Error message

  • Warning: simplexml_load_string(): Entity: line 1: parser error : Start tag expected, '<' not found in soundcloudfield_field_formatter_view() (line 423 of /home/crossro4/public_html/sites/all/modules/soundcloudfield/soundcloudfield.module).
  • Warning: simplexml_load_string(): {"version":1.0,"type":"rich","provider_name":"SoundCloud","provider_url":"https: in soundcloudfield_field_formatter_view() (line 423 of /home/crossro4/public_html/sites/all/modules/soundcloudfield/soundcloudfield.module).
  • Warning: simplexml_load_string(): ^ in soundcloudfield_field_formatter_view() (line 423 of /home/crossro4/public_html/sites/all/modules/soundcloudfield/soundcloudfield.module).
  • Notice: Trying to get property 'html' of non-object in soundcloudfield_field_formatter_view() (line 427 of /home/crossro4/public_html/sites/all/modules/soundcloudfield/soundcloudfield.module).
  • Notice: Trying to get property 'html' of non-object in soundcloudfield_field_formatter_view() (line 428 of /home/crossro4/public_html/sites/all/modules/soundcloudfield/soundcloudfield.module).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type bool in theme_superfish() (line 1561 of /home/crossro4/public_html/sites/all/modules/superfish/superfish.module).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type bool in theme_superfish() (line 1562 of /home/crossro4/public_html/sites/all/modules/superfish/superfish.module).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type bool in theme_superfish() (line 1565 of /home/crossro4/public_html/sites/all/modules/superfish/superfish.module).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type bool in theme_superfish() (line 1565 of /home/crossro4/public_html/sites/all/modules/superfish/superfish.module).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type bool in theme_superfish() (line 1565 of /home/crossro4/public_html/sites/all/modules/superfish/superfish.module).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type bool in theme_superfish() (line 1565 of /home/crossro4/public_html/sites/all/modules/superfish/superfish.module).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type bool in theme_superfish() (line 1565 of /home/crossro4/public_html/sites/all/modules/superfish/superfish.module).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type bool in theme_superfish() (line 1565 of /home/crossro4/public_html/sites/all/modules/superfish/superfish.module).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type bool in theme_superfish() (line 1565 of /home/crossro4/public_html/sites/all/modules/superfish/superfish.module).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type bool in theme_superfish() (line 1565 of /home/crossro4/public_html/sites/all/modules/superfish/superfish.module).
  • Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type bool in theme_superfish() (line 1565 of /home/crossro4/public_html/sites/all/modules/superfish/superfish.module).
Episode 6: Prison Abolition
Tuesday, July 14, 2020 - 9:00am
  • Summary
  • Transcript

Our guests on this episode of Queering Left are Eisha Love and Benji Hart discussing the carceral state and organizing efforts towards defunding and dismantling the prison industrial complex.

Eisha Love is a Black, transwoman from Chicago’s Westside who was incarcerated in Cook County Jail for nearly four years after being arrested for defending herself in a violent confrontation.

Benji Hart is an author, artist, activist and educator living in Chicago. He was most recently an adult ally organizer with the No Cop Academy Campaign.

Eisha and Benji discuss the violence of the carceral system, the experience of being criminalized, and what building a healthy community free of police and prisons would look like.

The interview is available on SpotifyiTunes, and Stitcher.

Return to the Queering Left homepage.


Jeanne: Welcome to Queering Left, a podcast from Crossroads Fund. I'm Emmanuel Garcia. I'm Jeanne Kracher and we are the hosts of Queering Left. Crossroads Fund is a public foundation in Chicago. We provide funding to community organizations, activists and movements who are working for racial, social and economic justice. For more information, please visit our Web site: crossroadsfund.org.

Our guests on this episode of Queering Left are Eisha Love and Benji Hart discussing the carceral state and organizing efforts towards defunding and dismantling the prison industrial complex.

Eisha Love is a Black, transwoman from Chicago’s Westside who was incarcerated in Cook County Jail for nearly four years after being arrested for defending herself in a violent confrontation.

Benji Hart is an author, artist, activist and educator living in Chicago. He was most recently an adult ally organizer with the No Cop Academy Campaign.

Eisha and Benji discuss the violence of the carceral system, the experience of being criminalized, and what building a healthy community free of police and prisons would look like.

Eisha:  My name is Eisha Love. I identify by pronouns as she and her.

Benji: My name is Benji. Thank you so much for having me, for having both of us. I'm a really big fan of everybody at the table and I go by any pronouns said with respect and identify as a Black,gender non-conforming, femme person.

Emmanuel: And just a little follow up to that. When did you first start identifying as either trans, queer, gender nonconforming,

Eisha:  Well, a woman that happens to be transgender. I started identifying as trans, maybe more so I'd say queer because I was discovering myself. And when you're discovering yourself more so, you kind of like finding out who you really are, what you want to be, who is this person inside that you're trying to discover, you know, who you're going to become? I will say I was queer in my younger days but as I got older, I kind of discovered that I wanted to be this beautiful, bright, Black transwoman. So that's how I came about my transition.

