On the evening of June 5, 2011, everything was going well for Latavia Taylor. She had just moved into a new apartment in a character building in Minneapolis and her friend, CeCe McDonald, was the best roommate she could have asked for. They were close and got along so well that they referred to each other as cousins.
“If I am hungry, she will bring something to eat,” Taylor says of McDonald. “If I don’t have no clothes, no shoes, she will buy it.”
That very night, CeCe and Latavia were entertaining three of their friends: Larry Tyaries Thomas (Ty), Zavawn Smith (Zay) and Roneal Harris. They barbecued in the backyard and according to Ty Thomas, lounged around chillin’, drinking and smoking.
At around 11:30 p.m., Latavia suggested they walk to Cub Foods to grab a bite.
The store was little more than a half-mile from the apartment: a right out the door, a quick left on 29th Street, and another right along Minnehaha Avenue would bring them to the parking lot shared by Cub Foods and Target.
CeCe McDonald, who was a transgender woman of color, accompanied her four friends to the store. As they neared Cub Foods, they began to hear catcalls coming from a group of white people standing outside a local bar.
This came as no surprise to CeCe who had often been the object of that type of uncivilized behavior. According to CeCe’s’s friend, Ty Thomas, the taunting grew very ugly and became racist in nature with homophobic slurs.
In a move hard to comprehend, McDonald decided to confront her tormentors. In the altercation that followed, a woman named Molly Shannon Flaherty smashed a glass across CeCe’s face, slicing her severely. The rest of the story is murky, but what is known is that in the midst of the fight that ensued, Flaherty’s former boyfriend, Dean Schmitz, ended up dead with a pair of scissors planted in his chest.
Gary Gilbert worked security at the Schooner Tavern and he called 911 to get help. All he could see and say was “Black lady with a knife.” Meanwhile, Dean Schmitz was laying on the sidewalk in front of the bar looking seriously injured.
When the 911 operator asked for a description of the culprit, Gilbert followed the suspect as she fled the scene. He described her as wearing shorts. She had a weave, was 5’7’’ or 5’8’’ and appeared to be heading towards Target.
A man named Anthony Stoneburg happened to be in the area visiting his aunt when he stumbled upon the bloody scene. Schmitz’s stab wound was ¾ inch long and was at least three inches deep and had punctured his heart. Stoneburg tried his best to help Schmitz whose breathing was labored and to stop the bleeding.
Molly Flaherty was kneeling beside Schmitz and could be heard trying to comfort him. He died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
In the meantime, Minneapolis officers had found their suspect in the parking lot of Cub Foods across from Schooner Tavern. In fact, she is the one who flagged down the officers as soon as she spotted them. As a 23-year-old woman who had studied fashion at the local Community College, CeCe did not have the look or the attitude of a dangerous killer. Nor did she have any previous history of violence.
Nothing about this case would turn out to be as it appeared.
In the 11 months following Schmitz’s death, the details about that night were repeated countless times to police, lawyers, journalists, politicians and protestors. The facts remained quite constant but the huge debate surrounding the case remained: Who is the protagonist and who is the villain?
McDonald was accused of Schmitz’s murder even though she insisted that it was a case of self-defence. Apparently, he had approached her in a threatening manner and had ignored her warnings to back away. She was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to 41 months in prison which she served at a men’s facility. According to some activists, this was a violation of the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act
“I’m sure that to Dean’s family, he was a loving, caring person,’’ McDonald told the Court at her sentencing hearing, according to the Star Tribune. “But that is not what I saw that night. I saw a racist, transphobic, narcissistic bigot who did not have any regard for my friends and I.’’
McDonald’s supporters were outraged after it was revealed that Schmitz had a lengthy criminal record and ties to white power organizations. Advocates repeatedly called for the charges against CeCe to be dropped, but the prosecutor proceeded with the case.
Her supporters declared her a victim of a brutal attack and balked at her being charged with any crime. To some, she became some kind of hero, a transgender Matthew Shepard, who was the young man who was tied to a fence and murdered because he was gay.
“This could have been any of us,” says Billy Navaro, a transgender man and co-founder of Support CeCe, an advocacy group for McDonald. “She wasn’t asking for any trouble whatsoever. She was going to the grocery store with her family.”
Even City Councilman Cam Gordon publicly announced his support for McDonald, calling the incident “another example of transgender women of color being targeted for hate-and-bias-related violence.”
National transgender celebrities, including author and activist Leslie Fineberg, traveled to Minneapolis to visit McDonald in jail and attend her court appearances. Supporters held rallies and dance parties outside the Hennepin County Jail in her honor.
But Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman did not consider McDonald a hero. He insisted that the case was unfairly politicized and that the fact that McDonald is a transgender was inconsequential.
“We see all kinds of crime by all sorts of people against all sorts of other people,” said Freeman. “We try to review it as racially blind, as sexual-orientation blind, as economically blind as we can be. The scales of justice have got a blindfold on them for a reason, and we try to follow that.”
