Justice for Layleen Polanco: Community Demands Answers After Trans Black Latinx Woman Died at Rikers

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Outrage is mounting over the death of Layleen Polanco, a transgender Afro-Latinx woman who was found dead in a cell at Rikers Island on Friday. Polanco was arrested on misdemeanor charges and jailed on Rikers in April when she was unable to post $500 bail. Nearly two months later, she was dead. Her family, friends and transgender rights activists are now demanding answers for the conditions that led to the 27-year-old’s death. The city says the cause of death has not yet been determined. Polanco was held in a unit for transgender women while jailed at Rikers, but a week before her death she was transferred to so-called restrictive housing, an arrangement Polanco’s lawyer says amounts to solitary confinement. Layleen’s death came at the beginning of Pride Month and just one day after the NYPD apologized for the first time for its raid a half-century ago on the Stonewall Inn, a gay- and trans-friendly bar in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. In June of 1969, the inn was the site of a violent police raid that triggered an uprising and helped launch the modern-day LGBTQ rights movement. We speak with Raquel Willis, a transgender activist and writer, executive editor of Out magazine, and Joel Wertheimer, an attorney representing the family of Layleen Polanco.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Outrage is mounting over the death of Layleen Polanco, a transgender Afro-Latinx woman who was found dead in a cell at Rikers Island on Friday. Polanco was arrested on misdemeanor charges and jailed on Rikers in April when she was unable to post $500 bail. Nearly two months later, she was dead. Her family, friends and transgender rights activists are now demanding answers for the conditions that led to the 27-year-old’s death. The city says the cause of death has not yet been determined. Polanco was held in a unit for transgender women while jailed at Rikers, but a week before her death she was transferred to so-called restrictive housing, an arrangement Polanco’s lawyer says amounts to solitary confinement.

AMY GOODMAN: Layleen’s death came at the beginning of Pride Month and just one day after the New York Police Department apologized for the first time for its raid a half-century ago on the Stonewall Inn, a gay- and trans-friendly bar in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. In June of ’69, the inn was the site of a violent police raid that triggered an uprising and helped launch the modern-day LGBTQ rights movement.

Hundreds gathered in New York City Monday to demand justice for Layleen Polanco and demand Rikers be shut down immediately. Democracy Now! was there in the streets. This video begins with transgender rights activist Cecilia Gentili speaking at Foley Square.

CECILIA GENTILI: Layleen loved New York, that you couldn’t get her out of here. She loved the buildings. She loved the vibe. She loved the people of New York City. And ultimately it has been this city that led to these circumstances, and we need to ask for answers. And we need to change the criminal law. It is crazy that people like her and people like me and people like most of us can end up in that [bleep] hole of Rikers Island for petty [bleep] that we did.

KIMBERLEY McKENZIE: Black and brown trans women of color are not protected federally through this current administration. And in this month of June, there is no pride in knowing that the injustices of transgender women of color and the state-sanctioned violence continues to be perpetuated, and the deaths of transgender women, black transgender women, continues to be a leading epidemic in our community.

T.S. CANDII: Trans rights are human rights. Trans people are people. We only want to live, be free and be safe.

RAQUEL WILLIS: We are in a war. Don’t get it twisted. We have been in a war. Black and brown trans people have been in a war since we were born, in a world that continuously tells us we shouldn’t exist, until they actually make it so that we don’t exist. And so, if you are invoking the names of Marsha or invoking the names of Sylvia or Miss Major or Stormé or any of these architects of our movement, Amanda Milan and so many others, [bleep] you, if you are not centering black and brown trans folks.

TABYTHA GONZALEZ: As a formerly incarcerated, a former sex worker, I know what—I can almost imagine what she went through in those corridors. I, myself, remember being made fun of, being treated subhuman, just to got get my medication from the medication window. Or how about picking up my commissary? Or how about going to visit my loved ones on the floor and have my family and myself subjected to those vicious things that the police did to us? I can almost imagine how she felt subhuman being chained going to seek personal help for herself. How many grievances were probably overlooked? How many times the boys have bullied her, and the police turned a deaf eye or a deaf ear? I appreciate everyone showing up in this space in her death, but where are we when we are living and breathing? I need that same anger. I need that same wrath. I need you to pack the courtrooms. How the hell does a misdemeanor result in a death sentence?

