Born in flames: The case of the New Jersey 4

December 17, 2008

Script

Ambient sound of music from event

The auditorium is named after feminist poet, Audre Lorde, and it’s so full of people that dozens more crowd in the hall outside the doorway, straining for a glimpse of the speakers and performers.

I’m at the Women’s Building in San Francisco – a building unmistakable by its colorful murals of famous women of color visible from blocks away. It’s also an institution known for its progressive events and community services.

Tonight, hundreds of queers, women of several generations, and allies have gathered to see a special guest…

Speaker at event: Terrain Dandridge… is actually here!

Sound of applause

To this crowd, Terrain Dandridge is a hero. She survived – and resisted – a homophobic attack. And even though she and her friends were charged with attempted murder for what many say was a clear case of self-defense, she’s now out of prison, and her charges have been dropped.

The case of Dandridge and her co-defendants, know as the Jersey 7, has come to symbolize what many queer activists say is enduring homophobic and racist injustice within the criminal legal system.

A group of Terrain’s supporters in the San Francisco Bay Area have been writing to the Jersey 7 since more than a year ago, and they’ve been advocating tirelessly for their release. These unpaid activists talk regularly with family members of the remaining 3 women who are in prison. They also keep in touch with the lawyers, and hold fundraiser parties to send money to those still imprisoned.

And, they hold occasional publicity-raising events like this one at the Women’s Building.

This time, they even raised plane fare to bring out Terrain and her mother, Kimma Walker, to celebrate Terrain’s release.

Terrain Dandridge: It was great, it was very beautiful. Just…all the support, and the love you can feel as soon as I walked in there…And Angela Davis speaking, it was very emotional

Terrain read aloud some of her writing from prison…

Terrain: ‘Let the justice system call it. I’m a big black dyke, no fear, not afraid to fight. I let them call the shots – hell, do I have a choice? Take me away from my family, the nerve of you. This man is still walking around, harassing and assaulting, the nerve of you…But I got one better- Ima still pray for you.’

Young, only 19 at the time, you took me away from my world, still in my prime…Three and a half years to do, yeah, they convicted me with time… But the moral of the story is I never did the crime

Kimma Walker: My name is Kimma Walker, Terrain Dandridge is my daughter. I started organizing – or trying to organize- right after they were arraigned. And as of today still stay in touch with the girls who remain in the facilities.

Speaking to an audience of hundreds, Kimma recaps the night it all began, August 18, 2006

Kimma: I collect myself and I get to the courthouse, only to be greeted by the paper and the tvs. As we sit and wait, a little before midnight, the girls were brought into the courtroom. They looked as if they didn’t believe what was going on…and couldn’t wait for them to say “You can leave.” Like myself – I’m sitting in the courtroom, waiting for them to say something about a ticket, or fine.

Then, there we go…The ADA begins…and says they jumped and beat this man who was minding his business, blahblahblah (jeers in audience). He simply said hi to one of the young ladies.

She continues.

Mr Buckle, the alleged victim, has been taken to St Vincent’s and is in ICU. She said that they are charged with attempted murder, gang assault, and assault in the first and second degree. They were taken back inside. I sat there. In my head – like, what has just happened?

Andrea Ritchie: This is where the power of the police comes in, right? If they frame something as a gang…Any group of young people, two or more, can be framed by the police as a gang.

That’s attorney Andrea Ritchie, who works with INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence.

Andrea Ritchie: Once it’s framed that way, then you turn on a narrative in people’s heads that then is about this is a sociopathically violent group of people who are out to commit violence for the sake of violence. And that these women were somehow out on the prowl that night, looking for a heterosexual man to violate. So for instance, then after the incident, Fox News did this horrific – Bill O’Reily did this horrific piece on lesbian gangs!

Bill: 29-year-old Dwayne Buckle was attacked by a lesbian gang here in New York City last August. Four of the women received prison sentences. In Tennessee, authorities say a lesbian gang called GTO- Gays Taking Over- are involved in raping young girls. In Philadelphia, a lesbian gang called DTO- Dykes Taking Over- are allegedly terrorizing people as well. Joining us from Washington, Fox News crime analyst, Rod Wheeler…

Andrea: He actually got some expert, so called criminal ‘expert’- who later, of course, recanted…

Bill: “Tell us what’s going on!”

