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Cecily McMillan: The Latest Butterfly on the Wheel
Cecily McMillan. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Cecily McMillan: The Latest Butterfly on the Wheel

Cecily McMillan. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

“Who Breaks a Butterfly Upon a Wheel?”

This was the question posed by William Rees-Mogg, editor of the London Times, on July 1, 1967, in the headline of an editorial denouncing the sentencing of Rolling Stones members Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to three and 12 months in prison, respectively, on drug-related charges.

Four years before Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” and over a decade before Ronald Reagan’s administration kicked the American drug war and racist mass incarceration into overdrive, Rees-Mogg had already correctly observed the power imbalance and excessive force involved in caging human beings for months or years on end for nonviolent drug offenses.

Yet even the most ardent Rolling Stones fan – should they be able to acknowledge how power and privilege operate – would surely have to concede that Jagger and Richards were, already in ’67, less vulnerable figures than many against whom the power of the state has been brought to bear. No doubt Jagger and Richards were singled out for being as lacking in respectability as two white, mostly heterosexual Englishmen from comfortable backgrounds could be. But while the case against the two may have been politically motivated, the Stones’ politics would come to be the epitome of the status quo. As Rees-Mogg later described, Jagger even then had a “libertarian view of ethical and social issues which turned out to be one of the constituents, though only one, of Thatcherism . . . [and which] predicted the Anglo-American ideology of the 1980s.”

Just shy of half a century later, we cannot count the butterflies who have been put upon the wheel of “justice” in supposedly civilized, democratic, “free” countries like the United Kingdom and United States. The “butterfly upon a wheel,” first conjured up by 18th century poet Alexander Pope, endures as a striking metaphor for what happens when a government uses its criminal justice system punitively and for political reasons against individuals who cannot hope to marshal anything like equivalent resources with which to defend themselves.

While it may appear that they have been targeted for their personal drug use, more often, that has been merely an excuse; they have actually been targeted for being poor, and/or black, or otherwise determined as disposable by those in power and too many in our societies. In cases like those of Marissa Alexander, Patreese Johnson and CeCe McDonald, they have been targeted in a way that seems almost designed to illustrate – when set against the cases of George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn – who is granted permission to engage in “self defense” and who is not.

Most recently, we have seen this excessive punitive force aimed, with a deliberate intent that only the most willfully blind apologists could deny, at those who have defied the system’s authority.

Victimless, Manufactured Crimes or “Terrorizing”?

Examples of this from the last few years are myriad. There is Chelsea Manning, who on May 27 will have been in some form of confinement for four years, after revealing war crimes and torture in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. Now fighting to reduce her 35-year sentence via appeal, Manning is already forgotten by too many, her name and gender identity now formally recognized by those who hold her prisoner, yet still somehow not always recognized or remembered by those who have claimed to stand in solidarity with her.

There are Brian Jacob Church, Brent Betterly and Jared Chase, the young men known as the NATO 3, who were targeted, “befriended” and manipulated by undercover Chicago police officers, then arrested for allegedly making Molotov cocktails. While the state of Illinois was unable to get either convictions on terrorism charges to stick or the 14 years in prison that officials demanded for each defendant, Judge Thaddeus Wilson handed down sentences of five to eight years each, and, despite the jury’s Not Guilty verdicts on every single terrorism charge, declared that the crimes of which the NATO 3 were convicted, “might not be terrorism but [are] terrorizing.”

As in other cases of police infiltration and entrapment of activists such as the Cleveland 4, the case of the NATO 3 reveals a predatory system willing to target the vulnerable and exploit their weaknesses. Testimony revealed that one of the undercover police officers offered alcohol to Jacob Church, who was underage at the time. In their sentencing statement, prosecutors invoked the Boston Marathon bombing, paid assassins and entirely unrelated cases of violence. But as Kevin Gosztola has noted, Assistant State’s Attorney Jack Blakey also cynically invoked Huntington’s disease, the rare genetic neurodegenerative disorder from which Jared Chase suffers, as a possible cause of danger to others and a reason to give him a longer sentence. And Blakey dragged Brent Betterly’s seven-year-old son into his sentencing arguments, calling him “no ‘Father of the Year.’ “

The examples go on and on. Ahmed Ferhani, another vulnerable young man manipulated by undercover police, serving 10 years for his part in a plot that seems to have been concocted by the NYPD. Jeremy Hammond, serving 10 years in federal prison for exposing troubling collusion between private corporations and government agencies. Barrett Brown, imprisoned since September 2012, initially for charges including the truly heinous crime of pasting of a link. Grand jury resisters in the Pacific Northwest and New York City, now released but held in jail for months for refusing to cooperate with a secretive process often used against political movements.

Whether incarcerated for days, months or years, what they have in common is the absence of having committed anything recognizable as actual crimes with actual victims – in the popular understanding of these terms which, while never perfect, has more logical and ethical sense to it than the definition of crime that the United States government is now handing down.

