With 2018’s third transgender murder in Jacksonville, advocates seek justice and solidarity

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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At least 28 known transgender men and women were murdered nationwide in 2017, the highest number on record. On June 24, just over 2018’s midpoint, the murders of two transgender women brought this year’s total to half that—prompting community advocates to demand justice for the 14 transgender lives lost.

One of those murders was that of Cathalina Christina James, a transgender woman of color who lived her life as more than a disturbing statistic stemming from Jacksonville, Fla. James’ death sparked outrage and stoked fear for the transgender community in Florida’s fourth most populous city, with local leaders fearing a serial killer stalked Jacksonville’s streets.

“Since February, four transgender women of color have been gunned down in Jacksonville,” Equality Florida’s Director of Transgender Equality Gina Duncan tells Watermark. “Three of those victims died and the fourth was shot five times and survived. At this point in time, all of those homicides remain unsolved… with the similarities of the murders, the transgender community fears this could be a serial killer or orchestrated violence targeting the community. They do not feel safe on their own streets.”

The unsolved murders began Feb. 4 with Celine Walker, who was pronounced dead at an Extended Stay America hotel near the city’s St. Johns Town Center. She was followed by Antash’a English June 1, who was found between two abandoned homes and died from her injuries at a local hospital.

A third transgender woman survived an attack June 8, though she’s not been publicly identified as of press time, and the aforementioned Cathalina Christina James was found at a Quality Inn and Suites June 24.

“The most concerning aspect of this is that the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office continues to misgender the victims,” Duncan notes. “They continue to show little regard or to assure the transgender community on the ground in Jacksonville of what progress they’re making in investigating these murders.”

Duncan asserts that the department’s misgendering “breeds an environment of distrust with the community,” which she asserts impedes local investigations “because officers may be on the streets referring to the victims using their ‘deadnames.’”

A “deadname” is a name given to a transgender individual at birth which may not align with their gender identity or the authentic identity they live daily. “These victims were out transgender women,” Duncan says, “and that’s how the community knew them.”

“What’s happening right now is a case of anti-transgender violence and it’s also a case of police negligence,” Amanda Nelson, co-director of the Jacksonville Transgender Action Committee (JTAC) adds. The small organization provides charitable works, education, support, advocacy and empowerment to improve the quality of life for the area’s transgender, intersex and gender-variant individuals.

“A lot of us don’t know what to make of what’s happening,” she says. “Any murder is tragic, but so many murders specifically of black transgender women, one after another, have left us wondering why and if it’s going to keep happening.”

Nelson says that Jacksonville has an ingrained culture of violence, particularly aimed at the city’s people of color, the working class and immigrant communities. According to the city’s Office of Economic Development, its population rests at 926,255 people — 48.5 percent of whom are male and 51.5 percent of whom are female.

It cites 2016’s U.S. Census to list 60.5 percent of its inhabitants as Caucasian, while 29.3 percent are listed as African-American and 9.2 percent are listed as Hispanic. “People have become desensitized to seeing death and to seeing murder, and that’s something that has really come apparent,” she says.

JTAC has existed since 2013, but Nelson believes what’s been “really eye opening” has been discussing the recent transgender homicides with Jacksonville’s city council. The council is the legislative body that the city’s website advises is responsible for “making the laws that govern our way of life.”

The 19 council members, who are elected to four-year terms and serve as part-time legislators, “have almost unlimited power to enact legislation in order to provide for the needs of [the] community,” it also notes.

“I sense there’s still a great deal of marginalization surrounding the transgender community and acceptance there is slow moving,” Duncan says. “In speaking at a city council meeting it became evident that, with law enforcement in Jacksonville, there’s not only a disconnect with the transgender community, but also with most marginalized or underserved communities in the area.”

“We’ve called on them to speak up on behalf of their constituents,” Nelson says, “but there’s been a deafening silence from the city council, from the mayor and from so many of our elected officials just to condemn the violence and to call on the other arms of government to seek justice in these cases.”

Watermark reached out to Jacksonville’s city council, which as of press was on its summer break from July 2-13. Mayor Lenny Curry’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“It’s been very disappointing that we have not heard from a single city council member and that we have not heard from the mayor,” Duncan notes. “At the least, we got a very flawed statement from the governor calling for action in solving these murders in Jacksonville, even though he still refuses to use the terms‘transgender’ or ‘LGBTQ.’”

Governor Rick Scott’s office referred Watermark to commentary the governor made June 27 during a campaign stop in Jacksonville. Scott was visiting the city as he prepares to face incumbent Florida Senator Bill Nelson in November’s general election for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

“I just feel sorry for people,” Scott reportedly told attendees. “You hope that it would never happen. I hate that these things happen. On the state level, we provide some funding for Jacksonville to deal with, you know, helping to reduce their crime.”

“I know that Mayor Curry and Sheriff [Mike] Williams both ran to focus on making this a safe place to live,” Scott continued. “I always say there’s three primary jobs as Governor. You focus on how you make sure people get a job, how kids can get an education and how you keep people safe… you hate when anything like this happens, and I hope whoever did it is caught and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Scott’s office advised that assertions that the governor did not support the LGBTQ community were “blatantly false,” referring Watermark to his proclamation naming June 12 as Pulse Remembrance Day.

“This was an attack on Orlando, our state, the Hispanic community and on the LGBTQ community,” the proclamation reads. “It left a solemn impact on our state that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives.”