Rod: There’s this national underground network –if you will, Bill- of women that’s lesbians and also some men groups that’s actually recruiting kids as young as 10-years-old…

Andrea: They just blew this into this threat to national security, in a way that was also this very prurient thing about indoctrination into sexual acts…

Bill: Now, when they recruit the kids, are they indoctrinating them into homosexuality?

Rod: Yes, as a matter of fact, some of the kids have actually reported that they were actually forced into, you know, performing sex acts…

Andrea: That just all came from the police initially framing this as a gang issue, and you know, of course- a group of young people of color, and violence, equals gang.

Bill: This is a lower socio and economic crew, alright, that identify themselves as lesbian or gay, and they band together just like some of the ethnic gangs do, to do harm? I mean, they just want to hurt people?
Rod That’s right…

Andrea: And there’s no thought that someone else could’ve initiated the violence. And that this could’ve been a response that involved self-defense.

But not only did they get framed as a gang- they got framed as a gang of killer lesbians, a seething Sapphic septet…There was all this notion in the media that one of these women “growled” as she was attacking this man…that it was a “lesbian wolfpack”… and granted, that was the Daily News, or the New York Post- which are known for their over-the-top Fox News-like “coverage” – if you want to call it that…

But at the same time, they were getting fed those narratives and those ideas by the police, who responded to the incident… who could have just as easily made this into a terrible hate crime, or an attempted rape, or an incident of street harassment…something else where the women would have been seen more favorably by the public, by the courts, by the prosecution.

Kimma Walker says it was obvious that Terrain and her friends weren’t looking for trouble.

Kimma: A group of girls – not a gang – going to McDonald’s. They were all babies, you know…Misha’s the oldest…they were all like her little babies, they were just goin to go chill by the pier…And they were killers all of a sudden, because they were accosted…

Terrain: My family always told me – you know, once I was old enough to hang out- you go as a group, and you stay together, and then you know, we go do this. Because we were in a group, trying to stay together – (sigh) – You don’t know which way to go…

Andrea: They were seven friends, out together, who were subjected to a violent attack…and responded in a effort to stay safe and get away. Which is what we’re told to do! As women (laughs)…but that’s only what white women are supposed to do!.. And so black women are inherently threatening, and therefore became framed as…a gang

Lenea is one of the Jersey 7. She says that homophobia, plus rampant racism and sexism, led to the media distortion of Buckle’s assault on her and her friends as lesbian wilding – a term that connotes savagery and bloodthirsty teens from tenements.

Lenea: What if we was straight? Would it have been the same thing? If it was seven straight women attack one man – would it have been the same thing? Would we have been called killers, or “lesbians going wilding…” The media made us seem like we were these crazy lesbians

The courts were no better, Kimma says.

Kimma: The ADA- she walked out wanting to give the girls these charges. You know, she was excusing herself when she spoke in a manner of the girls being lesbians… You know, she felt as though she was – I guess insulting the courtroom or something to that effect, because whenever she mentioned them she would say, Excuse me, your Honor, her ‘girlfriend’.. or things of that nature

Andrea: The court also plays a role in enforcing gender, racialized gender norms on people… This incident happened at one in the morning, the court said, What are these girls doing out at one in the morning if they weren’t looking for trouble? Again- as women, we’re supposed to be home, and if we’re good girls we’re supposed to be home, and safe, and not on the streets at one in the morning.

There was also the issue of class that was enforced through the criminal justice system… The judge also said that (edit here) we don’t know how those girls were there, because they couldn’t afford to be there. Because now the West Village is so expensive. So…that wasn’t a place for them to be unless they were looking for trouble, and looking to hurt somebody who legitimately belonged there. Even though the guy who did this lived in Queens. (laughs) He didn’t come from that neighborhood either.

So that’s how those things snowball, and get played out at every stage of the criminal justice system, and how people can then be seen as deserving of enhanced punishment to really stamp out what we’re most afraid of- and what are people more afraid of than black lesbians who are gender non-conforming? I mean, that’s a fearful image that gets created by the police, and by mainstream media, and by society, and then fueled by this kind of incident…

from Bill O’Reily

Rod: And these are lesbians who actually carry pink pistols. That’s 9mm, they use these, they commit crimes, and they cause a lot of hurt to a lot of people.

