By Noah Gaiser, MPP Candidate 2019
Editor’s Note: This article contains a discussion of police violence and judicial indifference against an intersectional person of color. Reader discretion is advised.
Two weeks ago I found myself standing in silence outside Berkeley City Hall, head bowed, listening to Kayla Moore’s life story as told by her sister and mother. Later, Rev. Terry De Grace Morris led the crowd in blessings for Kayla and we murmured a call-and-response in solemn voices. The next emcee invited us to turn to another and say, simply, “I see you.” Though I first winced in shyness, I listened and took comfort in the words of the stranger next to me. For members of Black, transgender, and disabled communities, to be recognized is an act of profound validation. To “see” each other in this context and speak Kayla Moore’s name was to resist invisibility, criminalization, and state violence.
Kayla Moore lived in the Bay Area and died in Berkeley as a Black, transgender woman with schizophrenia and co-occurring substance use issues. Berkeley Police Department (BPD) arrested Kayla based on another person’s warrant, and she died as BPD officers restrained her.
Although a judge dismissed most of the Moore family’s civil claims against the City of Berkeley in 2016, a key claim remains with tremendous potential. This claim would hold the Berkeley Police Department accountable for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to accommodate Kayla’s mental health disability. According to the Justice for Kayla Moore campaign, the Moore family’s court case “could set a major precedent for other cities and police departments by re-affirming whether, and how, cities and police must comply with the American’s with Disabilities Act when responding to mental health crises.”
On October 18, the Moore family gathered with two dozen community supporters at federal court in San Francisco for a pre-trial evidentiary hearing. But instead of getting on with business as planned, Judge Charles Breyer announced the evidentiary hearing and trial dates would be postponed to an unspecified date. During the same session, Moore’s family learned that the City of Berkeley filed a motion for dismissal. In short – if Judge Breyer rules for the defendant, there will be no trial and no redress for Kayla Moore’s death. In other words, the case stands in limbo.
This certainly isn’t the first hurdle the Moores have hit—it took the family four months to even gain access to the police report and coroner’s report—but this phase will be decisive for the Moore family and all who share an interest in ending state violence against Black, transgender, and disabled communities.
A year ago, also in October, Judge Breyer ruled in favor of Berkeley Police Department’s Motion for Summary Judgement. He ruled that BPD’s force was reasonable based on the information available to officers at the time of Kayla’s arrest. Officers had justified Kayla’s arrest with a warrant for someone else who shared Kayla’s legal/given name – a cisgendered man who was twenty years her senior. Breyer opined, “Every loss of life hurts, but not every loss of life violates the Fourth Amendment. As hard as that may be to accept, it is the law.”
I beg to differ. The Moore family’s case stands at the nexus of so many societal ills – namely racism, transphobia, criminalization of people with mental illness, and fatphobia. Kayla Moore’s life embodied intersectional experience, and her overlapping identities as a Black, trans woman with mental health concerns fall outside the boundaries of prevailing legal theories. As Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a critical race theorist and law professor known for introducing the theory of intersectionality, writes: “In several tragic instances, police officers have perceived Black women who are experiencing mental health crises as dangerous or as individuals who possess “superhuman” strength no matter how vulnerable, fragile, or in distress they might be. Instead of offering the compassionate support these women needed, police criminalized them and responded with deadly force.” Current antidiscrimination laws offer few remedies for those, like Kayla, with overlapping membership in multiple marginalized communities.
Maria Moore, Kayla’s younger sister, puts it like this: “They want to blame the victim. They needed an excuse. They found traces of meth in her system and said the combination of that and her weight is what killed her. It’s an easy excuse: ‘She let herself go. She was fat.’ But if the police had done their due diligence and took the extra minute to talk with her, it would have been avoided. Kayla had been that weight for years and years. I have no doubt that she would still be here if it weren’t for what the police did that night.”
Whether Judge Breyer will rule in favor of the Moore family’s ADA violation claim is an open-ended question – as is the more fundamental question of whether the trial will even get to proceed. Given the precarious state of the case, community pressure and support are vital now more than ever. Judges never operate in a political vacuum, despite lofty pretenses of objectivity. Turning out for hearings, raising awareness in our personal networks, and posting about the case on social media will all help elevate the political stakes.
Here are several concrete actions you can take to support the ongoing work:
- Show up for court support – Stay tuned to find out about new court dates/times as soon as they are announced:
- Provide or request rides, food and accessibility support – Sign up on the campaign web and let them know what type of support you can offer.
- Attend Campaign Meetings: Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for information.
Even while justice delayed is justice denied when it comes to legal systems, it’s rarely too late to be of service at the grassroots level.
Noah is a 2019 MPP Candidate at the Lorry I. Lokey School of Business and Public Policy. He is the former program manager for a disability benefits advocacy nonprofit serving low-income populations. He is dedicated community organizing, economic justice, queer liberation, and dismantling white supremacy.