At the rally for Black transgender lives, protesters stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a sea of white. They listened, and the air in front of Brooklyn Museum — which is just one of the many locations this silent protest took place — was palpably filled with pride.
But the massive display of unity came after multiple tragedies in the past week among the Black and LGBTQ+ communities. Following the killings of Black trans women Dominique "Rem'Mie" Fells, 27, in Philadelphia, and Riah Milton, 25, in Cincinnati, Ohio, last week, protests kicked off nationwide in the name of validating the sanctity of Black trans lives. In a nod to the NAACP-led Silent Protest Parade held in New York in 1917, protesters dressed all in white and were encouraged to stay silent throughout.
After weeks of raucous skirmishes with police, during which responding officers unleashed rubber bullets and tear gas and utilized other markedly violent tactics to quell protesters, the solemnity of the massive crowds took on an almost religious quality. And, the rally to protect Black trans lives was an organic one — void of corporate sponsorships and completely mission-oriented.
In Los Angeles, an estimated 25,000 protesters marched through Hollywood during to honor the life of Tony McDade, a black transgender man killed by a Tallahassee police officer last week. In Chicago, participants in the “Drag March for Change” demanded that violence against transgender individuals be reclassified as hate crimes. And in Boston, thousands of the assembled chanted "no justice, no peace, no anti-trans violence on our streets" as they marched.
"We know that Black people are vulnerable — especially vulnerable in this society — and especially trans folks and trans black folks," Boston protester Khery Petersen-Smith told WCVB. "So I think it's important we all show up and build solidarity."
In New York, an estimated 15,000 people thronged the streets around the Brooklyn Museum, blinking in the June sunlight as they jockeyed to get a better view of speaker Melania Brown. The sister of Layleen Polanco — the trans woman found dead of a seizure in her isolation cell on Rikers Island last year after corrections officers failed to check on her for approximately an hour and a half — Brown told attendees that the rallies were a pivotal moment for justice.
"Every time they knock one of us down, we come back stronger," Brown said. "We're here, and they've got to make room for us. And if they don't, we're taking it."
Chillingly powerful speech by Layleen Polanco’s sister Melania Brown demanding #JusticeForLayleen and insisting that #BlackTransLivesMatter.— Brad Lander (@bradlander) June 14, 2020
“Everytime they knock one of us down, we come back stronger. We’re all we got.” pic.twitter.com/R15nwXQUIg
The civil rights movement and its goal of Black freedom has always been intrinsically bound to the project of queer liberation, Jonathan Borge recently wrote for Refinery29; that these nationwide protests for Black trans lives should be happening in June — during Pride Month and weeks into the racial insurrection inspired by the deaths of George Floyd and others — makes that overlap explicit. In an essay for NBC Think, American activist Tiq Milan wrote that for Black LGBTQ+ people, race and gender equality have always gone hand in hand — and during this moment, there can be no hierarchies in the fight for justice.
"We can’t pick only one kind of justice because to examine them both is too complicated or makes some us look at our own complacency," Milan wrote. "Transphobia and sexism are part of white supremacy, and so it all must go."