Singled Out but Not Alone: CeCe McDonald and the fight against the Prison Industrial Complex

Editors note: Josina Manu Maltzman is a member of the CeCe Support Committee. Josina also helped facilitate and rode in the Swarm On Honee Bea. St Cloud prison officials used the ride as a pretext to put the prison on lock-down. For more on the ride go to the facebook event and see the press release written by the riders in response to the lock-down.

by Josina Manu Maltzman

On the night CeCe McDonald was arrested, she was not an activist. CeCe didn’t attend meetings and she had no political agenda; the only struggle she engaged in was for her daily survival. She and others in her community, and the many others like them, were “deviants” in their very act of existence, and the moment her attacker died that night – leaving her alive – she became a criminal because of it.

CeCe’s story has been repeated in blogs and tweets, and “liked” on Facebook by the thousands. The truth is that her story is not unusual, which is why it has spread like wildfire. Many people across the globe can identify with her experience, in part or in whole, because so many of us are deviants and so many of us struggle to survive. And here, in a country that holds 1.6 million of its citizens in penitentiaries1 (more than any other country in the world), many of us know very personally the affects incarceration has on our own wellbeing, on our families, and our communities.

As a child she, like many African American children growing up in the 80’s til today, had a close family member in prison. And just as institutions in the U.S. are set up, her track to prison was literally paved with federal money. With public funding diverted from welfare and education programs, and towards over-policing underserved communities, prison subsidies, and stricter sentencing guidelines, the very fact that CeCe is Black and poor made it especially likely that she would be entrenched in the criminal legal system before she was thirty.

Combine these odds: The number of women incarcerated has increased by 800 percent over the last three decades. And while women of color have been disproportionately represented, Black women are eight times more likely than non-Black women to be in prison2. Additionally, 35% of Black trans people report being arrested or held in a cell due to bias at some point in their lives3.CeCe exists at the cross hairs of these numbers. And because one in three Black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime4, it can be argued that she and generations of American Blacks are being railroaded into a genocidal Prison Industrial Complex.

In the month that CeCe’s trial went to court, in April 2012, there were three murders of Black trans women in the U.S.6. But CeCe stands out as a survivor not only because her attacker was fatally stabbed (instead of her); it’s also due to the groundswell of support that would not allow her disappearance into an unjust legal system.

In the early hours of June 5th, 2011, CeCe was detained by police, interrogated, and denied proper medical attention for the laceration on her face (caused by the initial attack by drunk racist trans-phobes outside of a Minneapolis bar). Soon she was charged with second-degree murder, without intent. Held in isolation and bereft of resources, she called a caseworker that she hoped would have connections.

Minneapolis has a network of social service organizations aimed at helping homeless and at-risk queer youth. Some advocates in the network operate from a “having been there” perspective, so there exists a remarkable community that links generations. Luckily this caseworker did know a person to call: a local trans activist/advocate at TYSN, the Trans Youth Support Network. In turn an impromptu telephone and social networking tree was ignited, sparking outrage in queers of color, prison abolitionists, social justice activists, white queers, anarchists…. anyone with life in their body and an anti-racist breath in their lungs responded to the call, to rally for CeCe McDonald.

Within a month the Legal Rights Center took her case, a non-profit firm that represents, for free, low-income and people of color. Between July 2011 and April of 2012, demonstrations were held outside the courthouse on every hearing date, a fundraising campaign got into full swing, social media links were established, and full-on media and legal campaigns were launched. All of these elements were strengthened and developed over that period, with a consistent support base fluctuating between about 5 – 15 people volunteering their time, love and energy to the effort. Of those core people, only a few had experience navigating the legal system or providing support for someone incarcerated.

It is imperative to understand that the sole factor differentiating CeCe’s situation from the hundreds (if not thousands) of others like hers, is the fact that her case moved out of isolation and into the spotlight. This had a reciprocal, circular affect on CeCe in prison. The in-pouring of letters from allies who could identify with her made a direct impact on her ability to withstand her situation, just as her survival had become a symbol of perseverance for others to cling to. This was a larger, blown-up version of how she operated in her family community prior to the violent attack. CeCe was always the Mother Hen, the caretaker, the Honee Bea. She always shared what she had until it was gone, starved with the people she loved, and found a reason to laugh about it. She lived knowing in her blood that we all need each other; that our survival is connected, and our strongest weapon is love.

