I guess I got pretty activated during the anti-Scott Walker affair in Madison, Wisconsin. The summer before, I was at the United States Socialist Forum and linked up with the Democratic Socialists of America. I was a student teacher, and then ended up in Madison, Wisconsin. It was my senior year, and I was just like, “Look, I have to be at Madison. I have to take two weeks off of school. If you need to fail me, then that’s okay, but I have to do this." I guess losing that after how many people were out there, how many youth and labor and how much energy there was, just made me feel empty when it all ended. I moved to New York August 3rd to go to school at the New School for Social Research. It was then that I heard that there were people meeting to Occupy Wall Street. It was something to possibly fill that hole, something to look forward to, something to work towards.
I guess I first went down around August 8th. It was days after I had arrived. I was actually moving into the Tompkins Square Park area. I was like, “Well, I’ll stop by.” I had no idea what they were talking about. I didn’t know that anarchists existed outside of hot topic t-shirts. I was so confused but so mesmerized. I’d always been the most radical person wherever I was, whether it be a democrat in Texas or a democratic socialist in college, and all of the sudden, I became sort of moderate in this group of people. I was confounded. I remember someone calling me a liberal, and I said, “Thanks!” I had no idea that was an insult. It was mesmerizing.
I didn’t go to the park on the first day. I had fought really hard for there to be a statement of non-violence before we proceeded with any tactical development about occupying the park. I was really put off by this term "diversity of tactics." I guess I grew up around people who were politically active, and it kind of set off some warning bells for me. I was really afraid about what was going to happen or be instigated by the police, and I didn't want to ruin my political activism prospects the first month in a new city, so I watched, and I went down the second day. Honestly, I wrote a scathing review when I was down there. I was in a cultural criticism class, and that horrible woman from the New York Times was like, “These are a bunch of clowns doing spectacle theater.” I read it, but then I wrote a scathing review completely agreeing with her from the inside. I was embarrassed, I guess. As much as I had read and as many ideals that I had about the movement, I guess I just got sort of pretentious, and I didn’t realize that it takes a lot of time to develop a counter cultural identity. It doesn’t just happen. It takes time and discourse and moving through people using their voices inappropriately and appropriately, and navigating through what it means to be in a movement together.
I was very immature with my visions at the early Occupy Movement, really impatient. As it grew, I became really engulfed, as everyone else did, in my little section of the whole. I was involved in the most hated section, which was the Demands Working Group. I remember every meeting that we had that someone would come up with a Declaration of Occupation and say, “We already decided that we’re not going to have demands.” I was like, “But we are making demands every day. When you march with unions about something Bloomberg did, you’re making a demand. When you plan a direct action at a bank, you’re making a demand. We have got to get out of this myopic way of thinking.” I guess my thought with the Demands Working Group was never that we would actually define for the whole what it was that we stood for, but it was really a keen idea that came out of my working in the original outreach group back in Tompkins Square Park. I would call people and say, “Hey, do you want to Occupy Wall Street?” They were like, “Why?” I’m like, “Well, we’ll decide that when we get there because I’m not allowed to say anything right now about what we stand for and who we are.” It made me realize that it’s not that people needed any concrete understanding of what we were doing. They just needed to know that we were trying to do something.
I think I was trying to be a part of a conversation that would get out to the public that there are people working for demand-driven programs within Occupy Wall Street. I still maintain that everyone really is. Some of them might be utopian and more long-term. It’s good to be countercultural. It’s good to be against the state, but ultimately, if you can’t communicate your aims in a way that the normative individual can understand, then you’re not going to get a lot of buy in. That’s what I really hoped to achieve within the Demands Working Group, and I think overall we did. Initially, people would have to go to the general assembly and say, “I want to do this direct action. Do I have the permission to do this direct action?” Eventually, we said, “The working groups are autonomous, so do your direct actions.”
I’ve been working in a number of little ways to figure out what the bridge is between youth and labor. I think that labor has got to have a facelift, and youth has got to have a place. One without the other won't work. I think it’s interesting that now that I’ve become more tempered on my outlook on Occupy, there’s an impatience that we’re not doing anything, that the movement is not happening. It is. It’s happeing in these little pockets now. I think that Occupy was where we learned to use our voices, and I think everyone is doing some little project like I’m doing, and it’s all going to come together.
I had two really severe beatings by the police, one in October 2011 where I cracked a rib. My shoulder was dislocated, and I had a concussion. That was the day the unions took the Brooklyn Bridge. We were trying to do a human barricade on Wall Street. The chief of police left his handcuffs on me really tight. They were under direct charge to not attack women after the pepper spraying, so I was let go. I think if I would have known more about how commonplace these actions were or how important it is for people to stand up against the police through civil suits and to not take plea bargains, maybe the second case would have never happened. The second case was the six-month anniversary (M17). I can’t talk about it in detail because the case isn’t fully finished. Getting arrested is one scary series of minutes between when you’re beaten or grabbed or nabbed and the time you spend in jail. That is the least of it. The worst part is the year and a half that you spend waiting, trying to figure out if it’s going to totally ruin your life.
