CeCe McDonald vs. Pussy Riot: Political Imprisonment and Perspective

Ed. note: This post is part of the second round of the Feministing “So You Think You Can Blog” contributor contest (background here). Stay tuned all week as our six finalists take turns turns covering the blog and giving us a sense of their personal contributor style. The winner of the contest and newest member of the Feministing team will be announced next week!

A LexisNexis search of major, English-language, publications for the term “CeCe McDonald” yields one search result. It’s an opinion piece, published in the Sydney Morning Herald from late August. Unfortunately, the article wasn’t even about McDonald. It was about Pussy Riot.

I would venture a guess that more articles are published about Pussy Riot in an hour than have been published about McDonald since the attempts on her life that led to her conviction for manslaughter. And my research has proven such a guess to be true. Even if I broadened my search to include all English-language publications (which includes popular blogs like Jezebel and smaller market newspapers, like the Minneapolis Star Tribune, but excludes Feministing.com), I could only find 49 articles in which she was mentioned. Compare that to the 606 articles written on Pussy Riot in the last week.

More articles call the members of Pussy Riot political prisoners than acknowledge CeCe McDonald’s existence. You are more likely to see the names of the three Pussy Rioters spelled correctly than see authors use the proper pronouns when discussing McDonald’s case. Hell, I’d bet my salary that more articles have been written about Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s hair than about the sum total of trans* women who have been murdered this year, much less those who are also women of color.

For all the rhetoric about political prisoners in other countries, we neglect to acknowledge the women of color, the trans* women, the disabled women, the queer women, who are held as political prisoners in our own nation.

Amnesty International’s definition of political imprisonment includes “Any prisoner whose case has a significant political element: whether the motivation of the prisoner’s acts, the acts themselves, or the motivation of the authorities.” The fact that women like CeCe, Marissa Alexander, and the New Jersey Four are held in prison for defending themselves, while white men can simply claim self-defense and walk free for months, if not years, speaks to a motivation of those in power to marginalize, disempower, and isolate “undesirable” members of society.

Trans* women of color are disproportionally likely to be murdered than cisgendered women. They are more likely to be murdered than white trans* women (estimates say that the rate of murder among trans* women is 1 in 12. I’ve seen some sources that claim the rate for trans* women of color is closer to 1 in 8, but nothing citable). There is a shameful epidemic of violence against LGBTQ women of color and no one wants to talk about. Knowing this, it is reasonable that CeCe would feel the need to use force to protect herself.

It’s easy to write a blog post about three, now two, white women being imprisoned in a far-away land, our perception of which is formed more by Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons and 11th grade readings of A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich than we’d care to admit. It’s easy to tweet a joke about how you’re now boycotting borscht in solidarity, even though that is a Ukrainian dish. And it is far far easier to feel like a bad-ass radical in solidarity with women halfway around the globe than it is to analyze the racism, homophobia, misogyny, and transmisogyny in our own country.

For many white feminists (and white male feminist allies, whose words tend to fill column inches), it is easier to find solidarity with and support the actions of women who look like the women of Pussy Riot do: white, attractive, married, mothers who conform to our expectations of femininity in every way except their activism. The mainstream media narrative of pussy riot harps on our supposed similarities to the women—their married life, their vegetarianism, their message t-shirts—while conveniently glossing over seemingly unsavory dissimilarities—the orgies, the rejection of male involvement in the group, that time a member inserted a piece of raw chicken into her vagina in a supermarket. Conversely, whenever a writer describes CeCe, the differences are emphasized: she is trans*, she is black, she was violent. Neglected re the similarities; she is a daughter, a friend, a mentor, and a person who, one dark night, was afraid for her life.

The solution isn’t to throw over the members of Pussy Riot in favor of advocating for our home-grown political prisoners. What is happening to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina is horrific and Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church deserve all the shade they get. But to ignore that the United States regularly imprisons women for political purposes is, at best, willfully ignorant, or, at worst, condoning the privilege implicit in the prison-industrial complex.

My favorite CeCe quote is “Never doubt or underestimate your own abilities. We are all stronger, smarter, [and more] talented, beautiful, and resilient than we were told.” Outrage isn’t a zero-sum game. We can be horrified by Pussy Riot’s treatment, while also fighting against the system that we are in many ways complicit in, a system that imprisons women for surviving attacks on their lives. Don’t underestimate your ability to be outraged and to protest and make noise.

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11 Comments

  1. Posted October 17, 2012 at 12:39 am | Permalink

    So is it possible to raise further awareness about CeCe McDonald without pissing all over someone else’s wrongful imprisonment while doing it? Are you mad at Bradley Manning and Mumia Abu Jamal too? Wait – are you the zinester who wrote complaining about this before?

    • Posted October 17, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      This is my first article on CeCe/political prisoners, and I don’t even really know what a zine is, so I think you’re thinking of someone else.

