problems began when the protesters “took the street,” standing in the middle of and blocking traffic at the intersection of 14th and Irving Streets NW.
“We were chanting and screaming, ‘Trans Lives Matter,'” recounts Rodriguez. “This [policeman] was trying to have a space to let the cars go through, and we were trying not to, because it’s our right, and then he pushed her.”
Rodriguez says that the officer told the group, “If you don’t move, I’m going to arrest you,” but did not direct it to any specific person, including to Grobman. She adds that the officer also failed to issue three warnings in a row, spaced five minutes apart, before moving to make an arrest, which is typical practice for MPD officers.
“It’s sad, because now she’s in jail by herself, and she’s going to have to spend the night,” says Rodriguez. “And that’s something that is not right.”
Rodriguez also notes that the intersection was shut down for less than 20 minutes, meaning that relatively few people were inconvenienced by the traffic obstruction.
“I believe we sent a message, and we were heard, and actually, with the actions of the police, it made clear why we do this,” she says. “Because of the injustice from the police, the injustice from society. So we are just speaking our truth, that we are being treated unjustly, and without dignity or respect.”
Ilane Najib says she was next to Grobman when the altercation with the officer happened.
“I was standing by her when the police officer pushed her, because he said she was blocking the street. As we understand it, she has the right, as do all of us, to be standing there,” Najib says, noting that 10 or more people acting as part of a protest can spread themselves across a road in order to block traffic. “He should have given her a warning, as all of us should have received a warning, because we were all blocking the street.
“We were all standing there, and he started saying that we couldn’t be there blocking the street,” adds Najib. “Then she said that we have the right to be there protesting, and that’s when he pushed her. He put two hands on her chest and pushed her. She staggered back. We said, ‘This is wrong. He just pushed her.’ And then he went again on top of her to attack her.”
Cindy Marte, who is shown in part of the Task Force video, and Anna Persmark were also standing next to Grobman when she was arrested. According to Persmark, it was the officer who first physically assaulted Grobman.
“He pushed her into me,” Persmark says.
Marte says there was no verbal escalation started by Grobman, either.
“The only thing she was saying was, ‘This is my right. I have a right to be here. You can’t assault me. You didn’t give me a warning,'” says Marte. “Because he said, ‘I’m going to put you under arrest,’ and she said, ‘You haven’t given me a warning. I know my rights. I know my rights in D.C.’ That’s the only thing she was saying. He was just saying ‘ Oh, no, you’re going under arrest.'”
Both Marte and Najib said they asked the officer for his name and badge number, which he refused to do. Later, when MPD Sgt. Jessica Hawkins, who is transgender, arrived on the scene, Najib says Hawkins told the group that it is the policy of the city to have police issue three separate warnings before pushing, arresting, or touching anyone. Najib and Marte also say that department policy is that police are supposed to give their name and badge number when asked by a civilian.
Following Grobman’s arrest, some demonstrators called Ruby Corado, a local transgender activist and co-founder and executive director of the LGBT comunity center and nonprofit Casa Ruby. After arriving on scene, Corado led about 15 to 20 people into the street to block 14th St.
Holding signs and banners, the demonstrators chanted at intervals while Corado denounced the police treatment of Grobman. She also criticized MPD Chief Cathy Lanier and Mayor Muriel Bowser for failing to adopt policies that don’t criminalize transgender people.
“You may take our freedom for one day. But you will not silence a community that is tired of the abuse,” Corado yelled over a microphone. “We’re tired of being oppressed. D.C. Jail is not to incarcerate people that don’t have opportunities. We are not criminals. You took one of our main organizers, simply because you didn’t want us to speak out. Shame on you! You’re supposed to protect us. And you want us to stand silent? It is not going to happen!”
“This is the exact reason why we’re here,” Corado said after the crowd had dispersed. “The police actually intimidate our people. So it really doesn’t matter. It’s not like we are burning cars. We’re speaking out, and everybody has the right to do that. The city is supposed to be sensitized. This is the week of Transgender Awareness. If they really knew what they were doing, they should know that these things are going to happen.”
Kayley Whalen, the digital strategies and social media manager for the National LGBTQ Task Force, was on scene and filmed the video of Grobman’s arrest. She says she and others from the Task Force had attended the demonstration to call attention to the violence against transgender people, including the killings of 22 transgender and gender non-conforming people — many of them black and Latina — during the past 11 months.
Whalen also says the Task Force was also there to raise awareness as part of a national day of action aimed at ending the detention and deportation of transgender immigrants, who are ten times more likely to be sexually assaulted in detention than other immigrants. Many of those involved in the Columbia Heights demonstration were Latina transgender women.
“We have witnesses saying that the woman was pushed. And the police are disputing that account,” Whalen says of Grobman’s arrest. “I was able to record some of it, and witness some of it. But it does not seem that the police followed the code they should be doing with a peaceful protest.
“I think this really illustrates why nearly half of all trans people are afraid of going to the police for help,” she adds, “and the really serious reforms that we need to have that actually trans people can trust, that police aren’t going to profile them, arrest them, brutalize them, sexually assault them at extremely high rates. If we’re going to trust that law enforcement isn’t going to profile trans people as criminals, we might be less afraid of going to the police for help. But today really illustrates that there’s a wide gap between what the police should be doing to protect our lives, and how they’re actually doing things that harm transgender lives.”
A similar protest yesterday evening happened without incident.
A spokesman for MPD was not immediately available for comment.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct name of the lead organization planning the demonstration. The organization’s correct name is the Translatina Coalition, D.C. Chapter, which is part of the National Translatina Coalition.
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