We all need to stand up for each other

March 10, 2014

CeCe McDonald is an African American trans woman from Minneapolis who was arrested, convicted and imprisoned for the "crime" of defending herself against a racist, transphobic assault. CeCe was charged with two counts of murder and faced spending the remainder of her life behind bars, but her determination to keep fighting back and the support of a strong campaign to raise awareness about the case and demand her release pressured prosecutors to offer a plea deal, and then an early release. On January 13, after serving 17 months in a men's prison, CeCe was finally released.

In this interview, CeCe talked to Keegan O’Brien about her ordeal--and the struggles she intends to keep fighting now that her long-awaited freedom has been won.

WHY DON'T we start with the attack itself? If you had the opportunity to tell people what happened that night, how would you describe it?

A GROUP of my friends and I were walking to the 24-hour grocery store around midnight. Prior to even getting into the incident, we were stopped by the police for what the officer said was a noise complaint. But I knew that it was racial profiling, because he had just driven by a bar that was open and where a bunch of people were being loud and drunk--and we were just down the street, walking and talking among ourselves.

As I was walking and talking with my boyfriend, some of my friends were up ahead. And as I was talking to him, I saw this back-and-forth conversation going on between my friends and some people. I didn't know if it was an argument or anything at the time--I just saw them talking.

Then, as I got closer to the scene, I saw this guy being really rude and making really hurtful, derogatory statements--saying things like we're "chicks with dicks" and "you niggers need to go back to Africa." It was just a lot for me. That was the first time that I ever dealt with racism like that.

Cece McDonald
Cece McDonald (FreeCeCeDocumentary.net)

It was crazy how things happened after that. Eventually, everyone was arguing, and I was just sitting there, trying to figure it out, but a part of me knew that this whole situation was petty--these people were clearly drunk. As I was getting ready to walk off, this woman comes out and yells, "I'll take all you bitches on," and she threw her drink at me and smashed her cup in my face--that's how my face got lacerated.

That's pretty much what initiated the whole big brawl. It was sad that things happened the way they did. Even when I reflect on that whole incident, it could have been prevented. After the initial melee was over, and I was bloody and disoriented, they started to pursue me again. I kept telling them that I didn't want to fight anymore and to please just leave me alone.

But this same guy kept pursuing me. Other people were yelling at me to turn around, and when I did, here he comes, full of hate and anger and bitterness, and full of drugs and alcohol. He went from walking to almost jogging to sprinting. I felt like he was going to really hurt me--that he was going to try to kill me. So I felt, at that point, like I needed to defend myself. My intention wasn't to stab him, my intention was to walk away. I was trying to be the bigger person in the situation and let it go.

What you can do

If you want to learn more about CeCe’s case or help contribute to an upcoming documentary, please go to the Free CeCe: A Documentary website.

Eventually, he caught up to me. I was walking backward, making sure that he wasn't going to try anything. Eventually, he was within reach, and so I pulled out the scissors and told him, "I don't want to fight." He looked down at the scissors like he didn't he even care. It was like he was possessed.

I remember saying one last time, "I don't want to fight," and he reached out, grabbed my hair and was trying to yank me down. My reflexes kicked in. It was my immediate reaction. I didn't even know I had stabbed him--it was just a reaction of having to defend myself.

Right after I stabbed him, he was yelling, "Bitch, you stabbed me" and "This bitch stabbed me." I knew I needed to hurry up and leave because he was crazy and he was going to do something really bad--like go get a gun or something. So I ran and waited in the store parking lot.

What's sad is that the police department is literally across the street from where the whole thing happened. This had all been going on for a good 15 or 20 minutes, and none of the bystanders chose to call the police--not up until the point where he was stabbed. Why did it have to get to the point for anyone to call the police? The area we were in was majority white and has a history of being racist and very bigoted. So it's not surprising, but it's sad.

After I was standing in the parking lot for a while, the police came, and I was thinking, "Finally!" But the first thing they did is get out the car and arrest me! When I asked for what, they said, "Someone called in saying that someone was stabbed," and I was like, "Yeah, clearly me!" My face and my clothes were covered in my blood! They were making it seem like I was the initial aggressor. And that wasn't at all the case. It was the exact opposite, but they instantly criminalized me.

