What’s Next for CeCe McDonald? Support, Maybe Justice Reform

Billy Navarro of the Minnesota Transgender Health Coalition talks about the fight to end transphobia on the streets, and in the criminal justice system.

By Jamilah King May 03, 2012

Within hours of CeCe McDoanld’s plea bargain with Minneapolis prosecutors to second degree manslaughter, members of her local support committee were gearing up for another round of media and an evening visit at the local jail. McDonald is a black transgender woman who was charged with second degree murder after a fight in June of 2011 at an area bar left one man, Dean Schmitz, dead. She and her supporters have argued that the case is one of self defense after Schwartz and his friends began attacking McDonald with racist and homophobic slurs. Sentencing is set to take place next month, but the plea deal stipulates that McDonald will spend 41 months — about three and a half years — in prison.

McDonald’s case has sparked a national outcry in part because it’s so familiar. For many, the case is eerily familiar to that of the New Jersey 4, in which four black lesbians were charged with attempted murder and sent to prison after protecting themselves from a a group of white men who’d threatened to "fuck them straight." Time and again, people of color whose gender identities fall outside of societal norms fall prey to a deeply flawed criminal justice system. When they’re feared, they become victims. When they fight back, they become criminals. 

On her blog, McDonald’s written candidly about the need to tackle hate. "No matter where you go, or community you live in, people will continue to discriminate," McDonald wrote. "And as long as we do not stand up for our equality, we allow them to have the upper hand against us. I feel that is our duty to give these people the awareness and education about whom we truly are, and not whom they assume we are."

Outside of the courtroom last night, McDonald’s supporters criticized the prosecution.

"[Hennepin County Attorney Michael] Freeman’s aggressive prosecution of CeCe was a continuation of the racist, transphobic assault that led to her being charged and resulted in the tragic death of one of the assailants," said Kris Gebhard of the CeCe McDonald Support Committee. "We’ve been proud to stand with CeCe as she fought this unjust prosecution and will continue to stand with her as she fights for justice as a trans woman of color within the prison system."

To bring that point home, Katie Burgess of the Trans Youth Support Network told a crowd of supporters outside the courthouse, "With the whole world watching, Freeman’s office consistently chose not to take the opportunity to stand up against racism and transphobia. Freeman himself said, and I quote, ‘The criminal justice system is not built for, nor is it necessarily good at, solving a lot of society’s problems.’" 

I spoke with Billy Navarro of the Minnesota Transgender Health Coalition. Navarro’s been an active member of the Support CeCe Coalition, which has been working to spread the word about McDonald’s case and offer support to CeCe throughout her incarceration.

What has this case meant for Minneapolis’s LGBT community?

I think it’s definitely galvanized us in a certain way — for those of us who were paying attention to it. I’m not gonna front like everyone was paying attention to it. I think we saw the division lines between trans folks and queer folks on one side, and gays and lesbians on another side. It took a lot for us to get local, mainstream GLBT organizations and media outlets to pay attention to CeCe’s story. A lot of it was the push from the trans and queer community. If anything, it kind of brought some of those divisions to light and made the rest of us really, really come together.

The Support Committee is a bunch of different people who’ve never worked together and came from different parts of life and very different communities who came together for CeCe. So I think there are are some really big positives in that manner.

I’m just really excited about all the different people who came together to work with CeCe.

What kinds of local and national support has CeCe gotten?

I think she’s gotten a lot of national support from a lot of different organizations. Gay and lesbian and transgender; POC and white. There are labor unions that are not even part of queer or GLBT organizing that are behind it. Lawyer’s organizations — the National Lawyer’s Guild — put in a support letter a couple days ago. The support nationally and internationally has been super diverse amongst many, many different communities. Again, they’re coming together because they see this as an injustice.

One of the things that makes this case so sad is that it’s so familiar. For instance, there’s also the case of the New Jersey 4. What push are you making to confront institutional change?

I think a lot of what we’ve seen is that this work is seen as a reaction to what happened to CeCe. I think CeCe’s seen it as a bigger picture thing. It’s put a spotlight on what it’s like for trans women of color here in all these different systems — whether it’s the shelter system [PDF] or the prison industrial complex [PDF].

I think exposing that and talking about it and bringing into the mainstream media helps at least start the conversation to change those systems.

What happens now? What kinds of support are you planning for CeCe while she’s in prison?

We’re gonna continue support, and we’ve always said that from the beginning. Whatever CeCe needs from us, that’s what we’re here for. However CeCe wanted us to be supportive of her, that’s what we’re here for. We have visitation with her this evening, so we’ll talk about what she wants us to do. But we’re ready. Ride or die, whatever she wants. We’re in this for the long haul, so if it’s visiting her in jail, or needing to get stories out about her — whatever she wants, whatever she needs. For as long as she needs it.