Released from Rikers prison after serving 58 days, Occupy activist Cecily McMillan discusses prisons, policing and why she’ll keep protesting.
Cecily McMillan would rather not be famous. Not for the dubious honor of receiving the most serious sentence among thousands of Occupy Wall Street activists arrested over the course of the movement.
McMillan was released from Rikers Island after 58 days. She’d been sentenced to 90 days for felony second-degree assault for elbowing a police officer, Grantley Bovell, who was attempting to arrest her as Zuccotti Park was cleared on March 17, 2012, but got out early on July 2 for good behavior. She still faces five years of probation and a life with a felony record if her appeal, which is still going forward, is unsuccessful.
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At trial, McMillan argued that she accidentally struck the officer after he grabbed her breast, bruising her. She’d previously refused to take a plea deal that would still have resulted in her pleading guilty to a felony. The jury found her guilty – though later nine of the 12 jurors issued a call for leniency in sentencing.
Video of McMillan suffering an apparent seizure after her arrest, while officers looked on and did nothing, was not allowed at trial, nor was evidence of other accusations of brutality against Officer Bovell. Despite the jurors and several members of the New York City Council calling for McMillan not to serve prison time, the judge, Ronald Zweibel, remanded her to Rikers immediately after her conviction, rejecting her lawyer’s request for bail. “A civilized society must not allow an assault to be committed under the guise of civil disobedience,” Zweibel said at her sentencing.
Upon her release, McMillan brought to the press a statement from the women of Rikers that she met while inside, with a list of demands for reforms of the institution. Though, she says, she is nobody special – “I’m just not as interesting as they’re making me out to be” – her experiences have made her determined to speak out about prison conditions, as well as the connections between the prison system and the economic justice issues that led her to get involved with Occupy in the first place.
McMillan spoke with Truthout‘s Sarah Jaffe about prisons, protests, policing and the world she’d like to see. This is an edited transcript.
Truthout: How does it feel to be out?
Cecily McMillan: It’s very discombobulating. I remember coming home, sitting on my bed, looking at all my clothes. It took me literally 30 minutes – being almost paralyzed with decisions available to me – before I could even pick out something to wear around the house. I’ve been wearing the same two outfits, same two sets of pajamas, for 58 days.
It’s like that with everything. Getting up in the morning and choosing what to eat. It took me a while to even get any sort of voice back. When I got out and did the press conference I had to start my speech over because I literally lost my voice. I had forgotten what it meant to be listened to.
I am really overwhelmed with the task of adequately representing the needs of the women in Rikers. I had the very real experience, but nonetheless, that was only 58 days. Many of these women have been in and out, sent back again and again. I take very seriously the task that they have given me to represent their conditions in Rikers and the resources they need in order to get out.
I really fiercely miss my family in Rikers. These are the women that really sustained me in there, that really kept me going, that really helped me to continue to stand up for the values that I believe in. There’s a bond and an experience that I have with them that I don’t really have in my community on the outside.
It sounds like you’ve been thinking a lot about the role you have now, the way you can use the attention given to your case that isn’t given to so many other people who are in there.
I’m really uncomfortable with the concept of a martyr, the concept of a leader. As far as I’m concerned, I just got sexually assaulted, which is a really commonplace experience for women in this country. I just got targeted, which is a really common experience for people of color in this country.
I don’t think that I’m particularly special or even the best person to advocate on behalf of the everyday life of, not if, but when most of these women will find themselves in jail. When they asked me to deliver their demands, when they wrote them down, when they handed me 50 little sheets of paper that I read out to my team over the phone, I realized that I had some idea of what their oppression was, but not a clear structural understanding. It has been a constant worry that I won’t do them justice.
Any particular stories about what it was like there that you’d like to share?
Maybe the best way that I could explain is through describing a search. Our dorm gets randomly searched at least twice a month, more if they want to set an example or if somebody has been smoking in the bathroom or if there have been rumors that somebody had some sort of contraband.
They use this space more or less to haze the new [correctional officers]. Two or three captains, 10 or so officers file into your dorm in full riot gear, the whole Plexiglas panel that’s surrounding their body, the masks and a huge wooden bat. Another set of officers file into the bathroom and stand in a line facing the stalls that don’t have doors. The first time they did the search I was using the restroom and had to finish my business right in front of them. They direct everybody to get down on the beds face down with your hands behind your back, after you put on your uniform and your ID badge. In Rikers you become a number. I’m 3101400431.
