Turns out, the 41-month sentence that CeCe McDonald plead to this spring, at the dawn of her trial for second degree manslaughter in Minneapolis, was in fact her sentence today. That’s 3-and-a-half years or so, apparently because she pulled scissors out from her purse, while running away from an attacker, and held them in front of her while he fell against her. In his words to Ms. McDonald at her plea bargain, Judge Daniel Moreno stated that in introducing scissors into the altercation–which was not the first weapon brought into play, as she’d already been lacerated with a broken beer mug–“You realize. . . you endangered other lives.”
This is the kind of twist in logic that turns the criminal justice system into a sick Mobius strip where people on the margins can’t win. In an interview with PrettyQueer.com last month, Dean Spade remarked that once she came into contact with this system, the options for justice for CeCe McDonald were extremely limited or altogether absent. That the police looked at this case and made an arrest of Ms. McDonald over and against arresting the woman who sparked the attack in the first place, Molly Flaherty (who was finally arrested last month) is testament to the inadequacy of hate crimes law and the derangement of criminal investigative process. And we thought it was all like CSI.
As I said on Facebook earlier this afternoon:
Here’s the thing: It’s not new that people harass trans women. It’s not new that trans women get singled out by police for committing some kind of infraction and arrested. It’s not new that they are forced in with non-trans men, that they get shitty legal representation, are persecuted by prosecutors and see no leniency from judges. But even with all of that not newness, I find myself completely unprepared for a trans woman or anyone to be arrested for defending herself from A NEONAZI IN A GROUP OF OTHER BIGOTS who had already caused substantial bodily injury to her. It amounts to, in my opinion, convicting someone FOR SURVIVING. And that is intolerable.
The national evidence shows that trans women are the largest single group attacked in altercations that merit hate crime status. We in the trans community gather annually to mourn our losses, reading the names of our dead at events all over North America, well out of the spotlight of Dan Savage’s It Gets Better campaign, the national media, and the monuments to other fallen individuals on the National Mall in DC. That we have so few survivors stories is horrible enough, but to watch a young, spirited person who has lived as trans for the better part of a decade be incarcerated for her very survival has got to be unacceptable for us, no matter our personal definitions of gender identity, our socioeconomic status, race, creed, political leanings, and so on. If CeCe McDonald can be forced into a terrible plea bargain during legal proceedings in which a neo-Nazi’s swastika tattoos were not allowed in as evidence because they could prejudice the jury–as if being outed by the criminal justice system and media as transsexual wouldn’t prejudice jurors against her–then we as transsexual and transgender and gender nonconforming people need to acknowledge that the police are not on our side.
I know that such a statement is obvious to many people–the trans women of color who are harassed by police in the District of Columbia (even as some other police members attempt to work against this tradition) know such things. Homeless young adults who are trans know this as they attempt to seek shelter or social safety net programs. Trans students who are bullied out of school and who face an uncertain future know this. But even if this is not news to us in part or as a whole, CeCe’s case makes the stakes so plain that the very least we can do is use her case as a rallying cry, and as a point for action. (And by saying this we also need to remember that she needs our support.)
Bias crimes against gender non-conforming people occur with alarming frequency–while we debate who among us has privilege (passing or otherwise), who may speak for whom, and what the faults of the LGB movement are when it comes to supporting transpeople, it behooves us to remember that people like Dean Schmitz and Molly Flaherty were more than willing to hate CeCe and her friends on multiple levels. They were poor, young, African American, and oh my God they did not follow gender and sexuality norms. This case is precisely why we need to form coalitions with other angry, interested parties and work to revolutionize how our policing works, how our legal system works, and how our out of control prison system injures prisoners and their families. CeCe’s sentencing says to me that many among us have shockingly little power to protect their own lives and interests. We must begin a national conversation on this lack of power and the extreme ends that these juggernaut institutions are willing to go in order to continue the marginalization of entire communities. And from open debate, we need a comprehensive agenda that the powers that be cannot ignore or eliminate.