In its mission to equip students with a profound and well-versed liberal arts education, Vassar College makes an effort to foster political discourse that challenges perennial injustices in society and rethink the outlines of American institutions. Inviting Cece McDonald and Chelsea Manning as individuals who have experienced these injustices, the Vassar Student Association (VSA), the Women Studies’ Program, the Women’s Center, the Africana Studies Program, the ALANA Center, the LGBTQ Center and other organizations supported a public conversation, “No Prisons, No Wars: Setting a Trans Abolitionist Agenda,” with the two activists in Taylor Hall on the evening of Feb. 7.
The discussion centered on McDonald’s and Manning’s responses to questions prepared by the student hosts. One of the hosts, Sessi Blanchard ’18, noted, “The event ‘No Prisons No Wars’ was originally conceived as an intervention … Such [abolitionist] politics necessitates the creation of a new way of thinking that exceeds the current order of things.”
VSA President Anish Kanoria ’18 reflected, “McDonald and Manning are both inspiring people who are leaders and advocates in this country. Seeing them in conversation with each other promised to be a fundamentally interesting experience.”
The event, which has been in the works for months, is part of an effort to widen the public visibility of LGBTQ identities and create space for reconsidering the legitimacy of the incarceration system and the military-industrial complex.
McDonald was born in 1989 in Chicago and moved to Minneapolis to study fashion. In June 2011, a group of people McDonald and several of her friends passed on the street near Schooner Tavern confronted them with racial and homophobic comments. One woman, Molly Flaherty, hit McDonald in the face with a glass of alcohol. When Flaherty’s friend Dean Schmidt attempted to extricate her from the ensuing struggle, McDonald stabbed him in the chest with a pair of scissors. Following this incident, McDonald served 19 months in prison for second-degree manslaughter until her release in January 2014. She gained public support when she received the Bayard Rustin Civil Rights Award and was featured in the documentary “FREE Cece” (Rolling Stone, “The Transgender Crucible,” 2014).
Manning, who was born in Crescent, Oklahoma in 1987, enlisted in the Army in 2007 to become an intelligence analyst at Fort Huachua, Arizona. After sharing classified information on the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, Guantanamo Bay and U.S. State Department Cables to WikiLeaks in May 2010, Manning was sentenced to 35 years under the Espionage Act and served seven years in prison until former President Barack Obama commuted the sentence. Harvard University offered Manning a visiting fellowship in September 2017, which it subsequently cancelled after CIA Director Mike Pompeo cancelled an appearance at Harvard in response. Manning initiated a campaign in Maryland for the U.S. Senate in Jan. 2018 (BBC News, “Chelsea Manning: Wikileaks sources and her turbulent life,” 2017).
Both McDonald and Manning found that their personal lives were in and of themselves controversial political issues. Reflecting on her early years, McDonald considered her trans identity and described, “I never really indulged in politics because I didn’t feel it was necessary or germane to my existence, but I had to navigate society with my existence because it is a topic for politicians.”
Manning had a similar experience with the politicization of her LGBTQ identity and agreed, “I was never really political until [California] Proposition 8 passed in 2008 … I went to Iraq … It kind of shook me and I became more questioning. I started reading more history … I wanted to reconcile what I thought was true with what I was seeing.” While debates over the proposed ban on same-sex marriage in Proposition 8 began with a petition in July 2008 to remove the provision from the referendum ballot, Manning started training at Fort Drum in August 2008 for her deployment to Iraq in November 2009. At this time, she also contacted a counselor for the first time to discuss her gender identity.
Among the 750,000 classified or sensitive documents she provided to WikiLeaks, Manning saw evidence of military action that she did not believe to be just. Some of the documents recorded a Baghdad airstrike in July 2007, in which U.S. helicopters killed several bystanders, including journalists and children, during an engagement with Iraqi insurgents.
Manning observed of the sociopolitical implications of her life decisions, “Engaging with the state I think there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. We could talk theory all day … You have to be pragmatic, strategic, you have to be goal-oriented. As an activist, every time I’m doing activism, I’m not just saying what I think, but also doing what I think.”
Her emphasis on tangible action as a complement to radical theoretical thinking resonated with on-campus activists who believe in making small, carefully considered changes to pave the way for a radical break from past institutions to a broad social vision. Blanchard responded, “I think incrementalism can be conflated with reformism—instead, you’re thinking pragmatically. Just because you’re going after small actions doesn’t mean that you don’t have big plans.”
Incarceration was a turning point for these activists. McDonald decided to speak out after receiving letters of support from family, friends and engaged bystanders all over the country. She recounted, “I wasn’t really expecting people to support me in the situation … After the letters came and people said that I was a leader or that I inspired them, that kind of sparked it. But then when people started sending me these really radical reading materials, the spark was there … Especially ‘The New Jim Crow,’ it’s very ironic reading about the prison-industrial complex while you’re in prison.”
“The New Jim Crow,” written by law historian Michelle Alexander, appeared in bookstores in 2010 and documents the discrimination against African Americans implicit in higher rates of incarceration for minority and low socioeconomic status populations. Alexander pointed out similarities between the Jim Crow laws during Reconstruction and segregation of African Americans by imprisonment in contemporary America. Taking this history into account, McDonald argued, “There is no way to reform something that is inherently toxic … I went into being an abolitionist because that’s the only way we’ll be able to move on.”
Manning agreed with McDonald’s argument that America would benefit from drastic cuts in prisons and prison populations, representing a new abolition to new forms of segregation. She elaborated, “I never really thought about it until I went to prison. I spent a year in solitary confinement, I spent six years in general population … I learned that prison is the same everywhere … At the bottom, seeing what it’s like, feeling what it’s like, living under the thumb of this system really just woke me up … It doesn’t help anybody except the elite class. That’s what drove me down, this class; we can’t fix or repair these systems.”
Compared to McDonald, who advocated an intersectional analysis that accounts for nuances of power in race, class and gender, Manning found that hegemonic institutions have entrenched intersectional discourse as a bastion of the status quo. She clarified, “Institutions of power, they want us to be arguing about the rights for a particular group, they want to have these categories. At a strategic level, in the conference rooms and golf courses, this is where billionaires divide up the world … They use these as tools to divide us.”
For this reason, abolitionists such as McDonald and Manning use open conversation to find similarity across difference in experiences of oppression. McDonald alluded to President Donald Trump’s popularity among conservatives and explained, “Every time you see a white person with a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat on, that’s their idea of liberation.” Following Manning’s concern about the elite appropriation of intersectional discourse, McDonald continued, “If people are thinking about their battle as the most important, there will never be clear communication.”
Among the most important questions to consider, McDonald cited, “How are you interrogating your privilege, and how are you interrogating other people’s privileges? How are we reaching out to other people to make sure that they’re feeling safe in their communities? … When we see these institutions telling us we need them, it’s hard for us to communicate … All we need is each other, it starts with telling my neighbor not to call the police every time they see a Black or brown person in the neighborhood.”
The event left students with tough questions to grapple with on institutions, identity and community. Blanchard concluded, “Abolitionism has to be destructive, but what’s destructive about it is constructive … By holding each other, the state will wither.”
Pieter Block ’19 disagreed with this enthusiasm and noted, “I think the policy was a little off base. I think the incrementalism style put forward by Manning was more realistic.”
Seeing the event as a small step toward change, Kanoria suggested, “I think if it inspires, motivates or reinforces the beliefs of even one person, it will have a lasting impact on our community at Vassar and in the Hudson Valley.”