By: Keegan O’Brien*—
[This interview was originally published on www.SocialWorker.org]
CeCe McDonald faced life in prison for defending herself against a racist and transphobic hate crime in 2011. Supporters built up a nationwide campaign to raise awareness about her case and fight for her freedom. As result of ongoing pressure, CeCe was offered a plea deal which included pleading guilty to second-degree murder and accepting a 41-month prison sentence. She accepted the deal and was incarcerated in a men’s prison. She was released early on January 13, 2014.
Shortly after CeCe was released from prison, this writer had the privilege of interviewing her about her case, and the larger political issues it connected to. What follows is a story of bravery, resilience, and strength on the part of one woman, in the face of a system that sought to grind her down, and a discussion of the multifaceted issues, and structural obstacles that trans women, particularly African American, continue to face today.
Q: Why don’t we start with the attack itself: if you had the opportunity to tell people what happened that night, what would you like to say?
A: Well, a group of my friends and I were walking to the 24 hour grocery store around midnight. Prior to even getting into the incident we were stopped by the police for what he said was a noise complaint, but I knew that it was racial profiling because he clearly just drove by a bar that was open where a bunch of people were being loud and drunk and we were just down the street, walking, talking amongst ourselves.
So, as I was walking and talking with my boyfriend, some of my friends were up ahead, and as I was talking to him I saw this back and forth conversation going on between my friends and some people. I didn’t know if it was an argument or anything at the time. I’d just seen them talking, and then as I got closer to the scene, I saw this guy being really rude and making really hurtful, derogatory statements, saying things like we’re “chicks with d#@ks” and “you n#@@%rs need to go back to Africa.” It was just a lot for me. That was the first time that I ever dealt with racism like that. [pullquote]I’d just seen them talking, and then as I got closer to the scene, I saw this guy being really rude and making really hurtful, derogatory statements, saying things like we’re “chicks with d#@ks” and “you n#@@%rs need to go back to Africa.” It was just a lot for me. That was the first time that I ever dealt with racism like that.[/pullquote]
It was crazy how things happened after that. Eventually, everyone was arguing and I was just sitting there trying to figure it out, but a part of me knew that this whole situation was petty. These people were clearly drunk. As I was getting ready to walk off, this woman came out and yelled “I’ll take all you bitches on,” and she threw her drink at me and smashed her cup in my face. That’s how my face got lacerated, and that’s pretty much what initiated the whole big brawl. It was sad that things happened the way they did. Even when I reflect on that whole incident it just all could’ve been so preventable.
After the initial melee was over, and I was bloody and disoriented, just trying to figure things out, they started to pursue me again. I kept telling them that I didn’t want to fight no more and to please just leave me alone, but this same guy literally kept pursuing me. Other people were yelling at me to turn around, and then I did and here he came just angry and full of hate and anger and bitterness and full of drugs and alcohol. He went from walking, to almost jogging, to sprinting. I just felt like he was gonna really hurt me to the point that he was gonna try to kill me. So, I felt like at that point, I needed to defend myself, and my intentions weren’t to stab him; my intentions were to walk away. I was trying to be the bigger person in the situation and let it go.
Eventually, he caught up to me and I was walking with my back away from him, making sure that he wasn’t gonna try anything slick. Then, he was in reach, and so I pulled the scissors out and told him “I don’t wanna fight.” He looked down at them like he didn’t even care. It was like he was possessed, so I remember saying just one last time, “I don’t wanna fight” and he reached out, grabbed my hair, and was trying to pull me, like, yank me down. My reflexes kicked in. It was my initial reaction. I didn’t even know I had stabbed him; it was just a reaction of having to defend myself. Right after I stabbed him, he was like “bitch you stabbed me” and yelling “this bitch stabbed me.” So, I was like, I need to hurry up and leave because he’s crazy and he’s gonna do something really bad—like go get a gun or something. So I ran and waited in the store parking lot.
What’s sad is the police department is literally across the street from where the thing happened. This had all been going on for a good 15 to 20 minutes and none of the bystanders chose to call the police, not up until the point where he was stabbed. Why did it have to get to that point for anyone to call the police? The area we were in was a majority white, and has a history of being racist and very discriminatory and very bigoted, so it’s not surprising, but it’s sad.
So after I was standing in the parking lot for a while, the police came and I was like “Finally!” But, the first thing they did was get out of the car and arrest me! When I asked for what and they said, “Someone called in saying that someone was stabbed,” and I was like, “Yeah, clearly me!” My face was covered in blood. My clothes were covered in my blood! They were making it seem like I was the initial aggressor, and that was not at all the case. It was the exact opposite, but they instantly criminalized me!
I sat in the back of the police car still bleeding for 20 minutes before they decided to take me to the damn ambulance to take me to the hospital—and they still did a bad job helping me! Later on, I found out that after they sewed up my face there was no room for the saliva to go, so it wouldn’t go through my mouth and there was no way for it to come out. So, I was in extreme terrible, terrible pain and it really affected me because I couldn’t eat and couldn’t sleep.
