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CeCe McDonald on how the prison industrial complex traps black trans women

The activist was selected by Chelsea Manning for Dazed to talk about why she keeps on fighting

For her guest edit in the Infinite Identities issue of Dazed, Chelsea Manning selected seven vital activist voices from around the US to answer a single questionWhat, for you, is the most under-discussed issue affecting the trans and non-binary communities in America today?

CeCe McDonald is a prison abolition and trans rights activist who made international headlines in 2012 after she was attacked outside a bar in Minneapolis, stabbed her attacker in self- defence, and was sentenced for manslaughter. Her story – which eventually led to Free CeCe!, a documentary directed by Jacqueline Gares and produced by Laverne Cox, after her release in 2014 – drew much-needed attention to the disproportionate violence and injustice that trans women of colour face in the US and beyond. Here, she reveals the conditions that lead to the incarceration of trans individuals – in a world that doesn’t try to keep them safe.

CeCe MacDonald: “I guess you could say I was very open about my identity when I was young. I started transitioning through clothes and appearance in sixth or seventh grade, and medically when I turned 18. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a rough neighbourhood, and my mom was very strict about me being able to protect myself: ‘If somebody hits you, hit their ass back.’ That’s how I was raised. I didn’t allow somebody to just come up and talk to me or feel like they could physically harm me because I’m trans or because I’m black. I’d seen another trans girl at our school get bullied a lot. They used to throw her in the trash can, and that was really an eye-opening experience. I was like, ‘I cannot be that person: I have the right to navigate my neighbourhood or society and feel safe.’

“After I was attacked in 2012, I wasn’t apologetic that I protected myself. But I didn’t instantly realise Dean (Schmitz), my attacker, had passed from the wound he got. I found out what had happened when I was sitting in the interrogation room. I did feel sorry that I’d taken someone’s life. I was in denial about it, and a part of my case was messed up because I had written this letter to the local newspaper telling them it wasn’t me. It was hard for me to fathom that I did kill somebody because that’s deep; that’s on a different level. I dealt with serious PTSD from it and at times I was feeling suicidal.

“I’m still trying to cope with what happened and find peace. But to this day I stand by me defending myself. People feel like we as trans people are supposed to allow abuse, as if we don’t have the right to exist. I see the statistics of trans murder rates, especially for black trans women and the negativity that people have towards us. When someone enacts violence against a trans or non-binary person the violence is coming from a different type of place. It’s a different type of hatred. Especially given the way that society values femmes and women in general. When you exist within that identity there is paranoia: ‘Is today the day that somebody kills me?’

“When I was incarcerated, they put me in a men’s prison. But I don’t think it mattered what prison I went to; you deal with the same prejudice, violence (and) ignorance. When I got there I spent a month in solitary confinement, until they decided what to do with me. I was like, ‘I don’t care where I go, it’s not going to be like some day camp or something!’ I felt that I was targeted more by the staff than prisoners. There were people in the men’s prison who supported me, who knew about my story, who wanted to know more about trans issues. But a lot of the staff made it hard, telling me what I could and couldn’t wear, misgendering me after I told them not to. They don’t care who you are as a person, to them you’re a number.

“One of the books that I read in prison was The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. It talks about the disproportionate numbers of black and brown people in prisons. How it’s important for private and public investors and state officials to have prisons because they profit off of prisoners. The abolition of slavery evolved into the prison system that we know today, through the prisoner leasing system, (whereby) laws were created that specifically targeted black people and then, once incarcerated, former slave owners would come and (exploit) these black people in prison to be slaves again (as a source of prison labour). That’s what I see now. In our society we have people in prison who get literally pennies to make a lot of the stuff we use or want in our lives. Whole Foods only recently started to divest from prison labour – Victoria’s Secret used similar practices in the 90s – but there are so many larger corporations that profit.

“I want to know where the jobs are that y’all claim to be creating? Why is there still a lack of positions for trans women and non- binary folk?” – CeCe MacDonald

“Many factors lead people into these systems. On one hand, the people making money off them are the brands that we love and need, and on the other, the people affected are seen as disposable. That’s why the rate of black cis women in prison is going up, because society is constantly telling you these people don’t matter.

“Economically, (many) black trans women make less than $10,000 a year (34 per cent, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey in 2015). But we are humans, we have to sustain ourselves, and that includes paying our bills, rent, gas for cars, money for public transportation and food: how are we expecting people to survive? They have no choice but to enter survival economics – sex work, stealing, drugs. Then we criminalise them. Instead of finding resources, (we) demonise people for wanting to live.

“I want to know where the jobs are that y’all claim to be creating? Why is there still a lack of positions for trans women and non- binary folk? Why isn’t there training on how to respect someone at their workplace? People see Laverne Cox and Janet Mock on TV, all these new trans figures in society, and they think everybody has it like that. But that’s a small portion of a large community. Not all trans women look the same, feel the same, act the same or come from the same background or experiences. You can’t just lump us together and think that our issues are solved because we have a couple of people with a media platform.

“There need to be initiatives for people wanting to educate themselves around the issues that we face. Something I ask people to do all the time when I speak is, interrogate your privilege. How can you utilise your privilege on a day-to- day basis to uplift trans narratives and create resources? Teach people, correct pronouns, explain why it’s important not to misgender somebody. Give trans women jobs, give trans women housing, give them things to help them progress in life and to build themselves up. We need to do whatever it takes for trans women to feel safe.” 

See all the activists and writers selected by Chelsea Manning, and read their responses to her question, here