Why Should LGBT Communities Care about the Deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner?

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December 12, 2014

When people ask me this question, I remind them that we are no strangers to violence and profiling at the hands of the police.

Police violence has harmed LGBT communities in innumerable ways and catalyzed us into action, starting with the police raid of the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, after which the LGBT patrons mobilized in peaceful and violent protests. The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner are an LGBT issue because LGBT communities are also black and brown; or we are allies, and our commitment to full equality does not discriminate.

Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court case that struck down all sodomy laws nationwide, at its core, is also a police misconduct case. Police officers invaded the private home of John Lawrence and arrested him and Tyron Garner for supposedly engaging in private, consensual sexual activity. Police misconduct is an LGBT issue because all too frequently LGBT people are targets of police profiling and police violence.

But we cannot talk about police misconduct without talking about race. The reaction to the failure to indict the officers responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner is a public manifestation of racial injustice that some must confront every day. We protest not only the invaluable loss of life of a teenager and a father of five, we protest the systemic and structural injustices, so often invisible, that lead to the disparate deaths of black and brown people at the hands of the police; that cause children of color to be disciplined more frequently at school for the same misbehavior; that result in black and brown people in the criminal justice system receiving harsher sentences for similar crimes; that privileges people with lighter skin as they move through the world and interact with the government, schools, police and courts.

Lambda Legal recently released Protected and Served?, a national survey that documents the problems faced by LGBT people in interacting with the government, including the police. The racial disparities are striking. 24% of respondents of color, 22% of transgender and gender non-conforming respondents, and 25% of low-income respondents reporting face-to-face contact with police in the past five years experienced verbal assault, compared to 12% of all LGBT respondents. The survey also looked at harassment and assault. Two percent of LGBT-identified respondents who had contact with the police, reported being physically assaulted. This number doubled for respondents of color and for transgender and gender non-conforming respondents of all races. The numbers were even higher for low-income and HIV-affected respondents. Distrust of the police is compounded by their all too frequent inadequate response to reports of violence and property crimes in communities of color.

We cannot ignore police violence, and we cannot ignore race. Lambda Legal will continue our work to address the structural flaws that lead to police misconduct.