Bill: Alright, detective, thanks very much.

Fox theme music fades out

The race of the attacker, Dwayne Buckle, is also significant, said UC Santa Cruz professor, Angela Davis at an event in San Francisco.

Angela: This is 2008! And when we think about racism, we can’t imagine a racism as being ungendered, we can’t imagine it as being unsexed. We have to think about the intersections of racism and homophobia, and misogyny…

Xan West from Oakland, California, started working with the New Jersey 4 Solidarity group in 2007. She says that in the rush to demonize the young women as “gang members,” Buckle became cast by prosecutors and media pundits alike as an unlikely hero.

Xan: Honestly, I have to say I was organizing around this case for a really long time before I even realized that he was black. Because the way that the articles are always written, you would never realize that he was black because they put him in such a positive light… I never thought that he was black.

Even activists and people of color stumbled, Ritchie of INCITE! says.

Andrea: I think the story of resistance to police brutality, and police misconduct and police framing, and police overcharging, and police lack of investigation and mass criminalization and mass incarceration is a story that has as its protagonist young men of color, who are coded as heterosexual.

Because that’s the narrative that drives that movement, in this story they couldn’t really see who was being subjected to state violence, or who was the legitimate subject of violence. Because the person they center their organizing and vision around was the perpetrator in this instance, the violator, the abuser…So they had to switch him into the victim.

Then there’s the story of violence against women, which is one that features a non-threatening white woman who is considered “innocent” so long as she’s racially non-threatening, she’s behaviorally non-threatening, she doesn’t engage in self-defense, doesn’t engage in self-medication, she doesn’t engage in other criminalized activities like commercial sex or use of a controlled substance. She’s gender conforming, she’s sexually conforming, she’s not a lesbian and doesn’t engage in any deviation from gender norms. That’s the story of violence against women.

And women of color periodically sort of make a cameo appearance in the story of violence against women, but only to show how hyper-oppressive other cultures are, and how intensely dysfunctional other cultures are, as a justification for – for instance, bombing Afghanistan into liberation for women, allegedly.

And then the story of homophobic violence, also known as hate crimes, is a story of white queers being subjected to homophobic violence, and often actually by people of color in the story.

So when you have those three narratives out there, then this story – which involved police profiling, police overcharging, police lack of response to violence, and police homophobia – didn’t register as a story of police brutality, or police misconduct, or police profiling. It didn’t register as a story of violence against women, even though this man jumped on these women and ripped their hair out, and physically assaulted them, and it didn’t register as a story of a homophobic attack even though the man who attacked them did so because they were lesbian, and because they were queer.

Break for station ID here

The New Jersey 7 were assaulted and arrested in New York City’s West Village – a historically queer neighborhood. Redevelopment plans threaten this longstanding relative “safe” haven for young queers who have nowhere else to seek and enjoy community.

Supporters of the New Jersey 4 and other queer activists say that the attack on the Jersey 7 provides an example showing how gentrification destroys the lives of the most vulnerable people with the least resources.

FIERCE- an organization that builds the leadership of LGTBQ youth – produced this video about what makes a pier so important to so many people.

Sound from FIERCE video

Person 1: Imagine that you’ve been persecuted your whole life. Imagine damn near everyone in your entire existence is turning their backs on you, just for being who you are. Imagine you finally find a place where you feel comfortable, a place where you’re just another friend, not just another freak. Imagine there is nowhere else to feel normal. This place is real – right here in the heart of Greenwich Village. Within the past 2 years I’ve been going to the pier off of Christopher St. The pier is home to a large number of homeless gay youth, and it is the only place where young gay people can truly be themselves.

