On the morning of May 27, 2020, two days after George Floyd’s murder prompted an uprising against anti-Black state violence, thirty-eight-year-old Tony McDade was shot and killed by a Tallahassee police officer, after McDade fatally stabbed twenty-one-year-old Malik Jackson.
McDade’s name rang out at protests across the United States last summer. He was even invoked by former President Barack Obama. McDade was a trans man, and LGBTQ+ activists connected his death to those of other trans victims. Still, his name faded in comparison with other victims of police violence like Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Members of the Jackson family, for their part, have questioned why protesters chose to draw attention to McDade’s death, while Malik’s name remained unknown, and why the police did not intervene in time to save Jackson—not on the day of the murders, and not when they were called after a fight the day before.
In the year since McDade and Jackson’s deaths, as police violence has saturated the airwaves and the movement to defund the police has polarized liberals and the left, one thing has remained constant: Black death. McDade and Jackson’s tragically intertwined lives tell the story of a society that feeds on, and maintains, oppression through punishment, violence, and isolation, but they also show us a way out.
McDade took to Facebook often after finishing up a ten-year prison sentence in January 2020. “The Freedom of a King!” he proclaimed alongside a selfie to mark his release. After his death at the hands of the Tallahassee police, that post, like so many others, served as a reminder and a record of his efforts to realize freedom in a world he felt was stacked against him.
Though he was excited to be out of prison, McDade’s Facebook posts suggest the months before his death were blighted by violence. One day, he posted, he was robbed at gunpoint; on another, he was struck by a car as it fled the scene of a shooting. In early May, a dispute led to McDade being charged with assault with a deadly weapon, although his statements and police records indicate that he was carrying a BB gun.
According to members of the Jackson family, in the days before his death, McDade became increasingly aggressive. He sent threatening text messages to Malik’s mother, Jennifer Jackson, barged into her house, and hit her with a gun. Jennifer and McDade had developed a casual sexual relationship after McDade and his mother moved next door, but it had gone sour.
On May 26, when McDade allegedly threatened to hurt Jennifer again, a fight broke out. Cell phone footage shows McDade being beaten by four men—Malik and his cousins—outside of the Jackson home. Afterward the Jackson family called the police to report that McDade had trespassed and allegedly committed assault. The family hoped that the police would detain McDade, who was on pretrial release from jail for the assault charge earlier that month. Instead, the police, Jennifer says, minimized the situation as normal “lesbian relationship” struggles and declined to take further action when McDade didn’t answer the door.
Around 1 a.m. that night, McDade took to Facebook Live to reflect on the difficulties he had faced in the months since leaving prison. Sitting in a chair covered with a heart-patterned blanket, he showed his new injuries to the camera and characterized the fight as spurred by jealousy and transphobia. McDade used he/him pronouns on Facebook, but in his livestream used she/her pronouns and his legal first name, Natosha, when talking about his childhood. “Nobody knew what was going on with Natosha,” McDade said. “Nobody knows Natosha was neglected.”
McDade was sexually abused for the first time when he was only five years old, according to court testimonies collected before his last incarceration. Abuse from his great-uncle, which started when McDade’s parents separated, continued for years. According to a recent study, 86 percent of people in women’s jails reported that they had experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives. Before turning eighteen, McDade was sexually assaulted by three different men, according to child welfare documents. His assaulters were never prosecuted.
According to court testimony from his 2010 conviction, the abuse resulted in “extensive” drug use beginning at age thirteen, the same year he was expelled from middle school and had his first run-in with the police. In his final Facebook Live stream, he said his mom “cried a river of tears” to child welfare workers, who failed to provide help.
McDade “wanted to be all together,” Wanda McDade told the Tallahassee Democrat last June. But he “was struggling, struggling, struggling. [He] had friends . . . and they tried to help [him]. But what [he] was up against—[he] had so much pain.”
