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An interview with CeCe McDonald
by Andrea Abi-Karam

State violence is in our bodies, buried deep inside our bones. It flares up in moments of tension in flashes in shaking in a motel courtyard with no way out. State violence is in between our bones, separating our bodies from ourselves floating above the weight of bodies in the street. Against the vast state that imposes this state of violence in our bones in our bodies between ourselves and this state of.

It would be impossible to talk about CeCe McDonald's case without talking about Michael Brown and Eric Garner; without talking about the systematic targeting, imprisoning, and killing of people of color by the police; without talking about how state violence lives in the bodies of QTPOC folks from their first breath, long before any freeways were taken. CeCe's prison sentence -- which came after after she acted in self-defense against a transphobic attack -- was dealt by the same hands that took Michael Brown and Eric Garner's lives.

California prison abolition group Critical Resistance brought CeCe McDonald to the Bay Area earlier this fall for a panel discussion with Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a prison abolitionist, City University of New York professor, and author of Golden Gulag.

Following the discussion, I spoke with McDonald about activism beyond hashtags, prison abolition strategies, and how to fight back against systemic QTPOC oppression. She called out performative activism, or social media activism, and pressed people to push beyond privileged passivity, to engage the power of cis-white privilege for activism, allyship, and advocacy. She emphasized the importance of prison abolition over reform. She highlighted the culture of hate that we live in, the failure of allies to understand that they cannot speak for the black body, or for the trans body walking down the street. She explained that we have to resist this culture of hate and remember our connectedness as humans, as creators, fighting not to just survive but to thrive.

AK: Can you talk more about how in the prison abolition movement it's important to not do any reformist work?

CeCe: I feel like true reform would be the actual ending of that and dismantling the prison system. There is no such thing as saying we can fix it and end it. We can only have it one or the other way. A true abolitionist, while thinking of reform, would think of ways to, 1. free prisoners, 2. dismantle the prison industrial complex, and 3. find alternative solutions and other ways to deal with crime and punishment and justice. The word reform needs to reform, needs to reshape itself.

We don't want to make it different. We want to make it end. And I'm definitely agreeing with Dr. Ruth Gilmore, author of Golden Gulag, on that one only because for me as a person who really doesn't believe in reform, what she said was in itself true and correct. In my opinion, there is no such thing as reform.

You talked about people being passive players in this framework of resisting capitalism, racism, and all the other terrible things. What are your suggestions on how people cannot play that game, or resist that game?

I feel like a lot of times people don't speak up, or you know, talk about these things. They're so comfortable with their privilege, comfortable with the things they are used to. I can't go day-to-day and do the same things as a cis-gendered white woman because she has more privilege than me and can get away with stuff. So I'm going to have to speak up about the things I face more than [that] other person.

I do hope that people do stand there and acknowledge their privilege. That they say, "hey, I have this certain type of privilege . . . you might be queer, you might be trans, you might be gay, but you still have a white privilege that you can access, or because you might be cis-gendered, that's a privilege because you might come from a background of money." To not be so passive about things is to speak out and educate yourself on these things and know what the reality is, what the truth is, assimilate that with your privilege and make shit happen.

For me, I feel like it's really important because a lot of times people claim to be an ally or an activist but you can't be passive and be both. It's contradictory. You can't be an activist and sit back on the sidelines and be like, "oh, I made some cookies to raise money for a cause." That's nice, but the reality is baking cookies isn't going to help the cause. The act of having a voice and standing up for people, that is a cause.

Sometimes people get so caught up in what it is to be an activist. For me, being an activist is really powerful and really moving, but I also don't give too much of myself until I see how much the next person is giving of themselves. Unless it's for myself

I can't be in a space with a bunch of people who think baking cookies and having a potluck is real activist work. We have to be diligent and real about this shit. We need to have a movement and be real about it. We can't rely on having movements. It's the way we encounter the people we're surrounded by everyday.