Three days later is when I found out that they were charging me with murder and I had a full blown panic attack to the point that I blacked out. It was really freaking scary. I called everybody I knew; that’s how people got involved. A close friend of mine [name withheld] who was a caseworker connected me with someone who works for the Trans Youth Support Network. They pretty much were the keystones of this whole movement that got built up. It was a really, really troubling time for me and I had my ups and downs, so low that at one point I was on the brink of suicide. So, to have such loving and caring support from family and friends who you just encompassed me with, so much encouragement was a blessing, and it meant a lot. [pullquote]My face was covered in blood. My clothes were covered in my blood! They were making it seem like I was the initial aggressor, and that was not at all the case. It was the exact opposite, but they instantly criminalized me![/pullquote]
Eventually, when it came time for the trial process, they added another murder charge. So, I was looking at two murder charges for one person, and because they charged me with a second charge I was looking at 80 years! Honestly, that made [me] want to just give up, but I knew that I wanted to fight this for as long as I could, especially after knowing and educating myself about the prison industrial complex and how the system targets certain groups of marginalized people. I was inspired by that knowledge and decided that I wanted to be the person who fought this system, and to let them know that I wasn’t scared, and that I was gonna do whatever I need to make sure my voice was heard.
The first plea deal they gave me was eight years, but I was not trying to settle for any years. I felt like this jury of my peers wasn’t a jury of my peers at all, and it was really easy for these white people to find me guilty because I had already been criminalized from the beginning. But, I just stayed as strong as I could, and eventually they offered a second plea deal for 41 months, which I accepted, and when the day of sentencing came his family showed up. They were trying to make it seem like I was this evil person who took away this great and caring guy, and I felt like, yeah, he was a great, loving, caring person to you of course. You’re his family, but he wasn’t like that to me. What I faced was someone who wasn’t caring at all.
Q: What made you want to fight this case?
A: What initially inspired me to keep going was not wanting to be a victim of the system and feeling like I didn’t have to take what was given to me. But, then also educating myself about the criminal industrial complex and learning about the many people who were arrested and incarcerated for being strong, independent, influential leaders in revolutionary times, like in the 60s with the Black Panther Party and Stonewall. It made me feel like, if they can do it, then I can do it. I felt like I’m gonna need to fight for my rights too. I couldn’t just sit back and take what was given to me. Also, having the support of the Support Committee and my friends helped a lot too.
Q: How did it feel to have such widespread support from friends, family, the support network, and so many activists and organizations from across that country?
A: It made me feel really loved and cared about and supported. It made me feel like people didn’t just only care about me, but were passionate about the issues surrounding my case, issues like racism, trans misogyny, violence against women, violence [against] trans women, and the disproportionate targeting of certain groups of people. I knew that I was surrounded by people who weren’t just like, “I’ve done my duty. I’m done,” but were loving and caring and understanding and supportive and who were just really there for me.
I feel like it’s a blessing because a lot of people don’t have that, in or out of the system. It made me know that I am loved for who I am. Even through my mistakes, I’m still human, and that’s the kind of support I got from the support committee, and I knew they were going to support me no matter what. If there’s one thing I know in life through this whole experience, it’s that I do know what love is.
Q: What was prison like for you, specifically being a black trans woman incarcerated in a men’s prison? What did you have to put up with, and what do you want people to know about that experience?
A: I just feel like no matter what, prisons are bad for everybody. They are not just bad for trans people, they are bad for all people, and it wouldn’t be fair for me to make it seem like, “Oh, it’s so hard for me just as a trans woman,” because I’ve been around a lot of people who don’t deserve to be in prison at all. I can’t just take all the brunt and say prison was hard for me because I was trans, because no, prison is hard for everybody! We’ve all got our personal issues and have to do what we need to do to survive in there and be strong.
It’s not the right approach for people to sensationalize this story and say, oh, you were a trans woman in a men’s prison, or you were a woman in a men’s prison, or you were a trans woman in a women’s prison, or whatever, because at the end of the day all prisons are bad for all people—trans, cis, gay, straight, black, white, Asian, brown, purple, polka-dotted, striped, zebra, alien, or whatever! It’s just not good for anybody. Yes, I had my issues. I dealt with extra discrimination, extra scrutiny. I had to deal with things that other people wouldn’t have to deal with in prison because I was a trans woman in a men’s prison. Of course, it was upsetting and it was hard.
