Killed Outright or Left to Die: Black (Trans)Women and the Police State

From the Series: #BlackLivesMatter: Anti-Black Racism, Police Violence, and Resistance

Photo by Stephen Melkisethian, licensed under CC BY NC ND.

Black queer and trans women walk in an Atlanta Martin Luther King, Jr. Day rally, 2015. Photo by Lauren Soleil-Downer.

Recently, Black trans activist CeCe McDonald called the continuous murder of Black transwomen a state of emergency. In fact, it is only recently that people began to utter the names of Black women as part of a continuous phenomenon of fatal encounters with the police. In 2013, seventy-two percent of all anti-queer homicides were of transwomen and 66.6 percent were of transwomen of color, primarily Black women (NCAVP 2014). In a sharp op-ed for the Huffington Post, historian Kali Gross (2014) declared that “Black women are already dead in America.” Her assertion contextualizes the state-sanctioned death of Black women and girls. Over the years, there have been multiple cases where Black men have been brutally murdered by the state, while the rest of us piteously watch from the distance of mass media. If a Black person makes it through the initial contact with police, there is a continual risk of extreme cruelty and premature death throughout the rest of the process. From the first interaction to booking to county jail to arraignment to transport, time in prison or the physical and psychological terror of solitary confinement, every step can be an experience of derision, denial, and sexual brutality. Black transwomen’s experiences in these spaces are both particular and indicative of how Black women encounter state violence. Although we are poised to notice violence against Black men, there are many other bodies that experience extreme violence and lethal force when encountering police. It is impossible for me to imagine that those with authority, such as the governor of Maryland, would ever declare the death of Black women an emergency. However, I still hope beyond hope that Black people will one day consider the brutal rape and murder of Black women, particularly Black transwomen, significant enough that we will respond as if it were a crisis.

In the past few years, there have been multiple cases of Black transwomen encountering police violence. Two cases that are relatively well known are those of CeCe McDonald and Duanna Johnson. CeCe McDonald, a Black transwoman, was incarcerated in Minneapolis in 2012 for attempting to defend herself from racist and transphobic attackers. Less well-known is Duanna Johnson’s horrific 2008 beating by a white cop, who used handcuffs as brass knuckles to punch the side of her head in a Memphis booking room. Duanna was found slain a few months later after filing lawsuits against the city and the police officers who attacked her.

Nizah Morris’s death is eerily similar, suggesting police involvement in her murder. Nizah was found with a fatal head wound in 2002, minutes after entering a Philadelphia police vehicle for a “courtesy ride.” Police records and eyewitness accounts put Nizah in police custody until moments before she was found bleeding in the street. The officer on the scene determined that Nizah was not the victim of a crime and there was no initial investigation into this case, even though the medical examiner ruled that Nizah’s death was a homicide. As recently as April 2013, police inconsistencies and missing evidence have been declared insufficient to pursue her homicide any further.

In 2013, Berkeley, California resident Kayla Moore died in police custody after being wrestled face down in her living room. Kayla had an outstanding warrant and a severe mental illness. Her roommate called the police while she was having a psychotic episode. Eventually, eight officers showed up at the scene to subdue Kayla, using two sets of handcuffs and a wrap device to restrain her legs. Finally, after 5–10 minutes of struggling, news reports indicate that Kayla “stopped resisting” (Veklerov 2014). Kayla’s death is reminiscent of the death of a cisgender woman, Tanisha Anderson, who also suffered from mental illness. Again, loved ones called the police in hopes of getting some help for Tanisha. The police responded by slamming Tanisha face down on the pavement. She died while resisting her restraints.

In addition to being killed outright in police custody, transwomen experience unique forms of humiliation and violence once arrested; they are often placed in male prisons where they are vulnerable and essentially left for dead. In a 2005 interview, trans activist Miss Major described the never-ending police surveillance of Black transwomen. She has been stopped and arrested by police for a variety of charges, often for simply being in public and for having identification that did not match the state’s expectations. She recounted being harassed by police whether her identification said male or female. If she was on probation at the time, any routine traffic stop made her vulnerable to subsequent incarceration in a male prison.

Transwomen encounter extra humiliation during the arrest and incarceration process. They are more than likely denied female clothes—including underwear—and medically necessary hormones, as well as protection from male inmates. For example, in 2003 and 2009, Patti Hammond Shaw was arrested and placed in the male units of a Washington, DC jail, even though she had undergone genital reassignment surgery and had changed her legal gender markers to female. She was harassed by the male prison population and the guards, who demanded that she display her genitals. Miss Major and Patti Hammonds Shaw are both examples of how Black transwomen are basically left to die in America’s prisons and jails.

If we were to pay attention to the violence and lethal force that Black transwomen encounter, we would broaden our awareness of how rapacious police violence and murder happens to all Black women. There is not enough local and national attention to Black women’s deaths—no large scale, multi-state protests. From the Rodney King beating to Ferguson and Baltimore, Black people have been willing to put their own bodies on the line in resistance to state violence against Black men. When will we put our time and energy into fighting for Black (trans)women?

Matt Richardson is Associate Professor of English and African and African Diaspora Studies, and an affiliate of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, at the University of Texas at Austin.


Gross, Kali Nicole. 2014. “Black Women Are Already Dead in America.” Huffington Post, September 15.

National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP). 2014. “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and HIV-Affected Hate Violence in 2013.”

Veklerov, Kimberly. 2014. “Leaked Documents Shed New Light on Kayla Moore’s In-Custody Death.” Daily Californian, May 7.