Person 2: Basically, it’s a place where you can go and feel comfortable – there’s not that many places out here that are like that…It’s basically our place to go and associate with people who are in the life…

Person 3: It would take me 45 min to an hour to say hi to everyone, before I could sit down. (laughter) I would have to go down this line of people that would stretch down the whole pier, saying hi, then I could sit down. And then more people would come…

Person 4: My mom would be like – You’re all clean, and you got your hair cut… Where you going? I’m goin to the Pier!

laughter

She’d be Oh, you’re getting all dressed up to go sit..? I’d be like, yeah! And then I’d come home all dirty!

laughter

Person 5: A lot of young people go there for security. I see a lot of them nowadays, and they go down there, right – and they can get in drag, they can fag out, they can do anything they want to do, that they can’t do at home, they can’t do in their neighborhoods. Cause- as a matter of fact, this morning I seen one. He was at the pier, had on a wig, and a dress, and all this all that, but when it came time to go home, all that came off and went into a backpack.

Person 6: Under the leadership of Governor Pataki and Mayor Giuliani 5 miles of the waterfront, from Battery Park to 59th street is under construction to become Hudson River Park. It’s going to be transformed into a “green and blue oasis” – for all of New York to enjoy…

Except for us, of course…

Music plays – “A Whole New World” from The Little Mermaid

Person 1: Now imagine your place – the place that you feel is your second home, is now being bombarded by gay-bashers who are harassing, beating, and murdering you and your friends. Imagine that the police, who are supposed to protect you, are no better than the criminals they have sworn to take off the streets.

Person 7: Like, it’s so weird…that like, when harassment starts by outside people, the cops are never around…but if anybody else do anything on the pier, the cops start swarming.

Person 8: As for the law enforcement, they’ve gotten really out of hand.

Clip of cop speaking

You can walk end to end all you like, but you cannot stop and hang out.

Person 7: She asked him, she was like, yo- why are you doing this? And the cop said, “No offense to you, but these people don’t want you here anymore. And they pay our jobs, so…we have to do what they want us to do.”

Cop: The community here has been complaining about he litter, the noise, and everything else that goes on down here. Please turn that off- please turn that off.

silence

You’ve just heard excerpts from a video produced by FIERCE in New York City. FIERCE organizes for queer, low-income and homeless youth of color to be safe from police intimidation and other harassment in public places.

Andrea Ritchie of INCITE! says that the driving force behind the increased police patrols in the West Village is the city’s attempts to re-make New York into a playground for wealthy people by removing low income people.

Andrea: It’s been increasingly gentrified over the years to the point where now Sarah Jessica Parker lives there, and Matthew Broderick… and it’s a very upscale area of town now, and predominantly white.

It’s also been an area of increased police surveillance and harassment of people of color in the area, and queer youth of color in particular…of privatization of public space, particularly the Chelsea Piers, which are a historic place for queer folks to hang out and live, even.

So the police have increasingly been harassing and arresting queer youth of color for quality of life offenses, disorderly conduct, loitering. There’s been incredible harassment and profiling, sweeps of transgender women of color for alleged sex work, and loitering with intent to solicit, and so on. So that’s sort of the backdrop against which this incident happened.

Police harassment of gender nonconforming people, sweeps targeting transwomen of color, and laws that criminalize hanging out in public places are not exclusive to New York. And neither are activists who work against these repressive measures.

Gay Shame is a queer activist group that fights gentrification in San Francisco.

Ralowe T. Ampu works with Gay Shame.

Ralowe: The type of gentrification that Gay Shame has been focusing specifically on has to do with straight gentrification – like sort of mainstream people forcing out marginalized people, or people who have less privilege and less resources… Sort of the people who are completely despised by society such as the homeless, and trans folks, and sex workers, and drug addicts.

Ampu began organizing around the case of the Jersey 7 in the aftermath of several devastating murders of transwomen in the San Francisco Bay Area. The link between the murders of queer people, and the lack of a general sense of entitlement to self-defense and self-preservation within marginalized sectors of the queer community is obvious, Ampu says.

Ralowe: As far as the conversations around self-defense were amongst the activists or queer community, it was always about these people who were dead. It was always about vigils, and we were like – well, here are these people who are victims of violence, who have experienced violence, and they’re still alive. Yet… no one seems to be even remotely interested…so we were like, wait – how did this happen? How did this case get this far? It’s obviously so completely ridiculous…it’s an utter set-up. It was really clear…you know, everyone I knew who began organizing around this case identified heavily with what had happened and could see it happening to them.

And so we were like, well, what can we do to prevent this from ever happening again?

