A crowd of rowdy, jeering, older white men in night-time Minneapolis, including a vicious racist with a swastika tattooed on his chest, closely surrounded the slight, feminine 23-year old Black trans woman. Shouts of "faggot" and "nigger" and "I'll take you bitches on" echoed in the air as they moved in on her. They punctured her cheek open, all the way through to the salivary gland, with broken glass.
Her blood spurted down her face and splashed onto the ground.
Dozens of times every year, trans women die, particularly trans women of color, bloodied and battered, as victims of transphobic assaults. The police rarely bother to find their torturers. Working class and poor trans women of color are street garbage to many police officers, and there is little glory or reward in tracking down their killers. They die as they lived, considered non-humans by a cruel society, forced to fight for scraps in order to survive, doing the dirtiest and most menial of jobs or fending for themselves in the shadow economy of the night, not worth shedding a tear over, while the rest of us go about our days.
But this is not the story of CeCe McDonald. No, Cece McDonald was a fighter. She was not going to be another victim. She fought for her life, as hard as she could, and instead of going down in a pool of blood and seeing, with her last dying vision, a gleeful crowd of haters stabbing and punching the life out of her. She moved fast, as fast as she could.
She became a victim nonetheless.
At the end of those fateful seconds, one of her attempted murderers lay dead. As she fled down the street, chased by racist Dean Schmitz, she took a pair of scissors out of her purse, and turned to face him. He ran headlong into the scissors and fell. CeCe had triumphed over death, she had held onto her life with a fierce, unyielding grip.
But she who had vowed not to become a victim was made into a victim -- a victim of a prosecutorial system that charged her with murder and a court system that ruled against her so harshly that she took a plea deal rather than face 40 years in jail. I am outraged.
The murder trial of CeCe McDonald, a trans woman of color, began this week, and ended this week, when she pled guilty to second degree manslaughter today, according to a member of her support team. She will reportedly face 41 months in prison at her sentencing hearing next month. Many defendants are pressured into plea deals when facing hyper-aggressive charges. In this case, Ms. McDonald faced 40 years in prison under Minnesota's second degree murder charge. The judge's rulings against her on the evidence were also likely determining factors in her decision. These would have allowed in the gruesomely bloody shirt of the victim, but not his swastika tattoo, her own bad check conviction, but not the theft convictions of the witnesses against her. She also would have had to face the likely transphobia of the jury. Did you know that it is still legal in Minnesota to exclude people from a jury because they're gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender?
There was no media coverage, discussing how she bravely stood her ground. There are no political discussion TV shows with experts and lawyers explaining the law of self-defense. There are no New York Times or Los Angeles op-eds decrying the violence by the state against CeCe McDonald. I am outraged.
Who is Cece McDonald? CeCe is a creative and energetic person who, before her life was so unjustly interrupted, was studying fashion at MCTC. She had a stable home where she lived with and helped support four other African American youth, her family. CeCe's family describes her as a leader, a role model, and a loyal friend. She is known as a wise, out-spoken, and welcoming person, with a cheerful disposition and a history of handling prejudice with amazing grace. Read about CeCe in her own words here.
But now she will be a prisoner in a system that routinely subjects trans people to danger from other inmates, places trans women in male prisons, and often solitary confinement "for their own safety." How will it serve the world to have her spend the next four years in prison, subject to the petty bullying of state correctional officials with little understanding of transgender identity? Does this serve justice, to have a person attacked by vicious bigots intent on severe bodily injury, likely snuffing out her life, bravely defending herself against victimhood, to become a victim of a state that cares little for the facts, except that it can put another Black transgender woman behind bars?
The hyper-aggressive prosecution charged her with second-degree murder, which carries a long, long prison sentence of 40 years. Murder means intentional killing -- and there's no evidence here of intent. Manslaughter would have been a more rational charge to begin with, a killing that occurs because of recklessness, which would include an improper self-defense. Then the plea deal would have involved perhaps a year in jail. Does anyone recall the attempted murder charge against the Jena 6 because they kicked someone in a fight with their sneakers? After a national outcry, the "justice" system reduced the charge to a proper one. But we aren't seeing major media coverage here. It's probably not "human interest" enough as a story in the prejudiced minds of the public. I am outraged.
