The Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) stands against the use of the federal hate crimes law to extend the sentencing of Joshua Vallum for his horrific murder of 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson on the basis of her gender. On May 15, 2017, federal hate crimes laws specific to gender identity were used for the first time to increase an individual’s prison sentence.
Joshua Vallum had already been sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Ms. Williamson by the Mississippi state courts. The Department of Justice brought a new charge under the federal hate crimes law due to the targeting of Ms. Williamson as a transgender woman. In addition to life in prison, Mr. Vallum will now also serve 49 years.
It is hard to see how these additional years, years Mr. Vallum will already be serving under the state sentence, brings justice to either Ms. Williamson or transgender people as a community. It is impossible to imagine what kind of healing is suddenly possible for transgender people and those who love and support us because someone is spending additional time in prison. Justice for some people is not justice for all people, and SRLP stands strongly against laws that build up walls, that tear down communities, that do not make us free.
At SRLP, we know all too well the reality of prisons in the United States. Transgender, gender non-conforming, and intersex (TGNCI) people are disproportionately targeted and placed in prisons and jails. Over 60% of the people served by SRLP each year have had experiences in jail or prison. We are intimately familiar with how our prisons and jails are built upon systems of racism, transphobia, sexism, and historical violence. Mr. Vallum, like Ms. Williamson, will never return home to his communities. This creates deep rifts in communities that last for generations.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated that this sentencing “reflects the importance of holding individuals accountable when they commit violent acts against transgender individuals.” SRLP agrees that violent acts against transgender individuals must be taken seriously. However, what Attorney General Sessions doesn’t realize or admit is that the U.S. government is directly responsible for some of the most violent acts against us. Our system of government enforces, allows, and even mandates violent acts against transgender people.
We demand accountability for violence against our lives in the form of healthcare denials and the forced use of incorrect bathrooms, housing arrangements, and facility care units. where we are made to live as our assigned birth gender and not who we truly are. Accountability for the unchecked harassment and violence against TGNCI youth in schools, leading to alarming dropout and suicide rates, because no adult stepped in to say that our lives matter. Accountability for how transgender people make up a disproportionate amount of the prison and jail populations due to targeting and surveillance from the state.
Instead of hate crimes laws that are disproportionately used against Black and Brown communities and result in additional or longer sentences, SRLP wants to lift up placing the resources, money, and time currently spent on enforcing hate crimes into providing transgender people with stable and protective housing, covering our necessary healthcare needs, and stopping the targeting of TGNCI people of color, youth, and low-income people for police stops, frisks, and arrests, simply because of how we exist in the world. These are the actions that show that our lives matter. These are the actions that assist us in building strong communities
A government that denies us our identities, our dignity, and our self-determination cannot bring about justice by placing more people in prison for longer, after we have already been murdered. That is not justice. That is not support. That is not liberation.
In this year, trans communities of color have already witnessed and held so much loss. Adding another 49 years on to a life sentence after a brutal murder does not keep us vibrant and alive. Instead, it causes irreparable wounds in our communities – communities that are already disproportionately subjected to violent government policies. SRLP demands that the U.S. government end the use of these methods of hyper-penalization and instead respond with supporting community-based strategies to end the epidemic of violence against us and a commitment to providing TGNCI people with the respect, space, money, and resources needed to keep ourselves vibrant and alive.
Sylvia Rivera Law Project