Before we have a movement that we all imagine, in the context of Occupy, we have got to set-up internal support systems for the abuses, the psychological abuses. It is literally psychological torture. There is not a day and a half that has gone by in the last year and a half that I haven’t thought about this case. People need to become just as informed about what a political trial entails and how political acts are legally treated as they are about the police. People need to know their rights. They need to know what they're getting into when they step out there. I was targeted that night. I was attempting to leave after I was told to leave the park. I was steps away from leaving the park. You don’t have to be doing anything to get arrested. If they want you, they’ll get you. People need to understand that by being a part of a movement, it is dangerous. There needs to be internal systems set-up to support people when they’re going through these things. I’ve been an indicted felon for a year now. I can’t work with children. I Have three education certifications. If I were a teacher, I’d be on suspension right now. This has totally ruined my life. I stand for everything that it means, but it’s very lonely, heart-wrenchingly lonely. It’s hard to believe every day that there is still a movement when you feel that lonely.
I step out into the world every day, and it’s so overwhelming how inhumane everything around me is. Look at homelessness. You see people walking around with five thousand dollar bags, and you’re just looking at this person on the sidewalk, and you’re like, “How is this possible?” For me, it’s living. It’s coping. I do social change because I can’t bear to live in a world and not. It’s a moral responsibility. If you have the cultural capital or the power or the privilege or the consciousness, you do it. Everybody has the power, to some extent, to do things every day to work towards something better. I think that’s human. I think social change is important because it’s human. Progress is human. We’re intelligent beings. We can work out a way for things to be better. I think rampant individualism is what is wrong. I don’t believe in the concept of the individual. I don’t think there is anything that is just yours. I don’t think that you are just you. I Think that as a byproduct of us being human and existing in society, everything that you are, that you do, is interrelated to the broader context—your friends, your family, your society, your class, your race, etc. People need to see how interrelated they are and how completely co-dependent they are on everybody else in society. I think that is the biggest problem to overcome.
I don’t believe that violence is a possibility at making change. I think when you’ve gotten to the point where you have drones, there’s really no possibility of any of us running around with little weapons. We passed the point where that could actually work. Then, I think on the course of mass violence. Some people are like, “Well, if we just lit all of the police cars on fire, then that would challenge the system.” I really think that our government would not hesitate to Tiananmen Square the fuck out of us. I think that we’re in such a fear mongering age that all they would need to say is that we’re terrorists. I mean, look, they shut down Boston. That’s crazy. Nobody said anything. It’s Boston, like the Boston Tea Party. The historical implications of the radicalism of that city, and nobody said anything.
I think that before we have any chance of restructuring the state, we are going to have to have a democratic socialist state. I’m not a hard democratic socialist, but I think that until we as “the superpower of the world” become a democratic socialist state, there’s not going to be a consistent dialogue or a vocabulary between us and the rest of the “developed” world. Democratic socialism is not civilized by my definition, but we have to get on everybody else’s plain of civilization before we hope to even consider the structural changes we’d like to see. It’s globalism. You can’t just change one state. It’s gotta be in dialogue and discourse with a global movement. Labor practices need to be vastly, overwhelmingly redone in the context of the global before we can see better circumstances for our workers. You can’t just say, “We’re going to fix America" when all of our industries are exploiting workers elsewhere and thereby tanking the wages of our workers here.
I think in my lifetime, I’d like to see a democratic socialist state—health care, educational reform, fair labor laws. It’s not even an if, it’s a when. The student debt thing is really going to force us to make some serious decisions. It in some ways could be worse for the institution than the great depression. You have the most “intelligent” citizens who are going to be jobless—Harvard, Yale, Princeton. They’re not just going to take it. It’s going to force us. There’s not a way the system as it is can continue. We’ve got two choices that I can perceive—fascism or a democratic socialist society. Democratic socialism isn’t a fix it all, nor is it the ideal concrete state, but before we get there, we can’t really dialogue with the rest of the world.
I'd like us to get to a place where we are exercising to some extent, realistically, what has become a lip service document—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We need to stop thinking about that as utopian, and we need to start figuring out ways to exercise that from within the excesses of capitalism. It’s totally realizable. It’s not a pipe dream. Every person really can and should and it would be better for production and society if we had socialized health care and free higher education. Why are there people in the streets when we are the “richest country in the world?” How does that not fuck with people’s reason? It’s absurd. What is absurd is not the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but the fact that we haven’t required it. Why are there children that can’t go to the dentist when we know that gum disease leads to heart disease? Then, when people die on the table and it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, then we’ve got republicans being like, “We have to clean up after the masses that don’t take care of themselves.” This is absurdity. I think just getting real, getting human and having a real human dialogue across the developed world will have a trickle down effect to what every citizen of the world deserves—health care, food, housing, education. It’s the twenty-first fucking century. This is not too much.
This interview with Cecily McMillan was conducted by Stacy Lanyon in 2013, and posted on her blog, At the Heart of an Occupation.