Benji:  I came out as gay when I was 14, so ninth grade, and I actually don't know when I started using the term queer. I know that sort of as as I grew in my identity and began to see my identity as more political and not just individual, gay became less and less relevant and queer felt more empowering to me. As I began to explore my attraction of other people, I realized I wasn't just attracted to cis men. So that also became an important part of identifying as queer for me but my gender identity also came a lot later. I've really only been identifying as gender nonconforming or not cis for three years or four years. So it's been like a much later part in my process as well, that I actually started questioning my gender identity. I think I was questioning my sexuality pretty early on but that's the language that I had been exposed to at that time. So I think it took some growth and some moving through the world and through other circles to be like, oh, I think there's more going on here than just my sexuality or just my sexual identity.

Jeanne:  We decided to do this this series, these discussions with with queer activists, with queer folks who are working in struggle around lots of different issues because of the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. One of the things that we'd like you to talk about if you can, is when did you first learn about Stonewall and how did it impact you when you heard about it?

Eisha:  Recently, I've become a fan of watching the Marsha P. Johnson documentary. It kind of opened me up to understand more because people is like, OK, this is this person. I'm like, wow, I never knew she was. But learning about her and see her publicized on the internet and things like that. She kind of opened a door up to me to kind of understand what Stonewall really was how was this was discovered. I don't really know too much since then I'm interested in trying to figure out what was really going on within a documentary. I'm saying because now then today's times, you've got to really kind of do your research and I kind of know that now. I'm saying you just can't really say things. You've got to go into research and finding out what it's about and like what went on in those times. So, yeah, that's when I really found that, I'm saying there was a lot of people were really trying to stand up for their identity, as was going on today. As trans women, we kind of going through situations and seeing similarities. So, yeah, that's what I feel like I kind of discovered where it started from.

Benji: Again, similar, I think coming out at 14, there was so much history I didn't know and just so much about the larger queer world that I didn't know. Definitely, I have a lot of early memories of feeling like being Black and being queer were diametrically opposed to each other and feeling like I couldn't be both at the same time and. That to be one was to negate the other. It was very confusing to to be navigating that as a very young, Black, queer person. It was actually voguing in the ballroom scene was the first time that I realized not only that Black queer people existed but that we exist in large numbers and have our own culture and have our own community and have our own history. So for that reason, ballroom was really revolutionary for me to discover or learn about for the first time around around when I was 16. I really didn't learn about Stonewall until years later. For me, it was like a similar kind of a feeling, I think, as when I first learned about the ballroom scene but on like an even larger scale where I was like, oh, this Black, queer trans thing goes back even further than I thought. The roots go even deeper than I thought. This event that I kind of vaguely knew about as like queer people fighting for their rights and beginning the the gay rights movement actually was started by Black, immigrant, brown, trans and gender nonconforming people in the same way that the ballroom scene was and actually our history is at the core of all this stuff, not just this one part of it, but literally at the center of all of it, I think was so empowering and so exciting for me to learn as a as a young Black queer person.

Emmanuel: How do you see your own liberation, activism work connected to the participants? I mean, you mentioned Marsha P. Johnson and the ballroom scene. Like, how do you see your life connected to that?

Eisha:  Certain situations, us as trans women, we go through so many obstacles in life, just the ups and downs, just finding ourselves, just being who we are. Getting criticized, getting ridiculed, people not liking us and just all the things that I think that people misunderstand that we are still human, that we tend to lash out and do some crazy things. I would definitely say today, I did lash out as a Black, trans, angry trans woman, you know, of just being tried, of being tired, of being tired, of just people is picking on me for me just being me, you know? So I think that's something there that I think there's going to always have a connection because a lot of girls, they always say to me, like, well, Eisha, I understand what you go through because I'm saying I have those moments. I'll be so angry and I just don't know. You just get ticked-off. I want girls to understand it's ok because we went through so much. Sometimes people just don't understand you get tired and you just lash out on a person and you don't understand it. We need counselling, you need someone to talk to, soothing you a little bit. I think that's the connection I think that we will always have.

Benji:  My story is very different than Eisha's, which will get into, I'm sure. I think for me in some ways, it's really painful that things that Marsha P. and Sylvia Rivera were standing up for in 1969, we're like still fighting for and still lacking and still, you know, needing mass organizing around. At the same time, it makes me feel very rooted and very grounded to be like we are part of a tradition. We are part of a legacy. We're also carrying a fight forward and not letting it drop and not letting it fall or be forgotten. I think part of what's important about coming into your identity as a queer person is that I think queerness pushes us to understand our identities, not just as individuals and not just it's not just about me being myself or getting to live my life freely as an individual. But for me, as a queer person and gender nonconforming person, a Black person, a femme person, like when you start layering everything onto it, for me to be free, for me to live my life in a full, healthy, happy way which I deserve, which I have the right, all of these systems have to change. By me as a multiple oppressed or a multiply marginalized person to demand freedom actually brings freedom for millions of people. It is actually the demands that I'm making, the demands that you're making, while they might be about our individual personhood. When we understand them through a queer lens, it's like, oh, but by me getting this thing, everybody's getting this.

Eisha: So like, you're helping others. I identif by putting myself on the line to help others. I get what you're saying. I definitely understand. Definitely. That's right. Because that's how it goes, in a sense.

