In an office building just two blocks away from the scene of the crime, a dozen advocates convened last Thursday to coordinate efforts in pressing police to investigate the June 20 murder of 25-year-old Amanda Milan, a black transgender woman, as a bias-motivated attack.
The killing brought a tragic end to a fun-filled evening, according to friends of Milan. As witnesses to the murder, they are afraid to speak publicly, but instead have furnished advocate Carl Locke of the Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project with details.
Locke sketches a cozy scene of the hours before Milan was killed. Milan had unexpectedly run into four friends and decided to join them at a restaurant for a midnight snack and conversation. The group continued socializing as they walked to the Port Authority terminal, where a couple of them planned to catch a bus. At 4:20 a.m., Milan pled exhaustion and decided to call it a night.
She stepped away from the group to hail a cab in front of the terminal, when 20-year-old Dwayne McCuller of the Bronx apparently addressed Milan with a comment that was unintelligible to the group. The witnesses remember Milan, whom Locke describes as someone who “stood up for herself,” loudly replying, “Why would you say something like that to me? You don’t even know me.”
McCuller reportedly shot back, “I know what that is between your legs, you’re nothing but a man. I’m going to shoot you.” Milan evidently replied, “Don’t say you’re going to shoot me. You want to fight me? Fight me like a man.”
“Get away from me, you faggot,” McCuller said, according to Milan’s friends.
Then a second man, 26-year-old Eugene Celestine of Queens, appeared, proffering the knife with which McCuller sliced through Milan’s “jugular, larynx, and carotid artery,” according to the D.A.’s office. McCuller has been indicted on a charge of second-degree murder. Celestine has been charged with the same, and a grand jury decision is pending.
Advocates say McCuller’s language clearly illustrates that bias was involved in the attack. While there is little of tangible value to be gained from a bias crime classification—”there’s no hate crimes legislation; there’s no enhanced penalties”—the public message the authorities send is nevertheless significant, according to Locke. (State Senator Tom Duane says the hate crimes bill recently passed by the state senate and signed Monday by the governor covers “a person of transgender experience.” But Pauline Park of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy calls the measure not “fully transgender-inclusive.”)
“Part of what led to Amanda’s murder . . . was how people in this country feel about trans people and gay people,” Locke argues. “This man felt she was someone he could push around and intimidate, because she was the person with the dick between her legs who was nothing but a faggot.”
But the police bias unit has decided that existing evidence does not point to a hate-motivated crime, according to spokesperson Alan Krawitz.
While Krawitz denies knowledge of much of the verbal exchange that witnesses report, he admits that police are aware “[McCuller] used the reference ‘faggot’ during the dispute.” But, he argues, “it was only incidental. . . . It’s like if you have a confrontation with someone who’s overweight, you might say, ‘Hey, fatso!’ ”
Krawitz says that McCuller was on the street dealing drugs and the incident was merely “a turf battle,” in which Milan paid the ultimate price for disrupting his business.
“What does it take to get something classified as bias in this damn city?” Locke asks. “She wasn’t strung up on a fence . . . [but] it’s not always so clear-cut. Sometimes someone will scrawl something on the wall of a building, and you got it right there.” But in this case, where the evidence might not be so obvious, Locke says, the police are not looking hard enough.
Councilmember Christine Quinn points out that “the police did a very good job, very quickly apprehending [the perpetrators].” In fact, the arrests were made roughly 24 hours after the incident. And to a certain extent, Locke agrees, saying, “[Milan’s friends] have said to me . . . the police on the scene treated them very well and with respect.”
But referring to the department’s insistence on recording Milan as “a man dressed as a woman” instead of as a transgender woman, Locke says, “sometimes the subtle stuff is even more problematic.” He says police language is reflected in the June 21 New York Times blurb that described Milan as “a man . . . dressed in women’s clothing,” an account that has been denounced as “offensive” and “insensitive” by transgender advocates.
Jaime Hunter of Metropolitan Gender Network says press coverage of the murder was not only misguided but also insufficient. “If she hadn’t been transsexual, this would have been a bigger story.”
Joo-Hyun Kang of the Audre Lorde Project says media invisibility is a particular problem for “trans folk of color” and individuals who, as Milan did, work in the sex industry.
The July 6 coalition has resolved to increase the demand for a bias investigation, possibly by enlisting the D.A.’s office to place additional pressure on the police. The district attorney’s office would not comment on whether it would work with advocates to that end.
Continuing their remembrances of Milan—which began at the Manhattan Pride parade with a minute of silence and a black-draped rainbow flag—the victim’s friends are planning a July 23 memorial service at Metropolitan Community Church on West 36th Street. Organizers say a public rally will follow the service.