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CeCe McDonald’s Right to Self-Defense

Joey L. Mogul is a partner at the People’s Law Office in Chicago, Illinois, and Director of the Civil Rights Clinic at DePaul University College of Law.  Mogul’s practice focuses on representing individuals who have suffered from police and other governmental misconduct in civil rights cases, and defending individuals in criminal and capital cases. Mogul is co-author, with Andrea Ritchie and Kay Whitlock, of Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States. 

Cece4-lo_2On June 5, 2011, Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald, an African American transgender woman, was assaulted by Dean Schmitz, a white heterosexual man, and his friends in a violent, racist, and transphobic attack. In the face of extreme violence causing her serious physical injury, CeCe defended herself. The Hennepin County Attorneys’ Office in Minneapolis refused to recognize her right to self-defense, and instead prosecuted her for two counts of second degree murder for the death of Mr. Schmitz.

On May 3, 2012, after a jury was selected and opening arguments were set to begin at trial, CeCe pled guilty to a reduced charge of second degree manslaughter in exchange for a recommended sentence of forty-one months imprisonment, as opposed to proceeding to trial where she faced a possible forty year term of imprisonment if convicted of second degree murder as originally charged.

The following text is adapted from a speech I gave at an event on April 22, 2012 organized by CeCe’s Support Committee at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

CeCe’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for June 4, 2012.

Gay Pride Month and the Stonewall Rebellion 

In June of 2011, Gay Pride Month, CeCe McDonald, a Black transgender woman, was the victim of a vicious, racist, transphobic attack. It is sadly ironic that she is the one criminalized for exercising her right to self-defense.

Gay Pride month is more than just a month to party (although I have nothing against partying), and it is certainly more than a parade full of politicians and corporate sponsors who want you to vote for them or buy their products.

The Gay Pride Parade and Pride Month derive from a cherished moment in queer history - the Stonewall Rebellion.

The Rebellion occurred in June of 1969 when officers from the New York Police Department (NYPD) raided the Stonewall Inn, a private drinking establishment in the West Village of New York City. The purported justification for the raid was the enforcement of liquor law violations.

The raid was nothing new. Law enforcement officers frequently used pre-textual justifications, like liquor law enforcement, to raid gay bars nationwide in order to arrest, humiliate, and in many cases abuse, all those present. This time, however, people were fed up with these unjustified attacks, and in response to the homophobic onslaught and physical brutality, people resisted and defended themselves. Led by drag queens and butches, bar patrons yelled “Gay Power” and they threw shoes, coins, and bricks at the officers and clashed with the NYPD over the next three days.

We celebrate Gay Pride in June each year to mark the moment when queers fought back, defended themselves, and said no to the violence. Thus, it is tragically ironic that, at the beginning of Pride Month, CeCe McDonald is awaiting punishment for fighting back, defending herself, and protecting her life during Pride Month one year ago.

The Facts Regarding CeCe McDonald’s Prosecution for Murder

On June 5, 2011, around 12:30 a.m., CeCe and four of her friends, who were also young queers of color, were in South Minneapolis walking to Cub Foods when they passed the Schooner Tavern. According to witnesses, Dean Schmitz began yelling at CeCe and her friends, calling them rapists who were wearing women’s clothes, as well as a slew of racist, homophobic epithets, including “niggers,” “fags,” and “faggot lover.” Schmitz further verbally assaulted CeCe, denying her gender identity, yelling out that she was not a girl, and claiming she was tucking in her dick.

When CeCe and her friends verbally responded to Schmitz and his female companions – all of whom were white – the crowd began calling them “niggers” and “faggots” and “chicks with dicks.” A physical altercation ensued, when one of the white women with Schmitz smashed a liquor glass in CeCe’s face with such force that it shattered on impact, cutting CeCe’s cheek and requiring 11 stitches.

Witnesses at the scene reported that CeCe had turned away and was leaving the altercation, when Schmitz followed her in an aggressive, hostile fashion. Eventually, Schmitz was stabbed during the altercation with a pair of scissors in the chest and he bled to death at the scene. CeCe claims she acted in self-defense.

This was not the first time Dean Schmitz had expressed racist sentiments. Schmitz was a proud racist who had a swastika tattooed on his chest. Schmitz also had a history of violence, and had three prior convictions for assaulting his ex-girlfriend’s 14-year-old daughter, assaulting his ex-girlfriend, and getting into a physical fight with his ex-girlfriend’s father.

The Racist, Transphobic Hate Violence Endured by Transgender Women of Color in the United States

Schmitz’s assault on CeCe was not an isolated incident. Transgender women of color endure egregious violence every single day across the U.S. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) reported in 2010 that people who identified as either as transgender or people of color were twice as likely to experience assault or discrimination as non-transgender white individuals. NCAVP also reported that transgender women made up 44% of the 27 hate murders committed in 2010 despite being only 8% percent of the queer population (see http://www.avp.org/publications/reports/reports.htm).

