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Cecily McMillan: Playing With Fire

Nika Knight interviews the Occupy activist about her time in Rikers, the roots of her politics, and her upcoming trial.

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Courtesy of Cecily McMillan

Cecily McMillan, a 25 year-old graduate student living in New York City, has become one of the most prominent faces of Occupy Wall Street, if an accidental one. She was arrested and charged with assaulting an officer during an NYPD surprise raid of Zuccotti Park in March, 2012—on that night, she says, she had simply been at the park to pick a friend up for a drink—and the controversial trial and conviction that followed transformed her into a figurehead for the movement. A widely-circulated photo of McMillan displaying a yellowing, hand-shaped bruise on her right breast seemed to so clearly validate her claim of sexual assault by the officer in question that her widespread supporters (which, at that point, included celebrities such as Kim Gordon, Shepard Fairey, and members of Pussy Riot) were shocked when the jury returned a guilty verdict at McMillan’s trial.

The judge ignored the jurors’ request for leniency and McMillan was sentenced to 90 days’ in Rikers Island, a notoriously violent city prison. McMillan was incarcerated in the Rose M. Singer center, the women’s barrack, for 58 days. There, she claims, she witnessed a woman die after being denied prompt medical attention, despite the fact that she had been vomiting blood for many hours. She has described invasive searches, sexual assault and physical abuse, and overuse of solitary confinement. Since her release in early July, she’s emerged as a vocal advocate for reforming conditions at the infamous city jail.

In a statement to the press upon her release, she said, “I walked in with one movement, and return to you a representative of another.” After delivering a petition demanding change with over 10,000 signatures to Joseph Ponte, the commissioner of the D.O.C., McMillan was granted a meeting with Commissioner Ponte. In the wake of their conversation, McMillan is optimistic; the commissioner agreed to an ongoing relationship and dialogue, and scheduled a follow-up meeting to assess their progress in late September.

But McMillan is not optimistic about her own future. On September 15th, she returns to court for “obstructing governmental administration,” a misdemeanor charge, and she is preparing for a potential return to Rikers. She could be sentenced to up to a year in prison. I spoke with McMillan twice over the phone, and we discussed her activist roots, cultures of dehumanization, her efforts to bring reform to Rikers, and her upcoming trial.

Nika Knight for Guernica

Guernica: Where do you think your passion for social justice comes from? When did your activism start?

Cecily McMillan: School dress code, eighth grade. The first action I ever planned was around a petition. I got all the seventh grade girls in my middle school to sign a petition against the school dress code. It was this thing where women who had big breasts could not wear the same sort of clothes—it wasn’t fair. It was hard for us to navigate how we could wear clothes. So, we boycotted the school dress code, and everybody signed it, and the next year, they eventually turned over the uniforms.

I felt like there wasn’t a political discourse. I felt like there was just one set of values, and any one set of values was wrong; that there should at least be room for conversation.

Howard Dean was really inspiring to me when I was younger and in southeast Texas. I’d never seen anybody that excited about politics or making change. I had a sense that my mother was struggling, when I was a kid, working twelve hour days, making $12,000 a year with two kids in a trailer park. But I think the big turning moment was when I joined the student political action club and started studying nonviolent civil disobedience in response to the Iraq War. The first anti-Bush protest in Atlanta was the first protest that I’d ever been to, and I helped organize the school walkout when I was a junior. It was a really solidifying moment.

I started a Young Democrats organization in ninth grade, in southeast Texas, which is Tea Party-esque. That was huge. I felt like there wasn’t a political discourse. I felt like there was just one set of values, and any one set of values was wrong; that there should at least be room for conversation. So, we set up a Young Democrats organization to publicly debate the Young Republicans organization about issues: gay marriage and gay rights, racism. My town was all-white and shut down Section 8 housing because they didn’t want black people to move into the town. And I thought that was wrong—duh.

Guernica: Do you think growing up in such a conservative area fueled your own politics?

Cecily McMillan: Well, living in such a conservative area and then, on the other side, spending my summers in Atlanta with my grandfather, who wrote the constitution for Students for a Democratic Society. I didn’t know all of this, of course, they didn’t tell me how involved they’d been in the Civil Rights movement. But they were sneaky enough to take me to jazz and blues festivals, folk festivals, and pacifist meetings.

We’re just trying to figure out what being a good citizen is, what participating in a democracy is, what taking responsibility for being an American citizen in a global context means to us.

Guernica: And now, you’re in a Master’s program at the New School. I’ve read that you’re working on a thesis about the civil rights activist Bayard Rustin.

