Welcome to a special edition of One Baltimore! The following is the first part of an interview with Opal Phoenix. Opal and I have been friends since we were teenagers, and she was crucial in making me aware of the JHU Sit-In this spring, which culminated in her and six other students and community members being swarmed by 80 cops and arrested.
Opal’s arrest was covered by the ACLU (https://www.aclu-md.org/en/news/trans-people-are-not-sad-story-we-are-strong-resilient-story), and while it was a strong article, I noticed that they left out a lot of details that she had mentioned to me. It got me thinking – it’s easy for cis people to hear “the cops are shitty to trans people” or for anyone to hear “wow, a lot of shit went down at that protest” and not really get what that looks like. The details matter, and I’m honored that Opal agreed to entrust me with this story.
Our conversation ended up covering a lot of territory beyond just the arrest, and I decided to keep the majority of it, as I think it provides valuable context regarding the violence faced by marginalized people, by trans people, by activists. In order to keep the column a consistent length, and to give my wrists a break, I will be posting it in sections over the next several days.
I’m writing from the road – Opal and I are actually on a road trip to the border currently! As I write this, we’re returning to our hostel in southern New Mexico from Clint Texas, where we joined a Fourth of July protest outside the infamous child detention center there with other activists from around the country. More on that in the near future.
This interview has been edited for length, clarity, and privacy.
Me: Tell me just a little bit about yourself, where are you from?
Opal: I kind of grew up all over. Spent my early life in Virginia and then moved to Maryland in my teens, came to Baltimore around 17. I’ve been here for the most part ever since.
Me: And what got you involved in the JHU Sit-in?
Opal: Quite a few things. I’m one of the founders of a group called Food Rescue Baltimore, and through that I made a friend who’d been working to bring students to protests, basically putting themselves on the front lines, which I found very impressive. They were helping out with the West coalition, bringing hot chocolate on the cold winter days, because Tawanda Jones never stops, she doesn’t miss a Wednesday, rain, snow, or shine.
Me: That’s so sweet!
Opal: Yeah. I was very inspired by Tawanda’s story and by her stand. I was doing food support during the Uprising and I saw her doing work then, and really felt like, especially as a white person, that this kind of work is necessary if we’re talking about anything close to reparations. So we started getting involved more, and I initially saw Tawanda post about the students storming the Alumni Breakfast (video: https://www.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=305531933475010&id=260566734638197). Then, through another friend’s post, I saw that they were having a sit-in, so I went to just go check it out.
I kind of sat down and observed for a while. They had Black Lives Matter DC with them and they were going over recommendations, and one of them was “you should talk to Occupy Baltimore”, and I was like “Gosh, how many people are even left from Occupy Baltimore? Gosh, I’m one of them.”
I guess I was expecting from Hopkins to see mostly students who are privileged, but I saw a lot of students who are marginalized and got to this point and were still putting it on the line. I was really inspired by that, so I ended up staying the night with them. I’m the kind of person where it’s hard for me to rest when others are putting themselves on the line.
Me: You want to make sure everybody’s ok.
Opal: Mmmhm. A few of my other friends were also involved and I kind of got sucked into the organizing. I wasn’t representing any org, I was just doing it on my own. I’m normally the quiet, supportive type, but also I’ve found that, being trans, I bring a perspective that isn’t always at the forefront. I found myself doing things that the normal college kid may have been trained not to do.
Me: What do you mean by that?
Opal: Like when we decided to take back the doors because they were ID’ing everyone who came in, primarily to create a divide between students and non-students, they were trying to intimidate people like me, the non-students, into not coming in.
Me: Not to mention the West Coalition and Black Lives Matter folks.
Opal: Yeah, we talked about taking the doors, everyone was really nervous about it and felt like it could be dangerous, and while yes, that danger is real, Hopkins guards are first and foremost paid not to do anything, they’re supposed to report.
Me: Yeahhhh, I definitely saw that [more on that in the next part of the interview].
Opal: So I went up to the doors, swung them open, somebody was blasting club music on the mic, and I just start booty-dancing in the middle of the doorway, and everybody’s like “yeah!!!” I think on a level me being a trans woman boldly taking that door speaks to even the privileged people like “yeah, ok, we can do this.”
Me: Yeah, like “I can now imagine it because I’ve seen it, I know what it looks like, and I’ve gotta believe that if you can do it, I can do it.”
Opal: I did face aggression from the guards. There was this one moment when I was coming to the doors, the group was having a guided meditation inside, so they couldn’t immediately let me in, and the guards showed up and started being really nasty. They were telling me I wasn’t allowed in the building, and at that point, people were in fact allowed in the building, y’know, they were just giving me false information.
Me: It was an open to the public building.
Opal: Yeah. Then literally the dean shows up at the same time! And he’s got this really creepy smile on his face, it was very disturbing, honestly. And the attitude I took towards these guards, and even the administrators… I felt like the Garland students, they created their space, and at that point the administrators are visitors, and so I was just like “Hi, can I help you? Do you have any identification?”
Me: HA! I love it.
Opal: He got really upset about that.
Me: I can imagine.
