On June 27, police officers in Akron, Ohio, shot and killed 25-year-old Jayland Walker.
After a brief car chase, eight officers fired more than 90 rounds toward Walker’s back as he fled on foot through an empty parking lot.
Preliminary coroner reports suggest officers struck Walker at least 60 times before calling a ceasefire.
Akron police chief Stephen Mylett later confirmed that officers placed handcuffs on Walker’s body after shooting him.
Across the city, protests, demonstrations, marches and vigils have been ongoing since Walker’s death.
In Akron’s West Hill neighborhood, the city’s only Black LGBTQ+ organization — the Bayard Rustin LGBTQ+ Resource Center — is committed to building safe, supportive and sustainable community spaces where young Black LGBTQ+ people can begin to connect, mourn, organize and heal.
Police disproportionately target Black LGBTQ+ people
For Black LGBTQ+ people, Walker’s killing is particularly painful.
On average, Black Americans have a higher number of interactions with police throughout their lives due to racial and ethnic profiling. During those interactions, police officers are more than twice as likely to shoot and kill a Black person as they are a white person.
According to the U.S. Transgender Survey — which collected information from more than 27,000 respondents — 61% of Black trans and gender non-conforming people reported having experienced some form of mistreatment by police, including verbal harassment, physical assault and sexual assault.
For Black LGBTQ+ living people in Northeast Ohio (already an epicenter of violence against transgender people), the threat of police violence and brutality can be especially overwhelming
That’s why Steve Arrington — longtime HIV/AIDS educator, activist, organizer and executive director of the Akron AIDS Collaborative — says the support the Rustin Center provides is more important than ever.
‘I never saw nobody who looked like me’
In the 1970s, Arrington was involved in the Black student movement, but was not out as a gay person.
“I didn’t come out until I moved to Colorado,” he says. “It was a different world out there.”
In Denver, Arrington blossomed as an out gay person — but his activism didn’t begin until 1984, when he tested positive for HIV.
“I never saw nobody who looked like me,” he says. “When I went in to get help, everybody was white.”
Eventually, Arrington found out that other Black gay people in his social circle had also been diagnosed with HIV. That chance meeting changed his path.
He got a job as an HIV/AIDS educator, and has since dedicated much of his life to building safe, Black-led spaces where Black LGBTQ+ people can access real care and community.
24 years ago, Arrington became executive director of the Akron AIDS Collaborative. Now housed under the Bayard Rustin LGBTQ+ Resource Center, the program is the only independent AIDS organization still operating in Ohio.
‘We come from a different culture’
In the dining room of the Rustin Center, LGBTQ+ people gather around a long table for a community dinner.
For Arrington, continuing traditions like sharing a weekly meal has been an important part of helping Black, queer people feel seen and supported.
“We are Black and gay and we come from a different culture,” he says. “It’s just not the same culture as white gay culture — and that’s important.”
The week after police killed Walker, the Rustin Center served beef rigatoni with a fresh garden salad.
They invited Walker’s mother, and presented her with a direct donation.
The dinner was the center’s first since organizers announced a brief closure over the Fourth of July weekend in Walker’s honor
“We are not closing in recognition of ‘Independence Day.’” their statement read. “We know we aren’t free, especially when another young black man has been murdered by the police in our city, Akron, Ohio.”
‘Our beloved community’
In the wake of Walker’s killing, the Rustin Center has partnered closely with the Freedom BLOC, a prominent, Black-led nonprofit community building organization in Akron.
On the Fourth of July, members of both organizations — along with members of the Akron NAACP — marched in protest of racist police killings.
When peaceful demonstrators arrived at Mayor Dan Horrigan’s home in Akron’s residential North Hill neighborhood, they were met by dozens of heavily armed law enforcement officers and an armored SWAT vehicle.
‘We are hurting’
Going forward, Arrington has plans to engage in creative protest.
More than anything, he says young Black LGBTQ+ people want safe and supportive spaces to process their own thoughts and emotions around Walker’s killing — and around their individual and collective experiences of systemic racism, homophobia and transphobia.
“They need a place to express what they’re going through and the things that they’re seeing and dealing with,” he says, “So we’re taking it from the streets to the microphone and we’re going to do that through the spoken word.”
On Thursday, July 21, the Akron AIDS Collaborative is set to host the spoken word and poetry event at The Well in Akron’s Middlebury neighborhood.
“We invite everyone invested in non-violent protest and anti-racist work to join us,” the event description reads. “We are hurting. Personal and collective levels of trauma are elevated. This spoken word is an offering to our beloved community.”
Arrington hopes the spoken word event — which organizers titled Say His Name — will be the first of several events included in the Akron AIDS Collaborative’s 2022 Family Black Pride that will spark healing for Black, queer people across the city.
“This is what they need,” Arrington says. “So it’s what we’re going to do.” 🔥