According to reports from the courtroom, the judge excluded from the trial the deceased's criminal record, which includes three assault convictions. Dean Schmitz was convicted of assaulting his ex-girlfriend, his ex-girlfriend's 14-year old daughter and his ex-girlfriend's father. He is said to have excluded the swastika tattoo on Schmitz's chest, proof of his history of hatred, violence and bigotry, but allow a prejudicial photo of the victim's blood-soaked T-shirt, which adds nothing to the determination of whether this was self-defense or murder. The judge is said to have excluded an expert witness to testify about climate of violence transgender people navigate in Minneapolis and nationally, while other defense experts are still awaiting the judge's ruling. Witnesses against Ms. McDonald have criminal theft convictions -- but these reportedly cannot be mentioned in court to impeach their credibility. Meanwhile, Ms. McDonald's conviction for a bad check was reportedly allowed to be used against her court. Again, I am outraged.
Judge Moreno is alleged to be related by marriage to an Assistant County Attorney who handles criminal matters, a relation that often requires recusal. Is that true? Is he impartial?
Ms. McDonald faced her trial as she stood her ground in self-defense, despised by society and the system, not worth the media coverage, hyper-aggressive over-the-top charges, the evidence of her self-defense disputed by the forces of the state despite its compelling nature, court rulings going against her right and left. Perhaps she is assumed to belong in prison by virtue of her race and gender identity, perhaps assumed to deserve what she will get in our transphobic prisons, maybe raped while the guards laugh, perhaps by the guards, no one listening to any complaint she might make, precluded by the courts from filing, maybe kept in solitary confinement in a 4'x10' concrete box the size of a small bathroom "for safety" until her mind crumbles. My outrage is fueled not only by the events in this case, but by the despicable manner in which human lives of transwomen of color are thought to be of less value.
As in Ariel Dorfman's tragic, award-winning play, for which this post is named, justice is an elusive goal, but it is part of our nature to seek it, to desire it, to demand it, and to be outraged when it is thwarted.
Janet Mock said it best: "We are not disposable. No human life is. And until we all come around to this belief we will never achieve equality." She gave a moving speech at the University of Southern California on Sunday:
"I didn't shout or cry in anger when I saw her story. Instead, I found myself with this numbing sense. I was desensitized because I had read Paige's story before. Over and over again. I had read it in LaShai McLean's story and Agnes Torres Sulca's story and Shelley Hilliard's story and Deoni Jones's story. These women's murders have become the harsh reality girls like us face."
In her moving blog post on the subject, Janet contrasted the trial of CeCe McDonald with the murder of Paige Clay, a trans woman found fatally shot in the head in April in Chicago. Her murderer is still at large. Community organizers in Chicago have rallied to seek justice for her.
CeCe McDonald escaped Paige Clay's fate, only to find another fate awaiting her, courtesy of the State. Now we will never have a trial to determine what happened on that scary night. There will be no chance to appeal the judge's rulings against Ms. McDonald. But anyone who doesn't take a plea deal in the face of 40 years isn't thinking rationally, is depending on a "justice" that happens when one has the right lawyer, the right skin, the right class, the right public sympathy.
Law Professor Dean Spade, attending the trial, wrote this:
Horrifying to watch her forced to recount the events of her attack on the stand, to watch the judge speak to her condescendingly about how pulling scissors out of her purse as her attacker chased her down the street unlawfully endangered her attacker.
We must be outraged by this. When we lose our sense of outrage is when we lose our humanity.
The appearance of justice is as important as justice itself. When George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, he was presumed by the police to have had the right to self-defense, to stand his ground. We, as a country, reacted against this apparent denial of justice, despite the law's backing of the police. We wanted to see justice being done. Here, in the case of CeCe McDonald, the law also appeared to back law enforcement's account, and Ms. McDonald's right to self-defense was put on the ropes by the judge after several evidentiary rulings went against her. These rulings mean the jury would never hear the whole story. They would have seen the bloody T-shirt of the victim, and heard about Ms. McDonald's bad check and witnesses who claimed she committed intentional murder, but they wouldn't see the victim's swastika, they wouldn't hear about his assaults on his girlfriend, her 14-year old daughter and her father. The jury wouln't hear about what transgender people have to face on the streets. They wouldn't hear about the theft convictions of the witnesses against her and get to question the credibility of such witnesses.
Ms. McDonald has survived a murderous, racist and transphobic attack, only to find herself another kind of victim.
The Support CeCe website can be found here.