It doesn’t look like much but, subject to a vote this week, the red-light district along Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, New York, will become the scene for the next phase of the political insurrection being led by the Democrats’ congressional superstar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
It’s here, on any given night, that the city’s LGBT sex workers ply their trade. It’s a notoriously insecure and problematic line of work, and none more so than for immigrant transsexual sex workers, thanks to elevated levels of police harassment, lack of access to the system of bail bonds, and the threat of roundups by the Immigration Customs Enforcement agency.
These workers’ rights are being championed by Tiffany Cabán, a queer Latina woman running for Queens district attorney in a vote on Tuesday – and when Ocasio-Cortez enthusiastically endorsed her campaign two weeks ago, it helped propel Cabán’s marginal candidacy to centre-stage, and with it the issue of legalising sex work in the city.
Over the past week, parts of the national Democratic political establishment, as represented by presidential contenders Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, followed the Bronx congresswoman’s lead in backing the 31-year-old public defender.
The New York Times followed suit, arguing in an editorial that Cabán was the Democrat best poised to become “one of a growing number of prosecutors to show what can be done without infringing on civil liberties, criminalising black and Hispanic Americans and mistaking punishment for the only form of justice”.
In making the endorsement, the paper went against New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, and the rest of the Democratic establishment, writing that their candidate – the borough’s president, Melinda Katz – “has no experience as a prosecutor nor long commitment to criminal justice reform”.
While the choice of DA in a New York borough with a population of two and half million might seem like a marginal issue, the race is a significant marker in the effort by progressives vying to pull the Democratic party to the left ahead of next year’s presidential election. Moreover, it’s a test of the star power of Ocasio-Cortez and her cohorts in the Democratic Socialists of America.
“AOC”, having seen off Amazon’s plans to build a new headquarters in nearby Long Island City, continues her provocations. Last week she accused the Trump administration of running “concentration camps” on the southern border. “The fact that concentration camps are now an institutionalised practice in the home of the free is extraordinarily disturbing and we need to do something about it,” she posted on Instagram.
But under her tutelage, Democrats are learning that seemingly marginal issues, in this case the rights of immigrant transsexual sex workers, can be re-fashioned as a mainstream political issue, in this case in the service of criminal justice reform.
The endorsement, Cabán told the Observer last week at a noisy rally for trans sex workers rights, showed that her candidacy was a continuation of Ocasio-Cortez’s grassroots movement. “Her endorsement was great because when you talk about not having a million dollars in the bank, you talk about doing this person-to-person, door-to-door, and that amplifies the message of a candidate like me. People are excited about what we stand for.”
In keeping with AOC’s campaign, Cabán’s immediate opponents are not Republicans but the Democratic establishment. In Cabán’s case, she hopes to fill the district attorney position held for 28 years by Richard Brown, who died earlier this year aged 86. If Cabán wins on Tuesday, it will show that Ocasio-Cortez’s revolution has maintained its potency, says Daniel Altschuler at the pro-immigration campaign group Make The Road. “Tiffany, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is a movement candidate. She’s using her campaign as a vehicle to lift the work and demands of grassroots social organisations.”
The post of Queens DA is potentially a springboard to becoming Manhattan DA, then to joining New York’s Southern District judicial circuit, which is currently spearheading investigations into the Trump Organisation, and a position on a federal bench and, perhaps, the supreme court.
Meanwhile, local criminal justice issues are pressing, none more so than in the case of transsexual sex workers who, supporters of decriminalisation argue, face arrest in disproportionate numbers and suffering long periods in detention because they are unable to access the system of cash bail bonds.
Bianey Garcia-D la O – a transgender campaigner for LGBT justice who was kidnapped and forced into sex work at 16 by a man who threatened to “call immigration” if she objected – was held for 19 months in Rikers Island prison because she could not raise a $25,000 bail bond. “We are people of colour and also without money for bail, so we end up in Rikers,” she said. But the injustice doesn’t start there, she added. “The cops treat us like we are nothing. They don’t pick up straight girls. They don’t care. They just laugh at us.”
Cabán, Garcia-D la O said, was “the only candidate supporting the most vulnerable members of our community and the only one that understands our issues”.
Those issues were tragically highlighted two weeks ago when Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old African-Latina trans woman, was found dead in solitary confinement on Rikers Island.
The timing of her death – just as the city gears up to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising – could hardly be a more poignant reminder that some in the LGBT community have yet to benefit from the successes of the gay rights movement.
Polanco, also known as Layleen Xtravaganza, was arrested on 13 April. She was being held on $500 bail for a low-level prostitution-related offence, in addition to a low-level drugs charge. Her cause of death has not yet been determined.
Polanco’s death highlights three discriminatory aspects of the legal system, according to Decrim NY, a group campaigning for the decriminalisation of sex work: “She was criminalised for sex work. She was held on $500 bail for misdemeanour charges. And she was placed in solitary confinement.”
David Shanies, a lawyer representing Polanco’s mother and estate, has accused the city of failing to protect her and “trying to sweep her death under the rug.”
According to LGBT campaign group the Anti-Violence Project, 68% of LGBT homicide victims are transgender or gender-nonconforming, while analysis by the National Transgender Discrimination Survey found 40% of black and 33%of Latino- and Latina-identified trans respondents had participated in the sex trade.
In broad terms, Shanies told the Observer, Polanco’s death exemplifies the discrimination facing transgender people. “The plight of the transgender community extends to all aspects of life, but nowhere is this more pronounced than in the criminal justice system.”
At the rally, where around 75 trans sex workers came out in support, Cabán said that, as DA, she would not ask for cash bail for any charges and would not prosecute sex workers or their customers. She is also in favour of closing down Rikers Island. In sum, her proposals mark a significant departure from decades-old polices that have led to record levels of incarceration.
“We’ve been punching public health issues through our criminal justice system and they don’t belong in the system, especially when we’re talking about communities that have been historically marginalised,” Cabán told the Observer.
Her candidacy, she said, represented “a clean break from the status quo. So I understand that people who are resistant to change might be a little bit nervous.”Topics
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