Cecily McMillan: I’m actually writing a memoir, a book about what led me into Occupy Wall Street to begin with, about some of the experiences I had in Occupy Wall Street, and some of the experiences I had in Rikers. I don’t mean to grandstand; I’m only 25. But it’s a sort of coming-of-age memoir that I hope will convince the public—like, I witnessed with shock and awe at the jury trial selection how many people thought that people like Occupy Wall Streeters were somehow morally defunct. It’s like, we’re just trying to be good people, man. We’re just trying to figure out what being a good citizen is, what participating in a democracy is, what taking responsibility for being an American citizen in a global context means to us.

Guernica: You recently returned to Rikers to deliver a petition with a list of demands for reform to D.O.C. Commissioner Ponte. How did it go?

Cecily McMillan: It’s a really hard ask to get people to go out to Rikers at 9am in the morning, but about 35 people showed up, and a few journalists, and we walked up to a police state beyond imagination. They shut down an MTA bus stop that we were trying to rally around. They had put up a police barricade for, I think, if people walked out from the bridge. There were probably about 40 police officers and a bunch of vans surrounding the outside area. And a few of the people who had expected to get off at the final bus stop before they went over—when the bus stop was missed, because they’d shut it down—had gone over and witnessed an entire line of police dogs. About 30 special ops—I guess that’s a thing, correctional officer forces in riot gear and bulletproof vests. And the entire area outside of the Perry building was quarantined off. They had the ballistics team there.

So, we waited in front of the Rikers Island sign instead, and at 10am, Robin Campbell, who is the Director of Communications for the DOC—essentially their head press coordinator—came over. This is the man who had denied me about a dozen visits from press while I was in there. We had really gone head to head a lot while I was in Rikers. So, he came over and I said, “Hi, Robin.” And he said, “Hi, Cecily… I’m here to collect your petition.” And I said, “I’d love to, but they’re not addressed to you.” And he said, “Well, the commissioner’s out of town.” And I said, “Well, okay, we’d be happy talk to an acting commissioner. I’m sure there’s an acting commissioner, right?” He’s like, “Uh, he’s not coming down. I’m here to take the petition.” And I said, “Well, would you mind letting him know we’d be happy to meet him at 11am on the island?”

We had these flyers, too, for people at the bus stop, with just the basic demands. Very, very basic, like access to doctors within 24 hours, access to emergency medical care, a fair and accountable grievance process—all things that are actually guaranteed by the inmate’s handbook. Well, when we boarded the bus to go over at 11, we handed out the flyers on the bus, and then as we arrived at the Perry building—which is where you get off for visitation—they quarantined us on the bus as they let the people visiting off. And they confiscated all of the flyers that we had given people on the bus.

Then we were all sitting on the bus waiting to be told what to do. I mean, it was a pretty frightful moment. They could have taken all of us anywhere… We had decided that if we got to the island, and it was Robin Campbell again, and not the Commissioner, that we would just keep coming back each hour with more people.

I think any person who goes to Rikers is criminalized, even just for visiting. I go back every week to see my friends in there. When you go to see a criminal, you are by relation a criminal and subject to be treated like one.

We got there, and Robin Campbell was there by himself again, and I said, “I’m sorry sir, I can’t give you these petitions. I had said that I would deliver these petitions to someone who would affect change, and that’s not you. We’ll wait until we can speak to the acting director.” And he said, “Well, he’s not coming.” And I said, “Well, I’ll keep showing up on the hour every hour, waiting for him, peacefully, to arrive. And if he fails to do so, then we’ll take another route.” And he said, “Hold on, let me make a call.”

We waited there for about thirty minutes. We were surrounded by about three different lines of COs on either side, and dogs… They looked really terrified that any normal, sane citizen would cross that bridge to stand beside the people being held there. I think that’s how change is going to be made—through literally standing by people in prison. So, he came back and he said, “Okay, you give me the petitions, and then you can have a meeting with Commissioner Ponte this week.” And I said, “Oh, that sounds great. When is he available?” And he said, “Uh, no. Commissioner Ponte is a very busy man. You’re going to have to give me four [meeting] times and he’ll call you to tell you when he’s available.” And I was like, “Nope. No, thank you. I will give you the petition if you give me a receipt that says you have taken the petitions and you will give them to Commissioner Ponte, and you give me a time for us to meet.” So he said, “That’s not going to be possible.” So I said, “Then it’s not going to be possible for me to give you these petitions.”

