For CeCe McDonald and Katie Burgess, the struggle for trans lives continues.
Katie & CeCe
On a late night in June 2011, Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald and her friends – all young, African American, and LGBTQI identified – were walking to the store to pick up some food. As they passed a dive bar, a group of white people standing outside started shouting racist, sexist, and transphobic slurs after them. Among the group of white people were Danny Schmitz and Molly Flaherty. Suddenly, Flaherty attacked CeCe with a glass, leaving a big gash on the side of her face. A fight ensued, where Flaherty falsely accused CeCe of stabbing her with a knife. As CeCe tried to walk away, she was pursued by Schmitz. CeCe reached for a pair of scissors in her purse. Schmitz lunged towards her, then retreated, his shirt slowly turning from white to red; the scissors had gone straight into his chest, slicing his heart and eventually killing him. Shortly after, CeCe was arrested – the only person arrested that night – and charged with second-degree murder.
Both before and after the trial, her Minneapolis community gathered to campaign for CeCe’s release. One of the active members behind her support campaign was Trans Youth Support Network (TYSN) former Executive Director Katie Burgess. Katie and the rest of the support committee brought attention to the racist and transphobic nature of the charges, calling for them to be dropped. How is it that the person who was attacked and tried to defend herself was the only one to land in jail, they asked, when Schmitz, who had a swastika tattooed on his chest, was the one who attacked her? The case received a lot of attention in the media, but CeCe had too many cards stacked against her. Facing a 20 to 30 year sentence, CeCe took a plea deal on May 2, 2014, pleading guilty to manslaughter. She was sentenced to 41 months in a men’s prison.
CeCe’s story is common – so many trans women of color experience hate bashings like this one – but it is also remarkably unique. So often during these kinds of incidents, people like CeCe end up killed. CeCe was not alone, she defended herself, and she survived. Her case also garnered national attention, with public support from outlets like Democracy Now! to celebrities like writer and MSNBC’s SoPopular host Janet Mock and actress Laverne Cox. Both before and after the trial, CeCe wrote long blog posts that were published on the site set up for her support campaign, sharing her story and words of encouragement and love. Upon her release in January 2014, Laverne Cox came to greet her, and together they started making a documentary about CeCe’s life, and appeared on major national TV networks to speak publicly about the attack on black trans people in the US.
Like Janet Mock explores in her memoir Redefining Realness, CeCe challenges notions of American exceptionalism: she is part of a long legacy of trans women of color, from Miss Major to Marsha P Johnson, who have paved the way. And yet, CeCe and the campaign for her release have redefined the discourse around prisons. She defended herself against a racist transphobe, but declined to testify against one of her attackers. Whenever she’s asked to speak to how prisons could serve trans people better, she’ll quickly tell you that “prisons don’t keep us safe, we keep each other safe.” And while she spent her prison sentence in a men’s prison and was first denied her hormones, she fought to gain access to hormones, but decided not to fight to be moved to a women’s facility, not wanting to be treated as exceptional when people around her were serving much longer sentences. CeCe adamantly rejects the politics of innocence, following in the footsteps of abolitionists before her in questioning the fundamental existence of the criminal justice system.
In a time where trans characters are more visible in pop culture than ever before, but Black trans women are still, without a doubt, being murdered in the streets, CeCe’s story is more relevant than ever. And as many ‘hooray’ the legalization of gay marriage, Caitlin Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, and Miley Cyrus coming out as genderqueer, CeCe’s refusal to be complacent with reform is an important reminder of where to focus our energy. A year and a half after CeCe’s release, we still have a lot to learn from her and people like Katie Burgess who campaigned for her release. So, we decided to hit them up to find out what they are up to now, and what looking back at the campaign has taught them.
How did you two meet?
KB: We met when we were both Youth Members at the Trans Youth Support Network (TYSN) doing panel discussions at local social services.
For over two years, your relationship took place entirely through bars. What are some challenges of having a relationship through bars? Were you able to overcome them in any way?
KB: The usual institutionalized barriers exist such as short and inconvenient visiting hours, strict ID requirements, dehumanizing searches, and long waits. It requires a lot of bureaucratic diligence and consistency – you go visit at every single opportunity and you never turn your phone off. CeCe had the critical resource of family on the outside that was invested in staying in touch with her and keeping me in touch with her. That meant that we had community to help each other navigate institutionalized barriers to accessing her and we could rely on one another to discuss the personal emotional impacts of visiting her and talking with her. This was perhaps the most crucial component in CeCe and I successfully launching her campaign. Her family was able to work with me to keep me informed of important things happening with her, push me to involve myself deeper in her life and culture, and perform critical community outreach and fundraising. After sentencing, visiting her in prison was much more difficult, as it required a long drive and more barriers. This resulted in less of her family being able to consistently stay in touch with her and therefore it also became harder for us to sustain community relationships on the outside.
