The killing last weekend of a transgender woman in south Minneapolis has reignited calls by her family and state lawmakers alike for actions against transphobia and targeted violence.
Sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews of Savannah Ryan Williams, 38, gathered at the State Capitol on Thursday with activists and lawmakers to mourn her loss. Williams who was shot in the head and left for dead Nov. 29 near Lake Street. The Hennepin County Attorney's Office charged Damarean Kaylon Bible, 25, with second-degree murder Tuesday and he remains jailed.
It's the second attack on a transgender woman in the same area this year. Williams' friends and members of the Minnesota statehouse's Queer Legislative Caucus said more must be done to ensure the safety of all residents — particularly trans women of color like Williams who are disproportionately targets of violence.
"Savannah should be alive today. Because Savannah is a trans woman, she is dead," said Rep. Leigh Finke, DFL St. Paul, Minnesota's first transgender state lawmaker.
"Transphobia is rampant in America, and it is deadly. Our community faces a constant threat of lethal violence in the United States."
Williams' sister Gabrielle Stillday said that her big sister had a big heart. Stillday's kids, nieces and nephews said Williams, who was Native American and Cuban, was their favorite auntie.
"Savannah is our superstar," Stillday said. "She meant the word to me and my kids. She was very loved by our family."
Memorial services will take place this weekend and Stillday is organizing a GoFundMe to help cover costs.
According to the second-degree murder charges, Bible walked past the Lake Street light-rail station about 5 a.m. Nov. 29 when Williams asked if he wanted sex. Bible said he had a 9-millimeter handgun in his pocket and he began to feel "suspicious" of Williams. After the sexual act, he shot her. In a call from jail, charges say that Bible told his dad he felt like he "had to do it."
Stillday said she does not believe her sister was a sex worker but regardless of the circumstances leading to her killing, she did not deserve to be murdered.
"Please don't judge her, because she wouldn't judge you," Stillday said.
Williams' cousin Raelynn Stillday said her cousin was outgoing and outspoken and lit up every room she walked in.
"Her past mistakes did not define who she was as a person," she said. "We are so sad she is gone and heartbroken. ... Even though Savannah is gone, her legacy will live on forever."
Amber Muhm, an HIV outreach and prevention specialist, said trans people face discrimination in housing and employment, so theft and sex work can be "acts of survival."
"Regardless of what we do to support ourselves in this world that is actively not built for us, that doesn't mean that we should get murdered for it," she said.
Muhm said Williams' death has rocked their community and members are still processing the loss.
"Savannah was fierce, full of life, she had a big personality and an even bigger heart. She's going to be dearly, dearly missed. ... It's kind of surreal that we lost one of our sisters last week."
She added that not only is this the second attack on trans women in the same area, but the third violent attack on the local LGBTQ community this year.
A mass shooting this summer at the pop-up punk venue Nudieland, a haven for members of the LGBTQ community to gather and perform, wounded six people and killed talented songwriter August Golden, 35.
Four months later, no arrests or charges have been announced.
Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty said in a statement Thursday that her office recently assigned a senior attorney to work closely with Minneapolis police in the ongoing Nudieland investigation. Moriarty, who is gay, said the mass shooting "appeared to target members of our community who identify as queer."
Moriarty's office hasn't said yet if it will prosecute Williams' killing as a hate crime.
"If the investigation reveals sufficient evidence to prove bias motivation beyond a reasonable doubt, we would prosecute accordingly," she said.
Standalone hate crime charges are not on the books in Minnesota, but defendants can face charges with aggravating factors and enhanced sentencing for being "bias-motivated."
In February, two men were charged in the brutal attack on a trans woman at the Lake Street light-rail station. More than 200 people attended a rally in the support of the victim, who survived serious injuries.
The men pleaded guilty and received probation after prosecutors determined the attack wasn't motivated by bias.
Finke said that despite Minnesota voting to become a trans refuge state this year, "laws are not enough."
"In these conditions policy cannot save us," she said. "Anti-trans violence is an epidemic. It is everywhere. Our communities will not be safe until every one of our neighbors sees our humanity, celebrates our individuality and embraces this beautiful community that loves and is worthy of love."