So then he walked away and made a phone call and came back, and said, “Okay, Commissioner Ponte’s agreed to meet you on August 26th.” And I said, “Great! When?” And he said, “Monday, at noon in his office.” And I said, “Fantastic. If you wouldn’t mind writing me that receipt, then I’ll give you the petitions.” And then someone said, “Wait, that isn’t Monday the 26th. It’s either Monday the 25th, or Tuesday the 26th.” So Mr. Campbell ripped the receipt out of my hand, because I hadn’t given him the petition, and made a phone call, and said, “Okay, Monday the 25th.” And then they made us board back on the bus and delivered us—they held an MTA bus just for us, to transport us back across the bridge alone. And then we peacefully went on our merry way, as I said that we would.

I mean, it was a completely peaceful protest. No signs, no yelling. And by “peaceful protest” I mean “peaceful petition delivery.” We weren’t chanting. We just wanted to give him our 10,101 signatures, as he had failed to respond to any of the messages that had been put out there for six weeks—even in the New York Times, where the former Commissioner Horne had written an editorial response… I couldn’t wrap my mind around why they wouldn’t show up. It would have been an excellent PR moment for them. I was just asking them to take the petition.

Guernica: Why do you think they met you with such an outsized force?

Cecily McMillan: I think it is really disconcerting that normal citizens, as they see it, who do not generally associate with criminals, as they see it, would become so involved as to stage a non-violent, completely normative political delivery of petition on their island. I think they don’t know how to deal with that.

They can arrest “criminals” associating with “criminals” who are staging a protest or rally on their island. I think any person who goes to Rikers is criminalized, even just for visiting. I go back every week to see my friends in there. When you go to see a criminal, you are by relation a criminal and subject to be treated like one.

And so it’s like, the fact that all these citizens would come—and I’m using their language, here—the fact that all these upstanding citizens would travel all the way out to Rikers just to stand in solidarity with the people they have divorced from personhood, and consider numbers, prisoners, this is a terrifying concept for them.

Guernica: You’ve worked before in union organizing for city workers, where you worked alongside unions for the NYPD and correction officers. Coming from that background, how do you think that kind of culture is created, in prisons and among the police force, where people are being dehumanized?

Cecily McMillan: Oh, that’s basic, right? I mean, that is because of the culture that occurs in the military. That’s why we have things like Abu Ghraib, and that’s why we have the atrocities that occurred in the Vietnam War. Or Nazis. Anything akin to an authoritarian organization that needs to engage in dehumanization in order to produce discipline, in order to keep “the peace”—you know what I mean? I’ve spent a long time talking with COs and NYPD officers. I’ve spent a long time talking with COs, especially, a number of which pulled me aside and fist-bumped me for my work in Occupy Wall Street—which is a huge deal, COs aren’t supposed to touch inmates at all. They were very supportive of the work that we were doing.

If somebody is acting maladjusted—which means not happy to be at Rikers—the protocol, as I understand it and have been told by COs unofficially or officially, is to pepper spray that individual to sedate them.

To break it down for you: the NYPD and the COs, I think, have the same problem. If you look at the unionization of the NYPD, there’s no bottom-up accountability. There’s no say in what sort of beat you’re working, what sort of orders you’re required to carry out. All of a sudden you’re years into the job, and all you have to rely on for the rest of your life is a pension. And even if you don’t like what you’re seeing, what are your options? Drop out, and go compete with a Columbia grad student for a managerial position at Starbucks? No. You’re not going to get it. I mean, there’s shut up, keep your head down, get your paycheck, feed your family, maybe put somebody through college so that they don’t have to do the same work. Look at the demographics of who is in Rikers Island. There’s not downwardly mobile, upper-middle-class white officers. They’re all black and brown. All of them. And come from the same exact neighborhoods, the same communities as the inmates. There’s not a single CO who doesn’t know somebody on the inside from the outside, whether they’re a friend or a family member. Literally, all of them.

It’s like the difference between the proletariat and the lumpenproletariat; the working class and the under class, you know? It’s the people that barely made it out being made to keep down the people who are still not able to work into society. A sort of third world, if you will, in our own country. And obviously, with everything going on in Ferguson, and Eric Gardener—I cannot speak adequately, especially considering my race and my privilege, to the violence of the NYPD or the police in racial terms. That is something that I cannot speak adequately to.

But in terms of the COs, [the protocol is] if you see something, spray it. If somebody is acting maladjusted—which means not happy to be at Rikers—the protocol, as I understand it and have been told by COs unofficially or officially, is to pepper spray that individual to sedate them. Pepper spray the individual and sound the alarm so that the turtles come. The turtles are the officers in riot gear, who will come and take the individual down to isolation. And if that person continues to resist as the turtles come, the turtles will beat her, with wooden bats, into submission. And which point she will absolutely find herself in the bing, or isolation, for probably the remainder of her stay.