At times, the pain became unbearable. McDade struggled with self-harm throughout his teenage years exacerbated by two mental health diagnoses: bipolar disorder and what he called “slight” schizophrenia during his trial in 2010. In his final Facebook Live post, he vowed that he was going to take the situation into his own hands through a “suicide mission” because he couldn’t trust the system to bring him justice. “I’m killing,” he said. “And I’m going to be killed because I will not go back into federal prison.” A 2007 study found that suicide rates among people recently released from prison were 3.4 times higher than those in the general population; recently released people were 12.7 times more likely to die from overdoses, cardiovascular disease, suicide, or homicide within weeks of being released.
“We know that when we do engage with police and prisons to seek relief, Black bodies and Black queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming bodies are not going to receive anything that looks like relief,” says Dominique Morgan, executive director of Black & Pink, an organization that serves incarcerated LGBTQ+ and HIV/AIDS positive people. “The police aren’t going to interrogate people who have harmed us the way they have interrogated us when they’ve perceived we’ve harmed others.”
McDade grew up in Tallahassee’s Southside, where little industry besides the local universities exists. It’s the sort of place, as one report found, where people can go their entire childhood without trying fresh fruit like strawberries. In some Southside areas, where a larger share of Black people live, the life expectancy is twenty-five years shorter than those of the northern areas of the city, which is predominantly white.
Like McDade said in his final livestream, “There ain’t nothing going on in Tallahassee, nothing but robberies, shooting, and betrayal.”
According to a 2015 study, Tallahassee leads the nation in economic segregation. That inequality manifests in over-policing, gun violence, and divestment from public funds. In 2020, roughly 37 percent of Tallahassee’s general budget was allocated to police, while just 2 percent was allocated to community housing and human services.
“There was a lack of mental health resources,” his childhood best friend Teill Roberson told me. “People like [Tony] were often left relying on friends and family to overcome obstacles.”
According to the nonprofit mental health advocacy group Mental Health America, Florida ranks forty-eighth of all states in the country for access to mental healthcare, but twelfth in prevalence of mental illness.
For McDade, access to jobs, support, and housing were even more limited because of his record. The Bureau of Justice found that only 12.5 percent of employers say they accept applications from people with criminal records. A 2018 Prison Policy study found that over 27 percent of formerly incarcerated people were unemployed—higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate at any time in history before the pandemic.
“I promise I’ll do right,” he wrote. “Please . . . don’t send me back for something I didn’t do. I’ll lose it. Besides while in prison I smoked weed, popped ecstasy, and drank liquor. The officers brought it in and staff members so what good will that do. Prison seems to get you nowhere but still high.”
Public defender Randolph P. Murrell said that the sexual and physical abuse McDade suffered as a child set his life in a “sort of downhill spiral” that led to his incarceration. He suggested that if he got the psychological counseling he needed, he could do much better. Instead, the court sentenced him to ten years in jail for possessing a gun with a felony conviction.
While McDade was inside Tallahassee’s federal women‘s prison, Candy Pickett, who calls McDade her “prison brother,” recalls that he rarely took advantage of extracurriculars—besides boxing. That wasn’t always his fault; some days he would have to wait for hours in line for the medications he took for his mental health, she says.
“I just always thought [he] was so let down by everybody,” Pickett says. “I’ll tell you we’re alike in so many ways, but my life just felt so privileged compared to [him]. [He] never wanted anybody to feel sorry for [him] . . . all [he] needed was some type of assistance, a hope for a different type of life.”
McDade’s death came as the Trump administration erased trans health protections on the fourth anniversary of the shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, even as the American Medical Association deemed a surge in the deaths of transgender people an “epidemic.” Of the more than ninety reported murders of transgender or gender nonconforming people since 2018, about one in seven were in Florida.
Malik Jackson’s family and other loved ones describe him as someone who enjoyed the simple things—working, joking with friends and family, and roaming through nature. “I still call Malik a child because he was a baby to me,” his aunt, Abigail Jackson, said. “God knows that he was a sweet child. I can’t tell you a day that that baby was disrespectful.”
His girlfriend of over a year, Rose Bordenave, said she was constantly learning from Jackson.
“I like the fact that I could talk to him about anything and how kind and selfless he was,” remembered Bordenave. “He intentionally did things to make life better for me.”