      All political imprisonment is wrong. B. Manning is a political prisoner, and they are almost universally acknowledged to be one. Manning’s imprisonment has galvanized an entire internet community (wikileaks/anonymous/occupy). The Mumia case has resonated over decades and can still provoke spirited debates. Pussy Riot trended on all social media sites and filled countless column inches. And yet we ignore CeCe.

      This article is not intended to disregard the suffering and injustice of political prisoners, but to point out bias and perspective in those who comment on them.

      • Posted October 18, 2012 at 12:52 am | Permalink

        @Lizy – Thanks, sorry if I came off a bit terse in my initial reaction. There was a poster recently in the community section who’d written a rather nasty , dismissive, and misinformed post about the Pussy Riot case that seemed to boil down to it getting a lot of media attention while she was having trouble getting submissions for a transgendered zine (a samizdat self-made publication) she was putting out. I know a number of people in the transgendered community here are supportive of PR and that they also advocate for LGBTQ rights in Russia, so I didn’t really see it as an either-or thing. Honestly, of the ones still at large, who’s to say all people under those balaclavas are cisgendered women?

        Regarding CeCe McDonald, after all said and done I looked up her name and read about her case. It’s outrageous, all that there are whole parts of our society that society itself fails to protect, that it won’t let them protect themselves, that the reality of the threats she’d get just living her life were not admissible in court, that to top it all off she’s being sent to a women’s prison, which might put her in worse danger – at least, once when I was in a cell for 24 hours, a trans woman was brought in, and the guard explains to a couple of people who questioned this that she was safer in the womens cell. But this was in New York, not Minnesota, the laws may vary from state to state?

        • Posted October 18, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

          Jenny, CeCe McDonald is being held in a men’s prison. (is that what you meant to say?) Moreover, many trans women being held in such facilities are kept in solitary confinement (or restricted confinement) for months and even years at a time, supposedly for their own safety. Many trans women are also sexually assaulted by guards and staff regardless of where they’re being held.

          I appreciate you for taking the time to learn about CeCe and her case, but just because someone points out the prioritization of stories in the media based on societal privilege doesn’t mean, therefore, they’re disrespecting a story you care about. I care about both Pussy Riot and CeCe and what their respective persecutions represent about power spectrums in society, but I very much agree with what Lizy wrote.

          • Posted October 21, 2012 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

            Yeah, I meant to write “men’s prison” there, sorry, that was a typo.

            Like I explained when I apologized to Lizy, this came shortly after a more mean spirited article along (but not exactly) the same lines, so I wasn’t certain if it was the same person. Part of what the prosecution brought up in the PR case was their opposition to the “gay propaganda” law in Russia that censors any open or honest discussion of LGBTQ rights and issues, so I don’t see concern for both cases as being at odds with each other.

    • Posted October 17, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      BRIANNA MANNING you insensitive bigoted jerk. How DARE you misgender her, and use her birth name in an article about how trans political prisoners are ignored and glossed over. How DARE you try to teach us how to advocate for our rights, while you further establish the dominant cissexual hierarchy of power.

      • Posted October 18, 2012 at 12:18 am | Permalink

        As was pointed out before, you ASSUMPTIVE bigoted jerk (since Feministing is now allowing personal name calling, apparently), when the Bradley/possibly Breanna thing was brought up on Feministing, Pfc. Manning has not been given the chance to speak about her or his possible transgendered identity publicly, though others have tried to bring it into the trial. I am not discount the idea that Pfc. Manning may be transgendered, and even commented as such in the original thread. But subsequent commenters pointed out that it could be seen as co-optive of Manning’s identity to presume this before xe could speak for themselves. I felt these commenters had a good point and decided it be best to use the name this hero is most readily recognized under for the time being, until they are able to make their own wishes known as to how they wish to identify. Here is that thread:

        http://feministing.com/2011/12/22/why-does-the-media-and-her-supposed-supporters-continue-to-misgender-breanna-manning/

        Furthermore, though I DARE a lot of things, to try to teach you how to advocate or do anything else wouldn’t be worth the effort, since you are clearly too hardheaded to have anything but the most inane of conversations.

      • Posted October 19, 2012 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

        How come you didn’t put up my response explaining my choice to continue using Bradley Manning’s birth name until he (or she?) is free to specifically state her (or his?) wishes on how to be identified and what name to go by? Especially since it links to the earlier discussion on Feministing and the other commenters’ observations about it?

        How come Jemma is allowed to use the type of name calling attacks that are discouraged in Feministing’s Community Standards, but I’m forbidden from talking back to her?

        Does anyone else find a lecturing “how dare you” type of flame to be a tad…pateralistic?

        • Posted October 21, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

          Fine. Jenny, I approved both your comments only because we’d accidentally allowed Jemma’s name-calling first. I won’t approve any more from either of you if you keep up the totally unnecessary personal attacks. This conversation is a derail anyway.

  2. Posted October 17, 2012 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

    Whoa. This seriously blew my mind. Thanks for pointing out the parallels between Pussy Riot and Cece McDonald! I love these sort of think pieces that challenge us to look beyond simple narratives and analyze the complexities of power, oppression, and identity.

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