But, I was blessed to have the support of a team that was willing to support me in this fight against the system, because not everyone in there had that. Not everyone had support, or someone to help them, or be there for them, to protect them, or to understand them, or get them in touch with the right resources. I was blessed to have that, and you know not everyone in prison has that. So yes, I can say how hard it was for me, but what about the two million Americans in prison who are in there wrongfully or for petty charges or because of the criminalization of everything? There are men and women who have been in there for days, years, even decades. What about them? [pullquote]It’s not the right approach for people to sensationalize this story and say, oh, you were a trans woman in a men’s prison, or you were a woman in a men’s prison, or you were a trans woman in a women’s prison, or whatever, because at the end of the day all prisons are bad for all people—trans, cis, gay, straight, black, white, Asian, brown, purple, polka-dotted, striped, zebra, alien, or whatever![/pullquote]
It’s easy for me to talk about my story, but there are so many more like me who have been targeted and discriminated against. So yes, I can talk about how hard it was for me, but the overall picture is how hard it is for all of us, how hard it is for the people who are still in there, how hard it is for their families, how hard is it for our communities whose tax dollars are paying for this whole corrupt system.
Q: What do you want people to learn from your story and your decision to fight for justice?
A: What happened in my case is a blueprint for the LGBTQI community, African American community, cisgender community, and white community, on how to be collective and how to be a team. My case showed how so many people can come together from different backgrounds and different groups and contribute to a cause in whatever way they could. There were so many different aspects to this movement, and it made the organizing so much more dynamic.
It could have been easy for just one group to get involved and make it their issue, like the Black community, or the trans community, or the women’s community, or the feminist community. What I liked is that so many different groups of people came together, were willing to put apart their differences, learn more about each other, and do something about this issue. I feel like this case showed the power of collective thinking, and it showed that different communities can come together and fight—just like they did for the Trayvon Martin case and the Monica Jones case.
It showed that everyone can do something when they acknowledge some bull$#*t, or see an injustice going on. It doesn’t have to be a trans person that points out an injustice or stands up and does something. We can all do that, just like we can all stand up for each other’s issues. When we’re being targeted, people tend to stick to what they know, whether that’s race or gender or whatever, but this showed people how to put aside their personal issues and come together and address a bigger issue. As long as people decide to keep segregating and separating themselves from the rest of the world, and allow ignorance and hatred to keep us apart, then we’ll never be able to come together as community and expand our horizons to addressing the bigger issues going on.
Q: Trans women experience the highest rates of violence, incarceration, unemployment, and violence out of all groups in the LGBTQ community. Can you talk to me about why this is, and what needs to happen for this to change?
A: I think a lot of it has to do with ignorance. What people don’t know, they fear. I also think our society tries to dehumanize us and demoralize us and delegitimize us as trans women. Given all of this, it’s easy to see why people want to discriminate against us and don’t want to take us seriously or see us as people. I’ve been to so many interviews and job fairs where I can tell just by the way the person is looking at me that they aren’t going to hire me just because of the way I look and who I am. That tends to put trans women in these predicaments where they feel like they can only do what society is saying is available to them or what they know best. That’s why so many trans women end up getting involved in sex work or drug dealing. Especially when you have no money, people tend to get involved in these kinds of things. Our society keeps putting women, and trans women, in these positions that are dangerous and detrimental. Its all connected to how our society dismisses trans women and tells people that we are less than human. [pullquote]Our society keeps putting women, and trans women, in these positions that are dangerous and detrimental. Its all connected to how our society dismisses trans women and tells people that we are less than human.[/pullquote]
Once we start to attach humility and understanding to how we are looked at as trans women, and can provide us with rights, and stop criminalizing all these things in our society, then we can start to show trans women that things can be better. Now there are starting to be more strong, influential trans women role models in our society. They are showing us that we don’t need to fall into these stereotypes and that it’s possible for transwomen to become a doctor or a lawyer or whatever. At the end of the day the most important thing is that we need to start showing people that we are human too, and we deserve to be able to work and go to school, and we deserve all the things that any other human being would want.
Q: Now that you’re out of prison, what are your plans for the future?
A: Well, I’m just trying to pick up all the pieces of my life and get myself back on track. I’m in the process of getting back into school and looking for work, but I’m also still advocating for issues surrounding violence against trans women and women. I’m also focusing on issues in the African American community and in the LGBTQI community, issues like incarceration and homelessness. There’s so much that I want to do. I want to get involved in the Monica Jones case and show her that I support her as a trans woman, and an African American trans woman, and as her sister I want to show her that I understand what she’s going through. I just want to keep advocating and sharing this voice and my story with people who will listen.
I also want to tell everybody that they should get involved, because you’re making a difference. You’re making a difference for yourself and for someone else and for our future generations. I feel like the revolution is now. We are a generation that’s making change, and what we do now will affect the kind of world that our children and grandchildren will inherit.
And, I just wanna let people that feel alone and feel that nobody cares about them know that here is at least one person in this world that cares about them and is willing to be there for them, and that’s me. Even if it’s somebody I just met that day, it doesn’t matter. If that person needs love and positive energy and they can’t get it from nowhere else, they can get it from me. I feel like that’s one of the reasons I’ve been put on this planet—to extend love and positive energy to others.
*Richard Aviles helped with this transcription.
* This interview was originally posted on www.SocialistWorker.org.
To learn more about CeCe’s case or help contribute to the upcoming documentary, Free CeCe, go to http://freececedocumentary.net/.