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The LGBT Hate Crimes Project: Walking in Memphis, Pt. 2 – Duanna Johnson

Saw the Ghost of Elvis

Down on Union Avenue

Followed him up the gates of Graceland

And I watched him walk right through.

~ Marc Cohn, “Walking in Memphis

My one trip to Memphis didn’t include the expected pilgrimage to Graceland, and I never saw the ghost of Elvis (impersonators notwithstanding) even though I stayed on Union Avenue. Even if I had I’m not sure I’d have followed him to Graceland. I say expected, because almost everyone I met who wasn’t connected with the conference asked me if I was going to Graceland. I said no, but what I didn’t share was that I’d already made up my mind where I was going while in Memphis, and my itinerary didn’t include Graceland. Not even a walk down Elvis Presley Blvd.

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Nor did my trip take me anywhere near Claybrook and Madison, where Duanna Johnson took a walk that ended with an arrest for prostitution —of the rather esoteric variety that involves neither a john nor an exchange of money for sexual services, but that in Johnson’s case seemed to involve being transgender and walking through a place that was known for transgender sex-workers — landed her in the Memphis Police station. And there is where the stories diverge. At the police station, Johnson refused to proceed to fingerprinting, objecting to the names she said the policeman was using for her, like “faggot” and “he/she.” The policeman said Johnson threatened to shoot him in the head when she got out of jail, and that she took the first swing, leading to the beating that ensued and is portrayed below in a 20 minute video.

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The video has no audio, so there’s nothing to hear, but I don’t see Johnson taking a swing until she has endured several punches from the officer, who appear to have his handcuffs wrapped around his hand. I do see the officer clearly taking the first swing, and another officer coming over and holding her shoulders down while the first officer throws punches. I see Johnson being sprayed with enough mace to make other people in the area back away and fan at the fumes. I see a nurse come in , ignore Johnson, and immediately tend to the officer.

Johnson filed a complaint related to the beating, but the video didn’t come to light until the officer involved filed an internal complaint against a detective who was present at the time of the beating and failed to help him. But for that, Memphis would never have known that the event happened, let alone the rest of the world.

And, as always happens in these cases, the sunlight reveals more about the parties involved. The officer had other complaints against him, alleging use of excessive force, and racist comments in one case, including mention of Aryan Nation.

Johnson herself had previous arrests for felonies, under her birth name — Duannel. And Johnson was arrested again, after the video came out, and after both officers involved were fired. The police report says Johnson offered sexual services in exchange for cash, and that she had a crack pipe in her purse. Johnson’s lawyer suggested that she was targeted because of publicity surrounding her beating, her exposure in interviews with the media, and her $1.3 million lawsuit against the city, for violation of her civil rights.

It might be easy to be judgmental of Johnson, especially after her most recent arrest. Easy, if you don’t know what kind of reality she and other transgender women live with every day one article written after her arrest paints a picture of desperate poverty.

To say that 43 year-old Duanna Johnson leads a difficult life would be an understatement. At her small, rundown, North Memphis house you’ll find condom wrappers on the ground outside her door.

Her power meter is missing. Not that it matters because her electricity was turned off months ago after she stopped paying her utility bill.

She has one extension cord running from her bedroom window to the neighbor’s house. They charge her $20 a month to plug into their electricity. It powers the single fan Duanna uses to cool her house.

And because Johnson has no running water in her home, neighbors often let her use their bathrooms to wash up and take care of her personal hygiene.

The article quotes one of her neighbors as saying:

“It’s difficult for her right now,” says Anderson. “She does what she can to survive out here. And it’s hard out here for her. But this is the life she chooses, you know.”

Except that I’m not entirely sure that “this is the life she chooses.” Making a choice, after all, implies having options to choose from. I don’t know anything about Johnson’s life before the police beating and videotape made her arguably Memphis’ most famous transgender resident, but it wouldn’t come as a surprise if it followed the pattern that the lives of so many other transgender women have followed.

Media accounts of murders like Bella Evangelista’s or Emonie Spaulding’s often link the crimes to street prostitution. That infuriates transgender activists, who say it’s a form of blaming the victim.

“The implication is that it’s your fault for being beaten or killed,” says Jessica Xavier. “But a lack of privilege means you don’t have a choice.” Or as Mottet puts it, “Sure, they have a choice: They can freeze and starve, or they can try to make a living.”

