CeCe stands her ground

May 7, 2012

Keegan O’Brien reports on the case of CeCe McDonald, an African American transgender woman who fought against her attacker--and was charged with murder.

IMAGINE BEING outnumbered and brutally attacked. Now imagine facing most of the rest of your adult life in prison for the crime of protecting your life.

This is the living nightmare endured by CeCe McDonald, an African American transgender women who was charged with second-degree felony murder for defending herself against a hate crime.

After international pressure, an ongoing campaign of public protests and more than 15,000 petition signatures, on May 2, McDonald and her attorney were able to negotiate a plea agreement and get the charges against her reduced to second-degree manslaughter. McDonald is set to be sentenced to 42 months in prison on June 4, and her sentence will be reduced to one-third of that for good behavior.

McDonald's case demonstrates the power and necessity of struggle in achieving justice for oppressed people, and the obscene racism and transphobia at the core of America's criminal injustice system.

On June 5, 2011, McDonald and five of her friends--all queer or allied and African American--were going to a grocery store in the Minneapolis area. As they passed a local bar, a group of straight, white, cysgender people began hurling racist, homophobic and transphobic slurs, calling them "faggots," "niggers" and "chicks with dicks."

CeCe McDonald; photo taken on April 30, 2012
CeCe McDonald; photo taken on April 30, 2012 (Leslie Feinberg)

McDonald did what any victim of oppression should have the right to do--she stood her ground. McDonald approached her harassers and made it clear that violent hate speech was offensive, inappropriate and unacceptable.

One women lunged toward McDonald and smashed her glass mug into McDonald's face, puncturing her cheek all the way through and lacerating her salivary gland. The rest of the group joined in and began assaulting McDonald. At this point, her friends came to her defense and a fight ensued. In defending her life, McDonald stabbed one of the male attackers, Dean Schmitz. He later died in the hospital.

Schmitz was an open racist with a swastika tattoo on his chest, and he had a criminal record of abuse and violence toward his ex-girlfriend. But instead of dropping the case, the district attorney's office arrested, charged and prosecuted McDonald for second-degree murder.

In the run-up to the trial, she spent most of her time--nearly a year--in prison, and much of that time in solitary confinement for allegedly violating conditions of bail by smoking pot.

CECE'S CASE has been largely unreported by the mainstream national media, reinforcing the overall invisibility of trans people. Rather then treating hate-motivated violence toward trans people and people of color as a system-wide problem, it's treated as individual acts of bad behavior, if acknowledged at all.

Violence, harassment and bullying are permanent features of transgender life, whether at the hands of police or bigots, and this is disproportionately the case for trans women of color. According to a 2010 study, trans women made up the victims of nearly 40 percent of hate crimes in the U.S.

As McDonald's close friend Rai'vyn Cross explained on Democracy Now!: "We have encountered this every day of our lives...We experience this on a daily basis when we wake up, when we go to sleep, if it's in a public place or if it's just outside, period."

Violence and harassment are only one component of the multifaceted oppression experienced by trans people, and in particular trans people of color. In a society that enforces a rigid gender binary with little space for fluidity, where trans people and their lived experiences are rendered nearly invisible, and where there is zero federal protection for gender identity of expression in employment, housing, education, health care or public accommodations, it's no surprise that discrimination is a regular feature of trans life.

Compared to averages for the entire U.S. population, transgender people are 10 to 15 times more likely to be incarcerated, two to four times more likely to be physically or sexually assaulted while in prison or jail, and four times more likely to live in extreme poverty, with a household annual income of under $10,000.

Forty-seven percent of trans people have reported not getting a job due to their gender identity/presentation, 97 percent have experienced harassment at work or in school. Trans people are 25 times more likely to commit suicide and 16 times more likely to be murdered.

Nineteen percent of all trans people have reported being homeless, and over 40 percent of Black trans people have experienced homelessness. More than 50 percent of Black trans folks have reported being pushed into sex work or selling drugs in order to make an income at point in their life. Some 38 percent of African American trans folks report experiencing police harassment, 15 percent report being physically assaulted by police, and 7 percent report being sexually assaulted by police.

These statistics demonstrate that there can be no trans/queer justice without racial justice and vise versa. The oppressive realities of race, gender and sexual identity, and class are intersecting--the fight against them must be as well.

THE CRIMINAL injustice system's handling of McDonald's case demonstrates its inability to protect LGBTQ people and communities of color from violence and how it targets oppressed people when we fight back.

Contrast the experience of George Zimmerman with that of CeCe McDonald and the system's priorities become disturbingly clear. Murder an unarmed Black teenager, and don't worry about getting charged. Defend yourself against a racist transphobic hate crime that threatens your life, and expect to potentially spend the rest of your life in prison.

They want us to believe that CeCe McDonald is the exception, that Travyon Martin is the exception, that Oscar Grant is the exception--but they aren't. The only exception is that we know about them.

A reduced plea agreement is a victory for CeCe McDonald, but it doesn't go far enough. No oppressed person should spend even a day in jail for defending their life against hateful violence. McDonald should be freed and all charges dropped. The violence, racism and anti-queer bias of America's criminal injustice system is what must be put on trial.

Justice for queer people and people of color must be fought for in the streets, through protests, speak-outs, sit-ins, petitions and all other forms of collective resistance. CeCe McDonald put it best herself:

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.

You're damn right, CeCe. Never give up, and neither will we!

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