Last week, Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald, a 23-year-old Black transgender woman, was sentenced to 41 months in prison for second-degree manslaughter despite clear evidence of self-defense. Making matters worse, she is now being forced to serve her time in a men’s prison. CeCe McDonald’s case not only represents a tragic miscarriage of justice, but also speaks to the fundamental unfairness of the criminal justice system for the Black trans community.
On June 5th 2011, McDonald, a Minnesota based college student, was out having a good time with her friends. They walked past the Schooner Tavern, where McDonald and her friends were harassed and verbally assaulted by two White women and Dean Schmitz, a White man, who referred to them as “n*ggers,” “faggots,” and “chicks with dicks.”
The assault quickly became physical when one of the women hit McDonald with a cocktail glass, puncturing her cheek and salivary gland. A fight ensued that resulted in the stabbing death of Schmitz. McDonald was arrested, charged, and ultimately convicted of the crime. She was the only person arrested that night.
Although state officials on every level insist they hold no bias against the Black transgender community, their behavior at every stage of the CeCe McDonald case suggests otherwise. More importantly, the state’s mistreatment of McDonald is a reflection of a criminal justice system that systematically denies the fundamental rights, safety, and humanity of transgender bodies.
Even a casual review of the facts demonstrates that CeCe McDonald and her friends (all of whom were LGBTQ youth or allies) were the targets of hate and violence on the night of her arrest. By ignoring the evidence against her attackers, police reinforced the notion that violence against the Black trans community is not a significant concern for law enforcement. Studies show that, despite comprising only 8 percent of the LGBTQ community, transgender women account for nearly half of all LGBTQ hate crime murders. Among this group, transgender women of color are nearly twice as vulnerable to violence as their white counterparts. In addition, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 50% of Black transgender individuals face harassment at school and 15% are physically assaulted at their jobs. Such evidence speaks not only to the rising tide of violence against transgender populations, but a lack of commitment from law enforcement to protect and serve them.
As we see in the case of CeCe McDonald, police agencies tend to expend their time, energy, and resources criminalizing rather than protecting the Black trans community. By ignoring her obvious self-defense claim, instead arresting her and no one else at night, McDonald was legally punished for surviving a transphobic hate attack. This is a common occurrence, as transgender Blacks are routinely targeted, profiled, and often arrested for crimes linked to their gender, race and class rather than their behavior.
Despite considerable evidence -including medical evidence, toxicology reports, eyewitness accounts, and unrefuted testimony- McDonald’s self-defense claim was dismissed by prosecutors.
More than any population, transgender people are unfairly brought into the criminal justice system as the targets of false or unlawful arrests. Transgender women are regularly stopped and arrested for prostitution simply for walking or standing in public space. Male and female trans people are often charged with presenting false identification or using the “wrong” bathroom. Because of law enforcement’s lack of understanding or respect for transgendered citizens, many trans people end up with criminal records simply for being transgendered.
The Black trans community is also further criminalized for being poor. Members of the Black transgender community regularly live in extreme poverty, with 34% reporting a household income of less than $10,000, more than four times the general Black population rate, and eight times the national rate. The poverty numbers are enhanced by staggering levels of job discrimination -studies show up to 90% rates of job discrimination among trans populations- all of which contributes to the 41% homeless rate among Black transgender people. These conditions, combined with excessive police presence in poor Black neighborhoods, cause the trans community to also be routinely charged with “survival crimes” like sex work and petty theft, as well as “quality of life crimes” like loitering and sleeping outside.
At the same time that Black transgender people are unfairly targeted by police, acts committed against them are typically rejected by law enforcement. Every day, victims of transphobic violence are ignored by police or treated in ways that only exacerbate the situation. This is often due to the belief among law enforcement that transgendered people deserve the violent acts committed against them. As a result of this belief, police are often openly hostile to transgendered victims. According to studies, 38% of Black trans people indicate that they have been harassed by the police. Even worse, 20% state that they have been physically or sexual assaulted by police. Given this pattern of criminalization and abuse over protection, it is no surprise that most victims of transgender violence (52%) do not report the crimes to law enforcement. It