This week CeCe McDonald, the young black transgender woman on trial for murdering a white man who’d attacked her and a group of friends, shocked many of her supporters. Many thought she’d plead innocent to the second-degree murder charges, since the weapon was never found, and the case against her is largely circumstantial. But instead of pleading her innocence at the beginning of her trail, McDonald accepted a deal and pled guilty to a lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter.
This case, more than any other of the numerous cases of black LGBT people accused of crimes after getting the better of an attacker, seemed to galvanize not only the transgender community and allies, but the attention of national press outlets, including MSNBC, Democracy Now!, The Advocate, Huffington Post, Daily Kos, and many others. While many of us were hoping to see McDonald fight the charges and hopefully win an acquittal, I certainly hope that the transgender activists, the LGBT community and other allies don’t abandon McDonald, as is so often the case when the question of being "innocent" becomes the framework for the investment of sympathizers.
It is true that McDonald was not out looking for a fight. On the night of June 5, 2011, McDonald walked past a bar with four other black friends in Minneapolis. She and her friends were attacked by two white women and a white man, first with words, "niggers," "faggots," and "chicks with dicks."
But the words, while enough to incite a response, were not the end of it. McDonald was struck in the face with a cocktail glass by one of the women, slicing all the way through her cheek. A fight ensued as more people joined in to attack the group of black folks, and eventually Dean Schmitz, the white man who was among the first to start harassing them, was stabbed and died later in the hospital.
Even if there is not physical evidence in place to secure the conviction the prosecutor originally sought, it doesn’t really matter. A black person who fights with white people, even when self-defense is clear, is going to likely be arrested. This is often true also in transphobic and homophobic contexts, even when the violence is between people of the same race. The burden to prove one didn’t deserve to die or be brutalized often falls on black, queer and/or trans bodies. In fact, McDonald’s judge ruled that the swastika tattooed on Schmitz’s body was inadmissible by her defense as evidence of his racist assault.
If McDonald in fact did respond to the verbal or physical assault, I certainly could not blame her, but too often this becomes the fault line that’s drawn for victims of racialized and/or gender-based violence. When a straight black man in New York City was wounded after assaulting seven young black lesbians one night in 2006, even the white gay newspaper the now-defunct New York Blade offered an editorial, calling the women a "gang" and questioning their right to defend themselves. I often wonder if Matthew Shepherd had gotten the better of his attackers, would the New York Blade and others have opined on the question of violence in the case of self-defense.
Last summer, when black queer punk performance artist (and a close friend) Brontez Purnell and bandmate Adal Kahlo were assaulted by some black Caribbean men in Oakland, a few people questioned whether Purnell had properly conducted himself in the moment.
In Indiana just yesterday, a black gay high school student is facing expulsion because he brought a stun gun to school to protect himself from bullies. People will undoubtedly argue that his actions were "improper," even though his mother reportedly gave him the weapon to protect himself. I am more twice his age, and my mother, often worried about my safety as a black gay man (and one of her best Black gay friends was murdered in 1986) has done the same.
But it’s not just black queers who have to deal with the question of innocence, or what is the so-called "proper" way for Black people to respond to incessant threats. In the case of Trayvon Martin, in all of the media that came in the wake of his murder, very little was discussed about the constant levels at which black people, particularly black young people, feel unsafe in the world, despite the fact that they are always portrayed as the thing creating the possibility of violence for others.
For example, it was reportedly said to McDonald that she was dressed in women’s clothing to "rape" Schmitz that night. But I would imagine McDonald, like many trans and cis-gendered women, live with the fear — and too often the painful memories — of sexual violence. As a gay man who has been threatened with abduction by men of varying races on the street or in passing vehicles, I wonder if that was one of the fears Trayvon Martin felt, when he first heard the heavy footsteps of Zimmerman treading behind him in cagey pursuit.
The black person’s fear of our own safety from violence (and certainly black mens’ fear of sexual assault as one potential kind of violent encounter by police or someone else, as in the case of Abner Louima, a black immigrant who was sexually assaulted with a broomstick by NYPD officers in a local precinct bathroom) is just not what Americans care to imagine. It’s as if all the work done to re-frame racialized notions of public safety and self-defense by Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party have been lost to history.
But the need for that framework is as necessary now as ever, considering the dozens (if not hundreds) of murders by police and white citizens of black people in recent years. McDonald may claim self-defense in the case of her manslaughter trial, but the legal strategy is not what interests me. She may have many reasons for pleading to the manslaughter charge, one of which, may be to just get this behind her, or feeling the inevitability of a "guilty of anything we choose" verdict. But what I hope is that whatever the reasons, and whatever her sentence will be, that LGBTQ activists and allies do not back away from supporting her over the question of innocence. She has the right to be free from violence, she has a right to defend herself, and we should continue to defend her too.