These young people know it's time to help their city change.
When Penny Proud was shot in New Orleans, her community had had enough.
The violence itself was upsetting on its own — only February and 21-year-old Penny was already the fifth transgender woman of color to be killed in America in 2015.
Media coverage just added insult to injury.
On top of already tragic news, it seemed like the police and the media felt that trans people were "almost less than human," as one person with the New Orleans group BreakOUT! commented. (More on that group in a sec!) They called Penny "him," even after activists pointed out that doing so was incorrect, and the media basically engaged in smack talk and insinuations about her, rather than sticking to the facts and details relevant to the story and the public.
Sadly, none of these problems were new.
For years, the police had looked more like enemies than allies.
People of color and LGBTQ people experience more police harassment than anyone else. (It's not the kind of thing you can find oodles of statistics about, but if you're thinking, Really? then take a peek at this.) Things get especially gnarly sometimes when cops interact with people whose gender they may not accept or understand.
And in the state of Louisiana (y'know, the whole thing that surrounds New Orleans), they lock up more people than any other state in America ... and, it must be said, America already has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
(Fun fact time! Right now, Texas — a classic lock-em-up kinda place — is working on closing its prisons rather than opening more. Turns out it saves taxpayers money and creates a safe and happy society.)
Things were so bad in New Orleans that the U.S. Justice Department had to step in.
Yep. In 2011, the federal government had to investigate the New Orleans police department.
Basically, nobody in the black trans community was feeling too excited about asking the police for help protecting their lives. Most of them had already interacted with the police, and they weren't positive experiences.
"I've experienced police violence. Most people that I know have experienced police violence." — Shaena Johnson, BreakOUT! Co-Director
But that inspired a group of young people to change their city and their lives.
In 2011, they founded a group called BreakOUT!, just for people ages 13-25. Their main mission? Help people heal when shitty stuff goes down personally or in their communities, teach leadership, and, oh yeah, change the city of New Orleans for the better.
"We have to stick together because that's the only way we can survive." — Ja'Leah Shavers, BreakOUT! Outreach and Development Coordinator
After Penny's death, they put up this billboard:
And they've run a Know Your Rights campaign to help young people deal with the police.
It really shouldn't be young people's responsibility to help the cops do their jobs right — they're still learning math and how to drive, for crying out loud — but it's a step toward keeping them safe and well!
New Orleans is more than the home of Mardi Gras and Jazz and vampires.
New Orleans is a huge part of the South's long history of civil rights activism.
It's also, incidentally, a place where people:
- go to work
- check out library books
- adopt kittens
- get stuck in traffic
- eat doughnuts (though probably, they're eating more beignets, lucky them)
- fall in love
- watch videos on the Internet
- get bug bites
In short, it's a place like anywhere else.
And the founders of BreakOUT! believe that you should be able to be safe in your own city. For New Orleans, their work is one step in the right direction.
"We have a shared vision of being able to be safe in the city you grew up in." — Wes Ware, BreakOUT! Co-Director
Meet the founding members of BreakOUT! in this video
This video is actually the latest installment from SIGNIFIED — a documentary series profiling the work of queer artists and activists. They traveled down to New Orleans to talk with BreakOUT! members about fighting the criminalization of LGBTQ youth there, the national "Get Yr Rights" toolkit, youth leadership development, and the deep history of social justice organizing in the South.