I Got my Civil Rights and My People are Free: Marsha P. Johnson and Harriet Tubman’s Freedom Invocations

I’ve written before about Marsha P. Johnson’s resistance in the wee hours of June 29th, 1969, the night of the Stonewall Riots. When a police officer approached her and demanded her ID, she threw a shot glass at a mirror and shouted, “I got my civil rights.”

 

While Miss Major Griffin-Gracie was undoubtedly right when she said that no one person was responsible for starting the Stonewall Riots (see video above), Marsha’s actions were heralded by her friends in the New York City gay liberation movement as pivotal to starting the resistance that night.

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[Marsha P. Johnson holding a sign that says “Power to the People.”]

Marsha’s friends called her resistance the shot-glass heard ‘round the world. Imagine that moment. Once again threatened with arrest, once again coerced into cooperating with police officers who would likely let her go if she just flashed them some ID, once again expected to act though this ID check were reasonable and not harassment, Marsha P. Johnson did none of that. She fought back and was lucky enough to find other people ready to fight beside her.

There is something, however, about the scene that has stuck in my mind since I first met Johnson on the pages of Tourmaline’s blog. Marsha’s actions are crystal clear, but there was something about what she said that I’ve felt like I never completely understood. What exactly did she mean by “I got my civil rights?” This appeared to be a scene in which Marsha clearly had no rights. She could have been arrested under New York City’s anti-crossdressing laws; ID checks functioned as an informal means for the police to show lenience, if they pleased, by only arresting trans people without ID. Surely, Marsha wasn’t insisting that she had something she didn’t. I’ve read ever scrap of writing from her and watched every home video and recorded interview that I can find and I simply don’t think that’s how she talked. Did the shot glass she threw represent seizing her civil rights? Was she claiming that civil rights could not be given by the state, but were only to be found in resistance? Stick with me; I am not trying to be pedantic. There is something about the grammar she used that is elusive, that points to a bigger meaning.

It was in reading the work of Black feminist thinkers Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown that the words “I got my civil rights” became clear to me. Gumbs, Imarisha, and Brown have all talked about Harriet Tubman’s mantra “My people are free.” Imagine saying that during slavery, in the midst of profound, deadly un-freedom. Tubman had visions – something she had in common with Marsha – and after one of them she chanted to herself all day “My people are free.” That invocation was the center of her work; her politics were making that vision true in small ways that grew larger and larger. Her vision is still moving today.

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[Harriet Tubman, hair wrapped, starring straight ahead]

I’ve started to understand Marsha’s proclamation and Harriet Tubman’s together, as the same kind of envisioning, the same kind of speaking freedom into existence. Marsha’s politics were much the same as Tubman’s. She spent her live practicing freedom and sharing it with her sisters. In the midst of brutality- incarceration, poverty, sexual violence, police violence, ableism, forced psychiatric treatment, AIDS, and daily harassment – she got her civil rights. She created spaces in which her people were free.

This is a time period in which we need Marsha P. Johnson and Harriet Tubman’s vision desperately. I’ve written about the panic that gripped the most privileged members of the trans community when the Trump administration’s DHS memo was leaked. Make no mistake, the situation is dire, but it was already dire. Black trans women are being murdered at an alarming rate. Many trans people are living in poverty, with many youth left homeless. What limited civil rights protections trans people have aren’t enough to ensure our survival. The DHS memo changed almost nothing, but trans people – especially white trans people – experienced it as a tragedy. We lose our way when we allow politicians to define the crisis we are living in, because when we do, we start pursuing smaller and smaller freedom dreams. We leave behind the most vulnerable members of our community. Or rather, we stop following them as they continue to find their way to freedom.

I will be writing more about how trans people have claimed freedom in the midst of unlivable conditions, in genuine crises, because I think that’s the part of history that we need to focus on at this time. I’ll be starting with CeCe McDonald next month.  ‘Till then.

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