Jeanne: Eisha, you mentioned and we know as part of your life story that you are a formerly incarcerated person. Can you explain, as well as you can in this brief time that we have together, how the police and criminal justice system failed you and failed to protect you or serve you justice?

Eisha: Well, that's a compound question. You said, how did the police fail to protect me first? Let's get into that. Well, they failed to protect us on many situations. Just off the strength of just they really don't follow the guidelines of how they treat us like. Sometimes they always go off already having a pre-understanding of how to go about treating us based off already not liking us. So they just like go off being ignornant. How you been this person of the law and having me and want me to follow the rules of what you demanded me to do but you treat me a certain type of way. You know, so I just feel like overall I'm saying we mistreated in a sense of justice off my identity because of how I choose how I want to identify myself as, that's already cruelty. It makes me feel a certain type of way off the bat. I feel like the mistreatment came about is just them not respecting me for who I am. That's one now to say how the criminal justice system failed me. Well, I will just say for one, I'm sitting in prison for four years without a trial is a lot. I think for an average case, they say that you should be sent to jail to find some type of understanding of something coming about within your case within 18 months, in a sense. But for me, four years. Within those four years of me sitting there, I wasn't really aware of what was going on while I was in there and I've been saying on and on and it's supposed to be in a memoir or a book of telling my insight of what happened in prison. Now, me being in prison, I have multiple, multiple public defenders. I had four public defenders within four years. How is it either one of those public defenders going to really go in to defend me the right way if they're not really on my case for a long period of time? So it was like I kept consistently coming in getting different public defenders, different public defenders, different public defenders. So within a sense of my eyes, I had no hope. I feel like they failed me in multiple ways because in a situation of having a public defender, it was a situation in the midst of in my case that they tried to say that they upgraded my case. Let me just break it down for everyone, I had a court appearance to come to court and it was just out the blue. So later I come to find out, me having a lawyer that took my case pro bono, Dan Cohen. I love this man so much. Thank you. He came in and took my case and he came and gave me a detail and say, you know what Love, they told you that you had a court appearance on that situatio but come to find out, he was the reason why his leg was amputated So he he was the particular reason why in this situation his leg was amputated but they pinned it on me. Well, she don't know, so let's upgrade the charges. For them to do that, it made it look like the states and the justice system, really don't really have hope for no one. They just looking for any small thing to hold you down, in a sense.

Jeanne: I know you've been involved, Benji, with abolition movements. How as a queer activist, how do you sort of see those connections between what's going on for queer folks, transgender folks in the system and how abolition main intersect with that? Could you talk about some of your work around that?

Benji:  I'm thinking a lot right now about Lillian Blanco in New York. Tomorrow, from the day that we're recording, tomorrow, November 14th, is Trans Day of Resilience. This year I wrote a poem for that event, that national event, in honor of Layleen Polanco, who is a Dominican afro-latina transwoman who was found dead in her jail cell in Rikers Island this past Pride month in June of 2019. Her story is so incredibly painful cause she's gone and was taken from us by the prison system. Again, thinking about how all our identities layer together and how when we demand justice for the for the most marginalized folks, it blows open the system in ways that actually create justice for everybody, not just for one particular small group of people.i Layleen was held for two months in Rikers in solitary confinement because she didn't have five hundred dollars for bail. She got picked up on a misdemeanor, but they held her because she had previous prostitution charges that she hadn't shown up to court for and so they said, oh, because you miss these other court dates, we're holding you. She had epilepsy so it is believed that she had an epileptic attack while she was in solitary and that's how she died. A Black, queer, trans immigrant woman, who did sex work, was a part of the house scene, she was in the House of Extravaganza, disabled, dies in the prison system. It's actually incredibly predictable as painful and fucked up as it is at the same time. It's incredibly predictable. The bond system failed her. The way we criminalize sex work failed her. Poverty and gentrification in New York failed her. The overfunding of prisons and the defunding of housing and schools and all these other resources that support folks failed her. For me, I don't just see trans liberation as like a part of or connected to prison abolition. Again, I see it as the core of prison abolition. Stonewall is such an important example of that. It's like actually, you know, the queer liberation movement in this country begins with people fighting the police, begins with people rioting against the police and saying who I am, existing as I am, is not a crime. Folks weren't just asserting that about their identities as the trans women of color. They were also asserting it about their identities as sex workers. They were also asserting it about their identities as poor and street based and unstabley housed folks. Folks were asserting all their personal identities and being like, it's not a crime to be who I am and it's not a crime to be struggling through the things that I'm struggling through. I think for me, as a queer person who very strongly identifies as an abolitionist, I do think for me that's something that's still missing in a way from a lot of the conversations that we're having and a lot of the organizing that we're doing is talking about how abolition is inherently a queer project and how queer and trans people are at the heart of abolition from jump, from day one. Sometimes I feel like we have to assert or remind people that abolition is queer work and I think it should be the other way around. Especially given how many folks impacted by the system and how many folks who are actively organizing and struggling against the system are trans and queer people, specifically trans and queer people of color. I think a lot of us who are doing the work know that in the back of our minds that it's queer folks who are running this. But how often do we actually say that and how often do we actually acknowledge that? How often do we actually say to fight against the police and prison system is inherently to do queer work? I think for me that's missing from a lot of the conversations that we're having.