A third set of officers file in through sleeping quarters. Sometimes they bring in dogs. They call you row by row into the bathroom to strip down completely naked, do a deep knee bend forward, a deep knee bend backward, then have you open your mouth and shake out your hair and lift up your breasts.
After that the row files into the day room, and they have you face the wall standing throughout what can take up to a three or four hour process. Again you have three or so different captains, yelling “Miss, Miss,” and if you turn around they’re like, “I said turn around and face the wall! You want me to take your good days away?” You don’t know who’s giving orders where. They direct you into the entrance room where they make you sit down on a metal-detecting chair to check your body for any objects that you may be concealing. You have to put your cheek on a similar body metal detector device.
Then they bring out the women row by row again to our beds where they have flipped your bedding over, and you’re made to stand there and hold your mattress off the ground. These old women up to 80 years old having to stand there for hours and then hold their mattresses up like this. They page through everything. They turned to me at one point and said, “McMillan! Why do you have so many books?” I was like, “Because I’m a grad student! Are you looking for cigarettes or are you looking for radical literature?”
If a CO isn’t being humiliating enough, a CO will come over and ravage through your things even more. They can take anything away. These little soap hearts – this inmate would crush down soaps and reform them into hearts and put little pictures from magazines on them. Anything besides two pairs of pajamas – shoes that you got medically cleared, any commissary, if you have more than one shampoo and conditioner, pens. It takes like two weeks to get one of those.
After that you’re all marched back out and whatever doesn’t fit on your bed becomes trash. They will have another set of inmates come in – this is the real dirty part – and sweep up all of your belongings into these big trash bags and when you’re let back into your room, the closest thing I can describe it to is growing up in southeast Texas and coming back home after a hurricane to return with your community to put your life back together again.
All sorts of things can go wrong. My bunkie, the woman next to me, had very serious asthma and they woke her up like this; she had a very severe asthma attack, to the point that she nearly collapsed and they said, “Stand up, why are you sitting down?” I said, “She has asthma,” and they yelled, “shut the fuck up!” and I said, “You’re going to have a lawsuit on your hands unless you get her her inhaler,” and they asked her, “Which bed are you?” and she couldn’t talk. I said, “She lives right next to me, I can get her inhaler,” and they said, “Shut the fuck up!” and then she started wheezing and they’re like, “OK, McMillan, go get her inhaler, quick!” and I trot off, and they yell, “Don’t run, walk!” This woman ended up having to go downstairs to get a steroid shot.
That’s a normal experience at Rikers, something you have to accept. They can come at any time, any day, during any set of services, 3:00 AM, doesn’t matter.
The statement from the inmates in particular focused on the lack of medical treatment given to prisoners, and I hear that again in this story.
I have to agree wholeheartedly – this will seem like the most unlikely ally – with the president of the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association, Norman Seabrook, who I worked with before. Rikers is not and should not be a mental institution. I read a recent statistic that said more than 40 percent of the women there have been diagnosed with mental health conditions and I would say that’s an underreporting. Every inmate is not required to undergo a thorough psychosocial consult. These women need help. Actual resources. Not to be put in a place that will literally drive you mad if you were whatever sane was to begin with.
Beyond the mental health standards, it is the norm to go downstairs for clinic – you have to sign up for sick call the night before; if you don’t sign up you don’t go. Then you have to wake up somehow of your own accord at 6 AM to go prepare for sick call. You could be waiting up to two or three hours at the door for sick call because when the door closes you’re not getting out. I never got through sick call in less than six hours; you could be waiting easily up to 12 hours, and you could also still not see a doctor and have to come back two, three or four days in a row.
Very basic things like a cold, an ulcer, think about it. These tiny little things that can be fixed with ease turn into death sentences, rapidly. I witnessed another woman who had stomach cancer who found herself in so much unbearable pain that she was just yelling out her bunkie’s name for hours before medical finally came up and when they did, they refused to touch her and required her to climb up on the gurney herself and wouldn’t allow us to help her climb up on this gurney. The gurney ended up going up on two wheels as she nearly careened to the floor.
People keep asking me what was the doctor’s name. Doctors don’t have to give you their names. And of course they won’t.
It’s not that I don’t want to talk about Judith’s death. I’m happy to talk about Judith’s death in the sense that I would love for her death to actually have eyes. I would love for anybody to recognize that she died, but I want to really paint a picture that this isn’t an anomaly.
