In 1998, less than a year after I’d begun living fulltime as a woman, I owned an old car which developed a very small leak in the gas tank. The spot of gas the leak left on the ground was tiny, but it was enough to smell it if you came within a dozen yards or so of where it was parked on the street.
One of my neighbors called the cops to complain and they showed up at my door one evening. I told the officers that the car was indeed mine and I needed to get it to a local repair shop. The officers were very pleasant and solicitous. They called me “Ma’am” and offered to follow me to the shop to take me home after dropping off the car. That is, until I was asked to show my driver’s license.
I hadn’t yet been able to legally change my name and gender marker, and it was obvious in the cop’s eyes as he examined my identification what was going to happen next. Suddenly, my car was an immediate threat to public safety and had to be towed and impounded. When I protested, I was threatened with arrest (for what exactly was never made clear). In the end, what would be been a minor inconvenience had my proper name and gender been on that license became a huge, expensive hassle that ended up costing me over a thousand dollars.
This took place in a relatively quiet suburban New Jersey town which at the time was very white, and perhaps that’s why the contrast was so clear. While these cops accepted me as a woman they approached me as a local in need of a little help. Once they realized I was trans, I became a target, an undesirable, someone who needed to be put down and punished.
We’re seeing much the same dynamic play out in the way recent events have been approached and dealt with by law enforcement agencies. In the case of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, there was an extended standoff between law enforcement and armed militia members which eventually ended when law enforcement backed off.
Contrast that with what we’ve seen in Ferguson, Missouri. Cops leading with military equipment and tactics, arresting journalists, even calling citizens exercising their First Amendment right to protest “animals”.
It would be easy to blame all of this on racial tensions in a town with mostly black residents and a mostly white government, a place where just three of the fifty-three police officers are black. It’s also just a little too easy. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes in an op-ed for Time:
“This fist-shaking of everyone’s racial agenda distracts America from the larger issue that the targets of police overreaction are based less on skin color and more on an even worse Ebola-level affliction: being poor. Of course, to many in America, being a person of color is synonymous with being poor, and being poor is synonymous with being a criminal. Ironically, this misperception is true even among the poor.
And that’s how the status quo wants it.”
Even Abdul-Jabbar’s well-reasoned argument doesn’t boil it down enough, though. More than just race, more than just economic status, more than any other single factor it’s about being different. Different from the predominant skin color, different from the economic status of one’s neighbors, different in life choices, just different. It matters far less the actual cause of that difference than the fact of it.
Just as the attitude of the police completely changed toward me when my status in their eyes changed from woman to transsexual, from “one of us” to “one of them”, so too does the attitude of law enforcement change when dealing with those most like themselves versus those who they perceive as outsiders.
Insiders must be understood, respected, and dealt with in a non-violent, non-confrontational manner, even if it’s well-known that many are armed. Outsiders, on the other hand, can be considered agitators and therefore can be confronted with a militarized police force using harsh crowd control tactics like curfews, tear gas, and rubber bullets.
For all of the progress we’ve made and are continuing to make in the fight for LGBT rights and equality, we need to remember this. Don’t remain silent as any cop, politician, or activist tries to argue that someone else’s rights are more urgent or more important than your own.
Remember that what they’re really arguing for is their right to join the oppressor class at your expense.