Criminalized Identities

There is an unfortunate tendency on the left to talk about a dichotomy between so-called “identity politics” and substantive, structural differentials of power. Cases like those of Monica Jones and Cecily McMillan (to name but two) illustrate how false this dichotomy is.

Monica Jones was targeted by the Arizona police for being a black woman, a black trans woman, and a former sex worker now organizing for sex worker rights. Racism and open, explicit and aggressive transphobia were used against Jones in her trial on charges of intent to commit prostitution. The Windy City Times described the trial:

During the nearly three-hour proceedings, the prosecution presented only one witness – the arresting officer. Throughout his testimony, he referred to Jones with the pronouns “he” and “him.” The judge deliberated for less than a minute before handing down a guilty verdict. Jones was sentenced to thirty days. She will be forced to serve that term in a men’s facility.

“As an African American and as a woman, the justice system has failed me,” said Jones after the verdict. Not only did it fail her, the justice system sought to make an example of her. As Laura Campagna observed:

Monica’s case is occurring within a larger context of criminalizing queer and gender-variant people in Arizona. . . . Monica Jones was profiled for looking like a sex worker in a state where law enforcement has been granted the power to determine who people are based on their appearance . . . The judge believed the officer’s story over hers not because his made more sense (it didn’t), but because she is an African-American transgender woman. Her identity has already been criminalized.

Power – as currently manifested in an unholy fusion of corporate oligarchy and the authoritarian, security-obsessed state – will not hesitate to use your identity against you if it can. It will not only target people because of patriarchy and rape culture, various forms of racism from Islamophobia to anti-blackness, homophobia or transphobia, class prejudice and stigma. It will also specifically use structures of inequality – and the prejudices they inculcate in media, jurors and the wider public – against its targets.

Rape Culture as Tool of the State

On Monday, May 5, Cecily McMillan was found guilty of assaulting NYPD Officer Grantley Bovell. She faces up to seven years in prison. She was convicted by a jury who apparently did not all understand the implications of their decision and who had been prevented from considering the broader context of NYPD violence against the movement of which McMillan was part. According to Molly Knefel, writing at The Guardian:

[T]he jury didn’t hear anything about the police violence that took place in Zuccotti Park that night [on March 17, 2012]. They didn’t hear about what happened there on November 15, 2011, when the park was first cleared. The violence experienced by Occupy protesters throughout its entirety was excluded from the courtroom. The narrative that the jury did hear was tightly controlled by what the judge allowed – and Judge Ronald Zweibel consistently ruled that any larger context of what was happening around McMillan at the time of the arrest (let alone Bovell’s own history of violence) was irrelevant to the scope of the trial.

In the trial, physical evidence was considered suspect but the testimony of the police was cast as infallible. Despite photographs of her bruised body, including her right breast, the prosecution cast doubt upon McMillan’s allegations of being injured by the police – all while Officer Bovell repeatedly identified the wrong eye when testifying as to how McMillan injured him. And not only was Officer Bovell’s documented history of violent behavior deemed irrelevant by the judge, but so were the allegations of his violent behavior that very same night.

The police violence to which McMillan was subjected was explicitly gendered in nature, and in this she is far from alone: It is part of what has been alleged to be a broader pattern, an expression of rape culture as repressive policing tactic.

At her trial, Assistant District Attorney Erin Choi ridiculed McMillan’s allegations of being assaulted by Officer Bovell, calling her “not shy,” saying she would have reported it earlier were it true, and concluding “She might as well have said that aliens came that night and assaulted her.” In other words, the case against McMillan was built on using rape culture and misogyny: These were the tools used to silence dissent and send, in the words of writer and organizer Wagatwe Wanjuki: “a reminder from the state that women (all people, really) should just accept sexual assault by its hands.”

Against the Wheel

When we think of the image of the butterfly on the wheel, it should not be to think of these dissidents as weak or fragile, or to romanticize them. It should be to recognize the immense power differentials at work and the need for this to be not only recognized but spoken loudly and fought.

In 1967, Jagger and Richards were lucky – one might say privileged – enough to have the editor of the Times in their corner. What local pillars of the establishment have spoken out for Cecily McMillan in 2014?

Not NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, hailed by liberals for his rhetoric on economic inequality and stop-and-frisk, who has made no comment on Cecily McMillan’s case. (It should also be noted that any reforms he has brought to the NYPD have so far been cosmetic, as might be expected following his selection of Bill Bratton as NYPD Commissioner. Bratton, meanwhile, has found appropriately terrifying targets against whom to aim the power of the NYPD, in the form of young black men who dance on the subway.) The founding chapter of the National Organization for Women in NYC has not spoken out, but it found time to do some no doubt much-appreciated PR recently for Bratton and other members of the police force responsible for McMillan’s assault.

So who speaks now for Cecily McMillan and others put on the “wheel” of the criminal justice system? No one, if not you and me.

Write to Cecily McMillan.

Petition New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio to pardon Cecily McMillan.

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