Broad Recognition


FREE CECE: Trans Women of Color and the Criminal Punishment System

On June 5, 2011, CeCe McDonald, an African American transgender woman, was walking to a grocery store in Minneapolis with several friends, according to her support website. As the group passed a bar, white men began shouting racist, homophobic, and transphobic slurs at them. One of the men, a Mr. Flaherty, smashed a bottle across McDonald’s face, cutting through her cheek and lacerating her salivary gland. Along with Flaherty, Dean Schmitz, another man from the bar, began fighting with McDonald. Schmitz was an imposing figure with a swastika tattooed on his chest. She turned and ran from them, and Schmitz followed her. She turned and pulled scissors from her purse. Schmitz grabbed McDonald and pulled her towards him, which drove the scissors into his chest. Schmitz died from the injury.

According to her support website, McDonald was sent to prison, where she was denied medical care for the laceration; her cheek swelled to the size of a golf ball. Because she is transgender, she was held in solitary confinement for a month. She was charged with second-degree murder.

On October 6, she was released from jail on bail after extensive fundraising efforts by her supporters. However, on January 5 she was called to court again on alleged violations of the terms of her bail. Her probation officer alleged that she tampered with her electronic monitoring device, although it was argued in court that this could have been the result of a mechanical error. McDonald also tested positive for THC on a mandatory drug test on December 29, although she passed all previous drug tests. Supporters reminded the court that McDonald had a job at a café and asked that her bail be set low so that supporters would again be able to bail her out. Judge Daniel Moreno of Hennepin ruled against McDonald, though, and returned her to jail and set her bail at $500,000.

Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman had the power to drop the charges against McDonald. He ignored a petition with over 12,000 signatures calling for him to do so, and the proceedings continued. On May 2, McDonald appeared in court. The judge ruled that the swastika on Schmitz’s chest was not permissible evidence that he was a white supremacist. McDonald accepted a plea deal, and plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter. During the trial, McDonald had to confirm detailed descriptions of the night of her attack. Lawyer and founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project Dean Spade described watching McDonald undergoing such interrogation as “so disgusting.” He stated that the judge patronizingly asked McDonald if she understood that when she introduced a weapon into the fight she endangered lives, and she was forced to respond “yes.” The plea deal additionally stripped McDonald of the right to plead self-defense.

As a result of the plea deal, McDonald’s prosecutors recommended a sentence of 41 months. As the time she has already served will be counted, McDonald would likely serve 20 more months, followed by 21 months probation. Spade stated that he expected the judge to agree to these terms at the upcoming June 4 sentencing hearing.

CeCe McDonald is not just the victim of a hate crime: she is, moreover, the victim of a racist and transphobic criminal punishment system. The Hennepin County Attorney’s Website, in a post about McDonald’s sentencing, stated, “Gender, race, sexual orientation and class are not part of the decision-making process.” The post went on to call the plea of second-degree manslaughter “a just resolution.” For the Hennepin County Attorney, who has played such an integral role in incarcerating McDonald, to state that the situation is “just,” is an insult to McDonald’s suffering.

The racism and transphobia that McDonald is experiencing is by no means unique. Trans women are up to 15 times more likely to be incarcerated than the general population. Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 47% of black trans people surveyed had been incarcerated. 38% of black trans people had been harassed or assaulted by the police because of bias. A video (warning: contains graphic discussions of physical and sexual assault and transphobic slurs) from the Transgender and Intersex Project, which interviewed trans women, who have been victims of the prison-industrial complex, included telling statements about the horrors of the system. One woman stated, “prison is the worst thing anyone can go through.” Another said, “I wouldn’t be able to get my hormones and medications that I need.”

McDonald’s case is unique in that it has mobilized relatively well-publicized community support. Since her arrest, activists have mobilized in favor of her release. McDonald’s posse, as it often self-describes, operates extremely effectively. They run a rich support website, and have strong social media presences on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. For the most part, it makes clear the role that racism plays in the case. Too often, the race of trans women targeted by the criminal punishment system is erased by queer and trans activists with white privilege, who sometimes reduce these incarcerations to single-issue cases. Too often, the plight of trans women targeted by the criminal justice system is portrayed by queer and trans activists as simply a matter of gender identity. The racism of the criminal punishment system of a nation in which 1 in 3 black men go to prison cannot be understated. To ignore racism in this system is to misunderstand its foundation and its nature.

