Who Cares About Islan Nettles?

3.4.2014

By Tim Murphy

What happens when a young trans woman is murdered in the street, opposite a police station?

A young man, 20-year-old Paris Wilson, was immediately arrested for the attack and released on $2,000 bail. The crime was initially classified as assault, a misdemeanor. That charge was dropped in November, even as authorities said they were still investigating the beating as a possible homicide and hate crime.

Since then, there have been few announcements from authorities on the case, although in private visits, they have told trans activists they are aggressively pursuing it. In an off-the-record call, a DA’s office staffer told me that much of the community’s story about the attack and the police’s mishandling of the case is inaccurate. For example, the staffer said, it appeared that the attacker had not beaten Nettles repeatedly but had struck her once, hard enough for her to fall down and incur a concussion on the sidewalk.

The staffer also told me that the DA’s office was pursuing the case every day, but that bringing someone to trial depended largely upon certain witnesses — with whom the DA has met — being willing to surrender more information.

But that Thursday in late January, trans activists and their cisgender (where one’s experience of gender aligns with their born sex) allies from groups such as ACT UP were out to demand that investigators bring them up to date. Passing around a large red megaphone, they shouted questions at the cops: Why did it appear they had not taken a DNA sample from Wilson at the scene of crime, though they reportedly had to pull him off of Nettles? (The DA staffer told me that there was no blood on Wilson’s knuckles.) Why weren’t all witnesses detained and questioned? Why was there no police follow-up on Nettles while she was in the hospital? Why had no footage of the crime surfaced, even though it had occurred across from a police station covered in security cameras?

“Why didn’t a detective come to the hospital?” demanded Delores Nettles, Islan’s mother, through the megaphone. “A social worker there had to call the DA’s office. I said to them, ‘Half of my child’s brain is hanging out of her head and you can’t tell me anything?’ ”

Yet, at the rally, beneath the demand for answers about Islan Nettles, was a deeper anger. As Mock put it to me when the rally was breaking up, “[The death of ] Islan isn’t the first death of a transgender woman of color, and she’s not going to be the last. I’m at risk every day myself just walking the streets of New York City. We all are.”

STAGGERING STATISTICS

Mock is right. Tragically, the statistics backing her statement are staggering: According to a report last year from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, which tracks and fights attacks on LGBTQ people, half of all fatal hate crimes committed in the United States in 2012 against LGBTQ people were against transgender women, and 73% of all homicides were of people of color. The same report found that transgender women of color were dramatically more likely to experience police violence or discrimination. According to the group Transgender Day of Remembrance, there have been 85 murders of transgender people in the United States between 2008 and 2013. And those are just the reported cases.

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