By Emily Duma
On June 5th, 2011, a young African American trans woman named CeCe McDonald was walking to the grocery store with friends (all young, African American and queer or allied.) As they passed a local bar, a group of older white people standing outside starting yelling racist and transphobic slurs at them without provocation. When Cece told them she would not tolerate hate speech, one of the woman smashed her glass into CeCe’s face, cutting her cheek all the way through and lacerating her salivary gland. A fight ensued, during which one of the attackers, Dean Schmitz, was fatally stabbed. CeCe was the only one charged in the incident. Although acting only in self defense, Cece has now been falsely accused of murder.
I could go on and on about the injustices CeCe faced while in the system – how she was not given proper medical attention, so her cheek swelled up to the size of a golfball, how she was placed in solitary confinement for an extended amount of time (widely considered to be a form of torture) and how the system completely disregarded her gender identity and held her in a men’s prison. I could spout off facts about the disproportional amount of violence faced by transgendered individuals in our society (the murder rate is 10 times higher for transgender people than cis-gendered, and a study conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 26 percent of transgender folks had experienced physical assault due to their gender identity, and over half had experienced serious discrimination) particularly transgendered individuals of color, and rant and rave about how if CeCe had been a cis-gendered white woman she would easily have been credited with self defense and likely never charged in the first place. If you want to learn more about any and all of these things, please check out www.supportcece.wordpress.com. However, what I want to write about is the role of community in the case, and how we can and must be in community with our brothers and sisters behind bars if we have any intention of achieving collective liberation.
Since moving to Minneapolis, CeCe has surrounded me. I learned about her in passing from friends and on facebook, and was reminded of her daily as I biked past one of the “free cece!” murals that sprouted up all over town. This case has been present in the minds of many due to the remarkable work of the Free CeCe support committee, who have worked tirelessly over the past 11 months to care for CeCe, through letter writing, awareness, and trial support. They circulated a country-wide petition to drop the charges that garnered 18,000+ signatures, and, when it was clear that CeCe would be tried by a jury, they organized community engagement, a press core, and packed the court room. It was at this point that we Rye House-rs got involved. We attended community meetings and brought lunch to those sitting in solidarity in the courtroom. After we found out the CeCe had accepted a plea deal for a charge of second degree manslaughter (understandable in that now she would be sentenced to just 48 months in prison in comparison to 80 years she was originally charged, but still tragic, since any amount of time served will be penalty for a crime CeCe didn’t commit) we were part of a solidarity noise demo outside of the prison in which we yelled, chanted and danced so the prisoners would know we had not forgotten them. Apparently, CeCe could hear us, and I could see other prisoners responding and (hopefully) feeling our love.
I wish that every prisoner in the system today had a support committee like CeCe. As I learn more and more about the sustaining power of community, I see how my housemates’ love, accountability and belief in me allows me to grow in ways I never thought possible. In our criminal justice system, we somehow expect that people, many of whom have been marginalized by our society their entire lives will be transformed into “productive” citizens by the exact opposite of this – shame, violence and isolation. Prisons cost us $60 billion dollars a year and are based in a criminal justice system that is racist, classist and sexist. It does not heal people, but rather inflicts trauma on their bodies and their minds. Prisoners are exploited – companies can contract with prisons to use prison labor, paying inmates just 23 cents to $1.15 an hour. And above all, the incarceration of millions has done very little to deter future crime or promote safety. People are still afraid of young black men in hoodies. Families are still torn apart by violence.
Maybe someday I’ll write a newsletter article about prison abolition. For now, I just want to highlight the story of one individual so that we can turn the lens inward, look deeply at our society and ourselves, and start to question what it means to stand in solidarity with CeCe and her 2.3 million imprisoned brethren here in the United States. By demanding justice and accountability in the way we charge people with crimes, we can influence the way oppression and privilege play out in our criminal justice system. We can support prison reform movements that call for fairer practices, prison alternatives, and community accountability. We can stretch ourselves in terms of what it means to feel safe, and rely on love and trust rather than fear. And, we can write a letter to CeCe. Or to any other prisoner to learn more about their story and share our mutual humanity.
“Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on the earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
-Eugene V Debs