Erika Keels, a 20-year-old black transwoman, was murdered on March 22, 2007, at the corner of Broad and Thompson in North Philadelphia, in a hit-and-run assault. Witnesses saw a man eject Ms. Keels from his car and intentionally run her over four times, killing her and leaving the scene. The medical examiner’s report states that Erika was run over not just once but multiple times, supporting these eyewitness accounts. The driver, Roland Button, was later apprehended, but has yet to face any charges; indeed, he is still driving, his license has not been suspended, and his car has not even been taken for evidence. The Philadelphia police have refused to conduct an investigation of Erika’s death and have closed the case.
Erika Keels was a vibrant, expressive, resilient young woman, and her friends were devastated and enraged by her murder. The failure of police to follow procedure when responding to Erika’s death, even to carry out steps required for a hit-and-run accident, amplified the pain of her murder for those who loved Erika. Some of Erika’s friends refused to accept this second affront, and questioned police officials about the classification of her death as an accident. Officials attempted to intimidate them by demanding their “birth” names, and told them they were “trying to make something out of nothing.” Erika’s friends began organizing to demand that her case be reopened and her death be investigated as a murder. The police seemed determined to keep Erika’s murder as quiet as possible, and Erika’s friends, as well as allies who soon joined them, were just as determined to bring to light the violence and injustice which brought an end to this remarkable person’s life, and which the Philadelphia police were continuing to perpetrate.
The story of Erika’s death is a shocking, upsetting one, and has touched many people who never knew Erika when she was alive. However, Erika’s murder is by no means an anomaly. It is part of a devastating pattern of violence against trans people of color in Philadelphia and elsewhere. The murder rate of trans people in the United States is estimated at 7-10 times the national average. Trans people of color living and working in Philadelphia know they are at near-constant risk of physical attack, and many experience daily harassment and discrimination. Erika herself experienced a tremendous amount of violence, harassment and discrimination during her short lifetime. On and off the street from the age of 13, Erika was failed by the very systems that claim to offer support, opportunities and protection to youth like her, including the Philadelphia school system, the Department of Human Services, and, of course, the Philadelphia Police Department.
Violence against trans youth of color in Philadelphia takes many forms. The Trans-health Information Project (TIP) drop-in night, a spot Erika frequented, is held weekly at a building in the Gayborhood of Center City Philadelphia. The TIP drop-in is aimed at building community, fighting isolation, and providing education and services; for many months it was home to a thriving Vogue group, popular with trans and gender-variant youth of color in and out of the ball scene. Not two weeks after Erika’s death, TIP was forced to shut down the Vogue group, due to police harassment and complaints from white neighbors about youth hanging out in front of the building. There has been a long-time presence of trans, gender non-conforming and queer youth of color on the streets of the Gayborhood, but a combination of gentrification and Philadelphia’s push to corner the gay tourism market have led to youth of color being increasingly unwelcome in this predominantly white-owned, ritzy neighborhood. Displacement, police harassment, cultural eradication, and the elimination of what little community space is available to trans youth of color – these forms of violence are not as gruesome as the violent murder of a young woman. But individuals touched by Erika’s death would be well advised to acquaint themselves as well with the structural, day-to-day violence faced by her and her community.
Join the Justice 4 Erika campaign in demanding that the Philadelphia Police Commissioner and the Accident Investigation Division to reopen Erika’s case and conduct a thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding her death. We stand together to demand police accountability, justice for trans and gender non-conforming people, and respect for the inherent dignity and worth of every person.
Steps to Take Action:
1. Sign our community support letter (http://www.petitiononline.com/ErikaK/petition.html ).
2. Add Justice 4 Erika as a friend on Myspace (http://www.myspace.com/justice4erika).
3. Get organizations or groups you’re in to sign on to the support letter. (Organizations should email Justice4Erika@gmail.com to confirm their support.)