CM: The Department of Corrections itself is very intrusive. A lot of times they will go through your mail, monitor the people you talk to, and so on. There were lots of times that I couldn't get all of my mail or support materials because they considered it to be too radical. There are policies saying that you have the right to have certain materials, but if you're a person that's at the bottom of the criminal justice food chain and dealing with something as arbitrary as the Department of Corrections, it will always be their word against yours.
They interfered with the work that we were doing in many ways. But my support committee was diligent, they didn't give up and they knew I wasn't giving up. I felt like I didn't have much to lose other than the little freedom that I had left. My support group made sure to let me know that they would support any choices that I made, that they were gonna stand behind me no matter what. That was important for me.
How did the repression impact you, CeCe?
CM: I've always been a very outspoken person. I've always said what I had to say or done what I had to do; I've always felt that the system is oppressive and I've always been rebellious. So, I just didn't give a fuck. I didn't have nothing to lose. Am I going to sit here and accept what is happening to me or am I gonna do something about it? Of course I'm gonna fight.
The system don't want people to fight back against them, of course. They said, “We can add extra time to your sentence,” and other things to scare me. But I wasn't worried about none of that because I knew that either way, I was going to fight. I just let them know that I'm going to be seen and I'm going to be heard and not back down.
Of course, that only made them fight back harder. But once they saw that I had so many people in my corner supporting me, they kind of just backed away and let it be. They started complying with my requests a lot more.
When I first came in, most people had heard about my case, seeing as it was one of the higher profile cases in Minnesota. There were a lot of white supremacists inmates, and I definitely experienced a lot of pushback. But people who knew me outside of the case knew that I was intolerant to the things that they were trying to force upon me – sexism and stuff like that. They didn't like that I was as liberated as I was and they were afraid of that. They also didn't want somebody like me to be around other people, thinking that could rile them up and get them thinking the way that I was thinking. So, they put me in segregation.
During the whole time that I was in prison, I spent almost two years in solitary confinement. They said it was “for my protection.” Me being the person that I am, I was like: I don't need the protection, nor do I want the protection. I know how to take care of myself – how else would I have made it to being a 23-year-old Black trans woman in America? If protection was your main issue, now would be the time that I would have needed it the least. Where were you when I really needed you?
Solitary confinement is really mentally taxing and it was causing me to break down. I felt like I didn't have anybody there with me and that just being around anybody would help. I wanted to be moved to general population, so I fought back and the people who were working on the outside fought with me. They also helped me fight to get my hormones and certain other things that they were trying to keep from me.
Katie, what were some of the things you learned from working on CeCe's support campaign? How did it impact you?
KB: I learned a lot about hope. CeCe was not entirely unique among the young trans women of color that I was working with during that time. I was used to hearing horror stories of street violence and police brutality. And I was not a stranger to visiting girls in institutionalized settings and advocating for their basic rights and needs being met. I saw a lot of people's innocence die – including my own. We were a jaded community and I was a burnt out activist. Even though we launched the "FREE CECE" campaign, I believed that calling for the charges to be dropped and for her release from jail was an organizing tactic and not some thing to actually believe in. But no matter how many "reality checks" I gave her and her family, she was determined to define justice for herself and to achieve total liberation without compromise. This girl really believed in freedom. She kept hope alive even when being locked in solitary confinement, being refused basic health care, and constantly being denied basic human rights. I had seen a lot of resiliency, but this was shocking and it challenged me to believe and to truly hope for freedom. Sure, "FREE CECE" was a rallying cry based in well thought out organizing strategy that CeCe, her family, community members and myself developed over long conversations and much processing – we believed that it would result in a better plea agreement and more attention to her treatment behind bars and open up dialogue about destroying prisons. And it did. It worked. But it worked because CeCe believed that even more than that is possible. And she found the strength to share this belief with profound love to myself and the rest of the community.
What were some of the strengths of the support campaign? How were you practically able to build a media campaign so that when CeCe was released, she ended up on major networks like MSNBC as well as programs like Democracy Now?
CM: There was nothing that made me get out of prison, but the support work definitely brought visibility and attention to the case, and it gave the trial a different angle. All in all, I had to take a plea deal, I still had to do prison time.
KB: I think there were different reasons for the success of this campaign such as legal strategy, skilled organizing, and a community ready for change. As far as our media strategy goes I think there were a few tactics to highlight:
CeCe's hope, loving words and presence can not be understated. Her dedication to her storytelling was remarkable. Also, the tireless work of Billy Navarro Jr. to promote the campaign on social media. The development of critical talking points by the uncanny brains of the CeCe Support Committee, which included well-seasoned anarchist organizers who also understood how to develop and implement tools like press releases and how to manage media representatives. The generosity of CeCe’s family to be public figures and help frame her story. The fact that the local community was able to come together and perform consistent court support, demonstrations, direct actions, and public art that garnered much attention. Without the organizations that were operating out of the The Exchange (a community center in South Minneapolis focused on serving primarily trans and queer people of color) at the time, none of this would have been possible. On the national front, there was enough vocabulary being built by individuals like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Leslie Feinberg, and organizations such as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and the Transgender Intersex Justice Project about violence that specifically targets young trans women of color that media outlets such as MSNBC and Democracy Now were prepared to have dialogue about it.