Jackson’s final day started like many before it: with his girlfriend. He didn’t tell her much about the previous day’s fight, she said, but left her place like he normally did, with a hug and a kiss, and headed to his mother’s home for his daily visit before work.
When he got to his mother’s house, Jackson waited in his car. That’s when McDade reportedly approached him, stabbing him in the neck before running away. Jackson died in the hospital, alone due to COVID-19 restrictions, even though his mother and aunt both begged to see him.
The Jackson family is in the preliminary stages of filing a lawsuit against Tallahassee, citing the lack of police response to the initial fight as a contributing factor to Malik Jackson’s death.
Using funds left over from a GoFundMe launched to cover the costs of Jackson’s funeral, Jennifer and her younger children have moved across the country. She feared retribution from the community, McDade’s family, and police. Since last summer, Jennifer and Malik’s aunt and grandmother have taken anxiety medications to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Every day I still cry,” said Jennifer Jackson. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my baby. It’s so sad that . . . I can’t see him happy about how his momma is living and doing good now.”
Last September, the family tried to block the city of Tallahassee from releasing videos of McDade’s killing that included Jackson after activists fought for body camera footage to be released. “When it came to releasing the video to see whether the officer was guilty or not of firing his weapon, the people never asked to see Malik take his last breath,” Abigail Jackson said. “Why in the hell would y’all put our baby in this video? [Activists] didn’t ask to see Malik take his last breath.” But the footage was still made publicly available.
The release of the video from the city, the Jackson family says, fits into a pattern of neglect and disrespect from the police and city government. Still in the early stages of suing the city, they say the lawsuit is about receiving the respect they deserve.
“[The police] stood out there and laughed on the 26th and by the 27th it was too late,” Abigail Jackson said. “I really felt like we were so disrespected by the city of Tallahassee.”
Since 1989, multiple Supreme Court cases have affirmed that government agencies, including the police, have no duty to provide protection to citizens. This gives police officers the power to decide who is deserving of protection. As Darren L. Hutchinson, professor and associate dean at the University of Florida School of Law, told the New York Times in 2018, “Police can watch someone attack you, refuse to intervene and not violate the Constitution.”
In September, a grand jury found McDade’s killing justified because he had a knife and a gun, which was unloaded at the time. Following the grand jury’s decision, which he says he was not surprised by, the McDade family lawyer told the Tallahassee Democrat, “there has to be something else that [police] can do other than to take a life.” A decades-old Supreme Court case shields officers from accountability for their “split-second” decisions to use deadly force. The case still shapes verdicts today, despite a growing understanding about how racial biases affect officers’ reactions.
The name of the police officer who shot McDade has never been released. After the shooting, the Florida Police Benevolent Association sued the city to block the name from becoming public, citing Marsy’s Law, which grants privacy rights to victims of crime. In April of this year, the police union emerged victorious: a Florida appellate court ruled that cops who kill civilians can now have their identities legally protected.
After a year of global protests, we have seen what kind of justice can be offered through the state apparatus—and it is meager. Politicians have paraded George Floyd as a martyr who “sacrificed his life” so a single cop could sit in a jail cell for twenty years. But since Floyd’s death, 900 people have been killed by American police. Real justice isn’t a cage for Derek Chauvin; it would be breath flowing through Floyd’s body as well as other victims of police violence, including Adam Toledo, Ronnieman Johnson, Roshad McIntosh, Rekia Boyd, Ma’Khia Bryant, and Tony McDade.
According to Danielle Sered, executive director of Common Justice, an organization that develops non-carceral responses to violence, “no one enters violence for the first time having committed it.” Real justice for victims of police violence, then, would mean a reduction in violence of all kinds. When protesters marched for McDade without acknowledging Malik Jackson’s murder, members of the Jackson family questioned the organizers’ priorities. “They clearly don’t have an idea of what they’re protesting for,” Abigail Jackson told a local news station. “How can you turn a murderer into a victim?”
Advocates for police violence victims, on the other hand, have argued that it is important to fight for the lives of even those who have committed violent acts themselves.
