Trans Activist Fights Back Against Police Harassment and Winds Up Changing the System. “I Really Found My Voice.”

by Deja Alvarez

My name is Deja Lynn Alvarez. I’m from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In my early twenties being a trans woman here in Philadelphia, it was actually my birthday and a group of my friends and I decided we were all going to go out that night. We get downtown and we park in a parking garage. It was at 12th and Sanson. And we got out of our vehicles and we saw the officers that we nicknamed Ren and Stimpy back then.

The gayborhood, the neighborhood in Philadelphia where the gay bars are and a lot of the LGBTQ people hung out was supposed to be a safe space and it was a safe space for everybody except for trans people. And we weren’t doing anything wrong. We were down there spending our money and having drinks, just like everybody else.

We came out of the parking garage and as soon as we saw them, they came right up on us, threw us all up against the wall, called a van to come down, put us all in the back of the van. Then they took us down to the sixth district headquarters, held us in there for several hours, so for most of the night. So I spent that birthday sitting in a jail cell with a group of friends just because we were trans. We did absolutely nothing wrong. We were released after a few hours, with no charges, no anything.

So fast forward, years and years and years. It was probably close… between seven and ten years, somewhere around there. Me and one of my best friends, it was a Friday night, it was in the gayborhood and we were coming out of a bar. And as we were coming out, there was a couple other trans… trans women walking past and they were like, “Oh, they’re out here.” And we were like, “Oh, no, we don’t feel like this.” So we knew we were going to head right to the next corner, which was 13th and Locust and flag down the first cab that we could.

And as we’re standing there, coming up 13th. here came one of the cops in the car and he got on the bullhorn or car speaker, whatever you want to call it. And he said, “I told you fucking animals to go the fuck home.”

I don’t know what it was about that moment, honestly, but that moment was kind of my breaking point. I just… I said, “You know what? Fuck you. Your mother’s a fucking animal.” And he said something else on the speaker.  I don’t… I don’t remember something about getting out and fucking me up or something.

And I was like, “Really? Well, then leave your gun and your badge in your car and get the fuck out of your car.” And when he got out of the car, he came running towards me in my face. I’m in his face. And then other officers came up, and when the other officers came up, my – one of my best friends that was with me and was like, “Oh no, you’re not going to jump her.” And so she stepped in and it turned into a bit of a tussle.

Once they got me in handcuffs, they put me in the back of the car with the cop that I was just fighting. He’s telling me to shut the fuck up. They’ll find my body behind a fucking dumpster and nobody will fucking care. He’ll knock all my teeth out.

And at this point I’m so angry, I don’t care if I’m in handcuffs, I’m pushing back and I’m like, “Fuck you. Like, I have a family that loves me. My family will not rest until they find out what happened to me.” So we got to the headquarters. They had my… my best friend as well. And when they took us into the headquarters, as we were going in, they’re still arguing with us. They’re calling us names: faggots and shims, and he-shes and men and all this other stuff.

There was a… a sergeant that was often on the night shift. He was a very nice guy. He didn’t judge us or at least me, because I was trans. He heard the yelling and then he heard my voice and he came around the corner. He’s like, “Deja?” And he’s like, “What are you doing here?”

And I was like, “Sarge! Bah-bah-bah.” And I just started like going off and telling him what had happened. He was like, “Just calm down, just calm down, just calm down.” So I did. I calmed down. And he goes in the back and… with the couple of officers that brought us in. He came back out and they had citations and he said, “Listen, just sign this and then you can go home.”

And I thought about it for a minute. And my girlfriend was like, “Okay.” And I was like, “Uh uh. Wait a minute. No, we’re not signing this. I’m not signing this shit. We didn’t do anything wrong. And I’m tired of it.” They ended up letting us out without even having to sign the citation.

That next morning I started reaching out to any newspaper, news station, any press that would even listen to me. Got ahold of somebody at the PGN, the Philadelphia Gay News. Told my story to him, so he had the story. And then I was on the hunt for a lawyer. Went to the attorney, met with the attorney and then the story got printed and it was on the front page of the PGN.

And then we get a phone call from City Hall. They called us down to City Hall. We go into the meeting room in City Hall. It’s my first time walking into City Hall. And we walk in and it’s a big, giant meeting room with a big giant table with… I don’t know how many chairs around it. And there are all kinds of white shirts, so like lieutenants, captains, whoever, people from internal affairs, people from the mayor’s office. And when we sat down, the… the one person that was speaking pulled out the paper and said, “So this story came out and it alleges…”

I said, “Wait, it doesn’t allege anything. It tells the truth as to what the fuck happened.”

So they read it and then they start saying to us, “Well, you know, this has to be dropped. If you decide to go forward with this, then we’re going to do an investigation on you, your finances, where you live, how you pay your rent, how you pay your bills, how you do this, how you do that.” I literally just looked at them and I laughed and I stood up and I said, “If you brought me down here to intimidate me, you pick the wrong one ‘cause I’m not fucking intimidated by you.” And said fuck you and I walked out of the… out of the room.

And so went back and forth with the lawyer for a while after that, and the lawyer came back with a settlement offer and I said, “Nope, not doing this for the money. There has to be something more out of this than money.”

And so they came back again with a settlement offer, but this time in the settlement offer was an agreement that they were going to start doing sensitivity training with any officers that were stationed in the gayborhood on how to deal with trans people, what rules they had to follow, all of those kinds of things. And for me, that was a big win.

When they came with that offer, I felt empowered. I felt like, you know what, fighting back and standing up can get results. And so we signed off on the paperwork and we move forward from there. They started doing the trainings. Things definitely started to change in the gayborhood. And so I started telling all the other community members, you know, anytime we would see them, “Hey, if the officers harass you, call me. If the officers are bothering you, call me.” Because then I was marching right down to the sixth district and saying, “Hey, this is what’s going on. Hey, this is what’s happening. Hey, this is…” And I just… I really found my voice at that point and started marching forward.

I was no longer afraid to walk down the street. I wasn’t afraid to go in and out of the bars. I wasn’t afraid – if I wanted to hang out on the street, I was allowed to like everybody else in the city. And so that was… that was very, very empowering for me. And that… that was  the first time that I discovered that feeling and that kind of power as a trans person, that just because the rest of the world doesn’t understand who we are and doesn’t respect who we are, doesn’t mean that  we can’t make change and that we can’t push back.

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