Another girl, when she was brought in for intake, was given what she thought was a routine physical, where a doctor that is known to be – nasty is the term that they use to describe him, telling inmates in Spanish that these uptight nurses, what they really need is a good fuck. He told this inmate that he needed to do an exam, told her that her chromosomal count was off, that he needed to do an exam to determine if she were really a man or a woman, had her pull down her panties as he stroked her. With no female nurse present.
It didn’t even come out until after I had left. They were talking about medical abuses in the dorm after I left, and she said “That doctor? He gave me a gynecological exam when I came in.” Another inmate said, “He’s not a gynecologist,” and she said, “He said he needed to determine . . . ” and it wasn’t until she finished the sentence that she realized that there was anything even wrong with that.
It’s just horrifying. This is the pervasive treatment that such a broad swath of our society experiences on the outside every day, that humiliation has become that normalized.
People promise all sorts of things to these wonderfully resilient women all of the time and they very rarely follow through. I don’t think that they thought that their voices would actually be heard by so many. I was terrified that I was going to get out and nobody was going to want to hear what they had to say on the inside. There’s a reason why we have such a beautiful piece of real estate being occupied by a prison-industrial complex; that’s why they’re way over there with a bridge separating them from the rest of society. It’s easier for society to put those people over there so that they don’t have to be reminded daily of the degrading terms on which our democracy rests.
I’m hearing this, thinking about the incident that landed you in Rikers in the first place. I wonder if you feel like all of this is related, the way the police behaved outside of jail and the way inmates are treated on the inside?
Maybe that’s what has made me relate so much to these women and why I feel so alienated from the community I had before. There’s so much love; people are so overwhelmingly supportive; my friends are just incredible; my entire Occupy family is just beautiful. But to have undergone the experience that I had was in a sense to remove me of my class privilege.
I know that there’s an irony in saying that as I have the opportunity to talk to you right now, which obviously means that I still do have privilege beyond measure in a comparative sense. But it at least allowed me a glimpse into what it means to be targeted by the police, to be characterized as dishonest, as undesirable by the court system, to be remanded without bail, as only the most serious crimes are. I had to spend like a week in jail trying to convince people that I wasn’t some sort of mass murderer. They said, “Did you miss a court date?” and I said “No,” and they said, “How many people did you kill?”
This is a double-edged sword. I went into Rikers and rather than the example to be made for Occupy Wall Street and of all dissent, I was just a normal person in there and there was a certain comfort to that. Even amidst the shocking humiliation there’s also a solidarity of human struggle that I had really missed. Just be amongst other people who had been targeted, who had been treated poorly, who had been lost in the justice system, there was something to be said for that. I feel like in some ways I had been removed of all personhood except for the political idea they had wished to make of me and somehow through Rikers I regained my personhood, in the most humbling and profound way.
You want to talk about really seeing firsthand these books we read about the feminine condition, class condition, racial conditions, there’s nothing like spending time in Rikers to make you feel those words. Feel the reality of the new Jim Crow. Feel the vulnerability of what it means to be a woman. Feel the helplessness of being a part of an undesirable criminal class.
I read that even when they were letting you out, they took you somewhere you weren’t expecting to be?
Captains do not talk to inmates. The captains make all the decisions, so if you want a decision made you have to go through a CO to talk to a captain and the captain doesn’t address you; they talk about you in front of you and then the CO tells you. I was passed through like a dozen captains that morning starting at 5 AM, and you’re never even brought down till 7:30 AM after the court folks have been put into transportation. I was brought down at 5 AM, people from property, people from medication were called in early that morning just to discharge me. I was discharged at 8:30 AM, put into a van and I said to the very nice CO, “Have you ever seen them try to get rid of somebody so quickly?” He said, “No, I’ve also never been ordered to chauffeur somebody to a train station.” I said, “Wait, what, no no no, I’m supposed to go to the Perry building,” which is where people wait for inmates to get released. My friends were there; I really needed to meet them because I don’t have an ID, a phone, without anybody that I care about knowing where I am. Especially being disappeared for 40 hours without any access to a lawyer or anybody able to find me after the initial arrest I was like, “Oh God, what is happening here?” They can and do disappear people at Rikers Island.
I was terrified. What are you going to do at Rikers Island in cuffs, tell an officer who doesn’t show you a badge, a name, “No thank you, I’d like to go back to my dorm now”?
