The last four weeks have been awash with bullets, blood, and tears in America. From the killing of 49 mostly LGBT Latinos/as at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, to the slaughter of apparently innocent young Black men at the hands of police, to the assassination of five police officers by a deranged sniper at an otherwise peaceful protest in Dallas — the last month has left us collectively in shock, in despair, and yearning to make sense of it all.
There are some common threads that stitch together all of the recent distressing events into valuable lessons that, if heeded, will pave our path forward.
We need much more sensible regulation of gun possession and use, including the return of the assault weapons ban. We need clearer and more reasonable standards for the application of lethal force by police — standards that permit the use of deadly force only when absolutely necessary to protect the life of the officer or others nearby. We need more technologically advanced police tools that incapacitate but do not annihilate. And we need consistent and enforceable nationwide training for police serving communities of color.
Our diversity as a nation is our biggest strength, but also at times our biggest challenge. We must learn, as Americans, to understand and appreciate one another better. To bridge our differences with what we share. To eradicate hate with hope and compassion. And, most especially, to recognize that at times we perceive difference and distance where, in reality, there only is unity and shared experience.
In the wake of the suspicious and troubling police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, tweeted: “Just as @NAACP stood w/ us after Orlando, we stand w/ them in demanding accountability for the murders of #AltonSterling & #PhilandoCastile.”
This was a strong statement of solidarity with the NAACP coming from the leader of the most visible organization in the nation promoting equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. It was an especially welcome expression of fellowship in light of the American LGBT rights movement’s longtime struggle to recognize and embrace the racial, ethnic, and other forms of diversity that helped fuel it since its inception.
As laudable as it was, Mr. Griffin’s message still communicated a distance — a separation — that does not in reality exist between African Americans and LGBT Americans. We are standing with them “just as” they stood with us? They are Black. We are… what? Not Black? Huh?
Of course, the truth is that there is no such separation. There are countless Black people, including fierce straight allies, in the LGBT movement, and there are many LGBT people in the racial justice movement — including at the helm of Black Lives Matter and related initiatives. LGBT African Americans abound. The LGBT community reflects the rainbow. The rainbow flag, in fact, is a fitting symbol of our motley movement.
Perhaps recognizing the apparently inadvertent “Black v. LGBT” distancing in his earlier tweet, Mr. Griffin later tweeted, perfectly: “The LGBTQ community is as diverse as the fabric of our nation. And violence aimed at any of us is violence aimed at all of us.” Yes.
“Not Isolated Incidents”
The smartphone videos capturing some of the final moments of the lives of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have generated nationwide outrage. The videos themselves, as well as the accounts of witnesses, strongly suggest that the police killings of both men were unjustified. Investigations are underway and the public awaits the full details of both killings, but from the abundant evidence now on public view it appears that neither man posed a threat to the lives of the respective police officers, neither man brandished a weapon, and neither man deserved to die. Worse yet, as President Obama himself recognized on July 7th, “these fatal shootings are not isolated incidents” but “symptomatic of the broader challenges within our criminal justice system, the racial disparities that appear across the system year after year, and the resulting lack of trust that exists between law enforcement and too many of the communities they serve.”
The statistics are sobering. A 2015 Guardian study found that the “rate of police-involved deaths” for young African-American males “was five times higher than for white men of the same age.” The same report noted that approximately a quarter of the Black people killed by police were not armed (in contrast to only 17 percent of whites). And these are just the extreme cases. Late last year, the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture released a study documenting that well over half of African-American young people reported being the target of police harassment or abuse or knowing someone who had been the victim of such racist policing.
The evidence is indisputable that the relationship between the American law enforcement community and African Americans is fundamentally more troubled, and of an entirely different nature, than the relationships between police and the other communities they serve. Whereas many Americans view police as sources of safety, security, and comfort, many African Americans regard police as representing precisely the opposite. Sadly, as shown by the plethora of evidence over so many years, the distrust is not without basis.
Another Symptom of the Same Malaise
African Americans have borne most of the brunt of police brutality. But abusive policing is not alien to the LGBT community generally. LGBT Americans of all races have long been harassed and brutalized by bigoted police. It was police raids like those at L.A.’s Cooper’s Donuts in 1959 and the Stonewall Inn in 1969, in fact, that helped accelerate the movement for LGBT rights. At a time when it was against the law to serve alcoholic drinks to gay people, or for gay people to dance — never mind have sex — with one another, gay social establishments across the country were easy and frequent targets for police harassment. Not coincidentally, these catalytic events in the LGBT movement occurred in the midst of similarly influential events in the African-American civil rights movement.
Before the Supreme Court invalidated sodomy laws as unconstitutional in its 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision, states were able to criminalize homosexual sex and, as a consequence, gay identity. Many did, leading to the categorical mistreatment of LGBT Americans by police as a “criminal” element, even in those jurisdictions without an enforceable sodomy law on the books.
Police harassment and abuse of LGBT people, but especially Black and Latino/a LGBTs, persists as a prevalent problem. In a March 2015 report, UCLA’s Williams Institute concluded that “[d]iscrimination and harassment by law enforcement based on sexual orientation and gender identity is an ongoing and pervasive problem in LGBT communities” and that “such harassment and discrimination is greatest for LGBT people of color, transgender persons and youth.”
Even after Lawrence struck them down as categorically unconstitutional, the continuing presence of sodomy laws in many state criminal codes has encouraged homophobic and transphobic police officers to harass and abuse LGBT people across the nation today — going so far as arresting and subjecting gay and transgender people to expensive, degrading, and pointless legal proceedings.
As Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie and Kay Whitlock document in their book, Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States (Beacon Press, 2012), LGBT Americans have been the victims of abusive policing in many areas of our lives. From “lewd conduct” arrests following police entrapments, to the harassment of gender-nonconforming LGB or transgender people for using the “incorrect” bathroom or wearing “gender-inappropriate” clothing. From abusive policing of transgender women for “walking while trans,” to the rape of LGBT sex workers by police officers themselves, and, ultimately, to the killing of trans people at the hands of police – even, in the case of a disabled transgender man, as recently as February 2016.
“Dignity and Respect” for All
So, we are reminded that racist police brutality indeed is an LGBT movement issue, both because many members of our community are Black and brown and because the LGBT community as a whole, too, knows the trauma of abusive policing. In an Op-Ed last year entitled “It’s Time for All LGBT People to Care About Police Brutality,” Black LGBT activist Samantha Master wrote: “The pursuit of justice is not complete until every human being — regardless of who they are — is treated with dignity and respect.” She’s right. In a separate piece, Esperanza Garcia and Ty Brooks wrote: “It’s time for all of us to honor the LGBT community’s own rich legacy of protest and resistance against police brutality.” I agree.
The young Black men who have died at the hands of police most recently appear not to have been members of the LGBT community. But their deaths hit home to many of us who also have been the targets of prejudiced policing. Racist policing threatens all Americans who have been at the brunt of brutality and bigotry in law enforcement. It is another manifestation of the same disorder — another symptom of the same malaise.
Racist police brutality threatens all Americans, regardless of race and sexual orientation and gender identity, who depend on a fair and evenhanded police force to keep, promote and model peace. It throws into question the legitimacy of our legal system. It desecrates our social compact. It endangers our very civilization as a people. And we must put an end to it. Together, and now.