As the sun set over the Transgender Memorial Garden in the Tower Grove neighborhood late last month, members of St. Louis’ transgender community, supporters and advocates expressed frustration, sadness and a strong will to resist as they gathered to mourn the death of Kenneth “Kiwi” Herring, a black transgender woman.
Two officers fatally shot Herring Aug. 23 as they investigated reports of a stabbing at Herring’s apartment building in the 5200 block of Ridge Avenue.
At the second of two vigils following Herring’s death, speakers passionately urged people to remember and honor Herring and continue a long fight against transphobia in social institutions, workplaces and relationships.
Advocates say Herring’s death highlights a history of violence perpetrated against people who are transgender, and particularly transgender people of color, as well as complex tensions between the community and police.
Concern over police interactions with people who are transgender is a national issue that Herring’s death brings home. Across the nation, 19 transgender people have been murdered so far this year and reports of violence have grown steadily in recent years, according to GLAAD, the LGBTQ advocacy group. In 2016, 27 transgender people were murdered.
Transgender respondents to a 2015 national survey reported a significant level of harassment by police officers. More than half the survey participants said they were uncomfortable asking police for help.
According to police reports, the officers who responded to Herring’s apartment fired their weapons at her after Herring swung a knife at one of them, cutting the officer on his arm.
Herring’s death was part of a continuum of violence against people who did not receive adequate protection from police, writer Joss Barton said at the second vigil for Herring.
“If the history of this country was adequately recorded, her name would be in a long list of trans women, trans folks, people of color, gender nonconforming people that have been killed and murdered by this state,” Barton said.
Herring’s death highlights a question in the LGBTQ community: Should transgender people worry about interacting with police?
Barton said Herring’s death came as a blow to the community but wasn’t a complete shock given the circumstances of her death.
“Sadly it means business as usual,” Barton said. “This is nothing new for trans people of color, especially trans women of color.”
Police said they could not comment about the circumstances of Herring’s death as the case is still under investigation. But St. Louis Police Department’s LGBT liaisons, Lt. Alana Hauck said since January more than 1,000 officers have received training in how to interact with members of the LGBTQ community with sensitivity. Officers also have learned that members of the transgender community are upset when police mislabel transgender people with the wrong pronoun, she said.
Hauk said that the department is aware of community concerns and wanted to stress that anyone calling to report a crime will be treated with “extreme compassion” regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, or identity. She said the department does not tolerate discrimination.
The department does not plan to address community concerns following Herring’s death, Hauk said, but she encourages people with concerns to contact police.
But Barton said Herring should never have died during the police encounter.
“This really reinforces this narrative in America that if you’re a trans person especially a trans woman, then the state and the law and justice is really not on your side,” Barton said.
Even before Herring’s death, the statewide LGTBQ organization PROMO had received calls from around the state asking for advice and resources for interacting with law enforcement, Executive Director Steph Perkins said.
Research and studies indicate transgender people of color — particularly transgender women of color — are at an increased level of risk in encounters with police.
However, Perkins said some members of the community are concerned law enforcement won’t take their complaints seriously because officers distrust or don’t understand the LGBTQ community. Others — informed by their own experiences or the experiences of friends and family — worry about an increased likelihood of violence when police arrive.
Stories of discrimination and violence are common in the transgender community, Perkins said.
“People see this and are afraid to go to law enforcement, even in places where law enforcement are trained and willing and happy to help them and competent when it comes to LGBT communities,” Perkins said.
People are scared, Perkins said, because almost everyone in the community has either experienced discrimination or violence directly or knows someone who has.
“If you just look at what things are happening around you, people of color are more often met with violence and met with death when they meet with law enforcement, and trans people are more often met with heightened escalation to violence than people that are not transgender, and particularly trans women of color,” Perkins said. “Even if that’s just knowledge that you have, you’re automatically less likely and less willing to seek help from law enforcement or to be more worried when you do need to seek help from law enforcement.”
For Barton, vigils and homegrown activism could provide a foundation for the broader public to better understand the violence transgender people of color experience.
“Hopefully these incidents help spur a wider conversation and a wider movement of people that incorporate not just the trans people of color and the trans women in particular that have been doing this work for so long,” Barton said. “But includes people that are not getting surveilled, that are not getting arrested, that don’t face the crippling poverty and abuse that trans people and trans women of color face in this country.”