Considering McDade and Jackson’s deaths together suggests that new approaches to safety and well-being are needed. “The violence that took [Malik’s life] is the same that took Tony’s, because it’s based on the same insidious systems that saw Tony as disposable,” said Dominique Morgan. “It comes from the same seeds—the behaviors and outcomes in Black communities—that have been instituted, exacerbated, and maintained by white supremacy in the same ways.”
Since last summer, the most significant achievements of the protests have come from activists who have organized to defund the police at the local level. Twenty cities across the country have cut their police budgets by a total of $840 million, with much of that money reallocated to public services and alternative responses to emergency calls. But to fix the problems that led to Jackson and McDade’s deaths will require more than budget reallocation; it will require major investment in services and communities that have been historically neglected.
Months before the pandemic, the Tallahassee teachers union took to the streets to protest Florida’s public education system, in which more than 300,000 students started classes in January 2020 without a full-time permanent teacher. In Florida, public schools have more police officers than nurses, illustrating how the state spends on law enforcement at the expense of other services. Real investment in Florida’s children from an early age could have transformative effects that would improve well-being and reduce the need for life-draining investments into police and prisons. It would look like McDade receiving the mental healthcare and trauma counseling he asked for, and absolutely needed, decades ago.
The Jacksons’ experience also shows how often police fail to provide protection from violence even when they are called. The New York Times analyzed publicly available data from three U.S. cities in 2020 and found that police officers only spent about 4 percent of their time addressing violence. In the analyzed data, the largest portion of the time was spent addressing situations that are “non-criminal.”
In recent years, a host of new models have emerged for how to keep communities safe. The Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective developed “pod-maps,” a process for turning to community resources, not police, during moments of danger, whether you’re a bystander witnessing someone else being harmed, experiencing abuse, or even an abuser. Pod-mapping maps out a commitment between consenting parties to build trust, show up, and work to hold people accountable for their behavior in times of violence. It requires those in the community to know your pod, and for everyone involved to believe that even if a pod cannot fully de-escalate a situation, it is safer than calling the police. McDade’s pod-map could have included his mom or close friends; instead of being left to monologue about his pain and violent intentions over Facebook Live, they could have supported him, talked him down, and de-escalated the situation at his side. And if Malik and his cousins were in each others’ pod, instead of egging on the violence, the cousins could’ve worked to physically separate McDade and Malik and helped the two of them talk it out.
What if we stopped sending people armed with guns to apprehend people experiencing mental health crises, or even fights? In Brooklyn, New York, a pilot program has shown what might be possible. For five days last December, police stepped back, while violence interrupters and crisis management groups watched the street. City agencies and nonprofits set up booths along the streets offering information on education, job, and housing opportunities, as well as other services. As a result, in the middle of one of the densest parts of the country and a community where gun violence rose by 73 percent from September 2019 to September 2020, only one person called the police—a bus driver who mistakenly activated a distress signal—and no one was shot. More research like this needs to be done, but even this short-lived experiment suggests how violence can be reduced with investment in communal care.
When McDade asked for mental healthcare, he was sent to jail instead, where his troubles deepened; when the Jacksons were in danger, they turned to the police but were let down in the moment when they needed protection. The McDades are being forced to come to terms with the fact that the investigation of the officer who shot McDade has led to a reduction in accountability for the police. The Jacksons are awaiting some limited remuneration as they venture through the long and expensive process of filing a lawsuit against the city.
As Abigail Jackson told me, Malik could have easily lost his life at the hands of police, too. With Malik’s “work on earth being complete, we don’t have to worry about him or whether the police are going to gun him down because he’s a Black man in a car riding around with loud music or got an air freshener hanging out his window or something like that,” she said. “I just feel like that’s one less child that we know is safe.”
A world where death is a sigh of relief is a world that yearns for radical change.
When necessary, pronouns have been updated to reflect McDade’s wishes, as per the Trans Journalists Association style guide.
Adam Mahoney is an environmental justice reporter at Grist. He has reported on police and prisons with bylines at places like the Guardian, Mother Jones, and Truthout.