Decriminalize Dissent

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Decriminalize Dissent

Cecily McMillan, center in bright yellow/green, is arrested by NYPD officers after protesting in Zuccotti Park on March 17, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

September 17 marks the fourth anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, which inspired a new generation of American dissidents and a global wave of protest against economic inequality.
Stirred by the Arab Spring, the occupiers rallied an intergenerational, multiracial, cross-class coalition against the power of the wealthiest 1 percent, behind the banner of “We are the 99 percent.” Their message struck a chord with millions fed up with the trickle-down economics that had failed to deliver on its promise of prosperity, and the top-down politics that had failed to live up to the promise of democracy.

Yet, from Lower Manhattan to Ferguson, Missouri, and from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, such nonviolent movements continue to be met with paramilitary tactics and military-grade weaponry meant to maintain “law and order” at any cost. Targeted for arrest, assault and detention, young activists have been equated with criminals, dissidents with domestic terrorists.  

This equation has not made us any safer. In fact, there is a growing body of evidence that such tactics lead to more violence, not less, in our streets. A forthcoming study of 192 Occupy protests by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute for Data Science finds that protest violence tends to be provoked by aggressive police tactics — not the other way around. By contrast, when police stand down, protests tend to persist, but with lower rates of arrest and a lower incidence of violence.

The latest data lend credence to our experiences of the Occupy protests, which are documented in a new book by one of the authors that traces the movement from inception to repression. As participants in that movement, we have seen firsthand the propensity of violence to beget more violence. We have also witnessed the human cost of this violence.

In the fall of 2011, we were a couple of twenty-something graduate students who found ourselves drawn to Zuccotti Park, then known as Liberty Square. Both of us participated in the occupation from the start, one of us as a student and labor organizer, the other as a sociologist and citizen journalist. Among other lessons, we were taught by the NYPD the repression of handcuffs, pepper spray and batons.

For two months, the occupiers held the square in the face of daily brutality and thousands of arrests. Similar occupations rose up across the country and faced similar resistance from authorities. In the process, the occupiers sought to take the fight to the financial institutions responsible for the economic crisis, turning it into a political crisis for the “1 percent.” 

On November 15, the Wall Street occupation came to an abrupt and violent end, as riot police descended on the park in the dead of night, rounded up its residents and declared the downtown Financial District a “frozen zone.” Similar crackdowns occurred elsewhere, from Oakland, California, to Tampa Bay, Florida, coordinated by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.

On the night of March 17, 2012, we returned to Liberty Square to celebrate the six-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. As police encircled the park, an officer seized one of us, Cecily, from behind, snatched her backwards by the breast and slammed her face-first into the concrete; when her elbow accidentally struck her assailant, officers kicked and beat her into a series of seizures. She remained handcuffed, her head repeatedly striking the ground.

The other author, Michael, protested as police turned away paramedics and the press. He demanded his right to document the police activity, but was repeatedly rebuffed. One officer ended the exchange with the jab of a nightstick, as if to drive the point home. Other citizen journalists would join the 73 arrested that night for constitutionally protected activity.

While in custody, Cecily’s hands and feet were cuffed to a hospital bed and at one point she was stuffed into a storage supply closet at Bellevue Hospital; she had been missing for several hours when the hacktivist group Anonymous called attention to her case. She was ultimately charged with second-degree felony assault, and her bail initially set at $20,000. Though she had no criminal record, prosecutors described her as “dangerous” and cited her “relationship” with “terroristic” groups.

Though the Internet echoed with calls for violent retribution, the authors remained committed to the strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience. But no matter how resolutely nonviolent they may be, protesters are routinely cast as violent, from the newsroom to the courtroom. And protesters tend to be put on trial long before they even have their day in court.

In Cecily’s case, the presiding judge proclaimed her guilt from the get-go. Witness after witness testified to her nonviolence, and graphic photographs testified to the violence of her assailant — including the five-fingered bruise on her right breast. Yet the district attorney accused her of staging the sexual assault, while the judge disallowed any and all evidence of police brutality in Zuccotti Park.

On May 5, 2014, Cecily was found guilty and remanded without bail to Rikers Island Correctional Facility. Two weeks later, she returned for sentencing in a private, armored truck to face up to seven years in prison. When the jury caught word of her sentencing, 9 of 12 jurors petitioned for her immediate release. Instead, she spent 58 days behind bars.

As a felon, she cannot vote, teach, serve on a jury or run for office. She cannot travel without permission; her passport has been revoked and she is on a Department of Homeland Security watch list. For the next five years, she will be required to report to probation. The loss of a job or a home could land her in a prison cell. Her case is pending appeal, but in the event that she refuses a plea bargain, she could face another six years and nine months in prison.

Cecily’s case is one of the most egregious of the more than 7,000 arrests that were documented during the crackdown on the Occupy movement. That crackdown revealed to the general public what communities of color in this country and others have long known: Policing is increasingly defined by the logic of “law and order” at any cost — even at the expense of public safety, civil liberty and the very order it purports to protect. Ultimately, it is all of us who will pay the price.

Some of those on the receiving end of batons and rubber bullets have become increasingly skeptical of the necessity of nonviolence. While their position may be untenable, its causes are intelligible. The reality is that people tend to behave in a rational fashion when they are granted the right to freely assemble. When they are deprived of their constitutional rights and a basic sense of security, fear takes over and hotter heads prevail.

The policing of protest is having the opposite effect of the one intended. The time has come for Mayor Bill de Blasio, Police Commissioner William Bratton and their counterparts across the country to decriminalize dissent — no matter how disruptive, disobedient or radical it may seem. A democratic society demands nothing less.

Cecily McMillan

Cecily McMillan is a social justice organizer and prison rights advocate. Her memoir, The Emancipation of Cecily McMillan, is forthcoming from Nation Books.

Michael Gould-Wartofsky

Michael Gould-Wartofsky is the author of the new book, The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement (Oxford University Press). He is a PhD candidate in Sociology at New York University. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, The Nation, Salon, Common Dreams, and Jacobin, along with TomDispatch,  and in the collections Poets Against the War (Nation Books, 2003) and Imagining Iraq (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).  To go to his website, click here. Follow him on Twitter: @mgouldwartofsky

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