The Denver Chapter of INCITE! and Denver On Fire Respond to Verdict in Angie Zapata Case
This month has seen two first-time events in the history of hate crime law. In Greeley, Colorado on April 22, Allen Andrade was convicted of first degree murder and bias-motivated crime in the killing of Angie Zapata, a transgender woman of color. The verdict marked the first time the murder of a trans person has been legally designated as a “hate crime.” Earlier this month, HR 1913, the first federal hate crime law that includes sexual orientation and gender identity, passed the House on its way through Congress.
During the trial, we as members of the local trans and queer communities and allies were asked to support Angie’s family. Solidarity meant attending the trial and bearing witness to the guilty verdict. We responded to the call for solidarity by sitting in that courtroom and hearing the details of Angie’s murder. We heard the way she and all trans folks were disparaged by the language of the legal system and the hate speech of a murderer. We then watched Andrade get sentenced to a life behind bars.
We understand the joy that many trans people and allies may feel in this verdict. This is one of the first times that a court in the United States has recognized a trans person’s life as valuable and fully human. While this could be considered a small victory, in many ways it actually underscores to what extent the “justice” system is profoundly and fundamentally violent and unjust in its treatment of trans people.
Local organizations did an amazing job supporting the family, calling the queer and trans community together for healing, and taking on the daunting task of educating the media on trans issues. And it is important to note that the amount of attention given to this case by mainstream LGBT organizations has made violence against trans people of color a national issue.
However, we take issue with the way that LGBT organizations and progressive groups utilized Angie’s case in order to campaign for the swift passage of the HR 1913 hate crime law. This politicization has been most present in the rhetoric of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the Light a Candle for Angie advertising campaign. The ad campaign and AngieZapata.com website were launched by a coalition of 50 political organizations who advocate for the passing of HR 1913. These campaigns describe hate crime laws as “protections” and “justice,” but given the nature of violence against trans people, we believe there is good reason to examine that rhetoric critically.
Denver On Fire and the Denver chapter of INCITE! acknowledge that we too have a particular lens we are using to respond to Angie’s murder and the trial. Our aims are to spark a deeper and more nuanced conversation and analysis of systematic violence, and to eventually bring an end to the prison system. As prison abolitionists, we know the legal and prison systems to be racist, homophobic, and transphobic institutions that exist to control our communities. A majority of incarcerated populations are there due to a deep-seeded system of institutionalized oppressions. Most of them should not be in prison at all and the prison system does nothing to help them or society at large. It only tends to perpetuate vicious cycles upon poor communities of color. When it comes to the most violent offenders like Allen Andrade, however, how should we proceed?
We also ask whether this trial served the causes of “justice” and liberation. Will putting Andrade in prison end transphobia or transbashings? Given the nature of violence against trans people, will hate crime laws really protect us? Will police, judges, and legislators be the ones that create the worlds we’d want to live in?
Violence Against Trans People
To look for solutions from the government, legal system, and police is to ask for protection from our main oppressor. The State is the central organizer and perpetrator of violence against trans people and especially trans people of color. The most obvious and most violent form of State violence is police brutality—harassment, verbal abuse, excessive force, negligence, sexual assault, and murder. Police officers, border patrol agents, and prison guards daily brutalize folks for the “crimes” of appearing gender non-conforming, being trans, living in poverty, and/or being a person of color. Law enforcement agents specifically target transwomen of color and with great frequency, transwomen who do street-based sex work.
Police brutality is often framed as officers “overstepping” the law, but their actions are rooted in the law itself. Beginning with the designation of every infant as “F” or “M,” federal and local governments actively designate, track, and manage our sex and gender on paperwork and forms of identification. State violence against trans and gender non-conforming people can be seen as the extension of State power into policing our sexes, genders, and intimate relationships—as the enforcement of legal sex designations. The stories of trans people who have experienced police brutality reflect this policing—especially after arrest, police officers actively “examine” trans people’s genders, often in violent ways, trying to determine the person’s “real” gender.