Just this past month, 3 transgender women of color have been murdered. On Monday, April 16, Paige Clay, an African American transgender woman, was found dead in an alley on Chicago’s Westside with a bullet through her forehead. On April 3, CoCo Williams, an African American transgender woman, was murdered in Palmer Park in Detroit, Michigan. Her throat was slashed and her body was riddled with gunshot wounds. In March, Rosita, a presumably Latina trans woman, was found dead in her apartment in Miami, Florida, the victim of multiple stab wounds.

It was more than reasonable for CeCe to fear for her life, not only because of Schmitz’s own aggressive and violent behavior, but also because of the endemic and often deadly violence transgender women of color experience in this country on a daily basis. In light of nationwide trends, it is fair to ask what would have happened if CeCe did not defend herself. Would her name simply have been added to the too long list of names we recite at annual Transgender Day of Remembrance?

Is CeCe’s real crime that she lived?

5116The Criminalization of LGBTQ Targets of Hate Violence

CeCe is not the only queer of color to be physically attacked and forced to defend herself, only to be blamed for the violence and prosecuted in the criminal legal system. As my co-authors Andrea Ritchie, Kay Whitlock and I discuss in Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, LGBTQ people, particularly those of color, report that police often focus on them rather than their assailants when they are the victims of violence, questioning their accounts of the incident and/or blaming them for bringing the violence upon themselves.

This was the case with the New Jersey 7, which involved a group of seven Black lesbian friends who were confronted by Dwayne Buckle, a Black heterosexual man in the West Village of NYC. Buckle made a sexual advance towards one of the women, and when she responded she was not interested, he shouted “I’ll fuck you straight, sweetheart!” He then spit on this woman, and later grew physically abusive, pulling on one of the women’s hair and choking another woman. A physical struggle ensued, and two unknown men ran over to help the women. Buckle was stabbed during the altercation and he cried he was the victim of a “heterosexual hate crime.”

As my co-authors and I discussed in Queer (In)Justice, the police responded to the incident and they refused to see the women as victims. Instead, the police arrested and charged them with attempted murder, framing them as the perpetrators of “gang violence.” Ultimately, three of the seven women felt compelled to plead to get a reduced sentence, and four of the women were found guilty and sentenced to three and half to eleven years in prison.  (For more information: See INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence: Critical Lessons from the New Jersey 7.)

The same dynamic occurred in Monica James’s case, a Black transgender woman in Chicago in 2007. Monica was pursued by an unknown white, gay man who was yelling and screaming racists, transphobic epithets at her. A physical altercation ensued, and during the struggle she bit in him in self-defense and he knocked her unconscious. Both claimed to have acted in self-defense, but she was the one charged with a host of serious felonies. In Monica’s case, the white man who pursued her was an off duty Chicago police officer. She was charged with attempted murder, discharge of the officers’ weapon and aggravated battery on a peace officer.

Her claims of self-defense were also ignored and rejected. The State also rejected her claims that she was the victim of a racist and transphobic attack, arguing to the jury this could not be the case because the officer was gay.

While Monica prevailed and was found not guilty of the more serious charges, thanks in great part to the organizing efforts of the Transformative Justice Law Project, she was still found guilty of aggravated battery.

Why Is CeCe the Only Person Facing Charges from this Incident

Against this backdrop, it is fair to question the fairness and legitimacy of CeCe’s criminal prosecution, and there are several other unanswered questions regarding this prosecution. For instance, why is CeCe the only person charged with a crime as result of this incident?

It appears several people committed crimes that fateful night. The white, presumably heterosexual woman who hit CeCe with a beer mug committed battery (possibly aggravated battery), when she hit CeCe, causing her a severe injury requiring medical treatment. Why wasn’t she charged? Is it because the State is going to call her as a witness and rely her testimony to convict CeCe? Are the police and prosecutors crediting her testimony over that of CeCe’s based on her race and gender conformity?

This woman and another, along with Schmitz, were yelling out racist and homophobic slurs and accusing CeCe and her friends of setting out to commit heinous crimes of rape (both projecting on to CeCe and tapping into archetypes that have framed Black people as perpetrators of rape and sexual deviance since slavery and Jim Crow, archetypes that have been used to justify lynching). Is it fair to infer that Schmitz’s friends may be guilty of inciting a riot, stirring people to engage in violence against CeCe and her friends?

If CeCe was white and gender conforming would she be facing murder charges today? Or, would her case be dropped by the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office like that of three other white women who claimed they acted in self-defense?

Drop Prosecution of CeCe

Paige Clay, the African American transgender woman killed in Chicago was known for saying, “If you are quiet as a mouse, no one will hear you.” Well, CeCe was not quiet as a mouse, but instead she spoke up and defended herself. And we cannot be quiet like mice either. We cannot stand silent in the face of the racist, transphobic violence plaguing the nation that is silencing, harming and killing transgender women of color. And we cannot stand silent in the face of this unfair and unjust prosecution. I believe CeCe has the right to defend herself and I applaud the valiant efforts of the CeCe Support Committee in organizing on CeCe’s behalf and calling on the Hennepin County Attorney Mike Hennepin to drop the charges. Free CeCe.