In Cecily McMillan's arrest in Zuccotti park, the New York prosecutor's office found an outlet for its fury at Occupy Wall Street. The District Attorney seized the opportunity and held onto it like a dog with a bone.
It would be the height of absurdity to charge with assault a woman who defended herself from sexual assault--yet this is exactly what happened. During one of the most egregious NYPD crackdowns on Occupy in March 2012, someone grabbed Cecily McMillan from behind on her right breast. She elbowed the assailant. It turned out to be a plainclothes police officer. On May 5, 2014, more than two years later, a kangaroo court convicted her of felony assault in the second degree and sentenced her to ninety days in prison.
McMillan was the stand-in for every Occupy Wall Street protestor who had escaped jail time. For almost all others, the charges didn't stick, or they took a plea bargain. New York had to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars for police abuses, including one settlement made this month for $583,000 for alleged wrongful arrests.
Mostly, McMillan's prosecution was a warning shot to other dissenters: look at what will happen to you if you step out of line.
After fifty-seven days at Rikers Island, New York's main jail complex, Cecily McMillan can't hold back a torrent of words. About privilege, activism, the injustices she's seen. She heaps praise on her fellow inmates. She can't say enough about them.
I have been challenged like I have never been challenged before as a nonviolent activist to really keep it together here, to not use verbal or physical abuse. I will not say that I could have done it on my own. These women have kept me alive in here, sustained me.
She'll be released in a few days, on July 2, after serving sixty days of a ninety-day sentence--thirty days cut off for good behavior. She still isn't scot-free. She has five years' probation. More worrisome, she has another trial coming up on July 17 for allegedly interfering with an arrest of two teenagers who jumped the turnstile in a subway station. She isn't allowed to talk about the case.
For now, I can tell that she's wholly immersed in daily life in Rikers and in the lives of the women she's with.
"Heartbreak today," said the update posted last Thursday on her website. Jack, a friend and dorm-mate, died of Hepatitis C and undiagnosed cancer after three days of coughing up blood. Delirious, Jack had resisted medical treatment.
It was an entire dorm-wide effort to watch over [Jack] for days trying to get her to go down [the stairs]" as she slipped into delirium before she went into the final stages. When they didn't take her or send up a stretcher, we--all of us--kept her up, kept her awake, kept her lucid. Two or three girls fought with the guard to be able to walk her down.
Also last week, one of her close friends, Fat Baby, fell in the shower and hit her head. She woke the following morning and couldn't move. Staff refused to let her see a doctor, so with help Fat Baby submitted a grievance. A grievance form was returned to her filled out by someone else, and she was told to sign it. McMillan thinks they misplaced the original. Fat Baby refused to sign.
I spoke to McMillan on the phone in fifteen minute increments. (Each time we re-connected, she immediately took up where she left off.) I had heard plenty about the for-profit Prison Industrial Complex phone scam, which bleeds inmates and their families dry. Twenty-five dollars buys twenty-one minutes of conversation, I discover. In the background, voices rise and fall, doors slam.
"Every woman has been on the phone every day like I have been, trying to organize their families, managing to live through this hellhole," she says. I forget to ask how they manage to scrape together the money to pay for it. Undoubtedly, there is a debt scam to underwrite the phone scam.
McMillan's time in Rikers may have taken a toll, but it has not broken her. She describes the many indignities there as struggles endured in solidarity with comrades, not as personal complaints. She says that before Rikers, she didn't know that placing your hands on your hips expressed defiance. In Rikers, she says, you have to keep your head down, your hands behind your back--postures of compliance, passivity. She sleeps in a dorm room with forty other women. There are invasive searches of your personal items, your body. Her phone calls are recorded. Contrary to the notion of inmates lazing about watching the clock tick, prison is endless activity, endless lines. It's the movie Brazil "on steroids," she says.
Still, her mind isn't dulled, nor her spirit crushed. She is thinking, writing, planning, talking.Letting Others Lead the Way
She wants to talk activism. I'm overjoyed. Activists can't help hashing over the questions which obsess us. How do we bring about the change we want to see in the world? What strategies are effective? How do we live? What more can we do? Maybe because she's talking to someone else who was infected and changed by the Occupy movement, her words flow unfiltered, infused with energy and enthusiasm.