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After Nearly 50 Days of Sustained Protests, the Call for Justice Continues

The names Vanessa Guillen and Merci Mack are now alongside George Floyd and Breonna Taylor as demonstrators continue their calls for justice and reform.
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Protesters march to the polls on July 5, 2020. Not My Son organized the march. (Photo by Miles Hearne)

The protesters who have marched each day through the streets of Dallas for more than six weeks have used the month of July to explore the idea of independence. It began with the Fourth of July, when Not My Son—a newly formed, seemingly omnipresent, Dallas-based civil rights organization—held a protest that it called Independence for Who?

The event featured numerous spoken word poets whose compositions repeatedly argued that, in America, your skin color and income level define your privileges and liberties while determining your right to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Their poems grappled with the hypocrisies of a society that, founded upon the ideal of freedom for all, was built by slaves upon stolen land and is plagued by racial and economic disparities.

“The idea for our Independence for Who? rally followed our Juneteenth celebration, where we got to celebrate our true freedom day from slavery,” said Nadia Ali, an organizer with Not My Son who handles the group’s social media. “‘Independence Day’ is not a day that resonates well in a country that currently has children locked in cages, a country that systemically oppresses BIPOC communities. So you might ask what value is Independence Day to descendants of slaves?”

The conversation started early, on the evening of July 3 and into the morning of July 4, at Trinity Overlook Park. There, across the river from downtown Dallas, hundreds gathered for a vigil for Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen, a 20-year-old Latina from Houston who—after allegedly being sexually harassed by Specialist Aaron Robinson—was beaten to death with a hammer, dismembered, and partially burned.

Later, news reports would recount that Guillen threatened to report her harasser in April. Authorities have accused Robinson and his girlfriend for the crime. Three months since the veteran disappeared, and four days after her body had been discovered, hundreds gathered around a large, black mural with white letters reading “JUSTICE FOR VANESSA GUILLEN” to mourn and grieve her loss. The crowd sang along to mariachi and Tejano songs. They lit candles and reverently placed them around photographs of Guillen and on the borders of the mural.

In the distance, fireworks rang.

At the vigil, a veteran spoke about the sexual harassment she endured in the Army. A medical servicewoman recounted her experiences in the Marines treating other servicewomen who were sexually assaulted while at sea. These frank revelations fit into a larger pattern that many are calling the “military’s #MeToo moment.” Using #IAmVanessaGuillen on Twitter and Instagram, veterans are opening about their experiences with sexual harassment or sexual assault in the military. Much of the conversation focuses on changing how the military handles sexual harassment and assault cases; under the current system, commanders, not prosecutors, decide which cases to carry forward.

Now, the movement has a new name to say.

After the predominantly Latino crowd marched through Trinity Groves, it slowly dissipated. Some continued on downtown and met up with a Black Lives Matter march. The humid air cooled off, the clock struck midnight, and it was the Fourth of July. Fireworks and all.

The next day, 200 to 250 people gathered at City Hall for Not My Son’s Independence for Who? rally. They marched through downtown to the new Say Their Names Memorial, at Thanksgiving Square. Medics handed out cold waters and snacks at various stops along the way. Despite the heat, protestors marched for over an hour and a half before returning to City Hall.

A few men associated with a new self-defense group, called Watchmen, marched alongside the crowd, open-carrying shotguns and handguns with three purposes in mind: to provide self-defense; to illustrate the radically different way in which police treat armed Black men and armed White men; and to normalize the image of Black men with guns.

At 7 p.m. on July 4, a small crowd gathered at Reverchon Park for a vigil for Merci Mack, the 22-year-old Black trans woman murdered in Oak Cliff on June 30. Shannon Walker, a Black trans woman and founder of the Nu Transgender Movement, Inc., and Olinka Green, a community member and activist, organized and hosted the vigil, which was also attended by family and friends. They briefly and tearfully shared memories of Merci and thanked the small crowd for coming out. Even Merci’s mother spoke. She hadn’t yet seen her daughter’s body, she said; she could hardly accept, much less process, the reality of her daughter’s death.

Green charged the crowd in the name of Merci: “Let this baby change some things. Let the great divide between North Dallas and South Dallas be closed.” Walker spoke to the realities of existing as a Black trans woman in a hostile world. Black trans women don’t have independence, she said; all they have is hope.

“What I meant by that,” Walker explained to me about a week later, “was, there’s no laws to protect trans people from gender-based crimes and harassment and discrimination … I know I mentioned saying something about walking with a gun at the back of your head 24/7, 365. That’s kind of what it’s like.”

Just five days before Dallas Fire Rescue found Mack in a parking lot and pronounced her dead at the scene, Brayla Stone was found dead in a car, in Arkansas (she was the fifth Black transgender woman found dead in the past month). Suspects have been arrested in both cases. Unlike the perpetrators of recent police murders, who are typically White, both suspects are Black. This fits into a larger pattern that Janetta Johnson and the Transgender Gender-variant and Intersex Justice Project condemned in 2017.

“We’re not taught in Black households, just culturally, that love is love, and you have the freedom to love who you want to love—that’s just not taught in Black households,” Walker said. “Being gay, or being trans, or being a feminine male or a passive male—that’s looked down on.”

She pointed to Mack’s case. Angelo Walker, the suspect, and Mack were in a consensual relationship. Walker said the homophobia in the community makes some men “very, very afraid of being exposed.” As WFAA reported, “Merci had shared on Facebook that she was going to post an intimate video of her and Walker onto her Snapchat.” Police say that is when Walker lashed out.

“He shot this girl 10 times,” Walker kept repeating. “He shot Merci 10 times. Like, who shoots somebody ten times? Like, honestly, who in the world shoots somebody ten times? That just does not happen, it doesn’t. So there is an emotional connection there.”

How, then, does the trans community heal? How does the trans community move forward?

“We’ll never heal,” Walker replied. “There’s just too much bloodshed.”

The protests began 48 days ago to call for justice for victims of police brutality. They’ve marched to the polls. They’ve called for the reform of police departments, reallocation of funding, and justice for all—whether they are a Black trans woman or Latina veteran, victims of violence deserve attention. These groups are determined to continue bringing it to them.

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