The legal system extends this impulse to constantly “examine” our genders into the courts. No example would serve better than Andrade’s trial for the murder of Angie Zapata. During the hearing, it was Angie’s gender that both attorneys put on trial, as if Andrade’s innocence or guilt could be determined by examining the details of her gender. The defense attorney relied entirely on a “trans panic” defense—she consistently referred to Angie by the wrong name and pronouns, charging her as deceitful, as “really” male, and hoping to find the jury sympathetic. The DA, in turn, played the gender card by arguing that Angie was easily perceived as biologically male—whether or not Angie could “pass” was turned from a personal issue into a legal strategy.
Meanwhile, something that was never put on trial was the network of systems and institutions that create and perpetuate transphobia. Andrade’s violence and rage did not exist in a vacuum. It was learned and affirmed by living in a culture where courts and police, doctors and priests, teachers and television tell us that transpeople and people of color do not deserve to live.
Hate Crime Law
Andrade was found guilty by the legal system and will be incarcerated most likely for the remainder of his life. He will never serve the extra one-year sentence for the “hate crime” punishment, but many trans people and allies have hailed the hate crime verdict as sending a message that anti-trans violence is not to be tolerated. It is sadly ironic that endemic incarceration of trans people and violent prison conditions are tolerated, and often uncriticized.
In prison, Andrade may share quarters with a transwoman at some time, since the prison system incarcerates trans people at disproportionate rates. The rampant incarceration of trans people stems from social and economic injustice that pushes many into illegal forms of work, after which, gender profiling, sex/gender policing, sex work policing, and discrimination in the legal system land many trans people in prison. Once incarcerated, trans people are housed by assigned sex and are often denied access to gender-confirming clothing, hormones, surgeries, binding, etc. Social and institutional transphobia in prison can lead to harassment as well as physical and sexual violence.
The State creates hate crime laws as a response to calls for protection. However, by putting this protection in the hands of the State, hate crime laws reinforce the legal system and prison system which in turn legitimizes violence carried out by the State. Hate crime laws prosecute individual acts of violence, thus sanctioning the violence that society, institutions, and the State perpetrate against trans people. Additionally, hate crime laws legitimize the legal system as the best response to violence against trans people. This completely ignores community-based responses which are significantly more accountable and respectful. Finally, hate crime law sets up the State as protector, intending to deflect our attention from the violence it perpetrates, deploys, and sanctions. The government, its agents, and their institutions perpetuate systemic violence and set themselves up as the only avenue in which justice can be allocated; they will never be charged with hate crimes.
The rhetoric from LGBT and progressive groups in support of hate crime laws attempts to paint a perpetrator as a “protector,” and speak of “justice” coming from a thoroughly unjust system. We urge broadening the analysis to recognize the systemically violent society trans people live in, and the need to respond independently from the State in order to fully transform society.
Although we clearly see the flaws with the criminal justice system, it has been difficult for us to know how to respond to Angie Zapata’s murder. Our communities currently do not have structures in place to transform and hold accountable those who cause harm to us. For us, this trial brings to the fore the necessity to envision and build alternative ways of dealing with the violence our communities face without relying on a system that perpetuates violence against us. To even know where to begin, we need to intentionally create space for visioning processes that allow us to imagine our world without police and prisons.
Community response to violence is a powerful and growing alternative to the false “protections” of the legal system and hate crime laws. In many communities of color and queer and trans communities, people are organizing community-based alternatives to policing. Because these organizations are community-based and independent of State power, they are able to define violence holistically. In other words, violence is both interpersonal and systemic, and it is perpetrated by the State, institutions, and individuals.
We need to build upon the work of community groups that have already begun this visioning and organizing process. One current example of a gender-liberationist organization working on responding to violence is the Safe OUTside the System (SOS) Collective in Brooklyn, New York. SOS is a collective of lesbian, gay, bisexual, Two-Spirit, transgender, and gender non-conforming (LGBTSTGNC) people of color. “The SOS Collective works to challenge violence that affects LGBTSTGNC people of color. We are guided by the belief that strategies that increase the police presence and the criminalization of our communities do not create safety. Therefore we utilize strategies of community accountability to challenge violence.” (www.alp.org/whatwedo/organizing/sos)
As members the Denver chapter of INCITE! (Women and Transfolks of Color Against Violence) and of Denver On Fire (confronting sexual assault through community accountability), we believe this is truly a historic moment. And we believe that now is the right time for a major shift—away from the legal and prison systems of the State and toward a vision of community accountability and a world without prisons.
INCITE! – Denver chapter
Denver On Fire