It’s always exciting to make a new friend. You maybe see them around a few times before you start getting to know them. As you get closer, you notice all the things you have in common. You get a little crush on them, seeing how sweet and funny and smart and sexy and badass they are. You find yourself talking about them to other friends, noticing things that would make them smile. You feel protective, wanting to make the world a better place for them.
It really sucks when that person is already dead.
More and more these days, I find myself making friends with someone after they’ve died. Through photos and stories from loved ones, at protests and ceremonies, and through the details of their traumatic deaths at the hands of police officers, I become entwined in their legacies. I find myself grieving the loss of someone I never knew, trying to take on some of the weight that has fallen on their families. It is painful. And confusing. And necessary.
I’d like to introduce you to Kayla Moore. Kayla is a black trans woman who grew up in Berkeley. Just a few years older than me, I imagine we would have hung out in high school. She was a punk rocker. She was fancy. She had fierce fashion. She was smart and quick to respond when people tried to put her down. She loved to go out dancing. She wrote gothic poetry. She worked from home as a phone sex operator. She was schizophrenic. She was an auntie who loved her baby niece. She was a big fat curvy babe.
And she was killed by police officers in her home on February 13, 2013, when they responded to a call that she was in a mental health crisis. Instead of helping, they arrested her roommate on an outstanding warrant, and then they tried to arrest Kayla under a warrant for another person who shared her legal name. When she fought back, several officers wrestled her down, piled on top of her and, when she stopped breathing, performed chest compressions but not mouth-to-mouth. They called her “it.” They left her lying where she died with her body exposed as people milled around. They tried to blame her death on “obesity.”
I know this is hard to hear. It’s horrible.
I first heard about Kayla while sitting in on the wrongful death trial of Asa Sullivan, another person of color with a mental health diagnosis, who was killed by San Francisco police back in June of 2006. Asa’s family was finally getting a civil trial in September of 2014, and my partner Lisa and I had gone there expecting to find a courtroom packed with activists. To our surprise, the only people there for Asa were his mom (Kat Espinosa), the mother of Asa’s child (Nicole), and another activist named Annie Paradise. During a break from the court proceedings, while we hung out in the lobby sharing snacks, Annie told us about Kayla. She shared a story about an action where she and Kayla’s family and other activists celebrated Kayla’s birthday in front of the apartment building where she had been killed, handing out cupcakes and telling people her story. This was my first glimpse of Kayla. It was like seeing someone across a courtyard and thinking she looked interesting.
A few months later, Kayla’s name came up again. This time, it was at a spokes-council meeting for the Anti Police-Terror Project in Oakland, in the context of an action we were planning about police violence against Black people with disabilities. When we went home that night, I looked up Kayla’s name and saw some pictures. I sent a text to some of the people we were organizing with.
“She’s fat!” I said, excited, and simultaneously stabbed with heartache. Our organizing group was made up primarily of fat activists, and while we had been centering race and disability in our action, we had not explicitly included anything about fatness. How would Kayla have felt about being identified that way, we wondered? We decided to make a sign that said “Obesity” Didn’t Kill Kayla Moore, Berkeley Police Did! It was almost as tall as me, it looked good, and it felt like important information. I was elated when Kayla’s sister Maria showed up at the action and said she loved it.
“Kayla was a big girl, and she did not apologize for it at all! She loved her curves,” Maria told me when I talked to her on the phone on Friday, February 13, 2015, the two-year anniversary of Kayla’s death. As you can imagine, this was a hard week for Maria and her family, having to mark two years without her big sister, two years without her best friend. She wanted a chance to talk about the good things, the sweet memories, not just the way Kayla died. And I wanted to hear.
“She knew me inside and out. She was very protective. She wouldn’t let anyone bully me. I was her sister; we could always talk about anything,” Maria shared. “She was so creative. The way she dressed was artistry itself. We’re kind of opposites that way. I’m more conservative. She always wanted to stand out… And Kayla used her words; that girl could talk. She was highly intelligent. It wasn’t just ranting; she was very articulate. She was always having to stand up for herself, because people can be cruel. We just loved her the way she was. ”
There really is nothing like the love of a sister, that person you spend more time with than anyone in the world.
“As a teenager, my pet peeve was she would always go in my room and steal my clothes. It was hard for her to get clothes. She wanted to dress feminine, so she’d take mine. And she looked good, I can’t deny that. She knew how to work it,” Maria laughed. “One of my favorite memories… I was three and Kayla was five years old, and my grandma had gotten me a nightgown for Christmas. It was yellow and had lace at the bottom. It was so cute. So I go in the livingroom, and Kayla is wearing my nightgown, turning around in circles with her arms out – this little brown kid with an afro, wearing this pretty yellow night gown.”
