Illustration for article titled Tony McDade Was an ‘Imperfect’ Victim of Police Brutality. It’s Exactly Why He Matters
Photo: Rodger Bosch (AFP)

In the week that has passed since Tony McDade’s killing at the hands of a Tallahassee police officer, everything and nothing has changed.

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A militarized police force has met waves of protest with unfathomable violence. Curfews have cropped up in many cities, including Atlanta, Minneapolis, New York City, Louisville, Oakland and Miami. At the mercy of the police and the government of officials that have weaponized and empowered them, millions of Americans are living in martial law in all but name.

In the streets of Minnesota on June 1, Iyanna Dior, a black trans woman participating in the Black Lives Matter protests, was beaten by a mob of “anywhere from 15 to 30 cisgender assailants, mostly male,” while many bystanders chose not to intervene, reports Out. There have been no reports of arrests associated with the violence, writes the outlet, which chose not to embed or share the video of Dior’s beating.

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The attack on Dior is a terrifying recall to the circumstances of McDade’s death: days before being shot by police, McDade, a trans man, was also the subject of a “brutal attack,” the Tallahassee Democrat reported last week. Afterward McDade posted a live video on Facebook saying he wanted revenge on a group of men who had jumped him.

“You killed me,” he said on the video, according to The Advocate. “I’m gonna kill you…I’m living suicidal right now.” In that video, McDade also predicted a standoff with the police.

On the morning of May 27, police say McDade tried to make good on his promise of revenge. At 10:45 a.m., police responded to a report about a stabbing at the Leon Arms apartment complex: McDade was identified as a suspect and was said to be armed with a knife and handgun.

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As the Advocate reports, McDade had already been arrested several times before his death and had recently served time. He was released from prison in early January for a weapons charge; Tallahassee station WCTV reports he had pledged to never return.

Among trans black people, McDade is far from alone in this experience. A 2012 report from Lambda Legal found that half of all black trans people have been imprisoned (for trans folks as a whole, that ratio was 1 in 6). As Deputy Director for Transgender Justice Chase Strangio told The Root in 2019, this statistic doesn’t occur in a vacuum: it is a direct result of marginalization; of the compounded impacts of interpersonal and state violence trans black people face as they move through the world.

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“We have people being funneled into prisons and jails because of employment discrimination, housing discrimination, family rejection and other factors that lead people to have criminal legal system involvement,” Strangio said.

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Prison terms are by no means rehabilitative. In fact, much evidence shows they only compound and multiply violence. It is torture as routine—dehumanization as a form of “accountability.” The complete lack of pretense about what prison is can be seen in the most mundane statistics. Those incarcerated are charged in increasingly creative, cruel ways for interacting with the outside world; in its nonexistent education budgets; and in the banning of important social justice texts and black narratives. In this equation, as in others, trans people suffer disproportionate harm.

Once incarcerated, trans people suffer disturbingly high rates of sexual and physical violence, especially when one considers that trans inmates typically underreport the violence they face. Strangio cited a study in a California men’s prison that found over 60 percent of trans women placed in men’s facilities experienced sexual assault while incarcerated.

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These are rates that are just so staggering,” he said. “And untenable in terms of both the legal standards but also our sort of moral and ethical obligations as a society.”

This context is important to understanding McDade’s mindset on May 27: His choices were shaped by systemic violence long before a Tallahassee officer pulled up and pointed a weapon at him. It’s worth noting that what we know about the TPD itself points toward deep systemic issues. McDade’s killing was the third deadly police shooting in less than two months. The two most recent killings happened within eight days of each other. That this isn’t a bigger story is indicative of how routine these shootings actually are, nationwide.

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The frequency is an important piece of this puzzle, especially as misinformation clouds the circumstances of his fatal shooting. The first thing you’ll notice in all the reports of McDade’s death is how much is obscured, largely by the police but also in part by the local media that first reported his death. This veil around his death—misgendered, with no transparency about who killed him—is a form of violence, too. If one dares to judge McDade for resorting to violence, one also needs to examine all the ways violence—anti-black, anti-trans, interpersonal, state-sanctioned or state-enabled—collided with his life.

The media, of course, can either extend or disrupt this violence. Jezebel’s Joan Summers succinctly captured the posthumous devaluing of McDade’s humanity in a recent piece for the site:

Trans people are denied safety in their lives, but they are stripped of peace even in death, their identities picked apart and questioned with more scrutiny than the events surrounding their murders. In its report of his death, the Tallahassee Democrat misgendered McDade and employed his dead name in service of a narrative of him as an unreliable victim, speaking with residents who claimed he “wore men’s clothes but identified as a woman.” WFSU, a Florida public news outlet, also misgendered McDade.

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In explaining why they had misgendered McDade, WFSU said they were deferring to the police account of what happened. This emphasizes a more pervasive problem in media: our over-reliance on law enforcement accounts of crimes—a relationship that is rightly being called into question as police departments across the country try to deny or spin the violence they’ve exacted upon the protesters who dare challenge them to be accountable.

Despite the institutional attempts to erase his life, thanks to black trans activists, McDade’s name has been lifted up alongside other victims of police brutality and state-enabled violence: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, David McAtee, Atatiana Jefferson, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and many, many more. These protests have also pushed once-radical notions into the mainstream. The push to defund or divest from the police has extended well beyond small social activist circles into large public forums. Calls to defund the police were shouted at LAPD Chief Michel Moore on a Zoom conference call this week. Appearing on a panel alongside former President Barack Obama, Minneapolis City Councilman Phillippe Cunningham said his constituents were largely behind defunding. And as LGBTQ individuals recognize Pride Month, there’s been greater recognition of the movement’s radical, black roots: “Pride is a riot,” one prominent sign declared near the Stonewall protest march held Tuesday. One in which black trans women played a pivotal role.

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It matters that a petition calling for justice for Tony McDade has amassed over a million signatures in less than a week. It matters precisely because McDade led a life that defies the two-dimensional ways we typically prefer to view victims of state violence.

The very idea of a perfect victim—unarmed and therefore “innocent,” meek and therefore worth of protecting—upholds these systemic assaults on black and trans lives. It emphasizes that only certain people are worth mourning, are worth fighting for.

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The trans advocates who have rallied around Tony McDade stand in defiance of that notion—and it is imperative to support them in that opposition. If this fight against police brutality and state-enabled violence is to be complete, to be sufficiently radical so that it is materially useful to trans black people, then it is contingent upon people who aren’t trans to understand the continuum of violence that defines trans life in America.

Tony McDade’s life, like Breonna Taylor’s, like Nina Pop’s, like Atatiana Jefferson’s, like George Floyd’s, is specific and sacred. None of them died to teach us lessons or make us better people—a framing that is currently being floated with regard to Floyd’s death, and that should be avoided at all costs. McDade did not die to awaken America to its myriad sins. He died because an officer, thus far still shielded from having his name released, raised his weapon and killed him. And if we are to fight the sort of systemic violence that marred McDade’s life and his death, trans black people like him need not just be honored in the movement for black lives with chants and signs, but listened to, centered, and—above all—protected.

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Looking for ways to advocate for black lives? Check out this list of resources by our sister site Lifehacker for ways to get involved. To donate to Tony McDade’s memorial fund, go here. Information on how to directly support black trans protesters can be found here.

Staff writer, The Root.

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