The brutal assault on Crissy Lee Polis in a Maryland McDonald's has led to a long and sustained conversation here and elsewhere about how best to seek solutions to the ongoing problem of harassment and violence inflicted upon trans and queer-identified folk.
The immediate response from many in the LGBTQ community has been to demand that this be treated as a hate crime. Equality Maryland has already made a public statement to that effect, and Polis herself has insisted that it is one.
There can be no doubt as to the viciousness of the crime, but is using the mechanism of hate crimes legislation really the answer to preventing such incidents? I've written, in various pieces on The Bilerico Project and elsewhere about the dangers of hate crimes legislation (HCL), and the new book, Queering (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States details the many problems with HCL. Among them: the prison industrial complex already unfairly targets people of color, queer, and gender-non-conforming people for incarceration. Those picked up via HCL are disproportionately people of color and economically disenfranchised. Furthermore, hate crimes legislation does little to nothing to actually discourage crime.
Two groups I work closely with, Against Equality and Gender JUST, have always had strong statements against HCL. At AE, we believe that "...measures like hate crimes legislation and the increased policing of 'our' neighborhoods puts the most vulnerable among us in jail for perpetuity, and it makes the oppressive structures of prison a more insidious part of our lives instead of dismantling them." Gender JUST believes "in community alternatives to hate crimes legislation and opposes all policies which rely on the Prison Industrial Complex, which is inherently racist and heterosexist."
Several other organizations have been or are coming out against HCL. A recent Colorlines piece by Jamila King, titled "Weighing Solutions to Hate Crime After Brutal Baltimore Attack," is about the Sylvia Rivera Law Project's stance on HCL.
Here in Chicago, the Transformative Justice Law Project clearly declares itself an organization devoted to prison abolition and transformative justice, along with gender self-determination. The first two positions in particular are antithetical to the principles of HCL.
In New York, the Audre Lorde Project did not support the 2009 Gender Employment Non-Discrimination Act because it contained an attachment to HCL and said as much in a widely circulated letter on the issue, co-signed by Queers for Economic Justice, SRLP, FIERCE, and The Peter Cicchino Youth Project.
Black and Pink released a compilation of critiques of HCL which is an especially useful reminder of the problems with assuming that the prison industrial complex can actually be of any help to those already most violently affected by it.
Every one of these groups works with and includes gender non-conforming, trans, and/or queer people, and fully understands the extent of the violence to its members, so it's especially significant that they have taken such strong positions on the matter. On the streets of cities like Chicago or in small-town USA, queer and gender-non-conforming people without the economic safety nets and invisibility granted by middle or upper class status are the most likely to be targeted by the PIC for made-up crimes like "loitering," and "intent." As Queer (In)Justice amply demonstrates, when it's the word of a person of color against a white gay man in a "hate crime," the POC is the one most likely to be charged and indicted. Why should we queers trust that such a deeply racist and classist system will actually be of any help to us?
The violence against Polis was a hateful, vicious, and brutal crime for which there can be no excuse. But there are already legal remedies in place for such crimes: there are punishments for brutality and for murder. To assume that extended penalties and/or the death penalty - often invoked as a threat, often a punishment that can come directly into play in such cases - will end violence is to assume that its perpetrators have some kind of narrative in place as they set about maiming and killing us.
Instead, it makes more sense to come to terms with a difficult fact: that the hatred against queer and gender-non-conforming people which incites such brutality is about a deep-seated hatred of the overturning of codes and performances to which people are strangely and deeply cathected, and it's a hatred that flares up without meaning or the comfort of narrative and deep-seated intention. It's true that kind of hatred sometimes becomes an excuse for violence: "I was so deeply disturbed that I couldn't help but beat/kill him/her."
But HCL only presents a way for us to forget that the senseless violence of which we are constantly made aware is exactly that: senseless and brutal. In the end, HCL grants us nothing more than the cold comfort of extended prison sentences or death - in effect, extending the very violence that we claim to abhor.
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