I have to say: Kayla is adorable. I got to spend a little time with her sweet face, her beautiful smile, her cutie-pie nose, when I drew a portrait of her in honor of the two-year anniversary. It’s based on a photo Maria took of her, smiling at the camera, flashing a peace sign. Her spirit shines through her.
“She had a strong spiritual side. She was always giving blessings; that was her way of giving her love,” Maria told me. “The ironic thing is that, whenever Kayla was having a hard time, she’d say ‘I’m just gonna put blessings out there and see what comes back.’ And it would come back! I’d be like, ‘How did you do that?’ She’d be down on her luck, and suddenly someone’s offering her an apartment. Or she’d be out of money, and a check would come in the mail.”
Even as Maria moves into the harder memories of the struggles her sister faced, there is such a strong sense of admiration.
“Honestly, Kayla would be in an apartment one moment; then, because of her paranoia, she would think the landlord or roommates were stealing her mail, so she’d be homeless. Then she’d be back in an apartment within a couple of months. That’s how resourceful she was. She knew ways to get what she wanted… Unfortunately, in the last couple years, because of the schizophrenia, the voices became more and more, and she had a hard time separating reality from imagination. She would talk about how she had dinner with Robert DeNiro… It was all in her mind, but I enjoyed talking to her, really. I still wanted to see her. She was always fun to be around.”
The night she died, Kayla’s roommate and in-home caregiver were there. They could tell she wasn’t taking her medication, and they called 9-1-1 to have someone come do an evaluation. This had happened before. She would go to the hospital and get stabilized; she would be there a couple weeks and come out. That’s what they expected that night.
When the police came, they didn’t talk to Kayla. Instead, they ran warrant checks. They arrested her roommate, and then told Kayla they were going to take her in, too. But she knew that wasn’t right, that it wasn’t for her. The warrant they had found was for somebody with the same birth name but a different birth date. She turned around to make a phone call, and they grabbed her. A struggle ensued, and they fell backwards into the apartment, onto a futon. Six officers were on top of her. She was on her stomach, and they were trying to tie her down. They got the cuffs on her and were trying to put a hood on her head, but after two minutes they realized she wasn’t breathing. They did chest compressions, but not mouth-to-mouth. When the EMTs came, she was dead.
“In my mind, that officer didn’t want to put her mouth on Kayla’s. If that had been your sister, you wouldn’t hesitate, but they didn’t do any of that,” Maria said. “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.”
I wish this kind of scapegoating of fat bodies were unusual, that we hadn’t just seen the same thing in the case of Eric Garner. Kayla is not the only person who has been killed while in a mental health crisis, the only Black person murdered by police, the only trans woman killed by people who are supposed to protect her. According to the Department of Justice, people with mental health disabilities are four times as likely to be killed by police, and the city of San Francisco is currently petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to exempt police officers from following ADA regulations. We are in a national crisis of conscience over the frequency of police murders of Black people. And nearly a dozen trans women have already been murdered in 2015. This world sucks for people like Kayla.
But she was alive. She was living. She was a gregarious, magical, creative, loving person. I wish I could have known her. I like to think our community could have held her.
“One of my best memories: I had just turned twenty-one,” Maria reminisced. “Kayla took me to the gay bars in the city, and we just had a blast. She would do the splits. She’d kick her leg up to her head, twirling around. She was such a good dancer. Her energy was just so charismatic. When she came, she was the party.”
Thanks for the party, Kayla. We miss you.
The People’s Investigation into the In-Custody Death of Kayla Moore:
Justice 4 Kayla Moore:
We Remember Kayla Moore (a space to honor Kayla on the 2-year anniversary of her death): https://www.facebook.com/events/449324868553722/[Headline image: The photograph shows Jeremy Miller on the left and Lisa Ganser on the right. Jeremy is a man of color with a mustache and short beard. He is wearing a black hat, black shirt, and gray pants. He is holding a sign in his left hand and his right hand is raised in a fist. His sign reads, “Black disabled lives matter.” Lisa is a white genderqueer woman with short brown hair. They are wearing an olive top, a black and white scarf, and dark pants. They are holding a sign next to them that reads, “‘Obesity’ did not kill Kayla Moore. Berkeley police did!” Photo copyright Carrie Schiff.]