Last August, Rewire.News published an investigation into the case of Merci Chrisette, a Black transgender woman who had been charged with felony offenses following an altercation on the New York City subway. Chrisette was captured on video arguing with and lunging at a man and a woman, a response her supporters say was triggered by transphobic remarks and the rational fear that street-based violence could end her life. (Some witnesses deny that any harassment occurred.)
In May, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office finally permitted Chrisette’s case to be moved from criminal court into the borough’s Mental Health Court. It was an important development, but ultimately not enough to do Chrisette justice, say her supporters. In the last few weeks, over a dozen organizations, and over 130 individuals—including writer and transgender activist Janet Mock—have signed a petition calling for the charges against Chrisette to be dropped completely. Her next court date is scheduled for June 26.
“The Brooklyn District Attorney may not understand Merci’s actions on that crowded subway car in 2015, but we know her actions were valid and may even have kept her alive that day,” a #Fight4Merci spokesperson said in a statement released via email. “The recent decision to move Merci’s case to the mental health court is a continuation of a historical practice to pathologize Black transwomen and criminalize self-defense.”
Pleading into Brooklyn’s Mental Health Court would enable Chrisette to avoid prison time, as long as she followed the court’s mandated treatment program and other requirements. But supporters point out that Chrisette will still be tied to the criminal justice system, facing the possibility of being incarcerated if she fails to comply with the court’s demands.
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The real issue at stake, add #Fight4Merci activists and others, isn’t the harm allegedly perpetrated by Chrisette but the threat of violence that permeates her everyday life. On the outside, transgender women of color are being murdered at record numbers. Meanwhile, trans folks who are incarcerated—an experience that nearly 50 percent of Black trans people reportedly endure at some point—are subject to long stints in solitary confinement as well as frequent physical and sexual assaults. Transgender women are particularly vulnerable to this violence, since they are almost always locked up in men’s facilities.
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has endeavored to build a national reputation for a commitment to criminal justice reform and the protection of vulnerable communities. About a year ago, during 2017’s June Pride Month, Gonzalez launched an initiative to “establish a safe space for the LGBTQ community to report when they are victims of crime, especially since crimes against this community have historically been underreported and violence against transgender women of color continues to rise.”
Chrisette’s supporters say that the district attorney’s refusal to drop the charges against her—even though no one needed medical attention as a result of the incident—belies his office’s stated commitment to protecting LGBTQ communities, especially given the immense amount of LGBTQ community support for Chrisette’s case. Rewire.News reached out to the Brooklyn DA’s office for comment but did not receive an immediate response.
“We, the undersigned, ask you: how does charging Ms. Chrisette create safety for the LGBTQ community? What message do these charges send to transwomen of color who experience harassment?” queries the petition, which has been signed by a host of criminal justice reform and LGBT organizations, including the Transgender Law Center, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and the NYC Anti-Violence Project.
It continues: “Eric, are you listening?”