“The classic profile,” says Mara Kiesling, “is a 13-year-old who’s thrown out of the house when she decides to transition. She’s kicked out of school for wearing girls’ clothes. She can’t get a job because her says ‘Andre’ but she looks like a girl.

“What’s going to happen? Most likely, she’ll end up in a situation that makes her especially vulnerable — living in shelters and low-income neighborhoods, doing sex work as a matter of survival.”

What’s going to happen? In cases like the one Kiesling describes, not only can the young transgender woman not get a job, but her education is also disrupted by homelessness and/or dropping out due to harassment or violence. In some cases people turn to drug use to numb themselves against the reality of their lives, and perhaps make them better able to do what they have to do in order to survive. (Before you can “Just say no,” you have to have something to say “yes” to.) In some cases, transitioning from male to female means losing a job, not being able to get another job, and having to find other means of survival.

During a press conference following Evengelista’s murder, Budd told how transgendered women informed her that they turned to prostitution only after they had been denied jobs because of their appearance.

“It’s a matter of simple survival,” Budd said. “Some of the girls have no other choice but to turn to the streets for survival.”

… Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said about 50 people attending a transgender “speakout” meeting in the District on Sept. 9, discussed a wide range of issues and problems faced by transgendered people, including the issue of prostitution.

“It’s about economic opportunity or the lack of opportunity,” Keisling said. “I call it survival sex work, which is not the same as commercial sex work,” she said.

“If you were thrown out of your house at 10 and you didn’t finish school, what are your chances of going to college at Georgetown?” she said.

It’s one thing to say about Johnson or another transgender women in her predicament, “This is the life she choose,” but understanding the reality of the limited choices or lack of choices many transgender women face ought to give one pause.

The D.C. media, in contrast, wants you to believe that it was the “lifestyle” that Bella and Emonie were living that led to their deaths – as if their transgender status was a simple life choice, and that this choice somehow forced their killers’ hands.

Being transgender can be a recipe for a difficult life. Many transgender people are cut off from the employment and education opportunities that are basic expectations in our culture, and discrimination leads many into sex work as their only means of survival. Such may well have been the experience of Emonie and Bella.

Some studies have put transgender unemployment as high as 70 percent, well above even the worst levels in these economically troubled times. While many places have enacted legislation to protect the rights of individuals seeking and keeping employment – regardless of their gender expression or identity – no such protections exist nationally, or in Washington, D.C.

And so, before one says that Duanna Johnson “shouldn’t have been engaging in prostitution in the first place, ask yourself what other options she had to keep a roof over her head, and what obstacles cut her off from other choices. If being transgender was one of the cards life dealt her, the rest of her hand might have been dealt by the culture she and we live in.

In other words, take a walk in her shoes, with the same choices and the same obstacles, and she where you end up. When I went walking in Memphis, I didn’t go very far, but that was my choice. When Duanna Johnson went walking in Memphis, she likely found most roads were already closed to her, and the one that was open led to violence.

The Background


On February 12, 2008, Johnson was arrested on a charge of prostitution, which was later dropped. Johnson was seen walking near Claybrook and Madison in Memphis, and later said that she believes the officer arrested her simply for being transgender in an area known to be frequented by transgender sex-workers. Johnson’s lawyer said that the required elements for a prostitution arrest — a john, an exchange of sex for money — were absent in Johnson’s arrest.1)

The Attack

Johnson was booked at the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center in Memphis. 2) It was while Johnson was waiting to be finger printed that she was beaten by on officer, while another held her down, and maced when she refused to comply with an officers orders after the officer insulted her.

Johnson said the officer, Bridges McRae, called her over to be fingerprinted, but she chose not to respond to the derogatory name he called her. “Actually he was trying to get me to come over to where he was, and I responded by telling him that wasn’t my name – that my mother didn’t name me a ‘faggot’ or a ‘he-she,’ so he got upset and approached me. And that’s when it started,” Johnson said. The officer then said, “I’m giving you one more chance to get up,” and then began putting on gloves and wrapping a pair of handcuffs around his knuckes.3)

An 18-minute video leaked from the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center had no audio, but showed officer McRae approached Johnson (who is seated) and repeatedly punching Johnson in the face. Another officer, rookie James Swain, came over and held Johnson’s shoulders as she tried to ward off McRae’s blows.4)

After taking several blows, Johnson stood up and swung back. But she sat back down and officer McRae maced her. The video shows other people in the room turning away and fanning their faces. McRae hit her in the face again. On the video, Johnson is handcuffed and left on the floor. Nurse who arrived on the scene went immediately to officer McRae. Johnson said no one checked on her or came to see that she was OK.

