RIKERS ISLAND, N.Y.—Cecily McMillan, the Occupy activist who on Monday morning will appear before a criminal court in New York City to be sentenced to up to seven years on a charge of assaulting a police officer, sat in a plastic chair wearing a baggy, oversized gray jumpsuit, cheap brown plastic sandals and horn-rim glasses. Other women, also dressed in prison-issued gray jumpsuits, sat nearby in the narrow, concrete-walled visitation room clutching their children, tears streaming down their faces. The children, bewildered, had their arms wrapped tightly around their mothers’ necks. It looked like the disaster scene it was.
“It’s all out in the open here,” said the 25-year-old student, who was to have graduated May 22 with a master’s degree from The New School of Social Research in New York City. “The cruelty of power can’t hide like it does on the outside. You get America, everything America has become, especially for poor people of color in prison. My lawyers think I will get two years. But two years is nothing compared to what these women, who never went to trial, never had the possibility of a trial with adequate legal representation, face. There are women in my dorm who, because they have such a poor command of English, do not even understand their charges. I spent a lot of time trying to explain the charges to them.”
McMillan says Grantley Bovell, who was in plainclothes and did not identify himself as a police officer, grabbed her from behind during a March 17, 2012, gathering of several hundred Occupy activists in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. In a video of the incident she appears to have instinctively elbowed him in the face, but she says she has no memory of what happened. Video and photographs—mostly not permitted by the trial judge to be shown in the courtroom—buttressed her version of events. There is no dispute that she was severely beaten by police and taken from the park to a hospital where she was handcuffed to a bed. On May 5 she was found guilty after a three-week trial of a felony assault in the second degree. She can receive anything from probation to seven years in prison.
“I am prepared mentally for a long sentence,” she told me this past weekend when I interviewed her at the Rikers Island prison in the Bronx. “I watched the trial. I watched the judge. This was never about justice. Just as it is not about justice for these other women. One mother was put in here for shoplifting after she lost her job and her house and needed to feed her children. There is another prisoner, a preschool teacher with a 1-year-old son she was breastfeeding, who let her cousin stay with her after her cousin was evicted. It turns out the cousin sold drugs. The cops found money, not drugs, that the cousin kept in the house and took the mother. They told her to leave her child with the neighbors. There is story after story in here like this. It wakes you up.”
McMillan’s case is emblematic of the nationwide judicial persecution of activists, a persecution familiar to poor people of color. Her case stands in contrast with the blanket impunity given to the criminals of Wall Street. Some 8,000 nonviolent Occupy protesters have been arrested. Not one banker or investor has gone to jail for causing the 2008 financial meltdown. The disparity of justice mirrors the disparity in incomes and the disparity in power.
Occupy activists across the country have been pressured to “plea out” on felony charges in exchange for sentences of years of probation, which not only carry numerous restrictions, including being unable to attend law school or serve on a jury, but make it difficult for them to engage in further activism for fear of arrest and violating their probation. McMillan was offered the same plea deal but refused it. She was one of the few who went to trial.
“I am deeply committed to nonviolence, especially in the face of all the violence around me inside and outside this prison,” she said in the interview. “I could not accept this deal. I had to fight back. That is why I am an activist. Being branded as someone who was violent was intolerable.”
McMillan’s case is as much about our right to nonviolent protest as it is about McMillan. It is about our right to carry out such protest without being subjected to police violence intended to crush peaceful and lawful dissent. It is about our right to engage in political organization without our groups being monitored and infiltrated by the security and surveillance state. It is about our right of free speech and free assembly, guaranteed under the Constitution but effectively stripped from us in a series of judicial rulings and through municipal ordinances that make it impossible to protest in many U.S. cities.
Judge Ronald A. Zweibel was caustic and hostile to McMillan and her defense team during the trial. He barred video evidence that would have helped her case. He issued a gag order that forbade the defense lawyers, Martin Stolar and Rebecca Heinegg, to communicate with the press. And, astonishingly, he denied McMillan bail.
The judge also assiduously protected Bovell against challenges to his credibility. He refused to allow the jurors to hear about or see the excessive police violence that was used to clear the park the night McMillan was arrested—violence many activists say was the most indiscriminate and abusive ever inflicted during the Occupy movement. He hid Bovell’s history of misconduct as a police officer from the jury. Bovell has been investigated at least twice by the internal affairs section of the New York City Police Department, the Guardian newspaper reported. Bovell and his police partner, in one of the cases, were sued for allegedly using an unmarked police car to strike a 17-year-old fleeing on a dirt bike. The teenager said his nose was broken, two teeth were knocked out and his forehead was lacerated. The case was settled out of court for a significant amount of money. There is also a video that appears to show Bovell relentlessly kicking a suspect on the floor of a Bronx grocery. In addition, Bovell was involved in a ticket-fixing scandal in his Bronx precinct. And Austin Guest, 33, a Harvard University graduate who was arrested at Zuccotti Park on the night McMillan was assaulted, is suing Bovell and the NYPD because the officer allegedly intentionally banged his head on the internal stairs and seats of a bus that took him and other activists in for processing. The judge barred the running down of the teenager on the dirt bike and Bovell’s alleged abuse of Guest from being discussed in front of the jury.
The case has galvanized many activists, who see in McMillan’s persecution the persecution of movements across the globe struggling for nonviolent democratic change. McMillan was visited in Rikers by Russia human rights campaigners of the group Pussy Riot. Hundreds of people, including nine of the 12 jurors and some New York City Council members, have urged Judge Zweibel to be lenient. Some 160,000 people have signed an online petition calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to intervene on her behalf. But so far pleas like these have failed to mollify the corporate state’s determination to use the McMillan case as a tool to prevent any new mass movements.
