So, Opal, how was getting arrested? Pretty cool overall, or dehumanizing and in flagrant violation of BPD’s policy which the The Baltimore Transgender Alliance and other advocates worked tirelessly to put into place (https://drive.google.com/file/d/1EZ9L5zm90a3vU2CI7dL7w66rKtChOu77/view?usp=drivesdk)? This week, the fourth and final part of my interview series with Opal Phoenix on her experiences at the JHU Sit-In.
This interview has been edited for length, clarity, and privacy.
Opal: They put us all in handcuffs. Everyone starts screaming “Opal!” and I’m like “Oh my god.” Jamie Grace Alexander was there, I could see her jumping up and down. It was very beautiful, honestly, to have my community sending me love as I was getting dragged out of this building. They took me to the van with the men and at this point, I’m afraid to be out to these police because of experiences friends of mine have had with police violence, so I’m being very quiet.
They asked me my name and I said [deadname redacted]. But I could hear everyone shouting “she’s a woman, she’s a woman.”
Abby: Ahh, so that’s not necessarily even the choice you were trying to make in that moment, to be out.
Opal: Yeah, I was afraid, honestly, I was afraid of being put in exclusion.
Abby: Ah, rather than putting you in with one side of their population or the other, they’re like “you’re just in solitary the entire time.”
Opal: With my friends, I have the protection of people being a witness. If I’m alone, that’s a higher incidence of police violence. As a child I was placed by my abusive father into a youth jail and spent time in solitary confinement. Over silly things, like a homework thing, I didn’t know what schoolwork I was supposed to do.
Abby: Jesus. How old were you at the time?
Opal: Sixteen. All of this was in my mind before we got arrested, that I’m going to be facing this childhood fear of mine.
Abby: This was your first arrest as an adult?
Opal: Yeah. They take me in the van with the men down to the police station and we’re waiting in a line, and we just stood there for thirty minutes. We’re trying to be light-humored about it, really feeling the intensity of what we just went through.
I get in, they pat me down, I go through that. Then I go and talk to a doctor. The doctor’s asking me what medications I’m on, so I told him “My hormones.” He’s like “What is that?” and I’m like “It’s hormones… for gender dysphoria.” And he’s like “What does gender dysphoria mean?” and I’m like “Uh, I’m transgender. And I’d like to be in a women’s space, I just wanted to talk to someone who was not a cop first, y’know?”
He just kind of ignored that. He got really weird about it, awkward. Then he processed me through, and I went to the next place, which was an interrogation room. There were two men, male detectives, and they had me strip down to my underwear. I didn’t have a bra on, and they’re just looking at me like “What the fuck?” I had to then explain to them that I’m transgender. They’re like “what’s going on with your body” —
Abby: Because you have tits.
Opal: Yeah. They kept calling me “a transgender”, like “Apparently they’re a transgender”. They’re kinda leering at me the whole time. I just felt so, so exposed.
They’re picking through my medications and they’re like “Oh, good thing these aren’t expired because we’d throw them away,” acting like they wanted to throw them away. Then they wouldn’t let me wear the clothes I was going to wear because one had an internal bra and the other was a hoodie, I guess, and the guy was acting like he was just going to put me out in the population without a shirt on. But then they gave me this giant Mountain Dew t-shirt.
Opal: Then they walked me up to a bench and cuffed me to that. A woman was processing my address and I had to tell her I’m homeless. Then she was like “You don’t look like a transgender,” and I’m just like…
Abby: Ma’am, please don’t.
Opal: Yeah. Like, geez. Thanks. Hi.
At some point I was trying to keep it light, I made a joke like “I’ve got a get out of jail free card in my back pocket,” I don’t know, I was pleased with myself at the time. Then a man comes up to me and says you have two choices, one you can get put in solitary, or two you can go in with the men. I ask him, will I be with other people in the population outside of my friend group? He says they can’t guarantee, and I’m like… actually, just put me in solitary.
And then they didn’t put me in solitary, they put me in with my friends in the first cell, but then in the next cell it was with other people in the men’s population. My friends were really awesome, they had my back and kept it light. Everybody called me [deadname redacted] while we were in there and we just kind of laid low and rode it through.
We just kept waiting. I remember I took a nap for a while. I wake up and they’re like “Hey, you’re all leaving” and I was like “What, don’t we have to go through the magistrate first?”
Abby: It’s been like twelve hours total at that point?
Opal: It was around 4pm. We come out and literally all of our friends are out there doing jail support, cheering for us.
Everyone gives us big hugs and there’s community all around me, there’s cigarettes. And we all just stayed there. We got a group together and people talked about their experiences, we talked about the attacks, that was when we really first processed all the stuff that had been going on, and we decided to do a march around the jail for Keith Davis, Jr. You were there for this, right?
Abby: Yeah, it was a West Wednesday, I came straight from work. It was a really good one [wrote a little about it here: https://one-baltimore.org/2019/05/16/one-baltimore-2-waves/%5D.
Opal: It was so powerful to go into jail, have Marilyn Mosby let us out, and instead of being like “Thank you, Mosby,” we point out that Keith Davis, Jr. she still keeps in prison, to point out that privilege. And then to march around the jail —
Abby: — yelling that we’re going to see the walls come down!