If you fail to pepper spray the individual to begin with, and that person gets too close to you and you’re unable to do so—when someone’s too close to you, you can’t pepper spray them, because it’ll ricochet back onto you—this is when you have to use physical force. They say if you get the point where you have to use physical force, that’s on you. You didn’t pepper spray them soon enough. It doesn’t leave any room for talking through, or de-escalation. If you use physical force and you hurt that inmate, you are going to be prosecuted for it, or you are going to be written up for it, or you are going to lose vacation days for it. Or, if you don’t spray somebody when they’re acting maladjusted and it happens to “incite a riot” and somebody gets hurt, or you get hurt, or another guard gets hurt, that’s going to be on you. Up to the point of manslaughter. Do you see how when they walk in, in a way they’re literally in prison too?

If you think about it, it’s one guard per 50 women within four different rooms. And if you think about three minutes of your windpipe being restricted, you’re dead. That’s crazy. I’m not having sympathy for the guards here, I’m saying, that’s unsafe for inmates. I mean, what do they expect?

Guernica: You say that a lot of the things you’re requesting are listed in the inmate’s guidebook. Do you think that if the prison reflected what was in guidebook, that that would be enough change? Or are you pushing for things beyond it?

Cecily McMillan: Oh, beyond it. Again, I would like to start a discussion about ending solitary confinement. I’d like to start a discussion about the removal of MO wings—an “MO” is a “Mental Observation” inmate—from Rikers Island, to be set up in mental health institutions. You can’t put people in jail for having mental disorders. You can’t do that, and they should not be held there. They need rehabilitative therapy. I think another thing is talking about positive programs and rehabilitation within the facilities. Greater programs for things endemic, especially for the women—even for me—to their environment. PTSD, domestic violence, sexual abuse. Programs speaking to the atrocities that these women are facing in their everyday lives. I think that getting adolescents out of Rikers absolutely needs to happen.

Guernica: How do you feel about your relationship with Commissioner Ponte going forward? Do you see him enacting meaningful reform?

Cecily McMillan: Yeah, I mean, [at our meeting] he specifically said, “I look forward to building an ongoing, productive relationship with you.” And I have been invited to provide further advice or further suggestion through the Deputy Commissioner, Erik Berliner, and the commissioner agreed to have a follow-up meeting a month from the 25th, to assess the progress of our relationship.

I think that by telling the truth and by attempting to be a good citizen, somehow I’ve ended up playing with fire. And that’s really scary.

I felt as if they were thankful to have me there, and my experiences that I offered up just let them know that there’s not an “us” and “them” here, there’s a woman who went through a pretty horrific experience on your island, and somebody who deeply cares about the people who remain in there that she met. And it’s further personal because I might find myself back there with my upcoming trial on the 15th.

Guernica: How are you feeling about that trial?

Cecily McMillan: Oh, not great. I’m preparing to go back to Rikers. It’s not that I did anything wrong, it’s that even when I had no track record whatsoever, they managed to totally erase what was the hard-proof evidence: a handprint bruise on my breast and scratch marks. So, what will they do or say now that I am labeled a violent felon?

Guernica: You’ve been through quite a lot the past few years, and now you’re preparing for another trial. How have all of these experiences changed your outlook on the world?

Cecily McMillan: I guess I’m very disappointed. Disappointed, in that I maybe had a belief that there was the possibility of justice. It seems that now, more than ever, there needs to be a social movement. There needs to be a complete overhaul. I guess I’m in shock still. I think it’s completely ludicrous, or creepy, that all of this obviously targeted action is being taken against me, and I don’t even know who cares so much, or who thinks that I’m what. I don’t understand what it is that they’re playing at, why it matters so much—to who?

I don’t know. It’s terrifying, I guess, the fact that you can be in this system and everybody is saying, “Oh, it’s just an O.G.A. [‘Obstructing Governmental Administration’]. They’ll probably drop it to an A.C.D. [‘Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal’].” And you’re like, uh, hello, do you have a memory of what occurred in the past three months to me, where everybody was completely shocked that I was sent to jail and found guilty?

I think that by telling the truth and by attempting to be a good citizen, somehow I’ve ended up playing with fire. And that’s really scary.

Guernica: Yeah, it’s scary to watch. What would you say are ways that people can support you?

Cecily McMillan: Well, there’s going to be another trial outreach, push, for the 15th, when the trial is set to began… The actual date of the trial, we’re asking people to show up for questions we’ll be asking the elected officials we’re asking to come and speak out.

