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A Member Blog by Co’Bella Monroe

On June 11, 2014, I attended the City Council meeting at City Hall with BreakOUT! to address the many problems that affect LGBTQ citizens in the criminal (in)justice system in New Orleans.  We were invited to attend by Human Rights Watch Megan McClemore, who was presenting on findings and recommendations from the report, In Harm’s Way: State Response to Sex Workers, Drug Users, and HIV in New Orleans.  Also presenting was Women With a Vision.  The Committee, the Community Development Committee, was chaired by Councilmember Cantrell and was particularly interested in the health impacts of over-policing, the use of condoms as evidence of prostitution, the criminalization of transgender women, and disproportionate rates of HIV among the Black LGBTQ community.
One of our Core Member Leaders (and Founding Member), Lhundyn, addressed the Council with testimony explaining how transwomen live in constant fear for their safety on the streets in New Orleans, particularly around police officers.  Even though I have never been harassed by a police officer, the tragic testimony depicted how an officer sexually harassed an anonymous BreakOUT! member on her way home from a member meeting and helped myself and the Councilmembers see how traumatizing police harassment can be.
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Invoking empathy was not the only strategy that we used to help the Councilmembers realize the negative impacts of the police and biased criminal justice system in New Orleans.  BreakOUT! also brought the heat by bringing data to the meeting, collected from our members themselves in partnership with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency that demonstrated the disproportionate rates of police harassment among transgender young women, including being asked for sexual favors by NOPD officers.  The data allowed the Council to see how countless NOPD “man hours” are wasted by the already slim NOPD on harassing and profiling transgender people.
In addition to discussing NOPD policing practices, we also touched based on HB1158, a Louisiana bill awaiting Governor Jindal’s signature that creates the crime of “solicitation of funds or transportation for certain unlawful purposes.” The vague language of this pending law implies that police officers could use something as simple as flagging a car down to accuse citizens of being sex workers.  The bill was authored by Representative Austin Badon, a Democrat from New Orleans, who said that “House Bill 1158, which prohibits solicitation, was an answer to a call by law enforcement groups to help them crack down on prostitution.  ‘They needed something to be able to stop (prostitutes), question them and find out what they’re doing.'”  This bill is another reason for officers to harass people without reasonable suspicion and blame it on “just doing their job.”
I was surprised at how supportive the Councilmembers were of our testimony and recommendations.  You can watch some of their responses on the streaming video online.  Councilmember Cantrell and Councilmember Williams were particularly supportive and we look forward to working more with them in the future.
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Even better was the support we got from the audience who came to support us with little advanced notice, in particular, STAND With Dignity from the Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.  When we walked in and saw so many people with their STAND t-shirts on, we felt like anything was possible.  Thank you, STAND, for standing with us!
You can find the documents we presented to the Councilmembers here.