Opal: That day was so intense. It was the same time period that the Mayor stepped down, May Day, the whole city gets hacked. It was so strange for me, it was like I came out of this jail and the whole city’s a different city. And to be out with so much support and love. As a white person, I try to be supportive and stay in the background more, but at the same time, I’m glad that it’s been reported that a trans woman resisted this oppression.
Abby: All sorts of papers were writing about it.
Opal: That was also a very intense thing for me to go through –
Abby: Like, “Now I’m VERY out.”
Opal: Trying not to read the comments…
Abby: Oh god.
Opal: I’m on the street a lot and now I’m also a public persona. Now when I walk in the area around Hopkins campus, the guards are all like “It’s you!” They don’t say anything but I see it, and I spend a lot of time there. I hang out at the park. It’s very intense to A) be trans and homeless and very not in control of your life sometimes and B) be in the public eye. Obviously I’m not a celebrity or anything, but in this town…
Abby: It’s a small town. And now, instead of security guards, it’s going to be armed people with police powers who can do whatever they want. And again, I think people need to realize, one of the officers responsible for the death of Tyrone West was a Morgan State police officer. A university police officer was one of the people who committed this killing.
That’s why they’re part of this national coalition of campuses across the country, that’s why it’s completely illegitimate to try to exclude community members from this decision-making, because it’s the power of life and death over Tyrone West, it’s the power of life and death over you, and over anybody who wanders too close to their border.
Opal: People live right in the Hopkins bubble. I have friends, people living in Wyman Park, who are wonderful people who don’t deserve to be in the situation they are, and I worry about police, armed police kicking them out.
Abby: Yeah, they don’t even have to attack them physically to terrorize them and fuck up their lives.
Opal: Right now, the Hopkins guards aren’t allowed to be like “get out of here”, but –
Abby: — vagrancy is illegal.
Opal: It changes the dynamic. The guards go from a force of helping people to being a prosecution force that can arrest you, put you in jail.
Abby: Or kill you with no consequences.
Opal: When’s the Hopkins jail gonna be here?
Opal: I have a friend who, right after this incident, wanted to have me stay with them. They were going through a surgery, I was going to help them recover and take care of their dog, but it was in the Hopkins bubble. All the guards are kind of set up on a grid, right? Well it just so happens that two of the guards are posted right outside of my friend’s house every day.
So I went to go visit my friend after all this, and after I leave the guards started harassing them and blocking their path, messing with them. And I recognize those guards. I ended up not doing that for my friend, I didn’t want them to be targeted. I know I’m not the only one who’s finding it hard to exist, all eyes on you because Hopkins is angry at you.
Abby: And meanwhile they’re stuffing their pockets with millions of dollars of ICE money! Fucking ICE… no, you’re traitors to humanity at that point, and that’s what I think of Johns Hopkins University administration at this point. JHU as an institution, full of amazing students and cool teachers, does a lot of interesting and important things –
Opal: I’ve met some amazing people from Hopkins! Even though I’m fighting this thing that’s destroying my neighborhood through gentrification and violence, I found a lot of beautiful people there. I think it’s a struggle we can win, if we can build a city-wide movement of students, get them working together with unions and local activists, we can really build a coalition.
Abby: THAT would be Hopkins being a force of good in Baltimore. And it’s within reach, but I don’t know how you pry out somebody like a [JHU President] Ron Daniels. If anyone is reading this who can fire Ron Daniels, please do so! Can’t hurt to put it out there.
Anyway, I’m so, so glad about how it turned out. You took a risk and it worked out. Mosby could’ve made a different political calculus.
Opal: This also showed me who was good in the city, too. Like, [City Council Member] Zeke Cohen called me after all that and apologized on behalf of the city about how I was misgendered. That is meaningful.
Abby: I really do appreciate that. Somebody in the city has to say that it’s not ok when BPD does something wrong. Yeah, we may not really control this agency and everybody knows that, but we still have to take some accountability and point it out and talk about it.
Weird to end my interview with my friend the anarchist by praising a politician, but there you have it! Thank you so much for following along on this journey. I really didn’t expect it to take this long, but there’s so much story here. And I only looked at one slim slice of it, through one person’s eyes.
Here’s a fun update — Daniel Povey, the professor who attacked the sit-in, was fired, woo! https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/08/12/johns-hopkins-fires-professor-over-clash-student-protesters-he-says-he-has-no
And as a reminder, the sit-in achieved its goal of open dialogue with the Hopkins administration! Both students and community members are welcomed this Thursday evening: https://www.facebook.com/events/2486769098245718
Cultural Event of the Week: Rahne Alexander is releasing her first book, “Heretic to Housewife”, a collection of essays that’s already winning awards! Rahne is one of the founders of the Charm City Kitty Club, that theater group I talk about from time to time, and is just an amazing artist and person overall. This Thursday at Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse.
Green Event of the Week: This Saturday night, Guerrilla Theatre Front presents the Garbage Bag Ball at Creative Labs, which aims “to show the ways we can all have an impact on a better ecological future – and have fun & party, too!!”
Song of the Week: “Protest Song” by April Maze
No, it’s not too late / No time to hesitate / I said it’s not too late / I said are you sick and tired / Of being taught these lies / Come join our hands / And together we rise / Sometimes you gotta make a sacrifice