'The Death And Life Of Marsha P. Johnson' Shows Fight For Social Justice Isn't Finished

Jun 25, 2020

June is Pride month in honor of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Greenwich Village, New York. The riots against police brutality and oppression were largely led by LGBTQ people of color. One of those leaders was Marsha P. Johnson, a gay liberation activist and self-identified drag queen.

>> Stonewall: The Hidden History Of Gay Rights

As marches for the Black Lives Matter movement and Pride have intersected recently, it’s important to know the history of why Pride’s roots in activism naturally reflect and complement the call for equity, particularly for trans women of color who face higher rates of violence.

In 2019, 22 transgender people — 19 of them trans women of color — were killed, according to the Human Rights Campaign. In 2020, there have already been at least 16 transgender or gender non-conforming deaths by violent means.

While Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson was known for her kindness and light in her activism, she was also very aware of and fought against the violence and abuse the queer community faced by the police — and many people believe she was the victim of it herself.

Johnson's body was found in the Hudson River in 1992. While her suspicious death remains unsolved today, police ruled it a suicide at the time.

"The most likely understanding of what happened to her the night she fell into the river was that she was put there or chased there by the police themselves. So, this idea of police violence going unanswered has a long history, especially within the queer community but the community of color across the board," says filmmaker David France.

His 2017 Netflix documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, follows activist Victoria Cruz of the New York City Anti-Violence Project as she tries to find out what happened to Johnson.

Johnson was an "extremely well-known and beloved figure" in New York who was also like a mother to many other young transgendered people in the city, according to France. Not only was she a frontline battler of Stonewall, but Johnson and fellow activist Sylvia Rivera helped build the foundations of the modern LGBT movement. 

"[Johnson is] really an architect of so much of what the movement has attained over all these years," notes France. "If it weren't for her, this whole conversation about gender and gender identity may have been delayed for many years."

France was introduced to Johnson after moving to New York in the early 1980s. "If you wanted to feel like New York was your home as a young gay or lesbian person, you really needed Marsha's blessing, in a way," he recalls. "Once we became friends ... then she would call your name day or night and wish you a happy evening, and that made you feel like you've arrived."

"[Johnson is] really an architect of so much of what the [LGBT] movement has attained over all these years."

When France got news of Johnson's death, he was working at The Village Voice, an alternative newspaper in New York. He drew the assignment to investigate what may have happened to Johnson.

"The circumstances were murky, mysterious. The police were very obviously unwilling to investigate. So, I began for a while doing my own investigation into the events of that night," says France.

He ultimately had to abandon the story for personal reasons, not returning to it until he decided to make the documentary. "I always felt that it was unfinished business and I really owed Marsha's memory the attention that I should be giving to this investigation around her passing," says France.

He notes that the memories of Johnson and Rivera were also fading in the community, and returning to the project could elevate Johnson's life and potentially bring justice. 

Marsha P. Johnson, Joseph Ratanski and Sylvia Rivera in the 1973 NYC Gay Pride Parade.
Credit Gary LeGault / Wikimedia Commons
"I thought if Marsha's case can go unresolved and unremembered, then what hope did any of these newer and younger victims have of finding justice?"

"I thought if Marsha's case can go unresolved and unremembered, then what hope did any of these newer and younger victims have of finding justice?" he asks.   

In The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, activist Victoria Cruz picks up the baton and serves as the  audience's guide to look into Johnson's death. Cruz is a major historical figure in the LGBT community: She was at Stonewall and has devoted her life's work to responding to crimes against the LGBT community, according to France.

Unfortunately, Cruz did not resolve Johnson's case and transgender women of color continue to be the victims of violence across the country. 

"The work is still not finished," says France. "And I'm really heartened by the progress that's already been made since the murder of George Floyd across the country. In New York State, finally, they repealed a law that made it illegal to get any information on allegations of misconduct against police."

With this new legal avenue now open, France hopes they will get more answers about Johnson's case. But in the meantime, he is warmed that many new generations are learning about Johnson as her example is called upon in modern protests.