Eisha: I think that I don't like the fact that they only give one girl a platform. I want all girls to have platforms. I want any girl that have a situation where they have been impacted by the justice system or went through a situation that they felt like it was wrong, share it. That says a lot, you know, as you you you you. All of these you's create a bigger you, you know. I think that's the impact. So I don't like the fact that I was given just a platform, the fact that everything I have went through, I understand that situation. I'd like to give us the other girls. I want what you went through to be expressed too. I don't want, well, her story  was more glorified than yours so you're not really, no. We all have situations. We all go through a situation in life and we feel like we want someone to understand what we're going through. So I really think that's a project that someone needs to do. I think I need to really get into it with all of the girls that I really click with, you know, share their stories. I really think that's dope. It would say a lot to the justice system looking at that, like, well, these girls wouldn't just be saying they went through these situations, like now we need to re-evaluate ourselves.

Benji: And your story is so important. Stories like Lean's are so important, like we need to tell those stories and we're so blessed to have you here to tell it. You know what I'm saying? And I feel you, because at the same time, it can also create this culture of like, wow, this horrible thing happened to Eisha rather than like I mean, this is happening everywhere.

Eisha: That's what I'm trying to make the point of.

Emmanuel: Benji, I think you're talking a little bit about this question that we've been asking different people. We've asked it of immigrant rights activists, anti-Blackness, youth activists, around how different movements fail to look at intersectionality in some ways. They either scorn queer and trans activists and don't think of queer and trans activism as a very specific thing and that's by the mainstream LGBT community. Right, like gay marriage, same sex marriage, things like that.  How do you think the prison abolition movement can kind of take on what I think that what you're talking about, which is to see the struggle as a queer and trans struggle.

Benji: I think part of that we're already in the right place and having the right conversation, because I think part of that is actually teaching history and teaching queer and trans history as abolitionist history and the other way around. If we're talking about the history of the police and prison system, we're talking about homophobia and transphobia. If we're talking about the history of queer and trans liberation, we're talking about struggles against policing and incarceration. So I think always asserting that is a really important part of the political education that I think is not not there. Like there's no reason we should be having conversations about queer and trans identities that aren't talking about policing and incarceration. There's no reason that we should be having conversations about abolition that aren't talking about how trans and queer people are are impacted and have always been impacted by the police and prison system. I think there's a lot to unpack in sort of why some of those conversations are missing. I feel like I don't even have a full answer myself. I'm thinking a lot right now of the No Cop Academy campaign, which is the campaign that I was a part of and really proud. The 18 month long campaign here in Chicago to shut down the construction of the ninety five million dollar police academy that folks are still trying to build in West Garfield Park. A thing that we've debated with each other or discussed a lot with each other behind the scenes, was was that a queer campaign or not? We never called it that. We never said, this is a queer campaign. This is a queer led campaign. This is a coalition of queer folks fighting the construction of this cop academy but it a thousand percent was. Every adult ally who was at the core of that campaign was queer and/or trans and damn near every youth organizer. The youth who were were at the front and leading that campaign were all damn near, I don't want to speak for everybody's identity, but damn near all of them were queer and trans youth.A lot of folks, the first thing they're gonna say is not oh, it was a queer and trans led campaign. I would argue that it was but a conversation that we struggle with behind the scenes is well, how do we call it that in retrospect? Why didn't we call it that in the moment when we were organizing it? How do we understand that, now that the campaign is over and wrapped up, what are our reflections on it as the queer and trans people that organized it and that we're a part of it, did we do enough to name it that way? Or why didn't we name it that way? I think we have our own reflecting as a coalition on that to be like, yeah, this was gay as hell, like this campaign was very gay. Why didn't we call it that or why doesn't everybody necessarily know that about it?

Jeanne: It's interesting because when we did the little segment with the Act Up folks, there was this whole part of the discussion where they were saying, you know, it kept being called this queer or gay movement but we didn't think of it as a queer or gay movement because we were dealing so much with intersectionality and how HIV effected women and how it effected different communities differently. The media always called us gay activists And it was much broader than that. The intersectionality wORD didn't really exist back then. So it's kind of interesting that you raise the opposite of that a little bit. You also very clearly both talked about the beginnings of Stonewall and who were out there fighting and who started it, who were out there fighting in the streets: transgender people of color. This idea that that is really the spark for the contemporary, whatever you want to call it, gay liberation, queer movements, the things that sort of got people activated and in the streets. We're still dealing with, as Manny talked about, a community that at the fiftieth anniversary celebrates those people but every other day of the year still sort of rejects those folks in the sort of broader gay community. How do you sort of discuss or how do you reconcile bringing these issues, these other issues, whether it's prison abolition or violence against transgender folks, or how do you reconcile that with how the direction of the gay movement?

Eisha: I think what we're doing now is bringing more awareness is one. Like I said previously, just sharing our stories, as I say, as Black trans women. Of those situations that we consistently keep going through as far as being murdered, I guess, being aware of your surroundings. Who you have around you, who you keep in your presence, in a sense of being safe. Just to bring more awareness. I will say more so just consistently keep speaking on it and just kind of keep awareness about it. I think that's something I can really just say the most.