The work to free McDonald is also exceptional in that it allows her space to speak for herself. The support website features “CeCe’s Blog,” to which readers can subscribe. McDonald is a gifted writer, and the passages—one handwritten from within prison—are eloquent and long. In one particularly moving passage (especially for Mothers’ Day), she writes:

 I am truly sorry for the loss of a person who also was involved in the incident, but how would my mom and family feel if she heard that I was killed by a group of racist, homophobic/transphobic people only for walking to the store and being at the wrong place at the wrong time […] Would they have taken the same lengths to prosecute him if he had killed me? Or would they have even cared if it were a black on black crime. But once again not to many people care if it doesn’t involve them or is of their concern. But think if it were your child, your sister or brother, a friend or family member. How would you feel?

Prisoners’ rights activism, like the work for many subjected groups, is very often coopted by those with the privileges of the time to lend support and the education to succeed in increasingly privatized and nonprofitized activist circles. The adoption of nonprofit, rather than community-based, coalitional, and nonprofessional, models of activism leaves out many community members. It is therefore quite extraordinary that McDonald has been given extensive space to write about her own experience. The blog does show that McDonald—a fashion student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, is literate and educated. As McDonald can write so eloquently, her story is more accessible to a wider range of audiences than if she did not have this talent or privilege. Other people targeted by the criminal punishment system may not have forums in which to speak for themselves or the means to do so.

The work to free McDonald is also strong in that while it welcomes the endorsement of high-profile activists, it maintains grassroots autonomy. Veteran queer activist and author of Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg, visited McDonald and will be dedicating a new edition of the canonical work to her. Dean Spade has also commented on the case, but acknowledges that he is not the greatest expert on it. The National Lawyers Guild called on the court to drop the charges. The Bay Area Reporter announced that members of the San Francisco Democratic Party are preparing a resolution in support of McDonald. Such high-profile publications as Ebony and The Advocate have reported on the case. These groups, however, work in support of the “posse,” not in its place. As Feinberg stated, “I don’t speak for CeCe McDonald or her defense committee—I support them.”

The support committee’s activities are also remarkable in that they acknowledge the roles of many kinds of activism beyond legal pressure. The website features some of the beautiful art that has been made about and in support of McDonald. Most feature the color purple, flowers, and honey bees, in reference to McDonald’s nickname, Honee Bea. The diverse art includes zines, videos, and street art. One artist, who made a purple cape emblazoned with “FREE CECE” in large gold letters, described wearing it as “A form of release.  As a form of self care [sic]. as a way to carry the message forward.” Rallies have included noise demonstrations and a Solidarity Dance Party. The noise demonstrations are valuable in that they reach McDonald directly, and help to show her that she is remembered while she is in prison. The dance parties help to demonstrate the volume of support to media sources, while providing a decidedly queer forum for collaboration, emotional expression, and self- and community care.

There are inevitably drawbacks to the movement to free CeCe McDonald. Many sources emphasize the ways in which McDonald is “innocent.” Almost all discuss the fact that she is a student and a community leader. While this is important in representing McDonald’s life accurately, and in making it clear that her imprisonment is deeply wrong, bolstering McDonald’s status as a “good citizen” or an “innocent victim” harms others targeted by the criminal justice system who are not so easy to portray as innocent.

This is especially true in the framing of the case as an issue of self-defense. Many trans women, especially those of color, have experienced bias-motivated attacks like those committed against McDonald. These are often not reported, though. Many come to interact with the Prison-Industrial Complex through participation in criminalized behaviors, particularly sex work. Poverty drives many trans women to sex work and drug use, and trans women of color are subject to disproportionate policing for this. These cases, while more common, are harder to frame as unjust. Deep biases maintain, even in many liberal and progressive circles, that these behaviors are indications of ‘moral failure.’ These logics, of course, ignore the role that structural violence plays in shaping the lives of such marginalized groups.

For this reason, some activists stated that the ruling of a clearly unjust court should not alter support for McDonald. An article in Colorlines stated, “what I hope is that whatever the reasons, and whatever her sentence will be, that LGBTQ activists and allies do not back away from supporting her over the question of innocence. She has the right to be free from violence, she has a right to defend herself, and we should continue to defend her too.”