I’m in this car, the CO says OK, let me talk to my captain. He calls the deputy warden over; I tell him I do not consent to being driven to an unknown location without ID, without phone, without keys, without talking to my friends, nothing. Once I have passed the gates of Rikers, you are no longer in charge; I demand to be let go. I sat there for about 40 minutes as I’m sure they called all the way up to the commissioner, and then the CO said, “I’m sorry, I have orders; my wife died a couple of months ago from cancer and I’m in charge of these two young boys and I can’t lose my job; I can’t lose my pension. If I disobey orders, I’m going to get in trouble. This is coming from all the way up.”
He drove me to Queensboro and dropped me off with my package and my MetroCard and he did, I will say, wait around until I managed to find somebody with a phone before he drove off. Luckily there was a young man who recognized my jail bag with my numbers on it; he said, “You look really distressed; did you just get out of jail? Do you want to borrow my phone?” and I said, “Please.” He turned out to be an activist for Chinese immigrant rights; he sat there and waited with me until my friends came and picked me up. They asked, “You’re WHERE?” and I said, “I don’t know!”
You get a real sense that you could die, that you could disappear, that anything could happen to you while you’re in there. This is the reality that these women live every day.
New York has been going through a lengthy debate over the practices of the NYPD, which became central to last year’s mayoral election. How would you like to see the NYPD changed?
As one inmate said in her own demands, “A full-on investigation of the protocols of the NYPD. I mean look at this place, you’re one of two white girls I’ve seen in here.”
I don’t know how to say it better. The NYPD, I have no problem with the human beings themselves at all. I think that there is a way that a police force could actually be used to protect the citizenry. I would love to see police officers help, especially the elderly, help children in times of need, in times of chaos. I think that there could be a really valuable role for police officers in a human community. But what we have right now is specifically not that.
I think “Stop policing, start protecting” is a really valuable chant. We’ve got to ask, who is it that the police are accountable to? It seems to me very clearly that it’s not the people. The bankers haven’t been arrested. I would love to see, what is the total sum of money that every prisoner in Rikers has ever allegedly stolen as compared to the 2007 housing market crash.
In that sense, I do think that the NYPD as a force has become the arm of the corporatocracy. The way that they treated Zuccotti Park, the way that they go out and seemingly round up undesirable people, especially at times that gentrification is in full swing, but never happen to be around in times when the same people actually require assistance or help. What are our police doing? Why are they doing it? Who are they responsible to? Why don’t we have more community oversight? Why don’t we have a democratic hand in selecting the commissioner?
I found it ludicrous that one of the reasons why they were saying I was clearly not the victim of anything is because I didn’t report it to the internal affairs bureau. “Hey, um, excuse me police officers, can I tell you about how this other police officer, your friend, comrade and coworker, abused me?” You’ve got to be kidding me. Who would do that?
This big disarmament facade of removing guns from our streets via racial profiling – where’s your disarmament strategy on the other side? Why is it that every police officer needs a gun?
I heard the recent number of how many New Yorkers died by gunshot wounds in 2013. I want to know how many of those bullets were at the hands of the NYPD. I think the police need to be democratically controlled just as our state is supposed to be. If you look at the basic demands of the women in Rikers, they were just asking for the same rights and the same avenues to participate in their own fate as we have begged for in this country for as long as I’ve been alive.
I think that the platform and demands laid out by the women of Rikers give us some serious direction for our own democratic organization as well. How can we, the citizens of New York City, file a grievance when an officer has abused his duty? If it’s not the officers, who can we hold accountable for issuing the order? How can we know where the orders are coming from? Same demands as Rikers, same demands for New York City. We should have a say in our collective fate.
How do the prison system and these problems of police brutality intersect with the issues of economic injustice that the Occupy movement was fighting? There was tension within Occupy over whether fighting the police overshadowed the focus on economic inequality – do you see these as two parts of the same movement?
I was certainly of the camp that was like “we need to get off the [fuck the police] nonsense,” but in reality, we did have to fight with law enforcement – I don’t mean violently, I mean figuratively – in order to be allowed our basic civil right to protest. It wasn’t so much a choice as it was a reality and because it was the nearest problem to us, the biggest hurdle to get at economic inequality; it became really central to what we were trying to do.
