CeCe McDonald is a Minneapolis-based prison abolitionist. A trans woman, she spent 19 months in a men’s prison for defending herself against a racist and transphobic attack that occurred near her home in 2011. Both local and national groups and activists rallied around McDonald’s case, bringing national attention to violence against trans women of color, and the particular institutional violence posed by gender-segregated incarceration.
The story resonated with actress Laverne Cox, who has been outspoken on issues of violence against trans people, and in 2016 she produced and released Free CeCe, a partially crowdfunded documentary directed by Jac Gares. Of McDonald’s case, Gares said: “The thing that stood out the most to me was that CeCe was a survivor, and the way she survived was that she said to herself, ‘My life has value.’ “[For black trans women], that’s not a story we often hear in the headlines.” The film follows McDonald over a period of three years, from her incarceration in 2012 to her release and the aftermath in 2014-2015, including an interview with Cox in jail and her continuing advocacy for trans people. McDonald delivered a powerful critique of the prison-industrial complex in conversation with Melissa Harris-Perry following her release, and later that year was awarded the Bayard Rustin Civil Right Award by the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club. In 2016, McDonald teamed up with fellow prison abolitionist Joshua Allen for their Black Excellence Tour, and she continues to travel, speaking against prisons and raising awareness around violence against trans women of color.