I sat in the back of police car, still bleeding, for 20 minutes before they decided to get me in an ambulance to take me to the hospital--and they still did a bad job helping me. Later on, I found out that after they sewed up my face, there was no room for the saliva to go--it wouldn't go through my mouth, and there was no way for it come out. I was in extreme, terrible pain. It really affected me because I couldn't eat and couldn't sleep.

Three days later, I found out that they were charging me with murder, and I had a full-blown panic attack, to the point that I blacked out. It was really scary. I called everybody I knew--that's how people got involved. A close friend of mine, Abby Beasley, who was a caseworker, connected me with Katie Burges, who works for the Trans Youth Support Network. They were pretty much the keystones of this whole movement that got built up.

It was a really, really troubling time for me, and I had my ups and downs--so low that at one point, I was on the brink of suicide. To have such loving and caring support from family and friends who you just encompassed me with so much encouragement was a blessing, and it meant a lot.

Eventually, when it came time for the trial, they added another murder charge--so I was looking at two murder charges for one person. And because they charged me with a second charge, I was looking at 80 years! Honestly, that made me want to just give up.

But I knew that I wanted to fight this for as long as I could--especially after educating myself about the prison-industrial complex and how the system targets certain groups of marginalized peoples. I was inspired by that knowledge, and decided that I wanted to be the person who fought this system--to let them know that I wasn't scared and that I'm going to do whatever I need to make sure my voice is heard.

The first plea deal they offered me was eight years, but I wasn't trying to settle for any years. I felt like this jury of my peers wasn't a jury of my peers at all. It was really easy for these white people to find me guilty because I had already been criminalized from the beginning. But I stayed as strong as I could, and eventually, they offered a second plea deal of 41 months, which I accepted.

When the day of sentencing came, his family showed up. They were trying to make it seem like I was this evil person who took away this great and caring guy. And I felt like: Yeah, he was a great, loving, caring person to you, of course--you're his family. But he wasn't like that to me. What I faced was someone who wasn't caring at all.

COULD YOU talk more about why you decided to fight this case?

WHAT INITIALLY inspired me to keep going was not wanting to be a victim of the system, and feeling like I didn't have to take what was given to me. But then, I also educated myself about the prison-industrial complex and learned about the many people who were arrested and incarcerated for being strong, independent, influential leaders in revolutionary times--like in the 1960s, with the Black Panther Party and the Stonewall Rebellion.

It made me feel like if they can do it, I can do it. I felt like I was going to need to fight for my rights, too--I couldn't just sit back and take what was given to me. Also, having the support of the Support Committee and my friends helped a lot, too.

HOW DID it feel to have such widespread support from friends, family, the support network and so many activists and organizations from across that country?

IT MADE me feel really loved and cared about and supported. It made me feel like people didn't just only care about me, but were passionate about the issues surrounding my case--issues like racism, trans misogyny, violence against women, violence against trans women, and the disproportionate targeting of certain groups of people.

I knew that I was surrounded by people who weren't just acting like "I've done my duty, I'm done," but were loving and caring and understanding and supportive, and who were just there for me.

I feel like it's a blessing because a lot of people don't have that--in or out of the system. It made me know that I'm loved for who I am. That's the kind of support I got from the support committee, and I knew they were going to support me no matter what. If there's one thing I know after this whole experience, it's that I know what love is.

WHAT WAS prison like for you, as a Black trans women incarcerated in a men's prison? What did you have to put up with, and what do you want people to know about that experience?

I JUST feel like no matter what, prisons are bad for everybody. They aren't just bad for trans people--they're bad for all people. It wouldn't be fair for me to make it seem like it was so hard for me, just as a trans woman, because I've been around a lot of people who don't deserve to be in prison at all. Prison is hard for everybody. We've all got our personal issues and have to do what we need to do to survive in there and be strong.

It's not the right approach for people to sensationalize this story and say: You were a trans woman in a men's prison. Because at the end of the day, all prisons are bad for all people--trans, cis, gay, straight, Black, white, Asian, brown, purple, polka-dotted, striped, zebra, alien or whatever.

Yes, I had my issues. I dealt with extra discrimination and extra scrutiny. I had to deal with things that other people wouldn't have had to deal with in prison because I was a trans woman in a men's prison. Of course, it was upsetting, and it was hard.

