NEW YORK — Kei Williams is no stranger to protesting. Since the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Mo., Williams has marched for Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and most recently, George Floyd. But on May 27, when police shot and killed Tony McDade, a 38-year-old black transgender man in Tallahassee, the news hit Williams differently.
“It was the first time as a movement organizer I actually saw myself in a victim,” Williams said. “I am a black transmasculine person seeing a black transmasculine person gunned down, who has dreadlocks just like me, who looks just like me, who I feel is just like me.”
McDade’s death is believed to be the 12th violent death of a transgender or gender nonconforming person in the United States this year. 2018 saw 26 such deaths. So did 2019. In 2013, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported that transgender people of color were six times more likely to experience physical violence from the police compared to white cisgender people.
Williams is a founding member of the Black Lives Matter global network and a national organizer at the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, named for the transgender activist who played a vital role in the Stonewall riots. After noting the growing number of protests in honor of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this week, Williams joined a network of black transgender activists in New York City to organize a rally and march in honor of the black trans people who have died from police or interpersonal violence.
On Tuesday — the second day of Pride Month — a few thousand demonstrators gathered outside the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, where 51 years ago historic protests sparked the gay rights movement.
They were there to call for justice for McDade, as well as Nina Pop, Monika Diamond and other transgender lives lost to violence this year. Diamond, a 34-year-old black transgender woman and business owner was killed while medics where trying to keep her alive after responding to a call about a disturbance in March. On May 3, Pop was found dead in her apartment after being stabbed.
Speakers, including lead organizer TS Candii of Black Trans News and Decrim NY, honored the memories of black trans people recently killed while also calling for New York to defund the New York Police Department and redistribute its funds to community initiatives.
Then, Candii called for black and brown trans people in the crowd to come forward and lead the march from Greenwich Village to Union Square.
It was an act of “reclaiming the spirit of Pride, it’s a reclaiming of that revolutionary spirit that our ancestors had, that said not only are we going to protest, but we’re also going to build,” said Williams, noting that especially at 2019′s 50th anniversary celebrations of the historic Stonewall protests, there was a “a hyper-commercialization and capitalizing off the Pride movement.”
Sasha Alexander, founder and co-director of Black Trans Media, agreed, citing a long history of “rainbow capitalism” in the Pride movement.
In reports around McDade and Diamond’s deaths, both were frequently misgendered. “I have been to many funerals and events mourning trans people and witnessed family members and media misgender and misname the person,” Alexander said. “Each of us feels like it’s our own memorial.”
“What happens is that black trans people are erased and made invisible in society, but then we actually disappear in our deaths,” Williams said.
Last year, long before the World Health Organization would label covid-19 a pandemic, the American Medical Association described the violence against transgender people as an “epidemic,” noting that fatal anti-transgender violence is on the rise in the United States and that most victims are black trans women.
LGBTQ and black advocacy groups have launched initiatives to care for members of the black trans community who may be feeling especially traumatized amid recent violence and an unprecedented global emergency.
As the march arrived at Union Square, an hour before the city’s newly instated curfew would go into effect, Candii couldn’t help but look at the crowd spilling out of the square and down Broadway with joy.
“I was in disbelief of the power that we didn’t know that we actually had.”