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Criminalizing Identity: Out in the Night and its Importance about the Policing System

Posted by Sara Cooper | Jul 26, 2023 | 0 Comments

This has been on my watchlist for a very long time, a documentary that emphasizes existence as a threat to the criminal justice system and how relevant we see these atrocities today.

Out in the Night is a documentary that is just plainly a true story about a group of friends, in their late teens and early twenties, Black queer women who are very open and proud with their sexuality, that enjoy good times together no matter what others think of them.

They planned to go to the West Village in New York City to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community with peers as residents of Newark, New Jersey, on a hot summer night in 2006. According to the film's website, two of the women are the primary center of the friends' experiences of the documentary, gender non-conforming Reneta Hill, a single mother with a soft heart and a keen sense of humor, and Patreese Johnson, a petite femme whom is also a shy and tender poet.

When after a long and fun day and evening being out in the city, they had passed by a film theater where an older man was promoting his film on the sidewalk. This person begins to sexually and violently confronting them, claiming they didn't care if they had raped them after being told they weren't straight.

He spits and throws a lit cigarette, and Reneta and Venice defend the group where it results into a grand fight, and it is led to where the man is stabbed by Patreese. The man had pulled out hair out of Venice's head and had choked Renata.

911 was called by bystanders, and police officers came in and arrested the group, charging them with gang assault and attempted murder. Newspapers all over New York were not afraid to show their nasty biases of the incident, from headliners such as “Attack of the Killer Lesbians” to “Hated by Lez Gangs” to “Wolf Lesbian Gang,” the gay bashing of a group that were acting in self-defense for the motives of a man that was known to post anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs online on mass platforms later in court.

Through the lives of these four young women, Out in the Night reveals how their race, gender identity and sexuality became criminalized in the mainstream news media and criminal legal system. Living in the United States for these friends was always on survival mode, even though their families and friends were supportive of their identities and existence.

Being a gay person in Newark's lower income communities has its difficulties, and having multiple encounters with the police that do not their job of protecting and serving as their families have also experienced is not an easy reality either. With the judicial process that they had endured from what it seems like seconds, from the initial arrest to the automatic transfer to Rikers Prison, every minute had felt like an hour that was dismissed completely by prosecution when their case was pending and had already been seeked for long sentencing by the DA's office.

With Renata and Patreese facing the highest sentencing counts, so many injustices had occurred that did get rechecked and led to earlier release, including some of the friends not even having the chance to testify, the judge had instead used a metaphor about an orchestra about accessorial liability to the jury instead or properly instructing the law, focusing on just the stabbing as the main argument of the prosecution's, and the evidence of the stab wound being falsely identified as the wound of the hernia procedure that he had received when receiving emergency care, completely intentional.

As Angela Davis had once said, “There is no institutional mode of resisting homophobic attacks without consequence, with no place to turn.” This spoke very highly to me, the likeliness that you would be penalized for the harm that a queer person has endured is greater than the support that would make healing and recovery possibilities. Even though some of their indictments were dismissed and they have all returned home to their families, their voices were never really heard. They were robbed of their constitutional rights from the beginning. I felt enraged and despiteful about trying to understand the criminal justice system because the aid would never be granted in the courtroom.

I definitely think this is a must-watch, and one you will have strong feelings for. I do believe however that the documentary had some disorganization in telling the story, and that there was an imbalance of coverage for each of the friends in the group. With knowing that Abigail Disney was the producer of Out in the Night, more funding and intimate time with the families could have been easy priorities in really giving more authenticity to the film.

Out in the Night can be found on Kanopy and other streaming services for a low rental price.

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