Memphis Police Officer Beats Transgender Suspect

by Cara on June 23, 2008

in assholes, bigotry, law enforcement, LGBTQ, misogyny, patriarchy, trans, transphobia and trans misogyny, violence against women and girls

I’m admittedly a bit behind on the news lately, but I’m disturbed that I haven’t seen this story anywhere else: via HuffPo, a Memphis police officer was caught on tape beating a suspect named Duanna Johnson (h/t).  Johnson, who was arrested for prostitution, is a black transgender woman.  You can view the video here (trigger warning).

A summary: Johnson was punched repeatedly by the officer.  At the time, he was holding his handcuffs wrapped around his knuckles.  Another officer came over, and instead of helping Johnson or pulling his colleague off of her, he held her shoulders down, pinning her to the chair and preventing her from using her arms to protect herself.  When the first officer drew blood from Johnson’s head, she freed herself, leaped up and swung back.  When she ended up sitting back down, the officer punched her again and sprayed her in the face with mace.

What did Johnson do to “deserve” the beating? She made the mistake of respecting herself enough to not respond to the officer’s calls of “faggot” and “he-she.”

That reasoning used by the officer to justify beating another human being — a human being in custody, it also bears noting — doesn’t surprise me.  It outrages me yes, but surprises, no.  The type of hateful person who would refer to Johnson in this manner to begin with was clearly on a power trip.  He believed that he was in a position to do whatever he liked — and saw in Johnson a person he deemed to be of lower value than himself.  When she refused to accept the social order that he laid out, he perceived it as a deep personal affront and felt the need to reestablish his superiority.  With violence.

And, I’m sure his thinking went, why not?  She is a black transgender woman and possible sex worker (the charges of prostitution were dropped; Johnson seems to have made no comment on them): who is going to give a shit?  The video shows us that the other officers didn’t — and neither did the nurse, who left Johnson calling out in pain, bleeding and blinded by mace in order to tend to a scratch on the back of the assaulting officer’s head.  What we’ve got here are those in the most important and trusted positions in our society using their power for abuse.  A police officer beat a woman, another officer held her down, officers in the background did nothing, and medical personnel refused her treatment.  No wonder Johnson was terrified.  I’m terrified.

Johnson did absolutely, positively nothing wrong here.  But her experience does serve as a sad reminder that standing up to oppression is risky business.  What we see on this tape is the result of such bigoted reasoning, the consequence of transphobia, homophobia, racism, misogyny and anti-sex worker sentiment.  It’s the consequence of creating a police force of officers who are allowed and encouraged to use force at will, who believe that they are invincible and above the law themselves.  Violence.  That no one stopped the assaulting officer, in my opinion, tells us a lot more about what’s going on in the Memphis Police Department than the assault itself does.  Horrifying, petrifying, yet seemingly systematic and routine violence.

According to the Memphis Police Department, the officer who held Johnson down was apparently already on probation, and has been let go.  The officer who committed the assault is on “non-enforcement status pending an administrative hearing.”  There is no word about either men facing criminal charges, but the FBI has apparently gotten involved in some way.

Again, and to all of this: I am saddened, and I am furious.  But I am not surprised.


1 Kristen June 23, 2008 at 3:15 pm

This is fucking sick. Every single human being who witnessed this and did nothing should be publicly shamed as the evil assholes they are.

2 Rachel June 23, 2008 at 4:49 pm


3 GallingGalla June 24, 2008 at 1:48 am

This incident reiterates why I will never report anything to the police and why I will never seek emergency medical care from hospitals if I can at all avoid it.

The police are the enemy of everybody except white, well-off hetero cis men; those are the only people the police care to protect. (Jessica Hoffman has an article about this in Make/Shift mag, see the article “On Prisons, Borders, Safety, and Privilege: Open Letter to White Feminists”).

Please, nobody tell me about those “decent cops”. Where are they and why aren’t they standing up against the brutality of their fellow officers?

4 Rachel June 24, 2008 at 7:14 am

I wish I could tell you you’re wrong. My father was a police officer for 25 years. I want to believe he was a “decent cop.” I want to believe he would have stepped in to a situation like this to put a stop to it.

I know you’re right.

5 Anna June 24, 2008 at 10:38 am

GallingGalla, I hear that.

It’s “hard” for me because I’ve been taught my whole life that police officers are there to protect me and be my friend and to trust them, but the more I examine things the more I realise how I’m a nice white lady and of course I can “trust” the police. But trusting the police and the hospitals to be on the side of everyone is pathetically priviledged.

This stuff keeps happening. It’s not a bug, it’s the damned system, and I just don’t know what to do about it to get noise out there and get people who have the priviledge to start working for those who don’t.

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