Justin Adkins is a 33 year old man who is Assistant Director of the Williams Multicultural Center at prestigious Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, the nation's top liberal arts college according to U.S. News & World Report's well-known college rankings. Mr. Adkins felt great sympathy with the "Occupy Wall Street" protests occurring in New York City, and he has twice taken the long trip down to participate in the protests.
Mr. Adkins, along with many others, was arrested on October 1st on the Brooklyn Bridge.
But Mr. Adkins was not simply a protester to the New York Police who arrested him and took him to a police station in Brooklyn.
He was a zoo specimen to be chained to a wall, his arm sometimes painfully twisted behind his back, for over eight hours in a foully unclean toilet, without food or water, and a source of amusement as police officers pointed him out, sadistically laughing and giggling at him because of his transgender identity.
What of the Constitution and the Law?
While no one thinks that a police station accommodating a large influx of protester detainees will have hotel-type accommodations, it is assumed by reason of the United States Constitution and New York City law that citizens who are detained and who act respectfully will receive a certain modicum of respect. The United States Constitution demands that "no state shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." And in 2002, almost ten years ago, the New York City Council amended the human rights law to include transgender people. The City Council found and declared that:
"it is in the interest of the City of New York to protect its citizens from discrimination. Discrimination, prejudice, intolerance and bigotry directly and profoundly threaten the rights and freedom of New Yorkers. The City Council established the Human Rights Law to protect its inhabitants from these dangers ... This local law is intended to make clear that all gender-based discrimination --including, but not limited to, discrimination based on an individual's actual or perceived sex, and discrimination based on an individual's gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior, or expression -- constitutes a violation of the City's Human Rights Law."
In December 2004, the New York City Commission on Human Rights issued guidelines prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity by both private and government actors in the form of unwelcome verbal or physical conduct, including, but not limited to, derogatory comments, jokes, touching or gestures. The New York City Commission on Human Rights said that transgender individuals should be addressed with names, titles, pronouns, and other terms appropriate to their gender identity.
There are still no NYPD procedures for trans detainees.
Though trans advocates have tried mightily to put guidelines in place for the New York City Police Department, NYPD has failed and refused to put guidelines in place on the treatment of transgender prisoners almost ten years after the New York City Council passed the law that protects trans people from discrimination. When will they do so? My request for information to NYPD about their guidelines for trans prisoners has not yet been answered as of the time of this writing.
Police abuse of LGBT people in the United States is widespread, as detailed in Amnesty International's 2005 report "Stonewalled : Police abuse and misconduct against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the U.S." In a lawsuit currently pending against New York City, Tikkum v. NYC, it has also been alleged that NYPD uses strip search and other improper techniques for purposes of assigning gender to transgender detainees. (Thankfully, that did not occur in this instance.)
This echoes the letter to the editor of the New York Times published yesterday, written by Robert Gangi, Director of the Police Reform Organizing Project of the Urban Justice Center, in which he points out that New York City police too often harass LGBT people and other members of marginalized groups.
"Young black and brown men stopped and frisked for no apparent reason; people in psychiatric crisis thrown to the ground, handcuffed and locked up; gay and transgender people harassed as they enter a local community center; sex workers arrested simply for carrying condoms; street vendors fined and arrested for violating arbitrarily enforced minor rules; and homeless people roughed up and apprehended for sleeping on a park bench. One characteristic joins the people subjected to these harsh practices: they are members of marginalized groups viewed as powerless to oppose police abuse effectively. New York City should help and protect the vulnerable people in its midst, not use its police force to ostracize and punish them."
When will the NYPD put guidelines in place to ensure that treatment like that endured by Justin Adkins, and worse, is no longer allowed?
Justin Adkins' Story
Here is Justin Adkins' story. It's not a story like that of Abner Louima, bloodied and severely injured by a police baton shoved into his rectum and paraded by laughing NYC police officers, who were first acquitted of charges by a biased local court and then finally brought to justice by the intervention of federal authorities. It's not the story of Norman Batista, who was beaten by police so severely that the doctors at the hospital to which he was eventually transported found the police version of "resisting arrest" inherently incredible, noting his many broken bones and crushed body parts, and testified for the prosecution (though the police "code of silence" made a conviction impossible). It's not a story of macing innocent protesters who did nothing to justify such actions, and has been in the national news recently by virtue of video taken by brave bystanders, who risked beatings and arrest, and some of whom were beaten and arrested. But this story nonetheless deserves to be heard and addressed, because it raises issues about how police treat people who are different, when they think they can get away with it.