Benji:  I think I would add that, because I think about this a lot. I think we often talk about it as a disconnect. Like, how can we be celebrating Stonewall and we're still calling the police on sex workers? How can we celebrate Stonewall and we're still kicking poor, Black, queer and trans young people out of Boystown. How does that make any sense? The older I get and the more I observe those discrepancies or those contradictions, the more I'm like, oh, this is actually on purpose. It's actually not like people are overlooking. It's actually a way of sanitizing and of actually taking away the radical potential of really understanding that history. I think about this with Martin Luther King all the time. People love to put Marin Luther King's name in their mouth but they don't love to talk about how he was actively anti-capitalist and that he was advocating for poor folks. He was not advocating for the middle class. All the people who are calling his name out to fight for people who have privilege. Martin Luther King was talking about abolishing capitalism. Martin Luther King was talking about ending U.S. imperialism. He was deeply anti-war. Martin Luther King was fighting for poor folks, not just Black, poor folks, but all poor folks. Where is that in the legacy that we're celebrating? I think it's actually on purpose that people want to uplift these radical figures without actually talking about what they was talking about because you actually take away the power of those stories when the original storytellers aren't there to keep you in check. Which is again, why think like your story and you actually being here to tell it is so important because I could put your name in my mouth and be like, you know, Eisha has this amazing story and in Eisha's name, I say we should do this. You aren't there to be like, I'm not about that. Do not speak for me, Benji. You know what I'm saying? So I think piggybacking off of what you saying that I think the story is important. The history is important but also who's telling it is important and to what ends because we could actually be talking the same history but trying to take it in really different directions. I think the intentionality of how we share the history is so important.

Eisha: It should go in all different directions as well. Because history gravitates to people in different ways.

Benji: That's true.

Emmanuel:  The people who benefited from those struggles and that radical struggle. They benefited from it and then they look back and they don't actually see what the radical struggle was. They just see that they benefited from it and then they sanitized it. Then there's a whole new group of people who are marginalized, who are struggling to get more and they forget about that. You recently wrote, Benji, about the Laquan McDonald case, specifically writing about Jason Van Dyke, who murdered Laquan McDonald. That his conviction is not a step towards prison abolition. Could you explain more what that means or what you meant by that? I mean, people can read it, by the way.

Benji: I really appreciate this question because it's, I think, one of the most complicated questions in abolition, frankly. And it's one that I'm still struggling with and I feel like I don't have a clear answer on, but I'mma try and dig into it anyway. I did write this piece, the one that you're referring to, about specifically convicting Jason Van Dyke of the murder of Laquan McDonald. And what does it mean to be an abolitionist and like fighting for people to go to jail? Like, what does it mean to say you're a prison abolitionist and be fighting to get certain people, in this case, police officers who have killed black people to get locked up? I think this is one of the biggest points of tension in, at least a lot of the abolitionist circles that I'm in, and it's not a question that I think we debate in the open enough because I think we actually need to debate it. I think we actually need to hash it out. For me, I think where I come from it it's really hard for me on an emotional level to like really rally myself to organize to lock somebody up even when I think they have done something incredibly violent and incredibly harmful. For me, there's also actually a political strategy in saying I'm not going to use my energy to try and lock up every individual police officer that's caused harm. I'm going to use my political energy to organize for the abolition of the police system because even, I think, even if we lock up every police officer that's ever done something harmful or violent, if that were possible to do, if we could lock up every single one, the system that empowered them to do those things actually remains untouched. Even in some ways is further empowered because people believe the system works. If you do some wrong, you get locked up when we know overwhelmingly, that's not actually what's happening. So that's where I come from in my personal value or at least personal struggle with fighting for convictions, even for police officers. I will say that this is a conversation that I have had with other Black folks, specifically Black women, Black femme and queer organizers who feel very differently than me and who would wholeheartedly disagree with me. A lot of what those folks bring to the table is, well, what about honoring what family wants? What about honoring what community is demanding? What about creating justice with the means that we have? Yes, we're fighting for a world without police and prisons, but we don't have that world right now and there needs to be consequences for the harms that are being done to the most oppressed among us by this oppressive system. I think for me, a really important lesson in that was when I wrote that piece before the conviction came down and the day that Jason Van Dyke actually was convicted, Black Lives Matter put out a call and was like, you know, we need people to come downtown and support. I was free that day and I was like, you know, let me go downtown and support. I went to city hall and I marched with folks through downtown and it was this incredible moment of Black joy because so many Black people, specifically Black young people, fought hard for there to be justice for Laquan McDonald with the means that they had and with the systems in place and just feeling the joy of that moment. It was a historic moment. It was like the first time in 15 years or something that a police officer in Chicago had been convicted of murder. No one could deny that that was a historic moment and that it was Black organizing that made it happen. Just feeling the energy of that moment and seeing the support, especially from other Black folks in the city, that that moment brought, I really had to be like, OK, you know, who am I fighting for? Or, you know, whose demands am I listening to as an abolitionist? That, like, really challenged me and is still challenging me. Even though that's my answer is I cannot or at least I have a hard time getting excited about fighting for convictions. I also can't deny the other frameworks and other values that other directly impacted people, other Black folks, other folks in the abolitionist movement are bringing.