What are your lives like now?
CM: I'm a black trans woman in America – things are hard, definitely now that I have a criminal record. I've been working on the Free CeCe! documentary with Laverne Cox and Jacqueline Gares, that's been one of my bigger projects. I'm also trying to figure out how to relocate to either New York or California for work. I'm working some of the things I was doing before I got locked up, like school. I'm trying to find time to center myself and figure out what it is that I need. I'm definitely seeing things in a different light after this experience, and it has made me want to learn more and study more. People who know my story know that I was into fashion before being locked up, but now I also want to learn more about African American studies, Gender and Women's studies, and Sexuality studies. I just want to be a better freedom fighter and a better advocate for other trans women. But first of all, being myself. It's hard, especially trying to find a job and stuff. I'm just living life and being the best me that I can be.
KB: My life is extremely different now. My experiences managing this campaign with CeCe taught me a lot about what it means to develop authentic relationships as a community organizer. As a white adult organizing with young people and with people of color, I was challenged and found tremendous growth. I also found the need for continued reflection and accountability. This process led me to desire more personal authenticity in my life and in my organizing. I was ready to move beyond being a jaded organizer and find hope again. The power of storytelling and imagination are incredibly important to me. Therefore I am currently splitting my time between Minneapolis and Ashfield, MA where I am developing my practices as a performance artist at Double Edge Theatre. CeCe and I do stay in touch – most recently we caught up while she was doing some speaking gigs at UMASS Amherst and Amherst College.
As people who have a very deep and broad critique of the carceral system, the police, society, how do you represent your views while running such a broad, mainstream-targeted campaign – first during the campaign, and then going forward?
KB: Having access to seasoned anarchist organizers and prison abolitionists was vital for me to frame my critiques – particularly when up against mainstream LGBTQ organizations that were pushing agendas of prison reform (at best). It is a difficult challenge to frame the connection between prisoner advocacy and prison abolition. While they inherently go hand in hand, we are often duped into working for the state in our advocacy efforts instead of against the state and prisons. Most of my energy working in and with non-profits was consumed by this conflict. There is a sever lack of hope in the trans movement - lack of hope for total liberation and an end to the police state. Too often our hope is stretched to see the trans women of color in our lives simply survive another day. When our community is being slaughtered so efficiently, how could we possibly imagine more? I think CeCe is leading the process of unlocking the next layer of this question.
Do you have any reflections on the current moment of increased awareness around police brutality and the carceral system? What are you seeing? What do you see as being worth investing in time, resources and energy in at the moment?
CM: It's a good thing that people are starting to see police brutality and incarceration in a different light. But it's important to remember that police brutality predates all of this, it's been around since slavery, that's really where it stems from. Unfortunately there's a lot of ignorance and miseducation, that's just how that is. I hope that people will start to see the truth behind police brutality and how it's affecting so many people, so many families, and so many lives. But until people grasp that cops were created to do exactly what they are doing right now, nothing is going to change. Cops were created to keep order in a militarized way, to target minorities and marginalized groups, to protect the rich and white, and to keep impoverished and people of color in fear. That's what they're doing.
KB: Overall, I'm sad to no longer see a very public dialogue concerning the needs of trans prisoners or the violence faced by young trans women of color and I'm disappointed to see so many trans organizations using strategies of reform that historically lead to state expansion instead of strategies of abolitionism. I think the analysis of these issues offered up by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project is an appropriate one to reflect on right now. I think we should invest time, resources, and energy in CeCe. I think we could all push ourselves to build a more authentic exchange of resources with CeCe.
What is the Free CeCe! documentary going to be about?
CM: The Free CeCe! documentary is highlighting my life, my time in prison, my release, getting my life together, and me talking to professionals and other trans people who have experienced these things. I'm working with Laverne Cox and Jacqueline Gares. It's being edited now, and hopefully it'll be out next year.
What are your hopes for the near future?
CM: I hope for more acknowledgement and celebration of trans lives. Right now we only have the spotlight when we die. People should focus on trans women and all the work that they are doing, especially trans women of color. Since Caitlyn Jenner came out, there has been a lot of talk about the role that she plays in the whole trans community. But people are not talking about all the trans women of color that came before her, starting with Marsha P Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Miss Major. They gave her that position to be able to come out and proclaim who she is to the world. She's not giving credit to the people who came before her, not even the trans women of color who are in the media now, like Laverne Cox. There really needs to be more celebration, not just of trans lives but the lives of trans people of color.
KB: I hope that CeCe, Kris Gebhard, and I create, perform, and tour a performance piece together. That CeCe starts a support group in Minneapolis and that we rent a house together, where we cook lasagne and watch trashy comic book movies all the time. And that the police state is eradicated.
Support the Free Cece! documentary through its post-production stage.