“I am very conscious of how privileged I am, especially in here,” McMillan said. “When you are in prison white privilege works against you. You tend to react when you come out of white privilege by saying ‘you can’t do that’ when prison authorities force you to do something arbitrary and meaningless. But the poor understand the system. They know it is absurd, capricious and senseless, that it is all about being forced to pay deference to power. If you react out of white privilege it sets you apart. I have learned to respond as a collective, to speak to authority in a unified voice. And this has been good for me. I needed this.”
“We can talk about movement theory all we want,” she went on. “We can read Michel Foucault or Pierre Bourdieu, but at a certain point it becomes a game. You have to get out and live it. You have to actually build a movement. And if we don’t get to work to build a movement now there will be no one studying movement theory in a decade because there will be no movements. I can do this in prison. I can do this out of prison. It is all one struggle.”
McMillan has been held in Rikers’ Rose M. Singer Center, Dorm 2 East B, with about 40 other women. They sleep in rows of cots. Nearly all the women are poor mothers of color, most of them black, Hispanic or Chinese. McMillan is giving lessons in English in exchange for lessons in Spanish.
McMillan has bonded with an African-American woman known as “Fat Baby” who ogled her and told her she had nice legs. Fat Baby threw out a couple of lame pickup lines that, McMillan said, “sounded as if she was a construction worker. I told her I would teach her some pickup lines that were a little more subtle.”
McMillan, who is required to have a prison activity, participates in the drug rehabilitation program although she did not use drugs. She is critical of the instructor’s feeding of “positive” and Christian thinking to the inmates, some of whom are Muslims. “It is all about the power of positive thinking, about how they made mistakes and bad choices in life and now they can correct those mistakes by taking another road, a Christian road, to a new life,” she said. “This focus on happy thoughts pervades the prison. There is little analysis of the structural causes for poverty and oppression. It is as if it was all about decisions we made, not that were made for us. And this is how those in power want it. This kind of thinking induces passivity.”
McMillan was receiving 30 to 40 letters daily at Rikers but during the week before the interview was told every day that she had none. She suspects the prison has cut off the flow of mail to her.
Because my pens and paper were confiscated during the two-hour process it took to enter the prison, after the visit I had to reconstruct the notes from our conversation, which lasted an hour and a half. The entry process is normal for visitors, who on weekends stand in long lines in metal chutes outside the prison. My body was searched and my clothing was minutely inspected for contraband, and I had to go through two metal detectors.
During the interview a guard asked McMillan to roll down her sleeves and admonished her once for crossing her legs. “You scratch a hole in the crotch,” McMillan said, running a fingernail up and down the crotch seam of her jumpsuit. “You make a small hole. And when the visitor slips you a cigarette you push up your vagina. I am learning a lot in prison. I have gotten very good at hiding books on my way to medical and stealing food to bring back to the dorm.”
“It is hard to read, it is hard to write,” she went on. “There is constant movement and constant noise.”
She was working Sunday on the statement she would read in court Monday. She said it draws heavily from Leo Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God Is Within You.”
McMillan had just finished writing a message to supporters who planned to rally in her support Sunday afternoon in New York City. She told them:
I came to New York the summer of 2011 to go to school—Rikers Island was definitely not on my list of intended experiences. Though I did call myself “a radical” that title stretched only as far to include plans to start a socialist student chapter and study welfare policy with aims of improving it. Within 1 week, these plans were railroaded by the Occupy Wall Street Movement—and for the following 3 months, I did little else.
Like many, the eviction of Zuccotti left me lost, searching for that infectious energy that bound so many together in efforts to transform the world. Like many, I’ve spent the time since trying to understand what we had & striving to get back to it.
Like many I point to a lack of militancy in our movement—a commitment of one’s entire being—personally, politically, emotionally & physically—to the greater good. But I examined what action those beautiful words entailed, I exchanged “militancy” for the concept of “love ethic”—a distinction born of the belief that fights between “usses and thems” run counter to the collective “we”. “We” being human society with each person as an integral part—that must be seen, heard, felt & loved—in order to transform the whole.
Like many, I found my beliefs easy to come by but difficult to act on. I always strived, but often struggled, to see, hear, feel, to love—even as I expected as much in return. I began to question, “If it is such a struggle to solidify amongst a few, how can we hope to strengthen love ethic across the many?”
Unlike most, when my trial began: friends formed a support structure, comrades came to court, journalists reported injustices. When the verdict was read, cries of outrage were heard, the news spread, & sympathy was shared from around the world.
Unlike most, during my weakest hour, I had never felt more supported. Though I had never ever felt more oppressed, I had never felt so loved. I stand resolved to keep fighting, because your love ethic props me up and allows me to do so.
Unlike most, I am blessed with the support of so many. And though I am thankful, I am also thoughtful of the many forced to face such oppression alone. I know you have already done so much, but I’m going to ask for one thing more:
If you feel safe enough to share, please raise your hand if you have suffered police violence? If you have suffered sexual violence? If you have suffered the violence of the justice system? If you have suffered the violence of the prison system?
Oppression is rampant. Take a moment to try & really see, hear, feel the suffering of the many around you. Now imagine the power of your collective love ethic to stand against it.
Only through the pervasive spread of such a love ethic by the many for the many—not just the privileged few—will we finally have ourselves a movement.
McMillan takes comfort from her supporters and her family and from those of her heroes who endured prison for a just cause. She reads and rereads the speech Eugene V. Debs made to a federal court in Cleveland before he went to prison for opposing the draft in World War I. His words, she said, have become her own.
“Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth,” Debs said. “I said it then, as I say it now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”