In terms of the NYPD and economic justice and the prison system, our prisons are the clearest barometer of the level of our democracy and our society. Maybe in terms of Occupy, had we been able to start with this, from this standpoint, we might have garnered a lot more strength across the 99% than when we started at Zuccotti. There’s a certain amount of privilege that comes with being able to drop everything in your life and move into a public space.
That’s not to belittle what Zuccotti was or Occupy Wall Street was by any means. Like I’ve been saying since I’ve gotten out, get your nose out of a book and get your ass into the streets; we’re going to make mistakes; we’re going to mess up, but we’ve got to stop talking about what we’re going to do and we’ve got to start doing things in order to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Prison is the clearest vision of what is wrong with our corporate state. I have never more clearly understood how classist our society is. I did not meet a single other person in my entire time at Rikers who went to trial. Jury of your peers? Ha! They so clearly understand that there is no right to trial by jury, nor right to a speedy trial. There have been women waiting there for five years to go to trial, or for the right plea bargain. I was never in a room with more than I would say three white women. I met maybe a handful of people that lived in Manhattan.
In terms of the NYPD, I think that they have a strong understanding of the fact that the police are there specifically to remove them from society, not to protect them in society. The amount of women that had read The New Jim Crow in there is actually a lot, but they also understand it structurally. They don’t sit around and scream about “fuck the police.” They understand that the police are not answerable to them.
They are some of the most incredible organizers I’ve ever witnessed, in the fact that they manage somehow to continue living, to continue having humanity, to continue having community despite absolutely no access to affordable housing, to quality jobs, to a police system that protects them, to the resources that they need concerning domestic abuse, domestic violence, career training, job training, education, health care, mental health care, welfare. They have managed to organize their way around literally unlivable circumstances.
Can you imagine a world without prisons? Have you ever thought about prison abolition? What would we need for that to happen?
[A world without prisons] seems very easy to me. It’s harder for me to imagine a world with prisons, even having been there.
The problem again isn’t with the COs. We’re looking at people who are not downwardly mobile upper-class white folks who want to run around Jim Crow-ing everyone. These folks, as one inmate said when I asked her what she thought about this story about the COs bringing in contraband, she said, “I’m not really surprised. We all come from the same place. All of them know us. They’re just the ones who were lucky enough to get out.”
These folks that are working these public sector jobs, you think they want to go to prison every day, you think they want to go to jail every day? Hell no. If we provided quality addiction programs where we treated addiction not like some sort of personal choice but the condition that it is, the mental health condition that it is, that helped people, COs would be working there. If we had solid resources for, so many women were actually in there for “assault” because they finally snapped and defended themselves against their abusers. I was in a room with four alone. If we had domestic abuse programs where women had resources for themselves and their children, where they didn’t have to move in with friends in overcrowded high-priced apartments, and weren’t made to resort to jobs that don’t provide the money that is required to raise children. Mental health care programs. Health care programs. I met women in there that were in trouble for grand larceny, for stealing, in order to pay medical bills. If we put the same emphasis on social welfare and education, job training, we provided government sector jobs, both the COs and the inmates would lead much more fulfilling lives.
It is actually mind-boggling to me how we keep up the facade of prisons. The grand waste of taxpayer money, if you just look at it from a capitalistic self-interested standpoint. One of the women in there is writing a book called “Rosie’s Babies” where she talks about the dozens of women that she’s met in Rikers who had been born in Rikers and then were sent back again and again and again. I myself met four of these women.
There’s no sense in prison. There’s no rehabilitation; there’s no citizenship; it is completely at odds with everything that we call democracy. It doesn’t make any sense. People have called me a political prisoner; that’s weird for me. But if I have to really think about that title and really come up with a definition of what a political prisoner is, it’s someone who goes against the law or goes against the social rules or norms in order to stand up for the things that they believe in or the people that they care for, to do what is right by their communities. There’s not a single woman in Rikers who isn’t a political prisoner by that standard.
Just give these women, give these inmates, give our citizens the things that they need, the rights that they deserve. The resources they want to lead happy, fulfilling, contributing lives. That to me is so obvious.
Sarah Jaffe is an independent journalist covering labor, social and economic justice, and politics for The Atlantic, The Guardian, In These Times, Truthout and many other publications. She is the cohost of Belabored, a labor podcast hosted by Dissent magazine, and a frequent guest on other TV and radio programs. She lives in Brooklyn with a rescue dog and too many books.