Cece McDonald and Trans Prisoners of Color in the Prison Industrial Complex

Cece McDonald is a 23 year old black trans woman who was with friends one summer night in 2011 in Minneapolis, MN when she and her friends were attacked by white people who were obviously racist and transphobic, based on a swastika tattoo and language used that night. The fight left Cece severely wounded by a glass to her face and one of the attackers dead.

The fight began when the white supremacists began yelling racial and transphobic slurs at the friends as they were passing a bar at about 12:20am. The attack became physical when one of the white supremacists put a gash in Cece’s face with a glass, damaging Cece’s saliva gland. It is believed by prosecutors that Cece then fatally stabbed one of her attackers.

Cece was charged with two counts of 2nd degree murder. Upon her arrest, Cece was denied adequate medical treatment for her wound, interrogated for hours, and put in solitary confinement. The woman who assaulted Cece was not arrested or charged.

Cece has recently taken a plea deal of 2nd degree manslaughter with a recommended sentence of 41 months. You read that right: she is being punished for almost three and a half years for defending her own life. Cece’s pre-trial phase was telling as to how the trial would have gone, including the judge letting in past criminal history (a bad check!) for Cece but not for certain witnesses for the prosecution, hedging on whether the swastika tattoo can be admitted into evidence, etc. Notably as well, the prosecutor, Michael Freeman, had recently dropped charges in similar cases where it was a case of self-defense but did not do so in this case. In court, Cece had to recount the events of her attack and listen to the judge tell her that by pulling the scissors out of her purse as her attacker chased her down unlawfully endangered her attacker.

The disparity in Cece’s case vs other similar self-defense cases is shocking at first glance, but less so when you look deeper into the ways the prison industrial complex operates to marginalize, stigmatize, harass, and vilify gender-non-conforming people. When trans women or trans men do not take an apologetic tone when confronted with racism or transphobia (or both), punishment is often excessive. Incidents can range from verbal abuse, to physical assault, to unequal protections afforded by people with the authority to offer it- including school administrators, police, medical professionals, human services professionals, security guards, supervisors, and others.

According to a recent study done by The National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force called “Injustice at Every Turn”, transgender folks, and especially those of color, are often targeted by police and the criminal justice system in general. 38% of black trans respondents in the study reported police harassment, 15% reported physical assault by police, and 7% reported sexual assault by police.

One cannot ignore the huge part that race plays in this. Beyond the fact that part of the provocation to begin with was racial insults, Cece’s mistreatment once in custody of police speaks volumes. And yet, it is not outside of the bounds of what happens on a regular basis in the prison industrial complex when you’re not white. In the “Injustice at Every Turn” study, a full 7% of the respondents report being arrested due to their gender identity or expression alone. This figure skyrocketed for black respondents at 41% and for Latino/a respondents at 21%.

Intersections of gender and race in the prison industrial complex bring to light many intricate problems with the whole idea of incarceration. When the systems that are said to protect and serve are shown so clearly to be fraudulent, one must wonder what the role of the prison industrial complex really is. For more on this, visit the RedBird Prison Abolition website and read some prisoner writings, find a few books on the subject, and become more involved.

Cece’s supporters were very successful in raising a ton of noise about this trial to get it noticed but she still needs strong support, as her sentencing will take place June 4th at 1:30pm. Cece has been in jail for almost a year now. She needs your moral support, financial help, and if possible, your presence in court at her sentencing.

A reasonable resolution to Cece’s case will not solve the overall transphobic and racist tendencies in the prison industrial complex, but supporting Cece is a good first step toward a broader network of support for all prisoners, especially those who are transgender.