It was this clarity that stuck with her throughout the ordeal of pre-trial hearings and preparing for her case. Such as when the Hennepin County DA’s office retaliated against her for not taking an initial plea bargain by adding an additional second-degree murder with intent charge on top of the original – a combined sentence of over forty years. This is a common tactic of the prosecution, to push for plea agreements from defendants who – guilty or not – often accept for fear of serving harsh (often mandatory) sentences for the original charge. Ninety-five percent of all convictions never go to trial because defendants are greased through a well-oiled system of getting people into prisons as quickly as possible6. Most defendants never see a lawyer, and the ones that do are often advised to accept pleas by court appointed attorneys they have met with only a matter of minutes prior to making the decision of their lives. Most defendants don’t have the legion of supporters and advocates like the ones CeCe knew were there for her. The psychological affect of this, combined with the measurable gains that a support system granted her, were critical factors in steering her situation towards a direction different than where the penal system “destined” for her to go.

When the prosecution approached CeCe a final time on the last day of jury selection with a much-reduced offer of a second-degree manslaughter charge and 41 months, CeCe had a keen understanding of what she was up against and what she was gambling. She had watched as the judge ruled key defense evidence as inadmissible, such as the swastika tattoo on the deceased’s chest and his prior convictions of domestic violence. She watched her lawyer argue for the court to allow expert testimony that would explain transsexual identity to the jury, as well as the climate of violence against trans people in our society – and she watched as the judge ruled against it. CeCe sat through hours of questions to potential jurors about trans people and people of color, all meant to weed out -phobes and racists, which proved to be a grand display of the hatred and ignorance that many people have towards trans people of color.

It is daunting to see so illustratively how U.S. society is designed to disenfranchise and mass-incarcerate people of color, and how trans women of color are particularly vulnerable to such mechanisms. But CeCe’s situation shows a glimmer of hope not only for her, but also for the future of intersectional organizing. National LGB(and sometimes)T organizations are being forced to reckon with the needs of the poor, trans and people of color not recognized in their mission for equality. Communities of color and longstanding fighters for prison abolition are finding new allies in the struggle, and becoming allies to the trans people, queers and gender deviants in their midst. Cambodian Human Rights lawyer Kanal Khiev cited CeCe McDonald as an inspiration, and anarcha-feminist groups in Berlin march under a FREE CECE banner at gay pride. All of this amounts to the dawning of a cultural shift necessary to battle, head-on, the systemic injustices of racism and criminalization in our world today.

At this moment, CeCe McDonald is being held in the Minnesota Correctional Facility – St. Cloud. Just as the movement grew for her, she was greatly moved…to identify herself as a victim in the Prison Industrial Complex, and to claim a role in that cultural shift: in the name of trans justice, racial justice, and prison abolition. Just as CeCe knows her liberation is bound to the liberation of her fellow incarcerates, we too can fight towards a common liberation, with love in our hearts.

  1. ProPublica http://www.propublica.org/article/by-the-numbers-the-u.s.s-growing-for-profit-detention-industry
  2. Center for American Progress http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2012/03/13/11351/the-top-10-most-startling-facts-about-people-of-color-and-criminal-justice-in-the-united-states/
  3. Injustice at Every Turn: A look at Black Respondents in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, coalition report by the National Black Justice Coalition, National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 9/8/11
  4. Center for American Progress http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2012/03/13/11351/the-top-10-most-startling-facts-about-people-of-color-and-criminal-justice-in-the-united-states/
  5. Coko Williams, 4/3/12, Detroit MI. Paige Clay, 4/12/21, Chicago Ill. Brandy Martell, 4/29/12 Oakland, CA. All unsolved homicides as of 10/2/2012.
  6. High Court Expands Defendants’ Plea Bargain Rights, Nina Totenberg, March 21st, 2012, NPR http://www.npr.org/2012/03/21/149093334/high-court-throws-out-conviction-in-bad-lawyer-case
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