But I was blessed to have the support of a team that was willing to support me in this fight against the system. Not everyone in there had that--not everyone had support or someone to help them or be there for them, to protect them or understand them or get them in touch with the right resources. I was blessed to have that.

So yes, I can say how hard it was for me, but what about the people in prison who are there wrongfully or for petty charges or because of the criminalization of everything? There are men and women who have been in there for days, years, even decades--what about them?

It's easy for me to talk about my story, but there are so many more like me who have been targeted and discriminated against. I can talk about how hard it was for me, but the overall picture is how hard it is for all of us--how hard it is for the people who are still in there, how hard is for their families, how hard is it for our communities whose tax dollars are paying for this whole corrupt system.

WHAT DO you want people to learn from your story and your decision to fight for justice?

WHAT HAPPENED in my case is a blueprint for the LGBTQI community, African American community, cisgender community and white community on how to work collectively and be a team. My case showed how many people can come together from different backgrounds and different groups, and contribute to a cause in whatever way they could. There were so many different aspects to this movement, and it made the organizing so much more dynamic.

It could have been easy for just one group to get involved and make it their issue--like the Black community, or the trans community, or the women's community, or the feminist community. What I liked is that so many different groups of people came together--they were willing to put aside their differences and learn more about each other and do something about this issue. I feel like this case showed that different communities can come together and fight--just like they did for the Trayvon Martin case and the Monica Jones case.

It showed that everyone can do something when they see an injustice going on. It doesn't have to be a trans person who points out an injustice or stands up and does something. We can all do that, just like we can all stand up for each other's issues.

When we're being targeted, people tend to stick to what they know, whether that's race or gender or whatever. But this showed people how to put aside their personal issues and come together to address a bigger issue. As long as people decide to keep segregating and separating themselves from the rest of the world, and allow ignorance and hatred to keep us apart, we'll never be able to come together and expand our horizons to address the bigger issues going on.

OF ALL the groups in the LGBTQ community, trans women experience the highest rates of violence, incarceration, unemployment and violence. Can you talk to me about why this is and what needs to happen for this to change?

I THINK a lot of it has to do with ignorance. What people don't know, they fear. I also think our society tries to dehumanize us and demoralize us and delegitimize us as trans women.

Given all of this, it's easy to see why people want to discriminate against us, and don't want to take us seriously or see us as people. I've been to so many interviews and job fairs where I can tell, just by the way the person is looking at me, that they aren't going to hire me--because of the way I look and who I am.

That tends to put trans women in these predicaments where they feel like they can only do what society is saying is available to them, or what they know best. That's why so many trans women end up getting involved in sex work or drug dealing. Especially when you have no money, people tend to get involved in these kinds of things. Our society keeps putting women and trans women in these positions that are dangerous. It's all connected to how our society dismisses trans women and tells people that we're less then human.

We're starting to see more strong and influential trans women role models in our society. They're showing us that we don't need to fall into these stereotypes, and it's possible for trans women to become a doctor or a lawyer or whatever. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that we need to start showing people that we're human, too. We deserve to be able to work and go to school and all the things that any other human being would want.

NOW THAT you're out of prison, what are your plans for the future?

I'M JUST trying to pick up the pieces of my life and get myself back on track. I'm in the process of getting back into school and looking for work. But I'm also still advocating for issues surrounding violence against trans women and women. I'm also focusing on issues in the African American community and the LGBTQI community--issues like incarceration and homelessness.

There's so much that I want to do. I want to get involved in the Monica Jones case and show her that I support her as a trans women, and an African American trans women, and as her sister. I want to show her that I understand what she's going through. I just want to keep advocating, and sharing my story with people who will listen.

I also want to tell everybody that they should get involved. Because you're making a difference. You're making a difference for yourself and for someone else and for our future generations. I feel like the revolution is now. We're a generation that's making change, and what we do now will affect the kind of world that our children and grandchildren will inherit.

I want to let people who feel that nobody cares about them know that here's at least one person in this world who does cares about them and is willing to be there for them--and that's me. Even if it's somebody I just met that day, it doesn't matter. If that person needs love and positive energy, and they can't get it from nowhere else, they can get it from me. I feel like that's one of the reasons I've been put on this planet--to extend love and positive energy to others.

Richard Aviles helped with the transcription of this interview.

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