Dee Farmer, this Juneteenth, every Juneteenth, until we learn its lessons

Last summer during the BLM protests a lot of folk wrote in to say that they not only appreciated my work, but some of those were worried that they wouldn’t be able to head into the gas the way I had. It’s not an irrational question. Portland has well over a million people in the metro area and BLM was getting only a thousand people on monday nights, and not always much over 5000 on weekend nights. As far as I know, the crowds never hit 15k at any time when I was there. We’re talking about numbers between one third of a percent and one percent of the metro population coming downtown, with another tenth of one percent showing up for simultaneous actions at Portland Police Bureau’s North Precinct (there were also some protests out at East Precinct, but they weren’t every night and probably no larger than the ones at North). More than 99% of people weren’t coming out on a nightly basis, and it’s likely that more than 95% of people never showed up for even a single night. So, yes, some people sympathetic to BLM weren’t showing up for BLM.

But why is that? Are people just bad people? Are they mostly cowardly? I don’t think so. I think that different people have different amounts to lose. Imagine being a single mother. It’s not just getting baby sitting since you can’t bring young children out to be tear gassed. It’s the risk of arrest. When you’re the only caregiver your children (even older children, 17 or 18 year old children, who still depend on you for a home and food), the consequences of being arrested are very different than the consequences for someone with another parent at home or for someone with no children. And a responsibility to children is only one possible factor here. Any number of different things can change the risk calculus in ways that make attending a protest known for arrests and police violence something that a person really shouldn’t do, even if they do support the cause.

This is, of course, true for every cause: the risks and benefits play out differently for different people. As a direct result, people with nothing to lose are often the first to revolt against abuse of power. When the Stonewall Inn riots started, plenty of bar owners had a lot to lose from the anti queer raids corrupt police performed to extort money and have some fun gay bashing. But it wasn’t bar owners who first revolted. After all they had liquor licenses to maintain, and though if the extortion money became costly enough they could go bankrupt, but below a certain level they could pass it on to their customers as a cost. No, it was the patrons and the drag performers, the people who were getting arrested. The costs they paid in the raids were different, and they had different (and almost certainly lesser) things to lose in the conflict.

Although the actual beginning of the revolt is mythologized, as best I can tell one of the drag queens was resisting arrest when the first items, probably beer bottles, were thrown. Other tellings have the drag queens throwing the first bottles. Whatever the precise truth, that drag queens would be central to starting shit seems likely true, as they had the least to lose. The “walking while trans” law in New York (“loitering with the intent of engaging in prostitution”) was repealed last year, but Stonewall was in the 1960s, and it was routine throughout that period and even up until last year that trans folk and drag queens would be arrested under that law for engaging in routine activity like walking to a grocery store or waiting for a bus. Although they might be arrested for rioting, the risk to the queens wasn’t any more severe than what they faced going to the store, and they went to the store to get groceries, didn’t they? So why not fight back against the cops? What, in the end, would they do that was more severe than what they were going to do anyway?

This brings us to Dee Farmer. Dee Farmer is a convicted felon. She was serving time in prison in the 1980s for nonviolent economic crimes (she had a pattern of using credit card fraud to survive), and, as a trans woman, she was serving that time in a men’s prison. It has been documented many times in many places that guards in jails and prisons will engage in abuse of force to retaliate against behavior that they don’t like, but also just to make life miserable for people they don’t like, whether those people are following prison rules or not. While I haven’t studied the topic, the power dynamics in prison lend themselves quite readily to guards using other prisoners to inflict the worst assaults in exchange for favors only the guards can provide (even if this is simply the guard not inflicting assault on the ones who do their bidding). These types of exchanges are almost certainly routine throughout every prison in the country.

Dee Farmer was hated for being a Black, trans person convicted of crimes. In prison she was surrounded by others convicted of crimes, but the guards took a special dislike to her based on her femininity. As a result, they inflicted repeated degradations and assaults on her, but the worst was rape.

One prisoner housed in the same building as Farmer was so notorious for raping cellmates that an order was placed in his file that he was no longer allowed to have any cellmate at all. But the guards placed Farmer in his cell anyway, and ignored and mocked her by turns when she screamed during her rapes.

