The Incarceration of CeCe McDonald: A Threat to Justice Everywhere

This was posted on the IOW blog on Monday, on MLK Day. I am going to post it in full on here because I think it’s very important that as many people as possible be informed about CeCe’s case.

On a cold night in December, a crowd of people filled a Minneapolis church with purpose and reflection. We were, all of us shoulder to shoulder in the crowded pews, moved to join this space in defense of justice, in defense of CeCe McDonald. After a spaghetti dinner, speakers—including CeCe’s lawyer, poet Andrea Jenkins, and activist/academic, Rose Brewer—galvanized us powerfully with their words, reminding us that CeCe’s case is one about white supremacy and heteropatriarchy verses the oppressed–with the odds, as usual, in favor of the former.

CeCe McDonald is an African-American transwoman who is described as “a wise, out-spoken, and welcoming person, with a cheerful disposition and a history of handling prejudice with amazing grace.” On June 5th, her life was forever altered. On the night in question, CeCe and two of her friends were walking to a local grocery store to get food. They passed a group of three white people—two women and one man—who began verbally harassing them, calling her and her friends “‘faggots,’ ‘niggers,’ and ‘chicks with dicks,’ and suggested that CeCe was ‘dressed as a woman’ in order to ‘rape’ Dean Schmitz, one of the attackers.”

One of the white women, the first to engage in physical violence, slashed CeCe’s cheek with a beer bottle. A fight ensued with several people joining in. During the chaotic altercation, Schmitz was fatally stabbed. His death is now being blamed on CeCe, who was first held in jail in solitary confinement, later transferred to a psychiatric ward, released briefly on bail, then returned to prison. It took two months for the prison to provide medical treatment to CeCe’s cheek wound, which, at that point, had grown into a “painful, golf-ball size lump.” CeCe has been officially charged with second-degree murder and will be charged in court on April 30, 2012.

I want to be shocked by this, but I am not. Horrified, yes, but not shocked. I want to wonder with sincerity how the fact that this altercation began — because of racism and transphobia could be ignored by the police and the courts — but I don’t. I don’t wonder because I realized, perhaps not so long ago, that we live in a white supremacist, heteropatriarchal world, and that whether the news tells us or not, things like this happen every single day. According to studies done by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, “Low-income trans people are exposed to arrest, police harassment, incarceration and violence far more than the average person.” [2]

For example, in a study from the late 90s:

  • 83% of FTMs and 85% of MTFs report verbal abuse because of their gender identity or gender presentation
  • 30% of FTMs and 37% of MTF report experiencing physical violence
  • 46% of FTMs and 57% report employment discrimination [3]

As a white, cisgender ally, I often feel paralyzed with the weight of complicity in this reality. Even as I go through life as an anti-racist activist with an anti-racist consciousness, I am complicit because I use privilege on a daily basis without knowing it. And that privilege is what maintains white supremacy, and what enacts this cycle of violence.

But the last thing this world needs is a bunch of white people, rendered useless by their privilege. I learned a hard lesson about white-guilt in college when a Puerto Rican Independentista professor of mine — who would later become my role-model and mentor — basically told me she didn’t have time to console me for feeling bad about gentrifying a Latino neighborhood in Chicago. White guilt is not only counter-productive, but it also centers the white individual over the racist system, and energy that could be used for participating in struggle and resistance, is used instead on personal self-flagellation.

So what can we do as allies? What can we do to defend CeCe specifically, and fight this broken racist, transphobic system, more generally? For CeCe’s case, I urge you to please consider hosting a fundraiser, writing her a letter in jail, and/or hosting an event to discuss the case and continue education about white supremacy. More information on how to get involved can be found on the Support CeCe McDonald website.

And as for the larger struggle, I don’t have all the answers, but after years of learning from resistors that came before me, I have some ideas. I think it’s important that we never let our ostensible insignificance stop us from working for change. To do this, we must acknowledge that while we as individuals may be insignificant, that if we organize together for change, we can build power and a movement that ends these gross injustices. We must remember the ways that oppression is connected, and that even our privilege cannot save us from being violenced by the system, albeit in ways unique to others. We must remain outraged enough to fight.

And on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, we must remember: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”


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