Emmanuel: Eisha, when you're interviewed, you usually get asked about incarceration and your advocacy work. What are some things that you'd like people to know about you outside of those kind of narratives?

Eisha: Well, first. I want them to know that I'm an Aries, a very kind hearted and caring person. I stay to myself. The things I was saying before I became really having the platform to be advocate and share my voice, to share my story, really, I think I was really into modeling. I was really confident with who I was. Mom always told me I'm saying, you know, if you was whoever you're gonna be to, she was the mother that was kind of like, well, I know what you is but I don't know how to deal with the situation. She said, whatever you is, you best to be the best that it. Always hold your head up high, proudly of what you're doing. So as a model, I felt like that was me. I stood proudly of who I was, so I always wanted to be a model. I just love fashion. I love fashion. I'm not into fashion as much now because I got a lot of situations and things going on right. I think that that's really it, outside of the things that I really stay focused on now because I really think sharing my story is a main thing that I think I need to continue to do more of.

Jeanne: So, Benji. You're known for your time in Chicago's ballroom scene as an excellent vogue dancer and you also have an amazing academic credentials. Can you talk a little bit about how you kind of make sense of the academic credentials and the spaces where people don't have maybe the same access or educational backgrounds and just talk a little bit about how you navigate all that?

Benji: I'm suburban kid, I grew up middle class in the suburbs in western Massachusetts. So I come from a privileged background, from jump. I started actively going to the ballroom scene in New York and participating in New York when I was 18, right after I graduate high school. So it's kind of thrown into that environment. Pretty young and just a lot of things were thrown at me that as a very new to the game 18 year old, I was not ready for. I'm lucky I'm still here because I tell people all the time I could have gotten into a lot more trouble in those early days than I did. I'm lucky that I'm standing here before you in one piece. That being said, I think, I was in the ballroom scene before I went to college. I was I was voguing and I was going to balls and in the scene before I was a student in college. In a lot of ways, ballroom was teaching me some things before I had the academic background but then I kind of had to mix those two things together as I went. I think academic training, no matter what your identity is, because I'm a middle class person but not everybody who's middle class or wealthy has, you know, there are folks of all class backgrounds that have access to academic training and vice versa. So I think academic training is privilege and it's like any type of privilege you need to mitigate it and you need to whenever you come into any space, it needs to be like aware of it and check yourself about whether your voice is getting more weight than someone else's just cause of a credential that you have. Because that's all it is, is a credential. It doesn't mean you know anything more than anyone else or you understand.

Eisha: Yes, I could definitely speak on that.

Benji: OK, so now I'm definitely going to have to loop back to you. Something I think a lot about is Miriame Kaba says that we actually need lived experience and political education. That in some circles we kind of fetishize or hold up people with the knowledge and the training and the big words. But in other circles, we can hold up people with lived experience who haven't actually had opportunities to put their lived experience into a political framework or a larger historical context. And actually you need both.

Eisha: Could you stop and repeat that once again. For the world, for the people, you know. The activist that's out here in the world that say there we are for the other young and up and coming.

Benji: Okay. See? It is really complicated because I think, and this is what Miriame is really talking about, both can be harmful, potentially. That to kind of say, oh, you know, we're only centering people who know all the big words and have all the fancy degrees and credentials, can lead to some really fucked up and harmful and misguided dynamics, misguided organizing. But so can you sort of centering folks who are survivors or centering folks who are the direct recipients of harm or directly impacted communities without political education and without framework and without clarifying as an organization or as a coalition, what are our values? What are we channeling these experiences towards? How are we understanding these experiences in the larger context and the larger political fights that are happening and that actually we need both. So all that is to say, I think, my academic background is a privilege. When we're aware of both the the privileges or the resources that we bring and the things that we're lacking, which like I've never been incarcerated, so like I'm lacking that experience. I have no idea what life is like on the inside so I cannot speak that in any type of way. When we come to the table with an awareness, both of the resources that we're bringing and the resources that we're lacking, then we can actually piece together like, OK, you have some lived experience that I cannot speak to, I have studied some things and have some experience reading, learning, and talking about some things that I can bring to help kind of make some sense of that. Let's bring it together.

Eisha: We both bring something to the table.

Benji: We both bring something to the table rather than thinking whoever has the most academic training, that's the person who should be at the front. Nope, that's not how it should work.

Eisha: Well, that's what's common.  I'm just a survivor here to tell my story and connect to some of the people that can understand where I'm coming from. You're here to share your story and whatever else you entail, whatever your partial, whatever you want to tell, for people to connect to you. That usually, what I would think, I'm saying we come together for groups and organize. That's how I feel this should be. I For a person that having went through a situation, can sometimes sympatheize like I can just imagine. Despite, if you would have had help, how far you probably willing to go.  Sometimes it's not always just to be just looking as a person just should be just criticize off that in a sense.

Benji: And for me, I think you're hitting on the head because, we say it a lot but I don't think we actually practice it a lot, that everybody has things to learn. Everybody has things to bring to the table but also everybody has things to learn. I think that's like a very simple, very simple cliche, even, thing to say. But how are we actually practicing that and how are we actually coming to the table with the humility to be like I have, however many degrees and I have things to learn.