Mr. Adkins' story deserves to be heard, even if the harassment was relatively minor compared to some of the abuses perpetrated by an out-of-control police force, emboldened by the "thin blue line" of police silence in the face of abuses by their own. It is in stories like Mr. Adkins' that we find the seeds of more serious abuses. It is in the attitudes of poorly trained police with no guidelines on how to treat trans detainees, treating someone like a zoo specimen, chaining them to a railing in painful positions with no food and water for eight hours, sadistically laughing and giggling at them. It is fortunate that Mr. Adkins did not respond angrily to this abuse, which would have been a natural response by many to such treatment for it is not at all conceivable that he could have been tortured much worse while other police participated or turned their backs, confident in the knowledge that no other officer would speak up after he "failed to follow the lawful command of a police officer," or some other legal mumbo-jumbo that police often use to justify their legal right to use force on detainees. As police practices scholar Jerome Skolnick has said, the pervasive "code of silence" among police "sustain[s] an oppositional criminal subculture protecting the interest of police who violate the criminal law."
Here is the story of Justin Adkins in his own words:
My name is Justin Adkins. I am 33 years old, with a Bachelor's degree in Information Systems Management, and I am the Assistant Director of the of the Williams Multicultural Center at Williams College. I am a transgender man who was arrested at the Occupy Wall Street Protest on October 1st on the Brooklyn Bridge. This was my first arrest. This was the second weekend I participated in the Occupy Wall Street protest. I have been coming down on the weekends because I work two full-time jobs to make ends meet.
I was toward the front of the march and after being trapped by the police on the bridge and, watching as they arrested people one-by-one, I went peacefully when it was clear that it was my turn. My arresting officer, Officer Creer, found out I was born female when I yelled that information to the legal observer on the bridge. My arresting officer asked what I meant when I told the legal observer that I was "transgender." I told him that I was born female. He asked what "I had down there". Since it is a rude and embarrassing question to ask someone about their genitals no matter what the situation, I simply told him again "I was born female". He asked, appropriately, if I wanted a male or female officer to pat me down. I told him it was fine if he patted me down. He then turned and asked a female officer, I believe her name is Officer Verga, to pat me down, explaining to her that I was transgender. She patted me down and then preceded to refer to me as "she" even though I kept correcting her that my preferred pronoun is "he". Luckily, she disappeared after about 40 minutes, as we sat cuffed at the apex of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Once we arrived at Precinct 90 in Brooklyn, the male officer taking everyone's belongings asked if it was ok for him to search me, He was aware that I am transgender from the other officers. I was with a group of 4 other males. I said "yes" and he proceeded to respectfully empty my pockets. They initially put me in a cell with the men I was arrested with. They asked if that was ok with me and I said yes. About 5 minutes after they took the cuffs off and shut the cell door. An officer came back to the cell to move me. When he opened the door and looked my way, I was immediately aware of what was happening. I knew that my transgender status would potentially be an issue at the jail, which is why I told the legal observer that I was transgender. The officer glanced at me motioning to come out of the cell and then told me to put my hands behind my back as my fellow protestors looked on in wonder.
As we walked out past the other protestors waiting to have their pockets emptied, one woman gave me a puzzled look. We had connected on the long drive around Brooklyn, as they tried to figure out where to take us. I told her that it looked like transgender people got "special treatment". And I was correct. Within the first 15 minutes of being at Precinct 90, I was segregated from the rest of the protestors arrested, and my "special treatment" began.
They took me away from the cellblock where they had all of the protestors locked up. I was taken to a room with a toilet and two cells. The larger cell of these two cells had about eight men who had been arrested on charges not related to the protest; the smaller cell was empty. Unlike me, these men had been arrested for a variety of crimes, some violent. (One of the cops mentioned to another that one of the detainees had been arrested for assault on a woman.) They had me sit down in a chair next to the filthy toilet, and handcuffed my right wrist to a metal handrail.
Why was I segregated from all of the other protestors? Perhaps the answer lay in the fact that police officers were coming by to ogle me, and were laughing and giggling at me through a window. It was obvious that prisoners were rarely handcuffed to a railing in this manner, because a number of officers asked a female officer why I was handcuffed to the railing. She told them something, I couldn't hear what, but then, on each of these occasions, they would laugh and giggle while looking at me pointedly.
I assumed this was a temporary arrangement as they tried to find me a separate cell, perhaps as part of some protocol regarding transgender people. That made little sense, though, as there was an empty cell right in the room there. I later discovered that the New York City Police Department does not have any protocols, procedures or guidelines regarding the treatment of transgender people. After about an hour of sitting there chained to the wall next to this foul toilet, I realized that they had no intention of moving me. I remained handcuffed to this bar next to the toilet for the next 8 hours.
