Arrested for Walking While Trans: An Interview with Monica Jones
In Phoenix, Arizona, you can be arrested for repeatedly stopping and engaging a passerby in conversation. This may, under Phoenix law, be evidence that you are "manifesting" an intent to engage in prostitution. Of course, this could also be evidence that you are lost or canvassing for a political group or simply talking about the weather. The difference between "innocent" and "criminal" behavior often comes down to how a person looks. Transgender women of color are often profiled by police as engaging in sex work for simply being outside and going about their daily routines. Amnesty International documented this disproportionate targeting by police of transgender women as sex workers in a 2005 report. "[S]ubjective and prejudiced perceptions of transgender women as sex workers often play a signiﬁcant role in ofﬁcers' decisions to stop and arrest transgender women," the report concluded. One woman told Amnesty, "'No tenemos el derecho a vivir.' (We don't have the right to live.)."
Black transgender activist Monica Jones knows this all too well.
Last May, Monica was arrested under the disturbingly vague and overbroad manifestation ordinance. "I believe I was profiled as a sex worker because I am a transgender woman of color, and an activist." Monica explained.
"I am a student at ASU, and fear that these wrongful charges will affect my educational path. I am also afraid that if am sentenced, I will be placed in a men's jail as a transgender woman, which would be very unsafe for me. Prison is an unsafe place for everyone, and especially trans people." On April 11, 2014, Monica will go to trial and the ACLU will be assisting in her constitutional challenge to the manifestation ordinance. Together we hope to send a message about the injustices that transgender women of color so often experience at the hands of the police.
This week Monica and I discussed Project ROSE, the profiling of trans women of color, and where she finds her inspiration.
Chase Strangio (ACLU): In May of 2013, you were protesting Project ROSE in Phoenix. What is Project ROSE? Why have you and other activists in Phoenix and across the country been protesting it?
Monica Jones: Project ROSE is an anti-prostitution collaboration between the Arizona State University School of Social work, the Phoenix Police Department, and Catholic Charities, which claims to provide services to workers within the sex industry through a prostitution diversion program. Through massive street sweeps and online sting operations targeting workers within the sex industry and bringing them into the program without the benefit of counsel, Project ROSE instead sends many participants to jail after they don't qualify for the program or "fail" out of it, increasing the number of people in jail for prostitution-related charges.
Myself and others involved in the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) Phoenix have been protesting Project ROSE because we don't believe consenting sex workers are victims, or that workers need to be arrested in order to get services.
Chase Strangio (ACLU): What are some of the most pressing issues facing trans people of color in your community?
Monica Jones: Some of the most pressing issues facing trans people are criminalization and threats of violence. All around the country trans people are targeted for police harassment. Due to discriminatory policing and social inequities experienced by trans people of color, nearly half of Black transgender people have been incarcerated at some point in their lives.
We also deal with increased harassment and violence on the streets by both civilians and police officers. We also face disproportionate job and housing discrimination. Trans women of color like myself, and trans individuals in general, have a huge unemployment rate due to discriminatory policies like Arizona being a "right to work" state, which makes it generally hostile for workers, and then a lack of affirmative employment protections for transgender people.
There is a lack of understanding of trans issues and the needs of trans communities. One example of the discrimination we face is the attempted passing of SB 1045 in Arizona, the "bathroom bill," which would have made it illegal for trans individuals to use the bathroom of the opposite gender to which they were assigned at birth. We fought against that bill and won.
Chase Strangio (ACLU): In conversations about your case and police harassment of transgender women, people have mentioned the phrase "walking while trans." Can you explain what that means? Does that resonate for you?
Monica Jones: "Walking while trans" is a saying we use in the trans community to refer to the excessive harassment and targeting that we as trans people experience on a daily basis. "Walking while trans" is a way to talk about the overlapping biases against trans people - trans women specifically - and against sex workers. It's a known experience in our community of being routinely and regularly harassed and facing the threat of violence or arrest because we are trans and therefore often assumed to be sex workers.
I have been harassed by police four times since my initial arrest last May. The police have stopped me for no real reason when I have been walking to the grocery store, to the local bar, or visiting with a friend on the sidewalk. The police have even threatened me with 'manifestation with intent to prostitute' charge, while I was just walking to my local bar!
Chase Strangio (ACLU): You have done such amazing work and have inspired so many people to stand up to harassment and violence. Who inspires you?
Monica Jones: More than anything, my family inspires me. My family has always been loud and stood up for what is right, and they taught me to do the same. Also, some of my teachers and professors that have supported me and steered me to become an activist have inspired me. And my friends in the activist community here in Phoenix inspire me to keep fighting.