Inez: You hear about this case and you’re outraged. That so much time has passed, and no one did anything…We decided to get together, and from that – we decided to dedicate our organizing energies to freeing the NJ 4.

That was Bay Area organizer, Inez Sunwoo. She says the answer is to build a culture of self-defense in queer communities, and a culture of solidarity within activist and social movements that organize around intersections of sexuality, race, class and gender. She says that she was disheartened by the lack of a response from radical movements to the NJ4 case.

Inez: For me, I was trying to process through it, like – when are people going to see this as part of a broader issue? I was really really upset about that…just talking amongst my friends who were easily just as vulnerable, based on their identities…and together we ended up decideing that what was also at stake was our ability to fight back, and that while we hope that all these social movements are building themselves to be inclusive of queer struggles, we really didn’t see that happening and so that was a key element in our organizing is just promoting that culture of self-defense as queers…

In June 2008, the Jersey 4 solidarity group organized a speak-out at the San Francisco Dyke March, starring Terrain Dandridge and Kimma Walker. Inez made this announcement at the Women’s Building.

Sound of Inez at event: One way that we’re going to make sure that people know about the case is throughout the day, blasting our mixtapes, talking about the issues, doing a self-defense demo…(laughs) We’re going to have a punching bag, we’re going to have people out- teaching people – if you don’t know how to throw a punch, that’s okay…come out and learn. (cheers) feel good about that…cause you might need to…//edit// just any chance we get to be in a supportive environment, to reclaim that, then let’s take it.

Inez: When you have so many identities //wrapped up in one// that are all vulnerable, then you have a very wide range of ways of being assaulted publicly…

And it’s these vulnerabilities that have kept this case from drawing support from the Black community, for instance, according to Andrea Ritchie. And that oversight, she says, is tragic.

Andrea: I think that it’s really hard for people to understand and organize around the experiences of women- to a certain extent – but queers to a much larger extent. I think that our experiences as women and as queers – in the prison industrial complex – those are just not centered in the vision, and the analysis, and the organizing…so that those machineries of organizing and mobilization couldn’t be put to serve the call for justice for these women.

As of December 2008, 3 of the NJ4 have been released. But much more work lies ahead. Kimma Walker speaks with Lenea on the phone about some of the challenges they face.

Kimma: Just this whole situation is so cruel. And I just hope that everyone’s listening and reading whatever you can do to help the girls, and moving forward, so that this situation never happens again. I mean, you have the young girls hanging out, just trying to do them, and this unfortunate situation happens…

It really is beyond sad. And we still have the three girls that are in…and the three girls who are out, they have felony records.

Lenea: Probation?

Kimma: Well, yeah, but when you finish your probation…you still have a record. I’m talking about the end of the situation. You know, ok, once you finish probation, fine. But in six years you have a felony record. And you’re not deserving of that.

Lenea: Right, and what jobs are we gonna get, with this record now… like what type of good job can we actually get with a record, ain’t goin to be no one willing to hire us, all because of this.

Kimma: That’s what I’m sayin. Ok, probation, you can go once a week, once a month, so you do that for a couple of years, but – even when that’s done, it’s not over.

Lenea: Exactly.

Kimma: That’s what I was saying. It’s just beyond not fair.

Lenea: Now I just want to say one thing as far as the media thing…unfortunately, that’s what the media did in this situation- was make every person angry towards lesbians in general. So that’s why we all feel the way that we do – as far as now when we go out, people more stereotype us than they did prior. The whole – the media type thing in general looked at us as if we were just these horrible people, so that’s why when we read the newspaper, we were like Where’s my interview at? I didn’t get to say what I needed to say…

Activists and the families of the New Jersey 4 continue to move forward with their lives and try to overcome the injustices facing them. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, at the Women’s Building, Angela Davis reminds an audience of hundreds that ultimately, it’ll take more than legal victories to overturn what she says is an unjust system.

Angela: So…it’s like we gotta get rid of all of this…(laughter) There’s no way – there is no way that we can expect to get rid of racism, no way we can expect to get rid of homophobia, without an abolitionist posture. So this is the message I want to bring to you today – on the behalf of all of my sisters and brothers and comrades who’ve been fighting for the abolition of the prison-industrial-complex for decades… We have to be 21st century abolitionists… How does that sound?

Applause….fade out