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From Zuccotti to Rikers: Political Prisoner Cecily McMillan Pulls No Punches

Resisting brutal conditions at Rikers Island helped her find her voice, says Occupy activist Cecily McMillan.

How did Cecily McMillan go from being one of Occupy Wall Street’s staunchest advocates of nonviolence to a prisoner accused of assaulting a police officer? In The Emancipation of Cecily McMillan, she tells her own story: her childhood, her political development, her trial and her incarceration. Click here to order this book from Truthout!

Home was not a sanctuary for Cecily McMillan. It was a conflict zone. Her parents were constantly at war, with an end to hostilities only coming when they finally divorced.

Following the breakup, McMillan and her little brother James went to live with their mother, who moved from one low-paying job to the next, and from one hapless boyfriend to the next. Every new man McMillan’s mother brought home eventually would seek to exert his power over the family through the use of violence.

One of her mother’s failed relationships was a marriage to a much older man named Jesse who slapped McMillan with the back of his hand for “getting mouthy” and grabbed her arm hard enough to bruise it. McMillan’s father was the same way. She endured beatings from him, including one time when he pinned the 17-year-old McMillan to the wall by the neck, with her feet dangling midair, and told her “how things are going to be.”

“It wasn’t the first time he or the many men I’d called ‘father’ had gotten physical, but it had to be the last time,” McMillan writes in her new autobiography, The Emancipation of Cecily McMillan: An American Memoir, published by Nation Books. “I couldn’t take it anymore — I thought I really might kill the next man that laid a hand on me.”

Unfortunately, the violence continued into McMillan’s young adulthood. In March, 2012, at the age of 23, a man accosted her in a park in New York City. This time the man wasn’t someone she called “father.”

In a just world, McMillan would have been given a medal of courage for attempting to protect herself against an attacker and surviving to tell a story about it. But the man happened to be a police officer with the New York City Police Department (NYPD). He was part of a larger NYPD gang tasked with shutting down a peaceful gathering in Zuccotti Park, a paved-over piece of land near the southern tip of Manhattan made famous by the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement.

New York City officials chose to prosecute McMillan, who was arrested for throwing an elbow at the police officer. Two years later, after a four-week trial, McMillan was convicted of felony second-degree assault and sent to Rikers Island to serve her sentence.

Separate and Unequal

McMillan describes her time at Rikers Island and the bonds she built with her fellow prisoners. Upon her release, McMillan gave a speech in which she listed demands that her fellow prisoners had drawn up, including adequate, safe and timely health care at all times. “I have learned that the only difference between the people we call ‘citizens’ and those we call ‘criminals’ is vastly unequal access to resources,” McMillan said in her speech.

In the book’s introduction, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot, focus on McMillan’s transformation in jail and how she left captivity wanting to work for the emancipation of the other women incarcerated on Rikers Island. “While those in power want to silence undesirable voices, it is Cecily’s goal to return those voices to the people who have been deprived of them,” wrote Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, who visited McMillan at Rikers Island.

The Emancipation of Cecily McMillan is a gripping story of years of rebellion and discovery that preceded the well-chronicled confrontation in Zuccotti Park. The story is organized chronologically, with the early years of McMillan’s life — before she became one of the best-known OWS activists — proving more compelling at times than her brief period as an adult, much of which she has spent in the spotlight after her arrest. The reader gets a strong hint of her wild childhood in the first chapter when McMillan states she and her mother were perfect for each because her mother never wanted to be a parent and McMillan never wanted to be a child.

McMillan demonstrates a gift for storytelling throughout the book. She always had a knack for public speaking, although her parents and teachers often gritted their teeth when she vocalized her thoughts in the form of diatribes and tantrums. She also relished the spotlight when working in theater groups as a teenager. However, not every successful orator or actor can write a compelling story, and vice versa. But McMillan proves in the book that she is adept at both forms of self-expression. Growing up, McMillan traveled between Texas and Atlanta, Georgia, depending on whether she was living with her Mexican-American mother, her Irish-American father or her grandparents. McMillan was fortunate that other people stepped up to offer support and guidance.

Facing homelessness as a teenager, McMillan contacted her theater instructor in Atlanta, a woman named Nyrobi who welcomed McMillan into her home and treated her like a member of the family. It was one of the first times that McMillan sensed she was at home, a feeling that helped her stay out of trouble and start enjoying school.

Bullies on Parade

Prior to finding a taste of peace with Nyrobi, McMillan encountered a system that embraced conformity and sought to quash dissent. In the town of Lumberton, Texas, she chose not to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at school because she objected, on religious freedom grounds, to the “under God” portion of the pledge. The school principal warned McMillan she would get a “taste of hell” if she ever again refused to stand. McMillan stuck to her principles and the next day, the school’s softball coach was selected to mete out justice, assaulting her with a paddle. McMillan remembers how she “choked back a cry” each time the paddle hit her backside.