I was then treated to a succession of people using that toilet. Every person who had to use the toilet was then brought to use this one next to where they had me locked to the railing. There was no privacy, as the police were not letting them close the stall door. Males using the bathroom were brought in by male officers, and female officers brought in female prisoners, but none of them were allowed to close the door. This was both disgusting and humiliating. The smell of urine and feces was so strong that I, and the other men locked up in the cell in the room, were nauseated by the odor on more than one occasion. It was clear that they had not cleaned the toilet for some time. The slop on the floor evidenced the fact that many, many people had been using this toilet and it hadn't been cleaned at any time in the recent past.
Once they started bringing women in to use the bathrooms, a short young female officer, who was in charge of the room, approached me. My right arm was handcuffed to the rail, and I was facing the toilet. She forcefully turned the chair in which I was sitting to the left, harshly pinning my arm into an armlock position. She told me that she knew it hurt, but she wouldn't let the women close the stall door and she didn't want me watching. My arm was pinned to the wall for several excruciating minutes. I had no interest in watching anyone use the bathroom, and every time the previous people had come in to use the restroom, I had respectfully turned away. But my respect and my cooperativeness were ignored, and I was pinned to the wall by this officer. After the first woman finished using the bathroom, I managed to free my arm, with no help from the officer. This process of people coming in and out to use the restroom went on for the full 8 hours. I had to turn away about twenty times or so each time females came to use the toilet.
I was distinctly treated differently than the other protestors during my entire time at Precinct 90 in Brooklyn. Another example: At one point in the night, the protestors were given a peanut butter sandwich and water by the officers. The guys who were in the cell saw the sandwiches, and they wanted to know if I were getting a sandwich. I asked for a sandwich. In fact, I asked three times. None of the many officers who came in and out of the room where I was handcuffed ever acknowledged my request. I was there for eight hours and had sat on the bridge for about two hours but I was never once offered water or a sandwich when my fellow protestors received both.
At one point the woman I had spoken with earlier was brought into use the toilet. When she entered the room she looked shocked at seeing me handcuffed to the wall. She asked why I was cuffed to the railing. I told her again that it was the "transgender special". Her look told me that she clearly understood that I was being discriminated against because of my transgender status. She asked the female officer in the room why I couldn't be given my own cell, as there was a perfectly empty one right there. The officer, suggesting that perhaps I was violent criminal, said "you don't know why he is locked up here!" The woman said that she did know, and that I should at least be given my own cell if they were not going to house me with the male protestors I was originally arrested with. Of course, there was no response to this by the officer.
Throughout the night it became clear that they wanted my fellow protestors to think that I did something criminally wrong. That I had done something different from them. That I was not just a peaceful protestor exercising my rights on that bridge. That I deserved to be handcuffed to a railing in the side of the precinct that housed violent criminals. Everyone seemed to wonder why I had been separated. When other officers chatted amongst themselves about why I was separated, one officer suspected aloud that I was a "ringleader".
The female officer stood a few times outside the glass wall with the door open as male officers asked about me. It appeared that she told them something humorous, probably that I was transgender, as they gawked, giggled and stared at me. This was embarrassing and humiliating. Only I have the right to out myself as a transgender person. She was using my identity to get a laugh with men who she thought would find me curious and freakish. It felt at these times that I was behind the glass of a freak show where people could come look at the funny transgender guy. I decided that when they looked at me giggling I would just catch them off guard and wave. It at least made the time go by.
At one point in the night a young man who had participated in the earlier NYC "Slutwalk" march, protesting against explaining or excusing rape by referring to a women's clothing, came into use the bathroom wearing a mini-skirt. He was one of the protestors arrested with me on the bridge in the Occupy Wall Street March. The officer escorting him started poking fun at his mini-skirt, attempting to embarass and humiliate him. I told him that he looked good and the skirt was fine. When he sat down to go to the bathroom, the officers laughed even more saying that they had "seen everything tonight". The boisterous and boorish attitude of the officers made me realize that, as much as I needed to urinate, it would be risky. The space did not feel safe. By the time I was released I had not gone to the bathroom for 11 hours.
In the cell where I was initially placed, I felt more than comfortable and safe with the three other men. They were nice and we had a lot in common. If the officers' concern was about my safety, I perceived I was in much more danger in the accommodations they gave me, away from my fellow protestors. Additionally, I was made fun of, gawked at, humiliated and treated differently throughout the entire process.
At about 2 am I was released with a desk appearance ticket and charged with disorderly conduct. To my knowledge, I was the only one out of 70 processed at Precinct 90 who only received only one ticket, for disorderly conduct. The rest received 2 or 3 tickets, including refusing to disperse and blocking a roadway. Why was I treated differently than the other 69 protestors? Perhaps it was because the officers realized that they had punished me enough by their conduct? Perhaps they felt I would give it a pass?
The NYC police department needs to have a protocol and train its officers on how to treat transgender people. No one should experience the blatant discrimination, harassment and embarrassment that I did.