Transgender Woman’s Beating Sparks Debate Over Hate Crime Laws

Activists say the laws reinforce violence against queer and transgender people and disproportionately fill U.S. prisons with people of color.

By Jamilah King Apr 26, 2011

Two people have been arrested in the brutal beating of a transgender woman outside of a Baltimore-area McDonald’s restaurant. Video of the beating went viral last week and has sparked outrage in the LGBT community. But it’s also sparked tense dialogue among activists of color over the effectiveness of hate crime prosecutions, which many argue reinforce violence against queer and transgender people and disproportionately fill U.S. prisons with people of color.

Chrissy Lee Polis, 22, was viciously beaten by two teenage girls after allegedly trying to use the women’s restroom at the McDonald’s restaurant. Police arrested 18-year-old Teonna Monae Brown on charges of first and second degree assault. An unidentified 14-year-old girl was also arrested and charged in juvenile court. The case has stirred discussion of race, since the victim appears to be white while the assailants seem to be black.

The video shows Polis being kicked and punched in the head by two people until she apparently goes into seizure. One employee did try to intervene, but the Baltimore Sun reports that other witnesses simply stood and watched, while some are even seen laughing.

Sandy Rawls, founding director of Trans-United, a Baltimore-based group that fights discrimination against transgender people, said people hate what they do not understand. "When people see us, they don’t understand us. So it’s an educational problem," Rawls, a trans woman who lives about a mile from the McDonald’s, said according to The Root. She also blamed "a violent culture."

That violent culture is at the center of discussion around what should happen to the people responsible for the attack. Vernon Hackett, the 22-year-old McDonald’s employee who originally shot the video took to Twitter to defend the beating, and has since been fired. "That was not a female getting beat up, that was a man," the former employee wrote. "He was in the female’s bathroom knowing he was a man." McDonald’s later issued a statement calling the beating "sad" and "reprehensible."

Yet Polis describes the attack differently in a videotaped interview with the Baltimore Sun:

"I wanted to go use the bathroom and the guy told me that I needed to order something before I had to use the bathroom. Well, by the time I got there I was really needing to use the bathroom. So a guy approached me and asked me how I was doing, so I said ‘not now.’ I went to go use the bathroom. Come back out and the girl spit in my face and she approached me, she said, ‘Are you trying to talk to my man?’ I said, ‘No, I didn’t even know that was your man at all. So the other girl came up and spit in my face and they started ripping my hair, throwing me on the floor, kicking me in my face."

Polis also says that all of the McDonald’s workers who witnessed the attack "sat there and watched." While currently has a petition up demanding that the employees who were on duty also be held responsible for the beating (a previous version had called for the employees to be charged as accessories), others don’t see criminalization as the solution. These advocates cite that prisons are among the most transphobic institutions around and arguing that prosecutions often serve only to pit black and brown assailants against white LGBT people. Jos Truitt writes at Feministing:

Hate crime laws are disproportionately used in this way, to target those with less power along a specific identity line. The attack was clearly about gender, but hate crime laws exist in a system that criminalizes people simply for being trans or a person of color – or very often both.

… The Sylvia Rivera Law Project is doing vital work highlighting prisons as a site of violence experienced by trans folks. Locking up violent transphobes and people who cheer them on doesn’t actually protect trans folks from violence – there’s a great potential for exposing the most vulnerable in our community to increased attacks inside prisons. Police and prisons aren’t there to protect marginalized folks, and those who have had the privilege to experience these systems as working for them, not against them, would do well to consider the reality of folks with less relative power and privilege.

A vigil was held on Monday outside of the McDonald’s where the attack occurred. Organizers highlighted the fact that the Maryland Senate failed to pass a bill that would have outlawed discrimination against transgender people in housing, employment and public accommodations.