Eisha: That's called humbleness. Not a whole lot of us are humble. This is a sad thing to say. I'm humble because I went through so many trials and tribulations in life. I'm just blessed to be here. Just continue to tell my story, Lord, and help others and maybe even grasp the situation that they don't have to go through, a situation like myself. That's I'm just good for that, you know. I continue to keep doing it despite how others look at me and judge me. Look, I'm here to help the people that's not judging me, OK? Looking at me and as a blessing, not something I have to be this high, mighty God because ain't nobody God, you're ain't God because you tell them the story. You get some. Come on baby.

Emmanuel: I think some of it too is like I just kind of what you're both talking about, for me, it's about representation. How in these moments when you see more people of color being represented and, you know, our first Black president and you have our first Black lesbian mayor, there's all these ways in which representation can mask class or privilege, what we know and what our political education is, what our lived experience is. We don't openly talk about that. I think if we do that, then we can identify who is on our side. Who is in our movement? Who is part of our movement? Who do we want in our movement? All of those kind of things.

Benji: Cause Lori Lightfoot is a Black, queer woman who needs some political education. As someone who shares a lot of identities and is lacking self frameworks, these needs to do some works out and has all the credentials.

Emmanuel:  In the beginning. We talked about violence against trans women, the Rikers Island murder by the system. How are some ways that we can address violence against trans women, particularly trans women of color, Black and brown women?

Eisha: For me, I think in a sense, a lot of trans women kind of go into the sex work and situations. I feel like if there was programs or just giving them other allies. Other things to do besides just like the norms of what they normally doing, it would kind of open up doors for them to fit into normal society, how to do normal things. I feel like in a sense, that's why some of them are probably getting murdered in situations and sometimes just not being aware of your surroundings and who you have around you. You should trust no one because I don't want anybody. I feel like it's a lot of things around, just kind of like just setting up safety. A lot girls don't set up they safety in the right matter. They just feel like, OK, well, I'm this girl. I'm just content with myself. You can't be that way all the time. You got to know there's some people out here that doesn't like you. There's some people out here that kind of look at you and want to kill you at time so you gotta always be aware and always be watching your surroundings. Then sharing more stories, like the sharing part is OK to me but I think some time to sharing so much of us consistently keep dieing says a lot to the community say, well OK, it's cool for us to do this to these trans people. Let's keep seeming to keep doing this because society only wants to highlight it. Once it consistently keeps happening and people kind of think it as normal. Like if I kill her ain't nothing gonna happen to me, in my eyes. That's how I look at it and keep highlighting because it does make it look good because we're losing girls rapidly. Then in other eyes, it would look like, if I'm a man out to do harm to someone then this is on the news all day. So if I kill her today, then they  probably won't be looking for me because in certain murders like this, in my situation, from what happened on my case. The trans girl I was with, Dante Goodman, Tiffany. Rest in peace. RIP. Let's remember trans women that have been killed. They never even made any research on her case. They never looked and investigated more. I have gotten the news when they came and told me when I was in prison that she was murdered and where she was murdered, they say that she was tortured. So this woman was tortured and I'm telling you the situation how everything transpired with this young man discriminated against me and this woman was tortured. Don't you see this as a hate crime? It is the things about it that they didn't really go and investigate. They burnt the building down. It's just a lot of it shows, like he was saying earlier, like the justice system really is here sometimes to fail you in a sense. OK, we don't want to put too much highlight on it than we really care because in actuality, they really don't. So I just say just to end this whole part about how I think we'll bring more awareness and safety, is you have to be more knowlegable with what's going on in your surroundings. I think because I keep no one around me. I stay to myself. Look, you sit over there, I'm just gonna sit here just to watch you. Just get a feel of you. I ask a lot of questions. Sometimes people are like you talk too much, you want to know too much. Listen, to know more about you, who is in my house.

Jeanne: I just want to ask you both about, it's a popular culture question. There's kind of more awareness in mainstream media these days about transgender people. Pose is one of the examples. I mean, we obsessively talked about it in the Crossroads Fund lunchroom. Can you just talk a little bit about how that kind of thing complicates or helps or hurts or just maybe run down a little bit about that kind of popular culture thing in having more people have access to characters.

Eisha: I think that that's a wonderful idea. Give us the platform now to really be ourselves. Like I say, earlier. Sometimes we need that type of introduction to just being in the real world because we not really acknowledged as being humans in a sense. I feel like I'm just saying when I'm come in a room, all eyes on me like I'm just this weird person who came in and sometimes I feel uncomfortable. You come into a room and you want to feel okay, I'm just as normal as anybody else. I'm just human being that just chose a different sexuality. I think that's a wonderful thing. For us being underground for so long because I think in a lifetime, when I was growing up, this wasn't kind of like publicized so it was very underground. It wasn't lot of things happening like that, in my eyes. I wasn't probably seeing it in the news or publicized as much in my days. I didn't see a lot of transwoman every single day. If they do say they might wrongly identified about this male dressed in, you know, it wasn't as much as it is now.  I think that's a wonderful thing. Putting us on a platform of just being just normal peoples in a world like we can do acting and we can do model and we can do whatever. Like Marsha P. Johnson said, I want people to be aware that I was here. I don't want to feel like I'm saying I'm an outsider. You want people to just be aware and like, I'm here.