The content of this case, I think, most people will find just as if not even more ludicrous than the last case. I mean, they’re saying that I said a lot of things—which, they can say that I said anything now. I’m a felon! So.

I mean, ideally, we’re asking people to be prepared for possibly the same exact tactics to be used to sort of edit out the outcome of the trial. I would really love to see journalists and press this time assert their right to press… The last time that my case went through, my attorney was disallowed from speaking the facts of the case, and I was honestly fairly shocked that that didn’t bother anyone enough in the press to really do anything about it. And not just on my behalf, but in general, the fact that the press has been shut down in Rikers—you can’t get a press visit, really, in Rikers. There seems to be a slippage of constitutional rights all around, and it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be any actual rebuttal unless we start unifying and working together.

I can be all pissed off at the oppression of the state, but what does that really mean? Well, it’s the tacit consent of a public. I think in short order all of us need to act like we are citizens with not only rights, but also duties.

Guernica: Do you mean that the press didn’t report the fact that your lawyer wasn’t allowed to speak—

Cecily McMillan: No, I mean they could have absolutely set up a suit. I mean, the press, in the past—like, if you look at the 1960s, if you look at the 1940s, if you look at any big movement… for instance, Nadya [Tolokonnikova] and Masha [Alyokhina] [of Pussy Riot] were visiting a couple weeks back, and we were having a conversation about who we have leading Occupy in the mainstream press. Who are our allies? And I laughed. I was just like, “Maybe Rachel Maddow, but—” She’s like, “Well, I mean, your people, your activists. The people in your movement haven’t set up any personal contacts with journalists?” And I was like, “Are you kidding me?” She was like, “Where’s your oppositional, mainstream press?” And I was just like, that’s nuts.

I mean, the fact that there are so many stories being done now on Rikers. There’s so much breaking news. And yet, there hasn’t been a press block formed to stand up for their rights to do press visits in Rikers? I mean, you guys are powerful, really powerful. Of course, the left, the radical press has done a much better job asserting those rights. But as a whole, there’s got to be a take-back of the means, the routes of communication. What if my lawyer had been able to lay out the facts that he was going to present in court? I don’t think anybody right now realizes how much hard evidence was suppressed. My lawyer could not talk.

Guernica: Have you seen that happening again, in this case?

Cecily McMillan: Yes! Same thing. I mean, of course my lawyer has not been issued a gag order, or else would be out there. But there are the same mechanisms being aligned… in a similar way to the last one.

It’s terrifying. Like, all the way down to my appeals case right now. I’m a former student with $90,000 in debt. Literally, it cost me somewhere close to $2,000, $2,500 per month to be in Rikers, including holding on to my apartment, and bills, etc. And because we could fundraise for that money, the courts have put forth a motion that I am not indigent, and therefore should not have access to the publicly-funded appellate court representation. So, they’re trying to take my lawyer away from me right now. They have subpoenaed my call records and my commissary reports from Rikers. I mean, it’s really, actually that crazy.

Guernica: That’s really frightening. I can’t even imagine.

Cecily McMillan: Yeah. It’s really frightening. I really don’t feel good about leaving my house anymore. I don’t feel really good about being anywhere in New York City alone anymore. I really want to leave, and you would think that if someone like me wanted to leave, they would want me to leave—I don’t know why they don’t want me to.

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One comment for Cecily McMillan: Playing With Fire

  1. Comment by John on September 14, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    I salute the great courage of Cecily McMillan and am dismayed, though not surprised at her brutal treatment.

    I’m sorry to say that I feel that the Occupy Movement is a dead end, as can be seen in the UK with the doomed Chartist movement of the 19th century. A political party is needed, unfortunately – because we know how corrupt they can be, and are.

    I am concerned that Nika Knight even mentions the presence of ”celebrities” as if they were in some way more important than other people. I realise that this is the US way, but it is empty of meaning, and is an obeisance to capitalism and its adjunct, advertising which promotes the cult of celebrity. You should not continue to be fooled.

    Cecily McMillan says ” I guess I’m very disappointed. Disappointed, in that I maybe had a belief that there was the possibility of justice.”

    ”McMillan was granted a meeting with Commissioner Ponte. In the wake of their conversation, McMillan is optimistic; the commissioner agreed to an ongoing relationship and dialogue, and scheduled a follow-up meeting to assess their progress in late September.”

    Oh Cecily, I fear you will be disappointed yet again. You are a can that has been kicked down the road, and will end up in a trashcan. Don’t be taken in again.

    It is a learning process, Cecily not to be disappointed with the state. Millions like you have been conditioned to believe that justice will triumph , only to be ”disappointed”.

    Is it time to wake up?

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