Much of the activism in favor of McDonald has maintained a relatively strong anti-prison—or at least anti-incarceration—platform. This is essential in building a trans and anti-racist politic that does not bolster the criminal punishment system, as many pushes for hate crime legislation and enforcement have done. By maintaining an abolitionist stance, the calls for McDonald’s release have the potential to be part of a larger queer and trans critique of the space of the prison. Trans scholars and activists have noted that prisons are inherently sites of violence because of their gender segregation, surveillance, and physical policing of bodies. The ultimate goal of this movement is not the freedom of CeCe McDonald, but the dismantlement of the violent criminal punishment system.

This project, as a part of a larger push for justice for trans women of color, is essential. On April 28, Brandy Martell, an African American trans woman, was murdered in Oakland shortly after a man learned of her trans status. This came just days after the April 19 killing of Paige Clay, yet another black trans woman, who was murdered in Chicago. These bias-motivated attacks are endemic in the United States, and are only one of many ways that the lives of trans women of color are shortened by the state. As Dean Spade notes in his book Normal Life, the interrelated welfare, education, child protection, housing, and criminal punishment systems work together to maldistribute life chances, police trans bodies, and end the lives of trans people. An infographic from Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment (FIERCE) and the Prison Moratorium Project demonstrates visually that systems, from the start, are structured in ways that make it virtually impossible for trans people of color to thrive or, often, survive.

For feminists and activists, the time to act has arrived. Only by demanding the release of CeCe McDonald—and working to support her as she struggles within prison—will this movement maintain its momentum and create tangible changes for trans women of color targeted by the criminal punishment system.

First, it is important to educate oneself and stay updated on the case. Sources published by supporters rather than often sensationalist, exploitative, racist, and cissexist accounts of McDonald’s case are fairer and frequently provide policy recommendations. These can be found on the support website, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

After educating oneself, the next step is to educate others. Those with access to feminist networks, blogs, magazines, listservs, and informal networks of support and friendship should write about and discuss the myriad feminist implications of McDonald’s case. In whatever way it is possible, now is the time to reach out. Writing letters and OpEds in mainstream media sources will also help to broaden McDonald’s base of support.

Feminists and activists should also use their skills and talents to raise awareness and show support for McDonald. From street art to zine-making, from singing to dancing, all support is valid. Art galvanizes communities under attack, and can be used to create change for McDonald and other targeted people.

Helping McDonald’s all-volunteer support team with the expenses and challenges the case faces is also essential. Those in the Minneapolis area can volunteer in person or make food for supporters. Attending rallies helps to visually demonstrate support for McDonald. Monetary donations, which are securely accepted, are badly needed.

It is essential that feminists and activists reach out to McDonald during her time in prison. Supporters can send McDonald books and magazines to pass the time and to help her continue her education while she is incarcerated. Writing letters to her is a very important way to remind her that she is supported. Pretty Queer guides activists through the process of writing to a prisoner for the first time. Communication with McDonald as she is caged—quite possibly in solitary confinement—is imperative. A brief and easy letter, which takes less than 20 minutes and costs as much as a stamp, is the least that any of us can do.

The most important step for feminists seeking to create change is to remember that McDonald is not alone in being targeted by the criminal punishment system for her identity. Some justice will be served in the highly unlikely event that McDonald is released, but in the meantime countless other people will be incarcerated or killed. Their stories will not make headlines and their cells will not be flooded with letters of love and support. They are, nonetheless, victims of the same racism and transphobia as McDonald.

Reaching out in support of these people—both directly and by standing in firm opposition to prisons—can catalyze change on a fundamental level. Personal commitment to writing and speaking against prisons, and efforts to publicize violence against trans women of color are key. Projects including the Write to Win Collective, Black and Pink and the Prisoner Correspondence Project allow nonicarcerated people to write to prisoners, and to forge relationships that provide companionship for imprisoned people. By working to end the injustices perpetrated by this system, feminist communities will grow and learn, and most importantly change the experiences of trans women of color.

CeCe McDonald puts it best: “In the memories of those who we have lost, it is our duty to put an effort to make a change. We should not have to sit back in the fear of our own lives and well being, or the lives and well being of those we love and care for due to the hate that exist and threatens our safety. We should not have to mourn for the lives of the people we love and have lost due to hate and careless acts. We have to stand up against those who put us down and try to oppress us. We have to enlighten the neophobics of this world and to help them realize the vast and diverse world we live in. because as long as [we] live in fear, [we] live in ignorance.”

Chamonix Adams Porter is a sophomore in Yale College. She is an Associate Editor for Broad Recognition.

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