People who have privilege can utilize that on a day-to-day basis and make some really big changes. I want to see how many rich white people can call out their other rich white friends when they say something wrong. That's being a true ally. That's being a true activist. It doesn't have to just be you with a picket sign marching down the street. That's cool too, but what about the domestic shit? What about the shit that's right next to me? That's what counts more than being passive and saying that you're an activist.

Those people who I just named, someone who just sits back and talks all this talk about being equal and being fair and being just and then says some nasty gross stuff, or being like, "I'm going to walk away from that one" ... That's not being a true activist. That's being passive.

It also lies in micro aggressions. Those are the true feelings. That's being a coward. That's not being a true activist. You can't allow someone to do negative things to other people, and assimilate yourself to that other person, and not try to say or do something about it. That's contradictory to the word activist and advocacy.

This is a big question, but I would like to hear some of your thoughts on transformative justice.

Transformative justice is a very complex and touchy subject, as we all know. It really depends on the individual and their views about prison abolition. Some people's idea of transformative justice is true and fair, but we know that the system is not set up to be true and fair. It is made to break down marginalized groups, to "divide and conquer." So, for me, transformative justice is non-essential. It's something that is created to give people hope that there is fairness or could be fairness in the justice system. We know the reality of that. It's not possible. Transformative justice is to contradict prison abolition in a sense.

When liberals and abolitionists have conversations, that is always what they talk about. You talked about having a positive relationship with your Parole Officer and I was curious -- how could you have that relationship just with the hard line of Corrections staff?

We have to understand people have predispositions. People who have internalized issues have occupations. So just because we expect that a person is racist or sexist or classist or ageist or any of these things, think they're going to work. They're going to have jobs, they're going to work in places that you go to on a day-to-day basis, whether it be the post office, McDonalds, the beach, or the prisons.

It's icky that they work for the prison industrial complex, yes. But not all of them are bad. We also got to expect that some are going to have a predisposition about you, whether it's because you're a woman, whether they don't like you because you're black or a person of color, when they're not going to like you because you're queer or you're trans or gender non-conforming. That exists. Those people exist and have jobs and those jobs are the places that we go to on a day-to-day basis.

What kinds of things do you want to see come out of the prison abolition movement?

In order for us to talk about the abolition of prisons we have to talk about how to prevent people from getting in prisons. How do we change things around current policies and current people being in prison, not so much think about the crimes but how to prevent them, but the reality is that not all crimes are preventable. We are going to have people who are ignorant, we are going to have people who still are filled with hate and with that we know that cases of hate crimes and violence against women and trans women violence against the LGBTQIA community. That's going to still exist, crimes against people of color. Crime is still going to exist, so how do we talk about abolition and not talk about the reality that hate exists? We have to acknowledge that and figure out how to navigate that there are some people that aren't easy to convince that: I'm a good person as a black person or I'm a good person as a trans person. We have to understand that and then maybe we can talk about the realities of what justice could look like.

Definitely, live your politics. Is there anything else you would like to say?

I just want people to start realizing the world that we live in. I want people to open their minds and their hearts to the things that are going on across the world with the advances of social media. Every day we see police brutality, racism, war crimes, hunger, poverty, so much that we sit back and say, "eh, that's sad, oh well, that's bad," and then go about our daily lives to the nearest Starbucks and forget all about that. We need to open our minds and hearts to these changes to see justice, fear, and equality. We have to be the people who want change and move upon that to end the isms. It hinders us as human beings. It prevents us from progressing. That's what the system wants. They don't want us to progress, to realize our true potential as human beings who can come together aside from all those -isms and just be human beings. We can see advocacy on a different level, see ally-ship on a different level and then, from there we can grow. For me, it's a process. I'm still going through issues with my incident, learning to trust people. I know there are people out there who are good, that want change, that expect love and empathy and sympathy and we need more people like that. We need to stop raising our younger generation and our children to these ideas of hate. It's really hard. I know that it's possible.

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