Could the tragedy that took place in front of the Schooner Tavern on the night of June 5, 2011, have been more about bad timing than a homophobic/racist incident? Was it a chance meeting between two very different people that was bound to explode?
In January 2014, McDonald was granted an early release from prison after serving two-thirds of her sentence. Advocacy groups welcomed the news but continue to call for better legal protections for the LGBT community which is often victimized by hate crimes.
The case “reinforced the belief there is a double standard applied to us. CeCe was trying to defend herself from hate violence. The charges against her did not fit the crime,” Transgender Law Center senior strategist Cecilia Chung told a reporter.
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In 2006, four New Jersey African-American lesbian and gender-non-conforming women were sent to prison for between three-and-a-half and 11 years for defending themselves against a man who sexually propositioned them and subsequently choked and spat on them, pulled out their hair, and threatened to sexually assault them. The women are known among LGBT advocates as the “New Jersey 4.”
- On December 5, 2013, Betty Skinner, a 52-year-old disabled transgender woman, was found dead in her Cleveland assisted-living facility. She had been beaten severely and died of blunt force trauma to the head.
- Nearby, less than a day later, a 22-year-old transgender woman named Brittany Nicole Kidd Stergis was found shot to death in her car.
The murders were the second and third killings of transgender women in Cleveland in 2013. In April, Cemia “CeCe” Dove, 20, was found tied to a concrete block at the bottom of a Cuyahoga County pond.
Police told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the crimes didn’t appear to be related, and neither was deemed a hate crime. But Aaron Eckhardt of the Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization, which fights LGBT discrimination, states, “It’s hard to believe otherwise.”
On August 16, 2013, lslan Nettles was walking on the streets of New York City with friends when a group of young men approached her, learned she was a transgender woman, and began taunting and maliciously beating her in front of a police precinct in Harlem.
The fashion design student with delicate features was punched in the face, knocked to the ground and beaten until she lost consciousness.
“They were called f****, they were called he-she’s, she males, things of that nature,” Nettles’ mother told a local reporter.
Islan Nettles fell into a coma she would never awake from. She died after being taken off of life support at the tender age of 21. Her assailant, Paris Wilson, was booked on a misdemeanor assault charge and freed on $2,000 bail. The charges against Wilson were subsequently dropped as the prosecution did not have clear evidence that he was the one who had committed the crime. Even though he was identified by several witnesses at the scene, Judge Statsinger and the prosecutors were not satisfied with this witness identification.
The site of the violence, near a police station, highlights a startling increase in hate crimes against the LGBT community, and what some view as a historic lack of police empathy or interest.
In January 2014, a 16-year-old high school transgender student in Hercules, Calif., Jewlyes Gutierrez, was brought up on battery charges by local authorities for defending herself against bullies at her school. None of her assailants have been charged.
Local law enforcement isn’t commenting on Gutierrez’s case — but in Minneapolis, officials have been consistent in their contention that McDonald is a criminal. Some say she has paid a debt to society that she didn’t owe, while others perceive her punishment as having been too light.
McDonald could have easily been sentenced to twenty-five years and her 41 month sentence was judged as very reasonable by many members of the public. Her advocates, however, would not have any of it — especially after finding out that Molly Flaherty, who was nicknamed the “Black Widow’, was a meth head and a troublemaker with a record. Schmitz, who is survived by one child, also had a criminal background.
I would like to think that Molly Flaherty and her friends realize that their outrageously abusive behavior contributed to the death of their friend. Slashing someone’s face can only entice violence. But I also believe that McDonald and her group, despite the many aggravating factors, had no business confronting these losers. If they had walked away, none of this would have happened. Was CeCe really only defending herself against her assailant? If so, she should not have been charged, but it was not a clear cut case.
At trial, McDonald said that they tried to walk away but that Flaherty would not let them. Gary Gilbert recalled that McDonald appeared to be holding a blade, while Schmitz had his fists clenched. According to a witness, Schmitz said to McDonald “you gonna stab me, you bitch?” Schmitz then hunched over, put his hand to his chest and said “you stabbed me,” to which McDonald allegedly replied, “Yes I did.”
Molly Flaherty was charged in May 2012 with second-degree assault with a deadly weapon and third-degree assault causing substantial bodily harm. Her case was referred to the Washington County Attorney’s Office to avoid a conflict of interest. She was subsequently sentenced to six months jail time to be followed by probation.
The case of beautiful Islan Nettles is unequivocally one of unprovoked attack leading to death, as opposed to McDonald’s case. And the perpetrator walked. In my opinion, she is a more suitable poster girl for transgender injustice than CeCe. I have no doubt that many members of the LGBT community are not out of the woods and are still at risk. But as far as McDonald goes, I am not convinced of her total lack of responsibility in the tragedy.
What do you think?