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Janetta Johnson, program coordinator with the Oakland-based Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project, said she gets especially frightened when men purposefully refer to her as "he" or "sir" or "mister." "That's about the time that somebody is getting ready to attack us. ... It brings up a lot of trauma. They start off by saying you're not who you think you are. That's a big, scary thing."
"I don't think many people understand the degree to which many trans women experience harassment and scrutiny in so many areas of their lives," said Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, which recently relocated to downtown Oakland from San Francisco. "Many gay and lesbian people don't realize how much that [violence] is still happening for trans people."
In the recent case of Fleischman, sixteen-year-old Richard Thomas has been accused of intentionally setting fire to the eighteen-year-old, who was wearing a skirt and who, according to the teenager's family, identifies as neither male nor female but as agender. The alleged violence happened on an AC Transit bus while Fleischman was sleeping.
At Thomas' arraignment, his mother, who identified herself only as Ms. Jackson, told the Express that she didn't know why her son did it. "He is very remorseful. I am so sorry to the victim's family and to the victim." Yet prosecutors have charged Thomas as an adult and with a hate crime because the suspect, according to the criminal complaint, "stated he did it because he was homophobic."
(Hate crime charges are rare in Alameda County. Only four were filed or initiated in 2012 and five in 2011, according to the office of District Attorney Nancy O'Malley, although the specifics on the nature of the alleged biases in the cases weren't readily available.)
"We're dedicated to ensuring that justice is served when these crimes are committed," said Teresa Drenick, spokesperson for O'Malley, regarding the Fleischman case. "And we are equally committed to working with the community on the prevention of such actions."
Sometimes, however, the actions of law enforcement officials can have the opposite impact — with devastating consequences.
Around noon on February 12, 2013, Arthur Moore dropped off groceries at the downtown Berkeley apartment of his adult daughter, Kayla Moore. About twelve hours later, he got a call every parent dreads: His child was dead.
Kayla, 41, was a transgender woman who died during a struggle with Berkeley police inside her apartment. The death of Kayla, who was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, has sparked debates about access to mental health services, police brutality, and law enforcement sensitivity toward LGBT people — especially transgender women of color. Last month, the police watchdog group Berkeley Copwatch, with help from Kayla's sister, Maria Moore, released a report on the incident, in an attempt to analyze what went wrong on the night of February 12. Kayla's family and Copwatch both argue that officers displayed gross insensitivity toward Kayla's transgender identity, as well as negligence in their handling of a mentally ill person. They have recommended that Berkeley police reform its mental health crisis response policies and that the department take disciplinary action against the involved officers.
"She was transgender. She was African American. She was mentally ill. She was the trifecta of everything that the officers did not want in that building," said Maria. Kayla's family is now preparing a wrongful death lawsuit against the Berkeley Police Department.
Berkeley police officials declined to comment on the specifics of the Copwatch report, but according to their own 348-page investigation report, Kayla was pronounced dead an hour-and-a-half after police officers arrived at her apartment, having responded to a call from her concerned roommate. According to the roommate, Kayla was intoxicated, argumentative, and off of her medications. When police officers arrived, Kayla allegedly became agitated and paranoid about their efforts to apprehend her. Police said she became "increasingly aggressive" when an officer told her she would be going to the police department for a warrant stemming from a San Francisco case (that was unconfirmed). During an initial struggle, two officers and Kayla, who weighed 347 pounds and was unarmed, fell onto a mattress on the floor, the report said. At that point, she was lying on her stomach.
The officers called for backup. Three more officers arrived to help restrain Kayla and eventually she "appeared to be calming down" and "suddenly stopped resisting." One minute later, police reported, her chest stopped moving and she had no pulse. She was transported to Alta Bates Summit Medical Center where she was pronounced dead at 1:34 a.m. The autopsy report stated the official cause of death as "acute combined drug intoxication."
"I call bullshit," Maria said of the autopsy report. "It was the struggle that killed [Kayla]."
For Maria, one of the most disturbing parts of the police files was a transcript of an interview with an officer who repeatedly refers to Kayla as "it." In a copy obtained by the Express, the file reads: "From what I could tell and I — again I couldn't tell if it was a male or female because I could te- I could see that there appeared to be long braids. Um, and I remember asking ... is it a male or a female?" the officer said.