ABOVE GALLERY: Activists and allies gather at the Duval County Courthouse in Jacksonville June 27 for “Trans Lives Matter: A Call for Justice,” co-hosted by the Transgender Awareness Project and the Jacksonville Transgender Action Committee. (Photos by Mary Kate Meier, courtesy of the Jacksonville Transgender Action Committee)

“The only reason the governor said something was because there’s national attention on Jacksonville and on Florida,” Paige Mahogany Parks, director of Jacksonville’s Transgender Awareness Project (TAP) says. “He’s running for office, of course. That’s the only reason he said something.

“As for the Jacksonville Sherriff’s Office, they aren’t doing anything for the transgender community,” she continues. “There’s no relationship with the LGBT community. They don’t care if 20 transgender girls get killed here.”

It’s that silence that led Parks to position TAP to fight for equality and the protection of Jacksonville’s transgender women of color, she says, and to hold vigils and rallies in honor of the lives lost.

“Nothing was being said, no one was making noise,” she advises. “We go to city hall and they’re not bothered. You can go to town hall meetings all day long, they’re just going to take your request and then send it on to whoever the councilman in that area is. They don’t do anything.”

“We have put out multiple times that there is no information that identifies [these murders] to be related and there’s no evidence to suggest that they are related,” Melissa Bujeda, a public information officer for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, says. “There is no information in these investigations to suggest they are related… we are not working [them] as a pattern, series or trend.

“Just like every other law enforcement agency does, [the victims] are gendered based on their official documents,” Bujeda adds. “They have not had their names changed on their official documents. When it comes to law enforcement, it has to go by the official documents.”

It’s an explanation that doesn’t satisfy advocates. In May 2017, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department—the nation’s largest—enacted a policy requiring deputies to address those in the transgender community by their preferred names and pronouns. Similar policies exist nationwide.

“It may still be their legal name, as some of the victims had not changed their legal identity documents or the gender markers on their driver’s license,” Duncan notes, “but it is unfortunate that despite national policy and protocol that was issued by the Department of Justice, the JSO continues to refer back to their policy of ‘going with whatever their legal documents say’ in reference to [a victim’s] name and gender.”

As Duncan notes, the Department of Justice offers guidance for law enforcement when dealing with the transgender community via their Community Relations Service program. Training material available at Justice.gov and dated Oct. 2015, completed “in consultation with law enforcement and transgender community leaders,” advises that “every day, law enforcement personnel from across the country encounter transgender individuals who are victims of hate crimes, abuse, discrimination, intolerance and injustice.”

It notes that the training exists to “provide the law enforcement community with information, education and best practice approaches for promoting greater understanding and positive outcomes when interacting with transgender individuals in non-hostile situations.”

“Ultimately our goal is to solve these murders and they are investigating them as they would any other murder,” Bujeda says. “We’re trying to find who murdered these women.”

Change isn’t coming quickly enough for Parks, who says Jacksonville isn’t safe for transgender women, particularly trans women of color.

“When I walk down the street I don’t see transgender women,” she advises. “They’re too scared to be out in public here.”

She advises that’s the case even after Jacksonville passed an amendment to its Human Rights Ordinance, or HRO, in Feb. 2017. The amendment to include sexual orientation and gender identity protections passed 12-6, although it did so without Mayor Curry’s signature. “Jacksonville is not the city for transgender women,” she says.

Jimmy Midyette, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida staff attorney, was instrumental in the HRO’s passage. He shares Parks’ concerns, noting that “the transgender community in Jacksonville is very worried about these murders,” and adding that “there’s a lack of official information from the JSO that leaves rumors and speculation in place of fact.”

He says he’s “had the opportunity to speak to the Sheriff and others in leadership at JSO,” advising that meetings between the Sheriff’s Office and activists are currently being planned. “From my perspective,” he says, “leadership at JSO wants to reassure the community and keep people safe but they have really not been able to communicate with the community.”

“I will say that the passage of the HRO was a huge win,” Nelson says. “I was so happy to see that happen and really proud of the people who pushed three separate times and won… but at the same time, someone at city council said, ‘do the police read these laws? Do the restaurant owners read these laws?’ We’re not seeing people in our city pay attention.”

Nelson adds that seeing people across Florida and the nation begin to support the push for justice has been uplifting.

“In spite of the horror and the grief that the community is going through, it’s been really good to see the solidarity,” she says.

Parks says that solidarity can begin wherever you are. “People outside of Jacksonville, they can help by bringing awareness to their own communities because it’s just not happening here,” she says. “The spotlight is on Jacksonville, but it’s just not happening here where people are being murdered. Transgender women are being beaten up, robbed and assaulted every day… so you can bring awareness to your own neighborhood and community.”

Nelson echoes Parks in calling for support for transgender men and women across the country, advising that the most marginalized are also the most at risk. She also believes that those outside of Jacksonville can help simply by sharing information and helping to spread the word.

“The more the news spreads and the more media outlets are covering it, the more people are talking about it, the more pressure it places on the city,” Nelson says. “People who are paying attention and are sending support really mean the world to us. It makes us feel less alone and I know it means a lot to the transgender and non-conforming communities. It reminds us that we’re not alone and that we’re in this together.”

For more information about the Transgender Action Committee, visit Facebook.com/Jax.Trans.Action. For more information about the Transgender Awareness Project, visit Facebook.com/TAPTransgenesisAwarenessProject.

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