Benji: I really fucks with Pose and I really fucks with not just the show itself, but the team of people that's involved from the actors to the writers to just all the kind of folks that are behind that project cause so many of them are actually Black trans people and so many of them are members and former members of the ballroom, which I also really think is special and unique about that project. So I really fucks with Pose. I do think that visibility initiates conversations, gives people something to point to, gives people a reference that can make sort of other kinds of conversations and education more accessible, which I think is great. I think the work of having the conversations and the work of doing the political education and the political organizing still has to come after. That's what I think a lot of times doesn't happen. For me as a Black person that feels so important to underline because people have been consuming Black culture since forever and that hasn't taught people to love Black people. People have been literally since this country's inception, consuming the images of Black people and consuming the art and the culture of Black communities and that has not taught people to love, to share, to protect Black people. So we know from decades, if not centuries of Black visibility that having the person on the pedestal doesn't stop violence from happening to the community. I think it's the same with any other oppressed identity. So just having a visible person, just having a TV show, a politician, doesn't actually in and of itself translate to the valuing, the protecting, and the structural shifts that we need to actually fight for and protect Black trans people. SO I would caution against, and again, one of the reasons that I fucks with Pose is because I think everny and any person involved in that project would actually understand this, that there's a lot more work to be done than just putting people on a TV show. I think that project actually comes from that base of knowledge, which is one of the reasons why I fucks with it. Also, going off of what Eisha has said about sort of like what do we need for Black trans people, for Black and brown trans women to be loved and protected and fought for? I think, and this is more of a personal or an intercommunity conversation, but I feel like within the Black community, we do have a lot of work to do around education and around talking about this is actually part of our community. It's always been a part of our community. This is not new. These are ancient identities and we need to not just accept people but like understand that Black, trans and queer people are actually bringing us back and rerouting us in our history as colonized and enslaved people. They're actually taking us back, we are taking us back to our roots and not the other way around. We're not deviating from them. We're reconnecting with them. I think we have a lot of work in the Black community to really make that felt. I also think that so much of the violence that Black, queer and trans people face is about all these other, again, intersecting systems, because it's not like Black people are the only ones with the transphobia problem. Transphobia is definitely a universal issue. I think also a lot of the violence that we face within the community is about the other emergencies and the other kinds of harm and trauma that we're all swimming in as Black people. I think we need to talk about, again, thing about intersectionality. I think we need to talk about all kinds of supports and all kinds of structural shifts and reparations for Black communities writ large that all Black people, including trans and queer people, will benefit from. I'm thinking a lot about this very historic decriminalization hearing that just happened in D.C. D.C. had a bill on the table to decriminalize sex work  and just the fact that the bill was on the table was a huge a huge deal. It was overwhelmingly Black, trans and queer sex workers that had got that bill even on the floor to be discussed. Folks like sadly, the National Organization of Women, flew in membership from around the country to stop this bill from happening that was specific to D.C.. So you have local  Black, trans and queer people in their city sayin this is exactly what we want. We need this. People of wealth, people of means who are not even from that region of the country coming in to stop it. I think we could do a whole podcast on sex work. I think sex work is a really important and complicated conversation we need to be having right now. That was a crucial moment for me where I was like, even if, like, I believe sex work is work. I believe if you want to do sex work, you should be supported to do that in the safest way possible, even if you're somebody who disagrees with me on that or doesn't feel me on that, for you to be flying in to take resources away from sex workers is like, what are you really about then? Even if you're somebody who's like, well, I think sex work is bad and people shouldn't do it, then you should be fighting for affordable housing. You'd be fighting for a living wage. You should be fighting for universal health care. We know all the reasons why people go into sex work. If you really about that life, if you really don't want people doing sex work, then all these other resources need to be provided to support people. So we're actually fighting for the same thing. You show your hand, you show your values, when you want to stop the decriminalization of sex work but you're also closing schools and clinics and gentrifying people out of their neighborhoods and taking away shelters from homeless folks, you show your hand. If you really cared about marginalized and oppressed communities then you'd be fighting for resources, not taking them away.I think we need to question whenever people say they are fighting for somebody while they're taking resources away from them and while they're taking protections away from them, we need to look behind the curtain to see what's really going on there. For me, that's an important question about how we fight for Black, trans people because so many of the people who say they're fighting for us are the same ones taking resources away from us. You can't actually be fighting for somebody and taking the support systems they need to survive away from them. So for me, the question about trans liberation is really questions about structural shifts that redistribute resources to the most oppressed people, which I think Black, trans people absolutely fall into that category.

Emmanuel: Thank you so much. Thank you.

Eisha and Benji: Thank you all so much for having us.

Jeanne: Thank you for listening to this episode of "Queering Left". The organizers interviewed represent just one example of the fearless movement building in Chicago that Crossroads Fund is proud to have supported since 1981. Please visit our website for photos, videos and other media related to this episode. For more information on Crossroads Fund and the organizers featured in this interview, please follow "Queering Left" on Facebook and Twitter and sign up to receive email alerts of new interviews at our website: crossroadsfund.org.