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2003-07-14

"It’s a Shame that you Have to Walk Down the Street not Knowing What’s Going to Happen to Us": The Sakia Gunn Murder

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Two months after a 15-year-old African-American lesbian is stabbed to death in Newark, NJ in a vicious hate crime, friends, family members and community leaders take on the mayor of Newark, the Principal of West Side High School, the school board, and the national media.

Some 300 people gathered at Sheridan Square in New York City’s West Village on Friday to remember Sakia Gunn.

Sakia was a fifteen-year-old African-American lesbian. Two months ago Friday, in the early hours of May 11, she was murdered.

That night, Sakia and her friends traveled from their hometown of Newark, New Jersey to Chelsea Piers in Manhattan. Scores and young queer people of color spend their weekend nights there, where they feel safe and part of a community.

After their evening on the piers, the young group took the train back to Newark. They walked to the bus stop and waited. A large police booth stood at the corner. It was empty.

A white station wagon with two men in it pulled up to the curb. According to one of Sakia’s closest friends, Valencia, the men started harassing the girls and asking them to come closer. The girls said no, they weren’t interested. They explained they were gay.

One of the men got out of the car. He attacked the girls, holding one of them in a choke-hold. Sakia and Valencia started fighting him. Sakia hit him. Then he stabbed her in the chest.

The man ran back to his car and sped away. The girls raced to a car that had stopped at a red light and asked the driver to take them to the hospital. He did. Sakia died in her friend Valencia’s arms in the emergency room.

After Sakia’s death, Sakia’s friends created a memorial where Sakia was stabbed. Hundreds of lesbians of color turned out there every night until the police cleaned the sidewalk of Sakia’s blood and dismantled the memorial of candles, balloons and a basketball (Sakia wanted to become a professional basketball player with the WNBA). Some three thousand people turned out for Sakia’s funeral, many of them young queer people of color.

Since Sakia’s death, the community in Newark has been demanding the city establish a community center for gay, lesbian and transgender young people in Newark, so young people don’t feel they have to go to the City to have a safe place to hang out. Newark Mayor Sharpe James has promised to establish a center, but community members say he hasn’t made good on his promise. And they are also demanding a greater police presence in downtown Newark. Mayor James had promised in his election campaign that police would man the police booth at the very intersection where Sakia was killed, 24 hours a day.

Community members are also angry at the news media. A professor at The College of New Jersey compared the number of stories in major newspaper and broadcast outlets in the two months after Sakia’s death, with the number of stories on Matthew Shepard in the two months after his death. In Matthew Shepard’s case, there were 507 stories. In Sakia Gunn’s case, there were 11.

On Friday in Manhattan, the vigilers marched from Sheridan Square in the West Village through the heart of New York City’s gay district down Christopher Street, to the Piers where Sakia spent her last night.

There, one of Sakia’s closest friends, Spanky Ross, did her best to address the crowd.

  • Spanky Ross, one of Sakia’s best friends, speaking at the vigil in Manhattan on Friday, July 11. She left the stage in tears.
  • Laquetta Nelson, founder of New Jersey Stonewall Democrats, and organizer of the Newark Pride Alliance.
    Contact: email: gpc1999@aol.com mail
    P.O. Box 1717, Newark, NJ 07101.

The Mayor of Newark, Mayor Sharpe James can be reached at:

Mayor Sharpe James
920 Broad Street
Room 200 City Hall
Newark, New Jersey 07102
973-733-6400 (office)
973-733-5325 (fax)

And the New Jersey governor can be reached at:

Governor James E. Mc Greevey
The State House
P.O. Box 001
Trenton, New Jersey 08625
609-777-2459 (office)
609-777-4082 (fax)

  • Catherine Cuomo-Cecere, Director of Health and Human Services for the City of Newark.
  • Mick Meenan, reporter with Gay City News.
    Selected Articles:
    "Lesbian teen dies in hate stabbing"
    "Newark Weeps"
    "Tears and Then, Perhaps, Respect"
    "Where is the Outrage?"
  • Jamon Marsh, one of Sakia Gunn’s girlfriends.
  • Kim Pearson, Professor, The College of New Jersey. Professor Pearson did a media analysis of the number of stories on the murder of Matthew Shepard, vs. the murder of Sakia Gunn. In the 2 months after Shepard’s death, she discovered 507 stories on Matthew Shepard in the major newspapers and broadcast outlets. In the 2 months after Sakia Gunn’s death, she found 11 on Sakia Gunn.

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