Opal: They were getting up in my face, and then [redacted, a student activist] came out and stood them down, said “hey, we’re allowed to come in and out of here, you can’t…” They had my back, and I just had to step away for a minute. It really felt to me that they were targeting me because I’m trans.
Me: You’d also, of course, been leading.
Opal: That might have been part of it too.
Me: I mean, I don’t know if they knew that at that point.
Opal: They were definitely monitoring us, taking pictures. So yeah, stuff like that… I feel like we often create our own boundaries, we —
Me: We think we have to live by a line someone else has drawn, but we can draw a line.
Opal: Yeah. They drew a line, but it’s actually not a solid line.
Me: And what if we said “no, the line is here,” how about that, what if we had power?
Opal: It’s hard for people to get out of that mindset.
Me: Right, of course. It’s scary, it’s terrifying, you’ve spent your life living within lines that are strongly enforced.
Opal: So, me as random community member who’s really upset because I know what more private… private or public, whatever… more police means more trans deaths. I was also really hurting from a friend of mine, a trans woman, who had just died.
Opal: Brittany. I witnessed violence that she went through that really hit home to me, the level of difference in how someone initially responds to a trans woman of color and how someone responds to a white trans woman, and why that difference is so important.
I witnessed a man, Brittany was sitting on a stoop, just trying to, like, live, y’know she was homeless. There was also a white woman right next to her. And he comes out and he really focuses on her, he’s like “get the fuck out of here” and she’s like “ok, give me a second, I’m going to get my stuff and get out of here” and he picked her up by her neck –
Me: Oh, goodness!
Opal: — to the point that her feet were off the ground
Me: And she wasn’t short.
Opal: He’s a big man, very big man. He was the owner of that funeral home that was next to the old Red Emma’s, as far as I could tell. My friend pointed it out, then I saw it happening. So I ran into Emma’s, grabbed [redacted, local community activist], we came running out, and at that point he literally had blue gloves on his hands –
Opal: — and a gun in his hands. He was going to shoot her until he saw us coming, and then he backed down and went into his building. She literally had bruises on her neck, it was terrible. So we allowed her to get herself together, asked her if she wanted the police to be called. She wasn’t really wanting to do it at first, but then she decided to. We had 8 witnesses lined up all saying it was a hate crime.
The police come and I remember feeling very much like they weren’t taking it very seriously. I didn’t get why they didn’t knock on the guy’s door, try to go into his building, respond at all about him. Nothing ever really happened from that. I spoke about it a year later at a vigil for another murdered trans woman of color, and the LGBTQ liaison cop came up to me and was like “why don’t we know anything about this?”, and like…
Me: …because your people didn’t bother to report it, obviously.
Opal: And the thing about Brittany is that she went through a whole other incident with the police when they shot and killed her friend [Mya Hall, RIP]. So I just see how the police are already treating us, and then to have a whole other level of police with another level of protection and non-accountability, not even being part of the city…
Me: Yeah, owned by an entity that’s not by or for the public.
Opal: And the thing I’ve seen from this whole Hopkins fiasco, literally these kids were just trying to get the president to meet with them. It was supposed to be a day, a single day. They were going to occupy, they were going to sit in, and then obviously he would say, “Of course I’m going to meet with you.”
And then nothing happened, so the students of color were like “No we’re not going to sit in for just a day and then go home, we want justice” so they kept coming, and then at that point [JHU President] Ron Daniels basically treated them like terrorists, like “We’re not going to negotiate with them.”
There’s a lot of things that inspired me to get in on this, it really matters to me. I also have faced violence. We had a home invasion at my house, two men tied me up at gunpoint and got into an altercation with my roommate and shot him [in the arm, he’s ok].
Someone called the police and I hear them march-march-march, and I hear my friend yelling “she’s our friend, she’s our friend, don’t shoot her, don’t shoot her,” but they still all pull out their guns and point them at me, and she runs past them, and just blocks me and grabs onto me and if she hadn’t done that I don’t know if I’d be alive. Y’know, I’ve never heard back from those police.
Me: And that’s a very serious crime, home invasion!
Opal: Honestly, I’m so terrified of the police, I’m not even calling them. I feel very much like there is no situation in which it is safe for me to call the police, which puts me in a very dangerous world.
To be continued.
Cultural event of the week: See the incomparably fun David London and Harley Newman play with illusion and bend reality, tell stories and contemplate life in The Tricksters! This Fri. 7/5-Sun. 7/7 only, at the Theatre Project.
Green event of the week: Holy heck, they’re doing a lot at the Druid Hill Farmer’s Market!! It’s every Wednesday from 3:30-7:30 near the Conservatory, and at this week’s market on 7/10 they apparently have guided bike rides, guided horse rides, a mother goose thing, AND yoga!
Song of the week: “To Young Leaders” by Guante & Big Cats
Remember, people who have not accomplished half of what you have / Are gonna tell you that you work too hard / And they’ll support ya yappin’ but when you propose action / They’ll tell you that it goes too far / But if you really want change, be prepared to make war / Whether physical, spiritual, cultural or something more / ‘Cause if we are the ones we’ve been waiting for / What the hell are we waiting for?