Cece McDonald stood up to bigots and survived a hate crime. Now she’s in the county jail waiting to be tried for second degree murder. This is a story about intersectionality – what happens when a young trans woman of color goes up against white supremacy, misogyny and transphobia. It’s a story about what happens when you have to fight for your life.
It began last June, the night of the 5th, when Cece and her friends – all young, black and queer – decided that they wanted to walk to the grocery store. The grocery store in question is in south Minneapolis just off Lake Street, the busy, polluted, vital artery running from the wealthy white neighborhoods by the lakes through blocks of working class, multiracial, immigrant businesses before it ends in upmarket gentrification at the river. To get to the store, the group had to walk past a dive bar called the Schooner. Dean Schmitz and his friends were standing outside the Schooner’s side door. All were older – Dean was 47 – and all were white. When they saw CeCe and her friends walk by, they started yelling – “faggots” “chicks with dicks” “n*****s” – a litany of vile abuse targeted at a group of much younger strangers. CeCe McDonald has a strong sense of justice – she decided to confront Dean and his friends. So she and her group walked toward the bar.
Before we go any further, let’s talk about CeCe. She’s 23, a college student in fashion design, a trans woman, Black, femme, very funny and widely known to be a generous person – a woman who housed and took care of her chosen family of younger queer and trans folks. Her friends call her Honee Bea. CeCe is someone who fights for social change who even from jail has been urging her supporters to help other victims of white supremacy – including the family of Jaime Gonzalez, who was killed by the Texas police while he was at school. She is someone who has faith in herself, in her community, in her values. “Love is inevitable and overcomes any and all things,” she writes. CeCe and her friends are brave and tough, strong enough to walk around being visible in a world that attacks and criminalizes you if you’re young and African-American, and doubles the assault if you’re young and African-American and trans and femme.
You probably know – if you’re trans you definitely know – that trans women of color face incredible, staggering rates of violence and homicide. In most places it is essentially legal to discriminate against trans people in housing, employment and social services. As a result, trans people, especially trans women, are socially vulnerable in all kinds of ways – and vulnerable turns into “criminalized”, whether it’s because you can’t change your legal documents to match your gender or because you’re homeless and panhandling or because you’re doing sex work to make the rent…or because you have to fight to keep yourself safe. Trans people are ten to fifteen times more likely to have been incarcerated than cis people. Nearly half of all African-American trans people have spent time in the prison system. Seventy percent of the GLBTQ people murdered in 2010 were people of color. Forty-four percent were trans women. If you’re vulnerable, you have to wonder – will someone assault you? Will you survive? Will anyone help you? That’s a pretty heavy thing to carry around in the back of your mind every day.
CeCe and her friends knew the statistics, but they still dared to rebuke hatred when it spoke. They walked up the Dean Schmitz and his group, and CeCe told him that her crew would not tolerate hate speech. But hatred hits back. One of Dean Schmitz’s friends told them, “I’ll take you bitches on,” and smashed her glass into Cece’s face, puncturing her cheek and badly lacerating her salivary gland. There was a fight. Multiple people were involved. At the end, CeCe was on the ground in a pool of her own blood. Dean Schmitz was dead.
When the cops came, Cece was the only one they arrested. They took her to jail, withheld medical treatment, and sometime in the small hours got her to sign a confession. She recanted it as soon as she was able to do so. Later, the medical examiner discovered a swastika tattoo on Dean Schmitz’s body. Let’s talk about white supremacy, because this it haunts this case. White supremacy is a system, and it runs on routine plus terror. The routine is the dull grind of discrimination – the stop-and-frisks of youth of color in the hope of finding something to get their fingerprints are in the system, the heavy policing in black neighborhoods and the heavy discipline in schools when kids of color are involved, the biased, expensive court system, the unspoken but obvious job discrimination and always, always the white supremacist narrative in mainstream culture saying that people of color deserve what they get. And then there’s terror. Whether it’s the Jim Crow South or the modern North, it’s the knowledge that at any time you can be attacked, hurt, killed and no one will do anything. That your body, your life, your friends’ lives could always be on the line. Terror keeps the machine humming. If you act up – if you talk back – anything might happen to you.
An interesting thing about prosecutor Michael Freeman: in the last year, he’s dropped charges against three people who killed accidentally while fighting for their lives. But he’s leaning on CeCe to plead guilty, and he initially persuaded the court to set her bail at an outrageous $500,000 – as if CeCe, the injured survivor of a hate crime, was some kind of risk to her community. The court system isn’t neutral. If you haven’t been on the wrong end of the legal system, it’s very easy to assume that the courts will sort everything out. Privileged people – white people, middle class people, cis people – can grow up identifying with the court system and with the idea of “neutrality” – especially when articulate white men in nice suits are talking. Something happened, privileged folks think, and the courts will figure it out, they’ll assign blame correctly, someone will pay a debt to society, and all’s well that ends well.
Here is what really happens: CeCe is in jail. Visiting is severely restricted, so getting a trans activist in to see her so that her friends can find her a trans-friendly lawyer is difficult. That lawyer has to work for free, because CeCe doesn’t have enough money and neither do her friends, and all her support committee’s money is going for bail. It takes a month to get meaningful treatment for injuries from the night of the attack, so her cheek swells up with a lump the size of a golf ball. She gets put in solitary “for her own protection” – which means ‘because she’s trans’ – and the support committee has to organize call-ins to get her out. It’s easier and cheaper for the court system when people plead guilty, and it results in a politically-useful higher conviction rate. In the United States, the number of plea-bargains has skyrocketed in the last two decades and the number of actual trials has gone way down. This is how the courts get people to take a plea – prisoners get tired and worn and confused and low in spirits, so they plead guilty just for a little certainty and an end to the ordeal. And many, many of those are people of color.
This isn’t just about CeCe. It’s about the way young women are harassed and assaulted every day in every city. It’s about the way trans women are treated as disposable and the way black youth are criminalized. It’s about the constant social violence by which white supremacy, transphobia and misogyny are maintained. And it’s about whose experience counts. When we believe CeCe, we’re saying that we hear trans women, we hear youth of color and we believe what they say about their own lives. We name racism, we name violence, we name prejudice – and we refuse them with all the strength we have.
We need to get the charges against CeCe dropped. There’s precedent, the prosecutor has the authority and a victory here would be a victory for so many people – for CeCe, for her community and friends, for youth of color and trans youth who face violence and hatred. To do this, we need to get Michael Freeman to listen. We need voices. We need media. We need to make it clear to Michael Freeman that this case is visible – we aren’t going to forget about CeCe no matter how often the trial gets moved, and we aren’t going to forget about any miscarriage of justice, either. You can call Michael Freeman at 612-348-5540, fax at 612-348-2042, and email at email@example.com
For more information and new developments: www.supportcece.wordpress.com. You can sign the petition calling for Michael Freeman to drop CeCe’s charges here.
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