Resisting Carceral Power
On the Intersections of Trans Resistance, Black Lives Mattering, and Police and Prison Abolitionism at the Crossroads of Turk and Taylor Streets in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District
[Note: this brief essay was written specifically to link to print materials circulated at the Courthouse2Compton’s March and Rally in San Francisco, June 18, 2020. A revised and expanded full-length article, “At the Crossroads of Turk and Taylor: Resisting Carceral Power in San Francisco’s Tenderloin,” is forthcoming in October 2020 in Places online journal. Please visit www.placesjournal.org. With thanks to the Arcus Endowment for the Study of Sexuality and the Built Environment at UC-Berkeley College of Environmental Design for supporting this research.]
Turk Street and Taylor Street physically cross each other exactly once in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, but that single point in space is occupied by many different social intersections. It is a place where we can stand together in the crossroads of this historic moment in time.
In August 1966, at the corner of Turk and Taylor, trans women, street queens, gay hustlers, queer kids abandoned by their families, and other marginalized people fought back against police oppression at an all-night restaurant once located there, Compton’s Cafeteria. (You can freely stream a documentary film about this historic act of resistance here: www.screamingqueensmovie.com). Some of the people who fought that night lived in the Hyland Hotel, an SRO that occupied the floors above Compton’s, or in many of the other cheap hotels, like the El Rosa, that lined Turk Street. These were some of the few places that visibly trans women were allowed to live back then, and working in the neighborhood’s sex industry was one of the few jobs available to them. The revolt at Compton’s was a bold assertion of their fundamental right to exist in public space, one that contested the criminalization of their lives. San Francisco honored that legacy in 2017 when it officially designated the neighborhood around the old Compton’s Cafeteria as the Transgender District, and appointed a Black trans woman to lead it (www.transgenderdistrictsf.com).
A private prison now occupies this historic site of resistance to the criminalization of trans people, at the heart of the world’s first urban district established specifically to empower trans lives.
For nearly 30 years, the former Hyland Hotel has been a for-profit incarceration facility disguised as an inner-city apartment building, misleadingly labeled “111 Taylor Street Apartments” on the awning over the door. The facility is operated by GEO Group, the world’s largest private prison company. California recently passed Assembly Bill 32, which aimed to ban private prisons, but the law created a huge loophole for any facility “providing educational, vocational, medical, or other ancillary services to an inmate.” GEO Group’s Taylor Street Facility is a Residential Reentry Program or “halfway house” providing these services under contract for inmates of both California state prisons and federal prisons in California.
Don’t be fooled: this is just a way to rebrand a prison as a social welfare agency. GEO Group prides itself on pioneering new forms of incarceration, including electronic ankle-bracelet monitoring as a prison without walls, and camouflaged carceral facilities like the one at Turk and Taylor. It runs immigration detention facilities for ICE. It manages 95,000 beds at 129 facilities worldwide, and provides “community supervision services” for more than 210,000 people, with profits last year of $166 million and assets worth $4.3 billion.
GEO Group’s occupation of the building at the intersection of Turk and Taylor needs to be contested. Abolition Now. The COVID-19 pandemic has given the lie to tired old stories about how some things are too big or too complicated or too entrenched to change quickly. At the same time, the pandemic has focused our attention on the government’s fundamental failure to provide adequate access to health care, employment, income, housing, and food. It has exposed the lie that policing actually provides public safety. The inspiring uprisings for racial justice that have swept across the United States and around the world in the wake of the latest police killings of Black men like George Floyd have shown how little willingness remains for tolerating deep-rooted systemic racism. The massive Black Trans Lives Matter gathering in Brooklyn on June 14, 2020 to protest the ongoing targeting of Black trans women like Riah Milton and Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells shows just how much support there is for challenging transphobia — and a whopping 79% of people in the U.S. supported the U.S. Supreme Court decision on June 15 that trans people should be protected from employment discrimination. Led by the bold decision of the Minneapolis City Council to defund and abolish its police force, other cities from coast to coast have followed with similar initiatives of their own for dismantling our irredeemably broken system of policing and incarceration. All of these issues can be addressed simultaneously when, together, we inhabit the crossroads at the intersection of Turk and Taylor.
Crossroads, in many cultural traditions from around the world but particularly in those of the African Diaspora, are symbolically charged places where one realm of existence touches another, and dangerous, transformative encounters take place across some significant difference between those who meet there. It’s where Faust met Mephistopheles, and Robert Johnson was given the gift of playing the blues. A crossroads is literally a place of crisis, where in order to move forward we must choose one path or another. More than a mere intersection, the crossroads are a place to dream, and to conjure new realities through the path we choose. What crossroads might we discover at the intersection of Turk and Taylor?
San Francisco is a city whose legendarily left-leaning social fabric has been tattered by tech-driven gentrification that has displaced long-time residents and created one of the worst housing and homelessness crises in the country. There is a desperate need for affordable housing, particularly among communities of color, and even more pressingly among Black and Indigenous People of Color, especially if they are also queer or trans or nonbinary or two-spirit, or feminine-appearing, or excluded from meaningful work, or currently or formerly incarcerated. Why not liberate the historic site of trans resistance from its occupation by a private for-profit prison, and turn it into something that truly serves these many unmet needs?
What would it be like for our actions in the streets to make the operation of GEO Group’s Taylor Street Facility unprofitable? To collectively insist that the needs of the incarcerated be met by other means that served them better and profited no one but themselves? Why not demand that the City of San Francisco divert money from its police and jails to support a community-led effort to support Black Trans Lives, and the lives of the formerly incarcerated, by turning a private jail into low-income housing, as part of a broader demand for the abolition of all prisons, public or private? Why not reopen a cafeteria on the long-shuttered ground floor commercial space to provide training and employment opportunities for people reentering the workforce, similar to what Delancey Street Foundation already does? Why not partner with the Tenderloin Museum to create historical and cultural programs and exhibits about the neighborhood? Why not provide office space for nonprofit organizations serving our communities? (TGI Justice Project, a Black trans led organization serving currently and formerly incarcerated people has in fact just announced a fundraising campaign to meet their need for office space, and you can donate here: https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/TGIJP?code=Donate)
Let us come together in the crossroads of this historical moment, while the world we have inherited is in crisis and we are laboring to envision and enliven a better one. Let us come together at the intersection of Turk and Taylor to address the many pressing needs we see there, to better insure access to the means of life for us all. Let’s join in an effort to center the lives of the most vulnerable among us, those who are targeted and those who are denied the means of meeting their most basic needs. Let’s begin by driving out those who profit from oppression.
Join the Courthouse2Compton’s March and Rally on Thursday, June 18, 2020 at 7pm. Meet at the Federal Courthouse at 450 Golden Gate Avenue. At 7:30 we will march or roll to the intersection of Turk and Taylor (a flat 4/10ths of a mile) for an 8pm rally. Visit our Facebook Events page for Courthouse to Compton’s, or our Instagram page @courthouse2comptons_. To be in touch with the coordinating committee, including on-going activism to liberate the historic site of trans resistance at the old Compton’s Cafeteria, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org