The Shelby county Sheriff’s department reported that the nurse employed by the department was called to assess the situation. The nurse noted that Johnson had been sprayed with mace and asked if she was OK. She determined Johnson was not in an emergency situation, and left to make arrangements for the Memphis Police Department to transport Johnson to The Med for treatment. The nurse later returned to provide officer McRae with treatment for a cut5)

The Aftermath

Johnson filed a complaint against the Memphis Police Department in March 2008, related to the beating she received from officer McRae. However it was not Johnson’s complaint that brought to light the video and the events it depicted. Officer McRae filed an internal complaint against the detective who was in the booking area, for not helping him. It was McRae’s complaint that caused the video to be reviewed by the District Attorney and the FBI, and to finally become public. (See “Newscast 2” below.)

The following morning, the Memphis Police Department issued the following statement:

The Memphis Police Department does not condone any misconduct of a police officer that will compromise official law enforcement duties or the rights or safety of our citizens.

As it relates to the February incident that occurred at the jail facility, the police department has been conducting a thorough internal investigation. The details surrounding the complainant, witnesses and law enforcement officials’ statements are part of an ongoing investigation and can not be released at this time.

As a standard departmental policy, a full, impartial hearing will be held with the accused officer.

Memphis Police can confirm the work status of the two primary officers involved in this complaint. Officer J. Swain was a probationary officer and has been separated from the Memphis Police Department. Officer B. McRae has been placed on non-enforcement status pending an administrative hearing.

Memphis Police can also confirm the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been notified and requested to look into the complaint further.


Detective Monique Y. Martin
Memphis Police Department
Office of Public Information/Media Relations

Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton said in an interview that the beating was “horrible” and “disgusting.” ”(It) shouldn’t be tolerated, and all the parties involved should receive appropriate punishment,” Herenton said.

Officer Swain was fired immediately after the beating, and McRae was assigned desk duty pending a hearing to determine his fate.6)

Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin got the FBI involved after viewing the video. Godwin did not know how the video was leaked.7) According to WMC-TV, the video was leaked by Johnson’s attorney, Murray Wells, who felt it was an outrage that McRae was not immediately fired and no disciplinary actions were forthcoming.

Johnson announced that she would file suit against the Memphis Police Department for violating her civil rights.8) On June 18, 2008, Johnson’s lawyer gave the city an offer to settle the case for $1.3 million.9)

Community Reponse

On June 26, about 40 people gathered at First Congregational Church to discuss the beating Johnson received from police.

Officer McRae

After the leaked video of Johnson’s beating was broadcast, another local family came forward with claims of a violent run-in with McRae. According to a federal lawsuit, on December 19, 2005, truck driver Kirby Lloyd parked his tractor trailer in his mother’s backyard. Lloyd started his other car and went inside to greet his mother. The lawsuit says Lloyed was “accosted” by two Memphis police officer, including McRae, when he went outside, slammed onto the driveway with excessive force, and arrested for a “fictitious offense.”

Lloyd sued for $300,000 compensation for medical bills and lost wages. His sister, Kim Merrell, was also arrested that night, and filed suite for $300,000. Both cases were dismissed and are currently being appealed.10)

Johnson Arrested

On July 28, Johnson was arrested on charges of prostitution near a church or school, and possession of drug paraphernalia. According to police reports, Johnson flagged down an undercover officer, got into his car and said “I have some place to go. I have a three bedroom house on Dexter.” When the officer asked “What does it all cost?”, Johnson replied, “For everything, $30 and a beer.” The officer’s report says that Johnson had condoms and a crack pipe in a purse.

Johnson’s attorney, Arthur Horne, entered a not guilty plea for his client at arraignment. Horne added that the charges did not change what had happened to Johnson earlier.

“I think you can see from what has happened in the past, that she definitely is a public figure now, and people know who she is,” Horne said. “They’re going to be watching her every move and we expected that.”

Johnson was scheduled to return to court in August 2008.11)

At the time of her arrest, the utilities at Johnson’s small North Memphis home had been cut off for several months, and she needed to pay at least $2,400 to get them turned back on.