CeCe McDonald left prison last month after serving 19 months of a 41-month sentence, having been convicted of second degree manslaughter — in a plea deal she took to avoid possible murder convictions and perhaps 80 years in prison — after she used deadly force to protect herself during a brutal transphobic and racist assault in Minneapolis.
Her story, as a then-23-year-old African-American transgender woman defending herself amid a hate attack perpetrated by an older white man, is yet another example of the glaring injustice of our criminal justice system. It’s instructive as the nation once again debates "stand your ground" laws in the wake of the mistrial last week of Michael Dunn, a 47-year-old white man, for the shooting death of a 17-year-old black youth, Jordan Davis, in Jacksonville, Florida. But more than that, McDonald’s story underscores the brutality and discrimination that transgender people face every day, not just from attackers on the streets but from the police and the justice system itself.
CeCe McDonald’s story is being made into a film to be released later this year, “Free CeCe!,” spearheaded by “Orange Is the New Black” star and trans activist Laverne Cox, who is co-producing the film with Jacqueline Garas. In an interview with me on SiriusXM Progress, McDonald discussed the event that would change the course of her entire life.
On a June night in 2011, she and some friends and relatives were walking near a bar in Minneapolis when some bar patrons began harassing them, hurling racist, homophobic and transphobic slurs. McDonald was soon assaulted by a woman who slashed her face and dragged her to the ground. As McDonald staggered away, the woman’s boyfriend ran after her. She defended herself with fabric scissors she had in her bag, after repeatedly warning the man, 47-year-old Dean Schmitz, to retreat. When the police arrived McDonald was arrested and charged in the stabbing murder of Schmitz.The judge in the case wouldn’t allow expert testimony explaining how transgender women are disproportionately victims of hate crimes.
Read the partial transcript of the interview and listen to CeCe McDonald tell her story. And visit the flimmakers' website to find out more about "Free CeCe!"
“In a distance I can see my cousin and my friends arguing with the people at the bar. As I get closer I’m just hearing all type of negative epithets regarding race and gender and sexuality.”
“The verbal assault became physical after my attacker made a comment about her being able to take all of us ‘bitches’ on. These were four grown adults, late 30s, early 40s. They were considered bar patrons, so they frequently came to this one bar. They gave the idea of a motorcycle gang. Bandanas and all leather, and doing things [drugs] that were against the law at the time that also were not brought up in court. These were grown people.”
“What happened was after she made that comment I realized there was no longer a reason for me to be there. As I was turning — she had a glass tumbler — as I was turning she threw her drink in my face. All her liquor went into my eyes. And then I felt the glass shards break into my face. And it was really an excruciating pain and instantly I was covered with blood, and I was really scared and I couldn’t see because there was liquor in my eyes. After she hit me with the glass, she decided to pull me into the street by my hair and show how strong she was. It was really difficult for me to deal with that. I couldn’t see and they were attacking me. The bar was closing and people were coming out. I got really nervous because it was only me and four other people. And me and four other people couldn't take on a whole bar. And so it was really difficult.”
“I felt like the hatred protruding from these people weren’t like any normal dislike towards a person. The incident in it itself was so complex. We dealt with race. We dealt with sexual orientation. We dealt with transphobia and transmisogyny. We dealt with homophobia. And in that it’s like you don’t know what part of you that you’re defending. I didn’t know if I was fighting for myself because I was black. I didn’t know if I was fighting for myself because I was trans. But it all coincided. Because they didn’t decide which one to choose. They just let it all.”
After the fight was over, I was bleeding and am literally staggering to a safe place to call the police. As I’m walking, they’re yelling at me and [Dean Shmitiz] is walking toward me and his walk turns into a sprint. Seeing I’m bloody, clothes ripped, everything. I turned around, walking backwards and I said ‘Leave it go.’ He just kept pursuing me. And nobody would know how I felt when I looked in his eyes and I saw nothing but pure hatred, like he wanted to kill me. My first reaction was to defend myself, and so I reached in my purse and grabbed the first thing I could find, which were some fabric scissors that I had from school. He saw that I had them. I told him, 'I’m not trying to fight but I will defend myself.' He kept pursing me. There was no apprehension in him. The drugs he was on at the time probably gave him the gumption. He came to pursue me, knowing I had a weapon in my hand. And so when it got to the point of him attacking me again, I only did what was natural for me, a reflex. I’m sorry it happened but I was only doing what was best for me in my life.”
“When I stood in that parking lot. I was sure that the police were coming to help me. And when they arrived, they were ready to attack me. They were so quick to get out of the car and make me the aggressor. I’m like, ‘I didn’t start this.’ And they were like, ‘Somebody got stabbed’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I got stabbed in the face.’ They didn’t care. They put me in handcuffs, still bleeding. It took 20 minutes for me to get to the hospital.”
“I was charged with two second degree murder charges. I could have been found guilty on both charges and that could have given me zero to 80 years. Knowing the history of the criminal justice system and the prison industrial complex, I knew it was not be a good ending, and knowing the history of the self-defense laws and it’s very biased when it’s white vs. black and black vs. white. And so, I kind of knew I’d rather take the plea and do a little time.”
“[Dean Schmitz’s] past criminal and assault history against his wife or girlfriend or whatever [were omitted from the trial] .They omitted the toxicology report. But the sad part was that they wanted to add everything from my past history [in] life that was wrong. I wrote one bad check and they felt that by me doing that I was dishonest and disloyal and that my statement in court wouldn’t have mattered because of that. And it was really sad because it seemed like everything that would have benefited or helped my case in some little way, they took away from me. So I was left with nothing and he had everything.”