Now trying to get a prison guard in trouble by reporting their misbehavior isn’t likely to endear you to them, and they have control over your everyday life in ways those of us never incarcerated can only imagine. But for Dee Farmer being subjected to rapes simultaneously violent and routine, there was little left to lose. Invoking the US 8th Amendment, she filed a lawsuit naming guards, naming their crimes. It was a handwritten complaint not at all compliant with the expected forms of court document, but the courts nevertheless accepted her petition for review, and lawyers were eventually assigned to assist her. That complaint formed the basis of Farmer v. Brennan, a landmark Supreme Court decision that decided, among other things, that rape is not part of the punishment to which we sentence prisoners, and that prison officials owe a duty of minimal care to the persons in their custody. The cry for justice by Dee Farmer, a Black, trans woman infected with HIV after being raped in prison at the encouragement of prison staff became new law that protects every one of us who lives in or visits the USA. Before she spoke out, it was literally legal for prison guards to arrange your rape so long as they did not penetrate your body themselves. A Black, trans woman did that for you.

But Farmer, as much as I have celebrated her over the last 25 years and as much as I have tried repeatedly to get people to learn about her and her case, did not have to be particularly brave to file this suit. Although she did risk retaliation from guards, is it bravery to risk assault while one is subject to ongoing assault? When being beaten, is throwing a punch in self defense a brave act? It may be that Farmer wasn’t brave at all.

Nor did she have to be particularly generous of spirit. Although today she works with the National Center for Lesbian Rights and other organizations to end rape in prison and on other causes related to prisoners rights, queer/trans rights, and their intersections, in 1989 it’s entirely possible that she literally did not give a fuck about whether you would end up protected by her action. It’s possible that she was thinking only of herself, that she only wished her own suffering to stop.

Though it may be true that Farmer is brave and generous, that she has many good qualities, in 1989 whether she possessed those qualities or not might not have been the crucial factor enabling her to file that lawsuit. Instead, what might have been the crucial factor was desperation.

We celebrate Juneteenth as a day of the end of slavery, but I remember it differently. As a Jew, I remember that we have ended slavery many times, and yet still we had an underground railroad for runaway slaves in this country, under this government, this constitution. I think of those slaves who escaped to freedom, and I don’t think that they were necessarily brave. Maybe they were. Maybe all of them were. Maybe only a few. But what I know is that they were desperate.

Desperation has a special relationship to slavery. Desperation is a lack of options, a lack of freedom. Slavery is the deliberate and systematic stripping of freedom, of choice, of autonomy. It is not possible to be enslaved and not be desperate, but it is possible to be desperate without being a literal slave. I worry that today when chattel slavery has been ended in the US that we appreciate too little how many people are free of desperation. I fear we lionize people who fled in the night from slavery, who trusted people they could not have known to hide them from the slave patrols, who ran to freedom. I fear we focus too much on celebrating them as heroes.

The creation of heroes, brave, generous, and true, from complicated persons like escaped slaves or Dee Farmer, allows us to escape examination of desperation, of what it is and what it does. I feel the story of running from slavery or fighting to end it allows us to make the story just a little too specific. As a Jew, as a white person, as a woman, as trans, as someone limited by disease of both the brain and the skeleton, I can be glad that we have ended chattel slavery while still remaining unsatisfied.

No one can be both free and desperate, for desperation is defined by lack of freedom, and far too many in the USA, in Canada, and around the world are desperate. Juneteenth remembers the final, long delayed end of chattel slavery in the US. But it did not end desperation. The BLM protests of last year shows just how desperate Black communities still are, and desperation is not limited to Black people.

So celebrate the end of chattel slavery; it is a thing worthy of celebration. But take time, too, to reflect on slavery as the deliberate infliction of desperation and the many other forms of desperation we still inflict on individuals and communities today: indigenous women screaming out against rape and being ignored as surely as was Dee Farmer, families screaming out for justice for the missing and murdered, men of color literally under the knee of authoritarians hoarsely crying, “I can’t breathe,” children abused in their homes crying to no one in the night, people whose mental health is so poor and so neglected that calling people with guns seems better than calling anyone else or no one at all.

Celebrate Juneteenth, but learn from it as well.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    The lesson you remind of us here should be hammered home again and again and again to every person of privilege: no one is more dangerous than a person with nothing left to lose. The corollary is that if you want safety, the ones you need to help are the people at the very bottom.

  2. John Morales says


    … no one is more dangerous than a person with nothing left to lose …

    Well, that’s a pretty limited set of people.

    If one has their health, that can be lost; if one has friends, those can be lost; if one has self-esteem, that can be lost. At what point is there nothing more to lose?

    (And what, they can’t even attack you with a weapon; that is also something that could be lost, so even having a weapon disqualifies one from that set of people)

  3. Numenaster, whose eyes are up here says

    @John #2:

    “Well, that’s a pretty limited set of people.”

    From your point of view, perhaps. But desperation is a feeling, and that feeling can be evoked and fostered, even in circumstances that aren’t objectively all that desperate. And once you have a person feeling desperate, it’s easy to prod them into doing something to eliminate the threat in front of them.

    This is the basis of conservative media, in fact.

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