Yesterday morning, on the third day of her trial, CeCe McDonald accepted a bargain for reduced charges and pled guilty to one charge of second degree manslaughter, with a probable sentence of 41 months. Three and a half years in a men’s prison, where she will undoubtedly be again subjected to exactly the forms of assault that landed her in this position, along with worse and more devastating forms, for refusing to die where so many women like her do. Like Brandy Martell. Like Paige Clay. Like Coko Williams.
Those names are from the past month alone.
CeCe had the will to survive an attempt on her life motivated by hatred of her gender and race, fundamental elements of her being. To them, she was simply the wrong kind of person, something that couldn’t fit into their worlds, and they wanted to make her go away. For daring to refuse the narrative of unremarkable- no, simply unremarked upon- death imposed by our present system on women like her, that system’s direct arm chose to punish her survival. The criminal justice system in the United States, and their media, had already sent a clear and horrifying message for years that the lives and deaths of trans women of colour simply don’t count enough to bother investigating or reporting. But now an even darker message has been sent: Don’t you dare survive, either. Yours is to suffer, and we will ensure it regardless of what you do.
CeCe’s survival is amazing. She is amazing. She did not back down. She did not accept what others mandated as her fate. A crowd of white supremacists surrounded her, assailed her with racist and transphobic slurs, smashed a bottle in her face, gave her every reason to think they meant to kill her. Even if they hadn’t been so overt, CeCe was undoubtedly well aware of the long list of names of women like herself, in exactly situations like her own, who had ended up as names on the TDoR website. She did not wish to be reduced to such a name. She managed to break free of the jeering crowd to escape, and ran. But one of her attackers wouldn’t accept that, wouldn’t accept her refusal of the painfully common narrative. He chased her down. And again CeCe refused to become another victim. She drew a pair of scissors from her bag (which were never intended as a weapon), and turned to face him.
And in his charge, he fell on them, and he lost the presence in our world he had intended to strip from CeCe.
What CeCe did was something important and vital. It shouldn’t be, but it was. It was something that doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should. It’s something that most people take for granted, but is vanishingly rare and fleeting amongst others. It’s something that should be embraced and celebrated. Something we (really? “We”? Do I have any right to consider myself amongst this category of person? Maybe. Maybe not.) should all know is at least a possibility. Something that isn’t totally lost, that we needn’t give up on when presented with the ugly violence that she faced. Something that is not nearly often enough given its due priority by the trans community, and its due acknowledgment as a precious and beautiful thing. Something far more important than theory, voice, visibility. She survived.
What that survival represents is worth more than a thousand acts of “remembering our dead”. It’s an act that represents hope, and the capacity to at least have some small say in what happens to you, to determine your own narrative, amongst a population who are repeatedly denied any semblance of power in their lives, or capacity to determine their futures, if they even get one. Actually… I suppose that’s one of the most important hopes CeCe’s survival presents. The ability to keep your future. Not have it taken away from you on the whims of the privileged, powerful and hateful.
And what does it mean to punish that survival? To reprimand an act that grants hope and empowerment to women like her? To toss her into a prison, amongst exactly the same sorts of men as those who attacked her, where she will undoubtedly be attacked again, for holding on to her survival, hope, her future? To go ahead and take the latter two away from her anyway?
It means something beyond terrible. Something that goes beyond CeCe herself. It’s a direct effort to crush the hope and empowerment that CeCe’s survival could have meant. It’s an attempt to put all the women who would see themselves in CeCe, and be inspired through that reflection, back in “their place”.
CeCe’s act says “We are human beings. We have a right to survive.” The decision of the court says “No, you’re still sub-human. You have no rights. And if you ever forget it, we will remind you.” It suggests a world where justice is only ever a fluke, and its inclusion in the name of a system that so often suppresses it is a cruel irony. In this instance, justice would have been better served by the total non-participation of the “criminal justice system”.
There are no words for this. Well… except for one.
I have a deep fondness for the word “unspeakable”. It’s an adjective that describes something when all others fall short. That is the only word for yesterday morning’s plea bargain, and the conditions that produced it. Unspeakable. Any other words would be meaningless. Just a selfish, superficial attempt to hem in something horrible, to recuperate it, to make sense of something deeply and frighteningly senseless. To try to speak to it or articulate it is to insult its weight.
Last night I sat in the Billy Bishop legion drinking a beer with Joe Fulgham, and I told him what had happened, described the story. He encouraged me to go home and write. I wanted to. I needed to. I coudn’t bear the fact that we were there in the comfort of the pub, with our drinks and the fire and our health and freedom and everything, while that same night, the night of the second worst day of her life, CeCe sat in a cell somewhere, awaiting transfer to a men’s prison. And it would be what, another 1260 bad days before she ever gets another good one? As a skeptic, I want to acknowledge the facts, regardless of how awful they are or how they make me feel. But this was one fact I just didn’t want to be there. Something that just shouldn’t be true, shouldn’t be really happening to someone.
I wanted, needed, to go home and write. But for what? Was I, the great Natalie Reed, going to tell her story, and the immense power of my brilliant prose suddenly change the minds of the men in power who’d incarcerated her? Fuck no. Was I going to add anything to the conversation? Did I even have any new insight that hadn’t already been articulated? Could I say anything that would make this is any way any less horrible? Less unspeakable?
No, it’s for me. This is just for me. It’s selfish, and stupid, and presumptuous. Thinking that somehow I can put this into words enough to make it meaningful to me in some way, to make it articulate and comprehensible and tuck it away in my intellectual filing cabinet for future reference in theoretical constructs? Stupid, Natalie. Stupid and selfish.
The words that could do that don’t exist. And groping for them isn’t doing anyone any favours, certainly not CeCe. What happened to her was horrible. Her survival was beautiful. But the plea bargain, the decision of the court, the sentence? Unspeakable.
The best I can possibly confer is a silence in which something might resonate.