Last week, Tennessee Governor-elect Bill Haslam named Memphis prosecutor Bill Gibbons (left), a fellow Republican, as his safety commissioner. The state safety commissioner oversees state law enforcement, homeland security, and the highway patrol.
While Gibbons’ record as a strong death penalty advocate who believes that inmates should have fewer opportunities to file appeals for their lives is certainly disconcerting, to say the least, a state safety commissioner appointment is still not a high-coverage event on feminist or social justice blogs. The tipping point, however, is not his frightening views on the death penalty, but his actual record as Memphis District Attorney, which shows a strong tendency towards discriminatory behavior against transgender victims of violent crimes. At her blog, Polerin reproduces a press release from the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition, again copied below:
For Immediate Release: Dated December 10, 2010
Transphobic Politician Appointed to New Governor’s Cabinet
The Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition (TTPC) is extremely disappointed with the announcement this week that Governor-Elect Bill Haslam is appointing Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons as the new Commissioner of Safety and Homeland Security.
Mr. Gibbons has repeatedly demonstrated a lack of concern over the safety of transgender people, especially African American transgender women, in Memphis.
After the February 2006 arrest of D’Andre Blake for second degree murder in killing Tiffany Berry, a 21 year old pre-operative transsexual, Blake remained free for two and a half years on a mere $20,000 bond even after he admitted to friends that he had killed Berry because she had “touched” him. On July 28, 2008, Blake was arrested again on the charges of first degree murder and aggravated child abuse in the death of his two year old daughter, Dre-Ona Blake, over “potty training.”
In an even more highly publicized case in June 2008, Gibbons’ office refused to file criminal charges against two Memphis Police Department officers who insulted and brutally beat Duanna Johnson, an African American transgender woman on February 12, 2008. The U.S. Department of Justice eventually filed criminal charges in Federal District Court of West Tennessee against Officer Bridges McRae, but Gibbons’ Office has still refused to take any criminal action in the case on behalf of the state.
Mr. Gibbons’ indifference to the safety of transgender people in Memphis has contributed to the perception that Memphis may be the most dangerous city in the country for transgender people.
Now, he will be responsible for the safety of all transgender people across the entire state.
Unfortunately, there is no legislative confirmation process in Tennessee for Cabinet officers, so this means that Mr. Gibbons will automatically assume his new position on January 15, but we do feel that Mr. Gibbons is totally inapprorpriate for this positon given his anti-transgender record. The continued refusal of his current office to stand against anti-transgender police brutality, and the lack of action in bringing D’Andre Blake to trial for the murder of Tiffany Berry nearly five years after the initial arrest and confession, is all the more appalling as anti-trans violence continues to plague the state, as the recent beating of Akasha Adonis in Jackson illustrates so vividly.
The Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition (TTPC) will have its bill back next year before the Tennessee General Assembly to add “gender identity or expression” to the state’s own hate crimes law. It is time for the State of Tennessee to go on record and state that violence against trans people has no place in the Volunteer State.
The 107th Tennessee General Assembly convenes on Tuesday, January 11. We urge all Tennesseans to contact your state legislators immediately and tell them it is time to take a stand against anti-trans violence in Tennessee, especially now that one of the key officials responsible is indifferent to the safety of transgender people.
As the press release notes, Memphis is something of a hotbed of transphobic violence. The failure to treat hate-motivated violence against trans persons as seriously as crimes against cis victims, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, contributes both to the perception and reality that trans people, particularly trans women, and particularly still black trans women, cannot count on their safety being valued or protected.
In the case of Tiffany Berry’s murder, TTPC has held Gibbons’ directly responsible for not, in his capacity as District Attorney, being more aggressive in scheduling a court date for her alleged — and allegedly confessed — murderer D’Andre Blake. Though the murder was committed in 2006, and the original court date was set for 2007, the trail has still not been rescheduled.
As for Duanna Johnson, her case has been covered extensively at this blog. While her murder and related culpability for the failure to lay any charges is a more ambiguous topic, the police beating that caused her name to first make headlines is far more straightforward. The video clearly and unarguably shows a uniformed, on-duty police officer beating a woman in the face with handcuffs wrapped around his knuckles, unprovoked and for reasons that do not even begin to border on self-defense. The video shows an outright assault — against a vulnerable person in custody, no less — and irrefutably enough for even the highly transphobic federal government to take action against the assailant. And yet, Gibbons both initially and continually refused to file charges himself.
The fact that Gibbons not only has a track record of not taking violence against trans women seriously, but also of not taking violence committed by police officers seriously when his new job places him in charge of state law enforcement, sends a chill up the spine.
It’s also worth noting that all of this inaction occurred during a tenure which Gibbons praises himself as having been “tough on crime.” Tough on crime rhetoric doesn’t generally appeal to me in the first place — it rarely means anything other than promoting the prison industrial complex by targeting and criminalizing people of color. “Tough on crime” is hardly ever about actually making communities safer. But I think it is telling and notable that the crimes Gibbons was “tough” on certainly aren’t ones of horrific violence committed against black trans women. It’s significantly less likely but not outside the realms of possibility that a cis victim would have been treated the same way. But a white cis man? Not in this kyriarchy.
Frankly, at this point I don’t expect any better from U.S. justice systems. And from Republicans, I don’t even expect the veneer of attempting to “do better” when it comes to blatantly oppressive practices. But we certainly should be able to expect more, and trans citizens, who are currently left so unsafe, need more. This appointment is a huge and dangerous disappointment for the state of Tennessee.