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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