The taste of revolution is undeniably in the air. Black people across the world are continually being subjected to painfully visceral images of our murder and death as they cascade across the internet on what feels like a daily basis.
Collective mourning and grief are, and have been for over 400 years, a condition of black life as a product of the violence of white supremacy. That grief and pain could no longer be contained, and so over the past few days, we have seen it bubble over and escape on to the streets in real-time.
The spark that ignited in Minneapolis, after the brutal murder of George Floyd, has set aflame right around the world. People are no longer just demanding that the police concerned be brought to "justice" – the foundations of the current system are being wholly called in to question as inherently flawed. Police and prison abolition is rising to the centre of the conversation; people are demanding deep and transformative change to the foundations of this system.
Still, when we consider systemic change and new world-building, we must consider the problem that remains – some black lives are still considered more valuable than others. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, another black man was killed violently by the police – his name was Tony McDade.
Tony was a black transgender man; some of you may have heard of him – unfortunately, many of you will have not. He was reportedly shot and killed by a white police officer on 27 May 2020 in Tallahassee Florida.
It is believed that Tony was under great threat, he was reportedly being targeted with violence by five cisgender men on account of his being trans and his death is thought to be the result of trying to defend himself against these brutal hate crimes. Clifford Butler, an eyewitness of the incident, told a local newspaper: “I never heard ‘Get down, freeze, I’m an officer’ – nothing. I just heard gunshots.”
But even after being murdered, Tony was routinely misgendered in the press in what can only be described as a further plunging in of the sharp bullet that took his life. Had social media not rallied behind Tony, the erasure of his transness would have gone unnoticed. I often wonder how many of my trans siblings are denied their humanity and identity just as much in death, as they are in life.
Tony is at least the 12th known transgender/gender non-conforming person to die violently in the United States this year, and the third in the month of May alone, according to the Human Rights Campaign. This is especially concerning when the William Institute has estimated that transgender people make up just 0.6 per cent of the entire US population.
This is an epidemic, trans life – and particularly black trans life – is under attack. Black trans women, especially, are dying at an alarming rate – names like Nina Pop, a Black trans woman who was also murdered last month in the US, need to be screamed from the rooftops with as much vigour as anyone else's. The stories, and of course the fates, of Nina and Tony hold many parallels: While Nina’s aggressor was the one who ended her life and the police took Tony’s, both were victims of brutal hate crimes.
When we are left vulnerable, we die; when we protect ourselves, we are killed. With no recourse to state-sanctioned safeguarding for black people and especially black trans people, our only hope is often to try and protect ourselves.
Tony’s death is, by some, being decried on account that reportedly he was armed, and the fact he had a history of incarceration. White people often require the complete unarmed docility of black people to even begin to consider the idea that our murders were unjust. We must think through what the function of the requirement to be “unarmed” is whejn considering death in police and state custody, the respectability framing delegitimises the value and preservation of our lives. As we all know, many armed white people that have committed mass murder have been left without a scratch from the police.
Nobody is protecting us, and our lives are being routinely put in danger – to be black and trans is to live on the edge of life – knowing at any moment it can be snatched from you. We have no option but to try and protect ourselves and each other, by whatever means necessary, because the world continues to fail us on every front. What it means to be a black cisgender man in the Western world has been conceptualised for years – what it means to be a black trans man/masculine person is an experience many are not ready to acknowledge, and thus are not ready to protect.
Black trans people have changed the passage of time for all of us. There is no revolution if it does not centralise the lives, ideas, and the spirits of black trans folk. We are too often raised up in death and disrespected in life. Black trans women have blazed a path for us all to walk; Marsha P Johnson is not an isolated exceptional case – black trans people are crafting revolutionary visions for this world everywhere.
So, consider in this moment of collective rage and grief how you can better support black trans people. You may well be able to redirect resources, love, and protection to the people that need it the most.
Melz Owusu is a PhD researcher, organiser, consultant, and writer