August 7, 2011
Activists Rally Around Trans Minn. Woman Accused of Murder
Joseph Erbentraut READ TIME: 4 MIN.
Chrishaun McDonald, a 23-year-old south Minneapolis trans woman who goes by CeCe, became involved in a street altercation outside a bar on June 5 that resulted in the stabbing death of Dean Schmitz. Hennepin County prosecutors later charged McDonald with second-degree murder, but activists continue to question the accuracy of the police report of the incident.
McDonald claims she acted in self-defense after Schmitz, 47, and others taunted her with transphobic, racist and sexist slurs. She even said they hit her in the face with a bottle. And to make matters worse, local media almost uniformly referred to McDonald as a man.
But regardless of what actually transpired that night, it is now up to the courts to decide McDonald's fate, but what is of heightened interest to trans advocates in the Twin Cities is that she gets her day in court-and that her story raises awareness of the disproportionately high rates of harassment and discrimination trans and trans women of color in particular face at the hands of police officers and corrections officials.
The rates of harassment and abuse of trans people of color by law enforcement as the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force documented earlier this year in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey are daunting. While 22 percent of respondents who interacted with police reported some form of harassment, that number skyrocketed to 38 percent for black respondents and 36 percent for multiracial respondents.
Fifteen percent of black respondents reported being physically assaulted by police and 7 percent reported being sexually assaulted by a member of law enforcement-these rates far outpace those of the general trans population, but many activists describe these statistics as low estimates because of problems collecting data.
McDonald's claims jive with this heightened rate of harassment. She was reportedly placed in solitary confinement for a month in spite of her request to be placed elsewhere.
Owen Daniel-McCarter, an attorney and member of the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois, told EDGE that McDonald's reported treatment behind bars mirror other cases that his organization sees "all the time." Daniel-McCarter's group provides legal resources to trans and gender non-conforming individuals caught up in the criminal legal system.
"It is the duty of the [jail] facilities themselves to make sure every inmate is safe and protected from violence," said Daniel-McCarter. "The problem with correctional facilities placing folks in isolation for their 'own safety' is that it's really unsafe and doesn't acknowledge the fact that sometimes correctional staff themselves are enforcers or perpetrators of violence themselves. Further, solitary confinement is used as a way to punish someone for not obeying the rules of the facility itself."
Daniel-McCarter added many of the trans people with whom his organization works prefer to be placed among the prison's general population. This request, however, is often ignored. "It's a punishment on top of a punishment just for being gender non-conforming," added Daniel-McCarter.
McDonald Case Fits with "Set of Statistics That We Know"
Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense Fund, also said that McDonald's story "fits with the set of statistics that we know."
"I think people just want to make sure she gets a fair shake because there are a lot of concerns that a trans woman of color won't be heard in the criminal justice system," Silverman told EDGE. "The fact that, even prior to any conviction she's been punished by solitary confinement, people feel like that's wrong and that there has to be a better way to deal with a trans woman in that system."
McDonald remains in jail as she awaits her trial, but trans activists in the Twin Cities have rallied around her. They have organized fundraisers to raise funds towards her $150,000 bail-they had raised $3,000 as of mid-July. Activists have also worked to get books to McDonald while she remains behind bars.
McDonald's supporters have also made their presence known through efforts to "pack the courtroom" during her court appearances last month. The Trans Youth Support Network has organized rallies and a number of community meetings around the incident. The group has asked prosecutors to drop the charges against McDonald.
"We know that Chrishaun cannot receive a fair trial by a jury of her peers: because of transphobia and racism, the deck is stacked against her," explained Katie Burgess, executive director of TYSN, in a statement. "[W]e see that the only resolution to this case is to release her back to her family and friends. It is clear that she can never be safe while housed in a prison or jail. Her family wants her back home."
Loree Cook-Daniels, program and policy director at FORGE, a Milwaukee, Wis., based national trans advocacy group, said it remains important for the trans people to seriously consider the information that police provide about the incident. She was thrilled to hear about the Twin Cities' trans residents rallying behind McDonald in a way that somewhat resembled the advocacy that followed Chanel Larkin's murder on a Milwaukee street in May 2010.
"We just don't know what kind of prejudice and possibly discriminatory treatment the police may have given this woman," said Cook-Daniels. "I think we need to be careful about how much information we accept from police sources."
These efforts have not gone unnoticed.
"This kind of love gives me inspiration and keeps me motivated to fight for myself and those who have been in my shoes, and for future generations," said McDonald in a statement she released from behind bars last month. "I believe this one incident is going to open the eyes of many and show people what...the GLBTQ community has to go through."
Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.