McMillan always championed the underdog and wasn’t afraid to confront bullies in school, whether they were fellow students or school administrators. She hoped her political evolution would gain momentum while attending college at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, and yet her first impressions were not promising: the school had a virtually all-white, apolitical student body. But during her college years, McMillan’s politics ultimately did take a turn when she finally learned about the political leanings of her step-grandfather, Harlon Joye, who had been involved in left-wing politics for decades.

Joye, who was her father’s step-dad, invited McMillan to attend the 2010 United States Social Forum in Detroit, where she became acquainted with the Democratic Socialists of America. Joye had been active in groups that were precursors to the Students for a Democratic Society, working closely in the 1960s with high-profile activists like Tom Hayden and John Lewis.

“Whether it was as a Democrat in Texas or a Socialist in college, I’d always been the most radical person wherever I was — that is, until I moved to New York City and joined Occupy Wall Street,” McMillan, who is 27 years old today, writes in the book. “Most of my fellow ‘Occupiers’ shrugged me off as some sort of moderate.”

Despite the less-than-warm reception, McMillan became a committed OWS activist — an “Occupy diehard,” as she called herself — from the start of the movement in August 2011. She continued to attend meetings and actions in the months after the police evicted the encampment from Zuccotti Park in November 2011. At OWS planning meetings and general assemblies, McMillan pushed the other activists to adopt a pledge of nonviolence. Other activists preferred to keep the “diversity-of-tactics” door open. They agreed to disagree.

On the six-month anniversary of OWS, McMillan wasn’t planning to attend the protest gathering in Zuccotti Park. She entered the park simply to retrieve her friend Jake so they could go to nearby Irish bars to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Instead, she was caught in a police vortex after the NYPD unilaterally declared the park closed. “I’m snatched from behind, pulled up by the breast, and flung backward then face forward into the ground,” she recalls.

Government prosecutors accused McMillan of intentionally elbowing a police officer. McMillan claimed she was defending herself against someone who had grabbed her breast. A video of the incident shows someone, purportedly McMillan, using her right elbow to strike someone, purportedly New York City police officer named Grantley Bovell.

After police tackled her, McMillan suffered seizures but wasn’t given medical attention until hours later when she was taken to Beekman Hospital and then to Bellevue Hospital. At Bellevue, she was handcuffed to a hospital bed and wheeled into a small, windowless room.

“It was starting to feel like a horror flick, especially when I realized that that same tiny room doubled as the cellphone charging station for all the cops forced to work the nightshift with sick criminals,” she remembers. The police officers apparently knew who she was. One of the police officers said “fuckin’ Occupy cunt” as he looked between McMillan’s opened legs on the hospital bed. Another police officer came into the room and joked to his buddies about McMillan’s “Occu-pussy.”

McMillan was eventually driven to a Manhattan County courthouse at 100 Centre Street, where she was allowed to meet with a lawyer for the first time — 40 hours after her arrest. She was then brought before a judge who announced McMillan was facing a charge of felony assault in the second degree. She was then released without bail.

An Emancipation Proclamation

More than two years later, in April 2014 McMillan’s trial finally began. Martin Stolar, McMillan’s attorney, “discovered a laundry list of alleged abuse and corruption” by the police officer whom McMillan allegedly assaulted. McMillan writes that, “in our view, Bovell had a habit of losing his temper then blaming the victim and lying to justify his actions.” But Judge Ronald Zweibel ruled against Stolar’s motion and refused to allow any of Bovell’s record into the trial.

Truthout Progressive Pick

The Emancipation of Cecily McMillan: An American Memoir

The making of an unlikely political prisoner, in her own words.

Click here now to get the book!

McMillan doesn’t pull any punches in this telling of her trauma-filled life story. In deciding to write the memoir, she committed to revealing the truth, even though doing so could mean potentially alienating her father with stories about how he treated her and letting the world know her little brother had turned to using drugs. A commitment to honesty also meant reliving the frightening night in Zuccotti Park.

Readers who think they know everything about McMillan’s post-Zuccotti Park life will still be riveted by her detailed look back at trial preparation and the trial itself, which was filled with surprises, including a witness who may have wanted to redeem himself by testifying on behalf of McMillan. In the end, the jury issued a guilty verdict. On May 19, 2014, McMillan was sentenced to three months in jail with five years of probation and 500 hours of community service to follow, plus a $5,000 fine and mandatory anger management therapy. McMillan served 58 days of her jail sentence at Rikers Island.

Two years after the jail doors opened, McMillan claims in Emancipation that her experience at Rikers helped her escape from the constraints she had placed upon herself about who she should be and what she should do. She credits her fellow prisoners with forcing her to face, live and test the person she already was. By letting her voice their demands, the women at Rikers, according to McMillan, gave her the voice that she had been searching for, one that understood both the language of power and the ability to share it equally. It was a dynamic that was missing from her life from childhood into early adulthood.

“The guards didn’t free me that day, the women did,” she writes.

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