AMY GOODMAN: That was Tabytha Gonzalez with the Transgender Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

For more, we’re joined now in studio by two guests. Raquel Willis is a transgender activist and writer, executive editor of Out magazine. And Joel Wertheimer is an attorney representing the family of Layleen Polanco.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Joel, let’s begin with you. What happened to Layleen? Why was she in Rikers?

JOEL WERTHEIMER: So, there’s still a lot we’re figuring out about what happened. She was arrested in April on misdemeanor charges. We believe that did not have bail set. There was another warrant outstanding from—

AMY GOODMAN: You mean she would have been just released?

JOEL WERTHEIMER: Yeah, they set $1 bail, which is a technical thing. But she would have been released if this other warrant hadn’t been issued, that was from a human trafficking intervention court. And that was only $500. And she wouldn’t be in jail under the new bail law, which is supposed to go in effect in New York state in 2020. But prosecutors are still seeking bail.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how long had she spent in jail just because she couldn’t raise the $500?

JOEL WERTHEIMER: From mid-April until the day she died.

AMY GOODMAN: Over two months.

JOEL WERTHEIMER: Just under, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Just under.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Raquel, can you talk about the impact of Layleen’s death? I mean, she’s one just in a series, numerous deaths of black trans women killed either by civilians or by the state? So, could you talk about the impact of this on the transgender community?

RAQUEL WILLIS: Absolutely. I mean, it’s been a particularly heavy year. There have been 10 trans women reported murdered this year. We know that there are always probably more that go unreported.

And it is just really heavy because it is the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, right? This is our Pride Month. And so, while there is so much celebration and excitement around the strides that we have made as a community, these are sobering reminders of how much further we have to go.

And so, I think about Layleen’s case and how, even in the discussion of the murders and violence that happens to black and brown trans bodies, there’s such an erasure of people who are incarcerated or people who are detained, and in respecting their humanity and why they should still be here. So, on the very first day of Pride Month, even before what happened to Layleen, there was Johana Medina, a trans Latinx person seeking asylum, who died in ICE custody on June 1st. And so, all of this is happening while, in the background, there’s these celebrations ignoring these realities.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, this is Pride Month. Back to Layleen at Rikers Island, why was she in solitary confinement? I mean, this so much reminds me of Sandra Bland—right?—who couldn’t raise the $500 she needed to get out.

JOEL WERTHEIMER: We still don’t know exactly why she was placed in restrictive housing in a punitive segregation unit. The Department of Correction has been stony with us, to say the least. So—

AMY GOODMAN: She was in a transgender unit at Rikers?

JOEL WERTHEIMER: She was, to begin with. That was—Rikers is one of the few jails that actually has a transgender unit. But then she was transferred to the punitive segregation unit, which is solitary or minimal freedom while you’re incarcerated.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did she die?

JOEL WERTHEIMER: Again, that’s still being determined. We have suspicions, but I don’t to speculate too much. She did have epilepsy; she had a seizure condition. And we don’t know how frequently that she was being checked on. So, but we’re still waiting for the medical examiner to determine the cause of death.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to turn to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who’s now, of course, running for president, speaking about Layleen Polanco’s death on NY1. He was asked why she was in custody for nearly two months for two misdemeanor charges.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: Well, that’s unusual. And I don’t know—I need to get you an answer on why that would be. Obviously, we’ve been moving consistently to have alternatives to incarceration. And our jail population is down over 30% in the last five years, and it’s about to go down a whole lot more, because, thankfully, Albany acted and did some important reforms on bail. But there’s more work to be done on that front on several levels. So, I need to get the facts about this case. But, you know, most importantly, she’s no longer with us, and we have to find out why.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In May, Mayor de Blasio promised to protect transgender New Yorkers, dedicating a monument to legendary transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. So, Raquel, your response to what the mayor said and what the mayor has promised?

RAQUEL WILLIS: Yes. I mean, I think that it’s great that we are honoring these figures, right? But we forget the facts of their lives. Marsha and Sylvia were women who were fighting for people who are incarcerated, for people who have had very difficult experiences and interactions with law enforcement and in the state. And so, while it’s great we have these monuments, we have to continue this fight.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, Sylvia Rivera, back 50 years ago at the Stonewall Inn.

RAQUEL WILLIS: Absolutely.

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