Our definitions of crime and victimhood are socially constructed and not actual representations of who is good or evil in the United States.

-Gabrielle Alexa

By Gabrielle Noel

The legal system was never built with Black queer people in mind. This system assigns victimhood, or refuses it, according to social biases, and society’s perception of who is more likely to be a victim or more credible thus affects who is allowed to receive justice. When it comes to sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other areas of sexual violence, Black women have been historically left out of that allowance.

Prior to emancipation, enslaved women were considered property and couldn’t legally be the victims of rape. Those perceptions continued even after abolition. Fannie Lou Hamer never received justice after she was beaten in jail by a state highway patrolman. Recy Taylor was kidnapped and raped by a group of six men, who were never arrested. Anita Hill challenged Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court, and he still sits on the bench today.

That history, along with internalized perceptions of who a “real” victim can be, make Black women less likely to come forward. When you consider this in collaboration with a queer identity, which can also reduce our credibility in an anti-queer society, it’s easy to understand how violence against Black queer women is swept under the rug.

In 2006, six lesbian women and a person who is gender non-conforming were punished for defending themselves against street harassment. Our legal system not only failed to protect the “New Jersey 7,” it criminalized them, and the media tarnished their reputations to boot. Their story, in the context of social justice today, make it obvious that our justice system was designed to fail, and cannot be reformed.

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On August 18th, at around 2am, a man named Dwayne Buckle approached the group. He claimed this was because he thought one of them, Patreese Johnson, was “kinda pretty.” According to Johnson, Buckle pointed at her crotch and said, “lemme get some of that.”

This scenario is all-too familiar for women who have dealt with street harassment. At best, it’s annoying and assuming. It operates as if men are entitled to our attention. Perhaps it doesn’t always escalate to physical violence—but women know that it always can.

According to Johnson, she then told Buckle the group was gay and he called them “dykes.” He threatened to rape them “straight” and then assaulted them. Video footage from the nearby IFC Center backs up some of these claims. It shows him ripping someone’s hair out and waving it in the air. Later he is seen towering over one member of the group with his hands around her throat. Patreese Johnson, fearing for her friends’ lives, stabbed Buckle with a knife she had in her bag.

Buckle survived. According to one of the officers on-scene, there wasn’t any blood when he arrived. Nevertheless, the New Jersey 7 was arrested and charged with gang assault. Reports called them a “gang of petite but ornery lesbians,” “killer lesbians,” and even a “lesbian wolf pack.” Bill O’Reilly declared that lesbian gang violence was on the rise on his Fox News program. These racist dog whistles are reminders that Black people are frequently observed as savage, even when they are the ones most vulnerable.

Black women are frequently positioned as more masculine and threatening than they actually are thanks to misogynoir, and this along with the New Jersey 7’s gender expression factored into media portrayals of the group. They were framed as women who were abnormally masculine and unnatural. Only one of the New Jersey 7, Terrain Dandridge, is gender non-conforming, while the rest varied in their expressions of feminine identity. But the Daily News exclusively used photos that depicted the group as masculine-presenting and headlined one article: “‘I’m a man!’ lesbian growled during fight.”

Meanwhile, the media described Buckle in terms of his professional titles like “filmmaker” and “sound technician.” They wrote that he was “defenseless” after merely “admiring” an attractive woman, which was not a crime. There was little mention of street harassment.

According to Buckle, he was the victim of a hate crime against a straight man—which is ironic considering his behavior is the very definition of a hate crime. He used homophobic and transphobic insults which weren’t even observed as criminal. During the trial, the Judge scoldingly informed the New Jersey 7 that only sticks and stones could actually break bones, undermining the weight of slurs against marginalized groups. The New Jersey 7 were ultimately found guilty and sentenced to years in prison for self-defense.

By contrast, state-sponsored violence is infrequently punished as criminal. The police officer who killed Tamir Rice in 2014 was not charged and was hired by another department earlier this month. Sexual misconduct is the second most-reported form of police misconduct, but it is still legal in many states for officers to sleep with detainees. Under the current Trump administration, we have seen children kidnapped and kept in cages by U.S. Border Patrol. Criminality is socially constructed and seemingly excludes those that our tax dollars pay.

Mass incarceration continues to target people of color and LGBTQ people at disproportionate rates, despite liberal narratives of “progress.” The Trump administration has also been increasingly dangerous for LGBTQ people, and easily overturned Obama-era legislation that “protected” trans people under civil rights law. They have also asserted that the Civil Rights Act does not protect gay or bisexual people either. Hate crime legislation, which would seek to protect the most marginalized amongst us, increasingly ends up weaponized against those exact groups.

The system is set up to perceive hate crimes not as something that specifically targets the most marginalized amongst us—people of color, LGBTQ people, women—but to see hatred as something that has equal weight for every group.

Our definitions of crime and victimhood are socially constructed and not actual representations of who is good or evil in the United States.

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Three of New Jersey 7 pled guilty and the remaining four defended themselves before an all-white jury. Later, the Judge told them that “insulting words” didn’t justify their behavior. He very scoldingly reminded them that only sticks and stones could break their bones. They were sentenced to between three-and-a-half and eleven years in prison.

People asked why Johnson, who was only nineteen at the time, even had a knife on her. They question why she didn’t just contact the police. This is how victim-blaming works. A young girl from their neighborhood, named Sakia Gunn, had just been murdered coming home from the same Greenwich Village neighborhood where Buckle approached Johnson. She was murdered after she stated that she was gay. In the documentary Out In The Night, Johnson cites this as the primary reason the knife was in her possession. None of this mattered.

Like too many Black people, Johnson’s brother had been murdered by an officer, so calling 911 wasn’t an option for her. It represented an additional threat. When police did get involved, they did not help the New Jersey 7. No matter when Black women come forward, they are less likely to be taken seriously or believed. Stabbing Buckle was a sensible option if Johnson was trying to survive.

Black women, and specifically Black queer women, have zero real options to protect themselves under the state. We should continue revisiting this case and the many other stories of Black women who never received justice, of which there are way too many, to remind ourselves this. When I consider the New Jersey 7, I think about the times I have experienced street harassment, and replied, “I prefer women,” to get out of it. In another life, I might’ve been the one on trial.

Today, during LGBT History Month, it is not enough for the media to simply report the news or for the privileged among us to simply be “allies.” Instead, we must all challenge our perceptions of victimhood, our biases, because not doing so will only ever continue to put people at risk.

Gabrielle Noel is a freelance writer with bylines in Elle, the Huffington Post, and the Independent. You can follow her on twitter/Instagram: @gabalexa.