I almost pushed a friend of mine into traffic once. We were walking in midtown Manhattan and I had been hiccuping ungracefully for the past twenty minutes. My friend tried to scare my hiccups away with an unsuccessful series of tiny exorcisms, faking the tragic cancellation of TV shows and threatening to date jerks we knew. The hiccups persisted and I was getting frustrated, so I resigned to coexisting with them, possibly forever, and steered the conversation back towards other things. We walked and talked until a group of tourists congested the sidewalk ahead of us, so we parted to pass through them. Suddenly, a hand grabbed my shoulder in the crowd. In a flash of panic, I shoved my assailant and leaped away the exact moment I realized that it was, of course, my friend. A new, colder fear hit me the second before I saw where she had staggered and run into a woman by the curb, who cursed at her. She started laughing before I had even caught my breath. “Well, are they gone?”All I could hear was the blood pounding in my chest and my ears. All I could see was her tripping off the curb, where the woman had stood, into the path of the cab that had just hissed by. I still had the hiccups. I was deeply angry at myself, suddenly, for the moment I thought somehow I was in danger. Why didn’t you think? Of course it was her. Who else would it be?
In another crowd two years ago, someone behind Cecily McMillan suddenly grabbed her right breast, hard. She recoiled in panic and threw an elbow, striking him above the eye. The man was a police officer. McMillan is charged with intentionally assaulting an officer with the intent to interfere with the ability to perform his duties, and faces a felony charge, which carries with it up to seven years in prison. Her trial began on April 7th.
On March 17th, 2012, Occupy Wall Street was celebrating its six-month anniversary and Cecily McMillan was 23 years old. McMillan is an activist who was participating energetically in Occupy, but on St. Patrick’s Day she was not there to protest. She had dressed in bright green and planned to meet up with friends at the corner of the park so they could head to a nearby bar together. They had just gathered when the police announced via bullhorn that they were clearing the park. In compliance with the order and eager to go out, McMillan and her friends headed for the exit. According to McMillan, this is when a hand abruptly grabbed her breast and she was lifted off her feet from behind. She startled and flailed out. Her elbow connected with Grantley Bovell’s head before she realized he was a police officer. Several nearby officers rushed over and arrested her. These events will be discussed at the trial.
What will not be discussed at the trial is the event that was recorded in these videos (the sound in the second video cuts out around the 3:30 mark):
Protestors stand behind a barricade, near a city bus where the police are taking the people they have arrested. McMillan is being escorted there in handcuffs when she collapses to the pavement and begins to seize uncontrollably. The police officers stand over her in a tight circle wordlessly watching as she, in her bright green shirt, lies on the ground, unable to breathe as her body jerks violently. The visual is chilling. Do they think she’s faking? The protestors curse and shout for the officers to help her, protect her head, give her space, but none of them acknowledge the cries. Several officers finally pick her up, take her out of the street, and put her down on the sidewalk, removing the handcuffs. It’s more difficult to see her, but she seems to be going in and out of consciousness and she’s clearly in distress. The protestors begin to roar for a medic. The officers respond by fanning out along the barricades, looking around warily at the protestors, their faces unreadable. McMillan tries to sit up, can’t seem to breathe, then collapses, again and again. All of the officers seem to be moving maddeningly slowly, milling around with hands on hips. It takes a very, very long time for the ambulance to come.
When she wakes up in the hospital, she’s covered in bruises and doesn’t know where she is. She thinks her rib is broken, it hurts so much. In the next forty-odd hours, she is shuttled between the hospital and jail, and although she asks over and over, she is not allowed a phone call to a lawyer, friends, or family.
This is not about McMillan’s elbow. This is about changing the conversation.
Marty Stolar, Cecily’s lawyer, motioned to submit the personnel file of Grantley Bovell, the arresting officer, for examination by the court. Bovell was disciplined for his participation in the Bronx ticket-fixing scandal of 2011, and has a record of accusations against him involving the use of excessive force, including such activities as “running a motorcyclist off the road [in an unmarked police car] to make an arrest, kicking a suspect in the face while he was on the ground, and slamming an arrestee’s face into the stairs on an MTA bus.” Another Occupy protestor is suing him for an assault that he claims occurred on the same day. Judge Zweibel ruled that these incidents are not relevant to the establishment of Bovell’s credibility or lack thereof in Cecily’s case, and the file is now sealed (although Stolar can ask Bovell questions about prior incidents when he takes the stand.) Bovell claims that he did not grab Cecily’s breast and that she elbowed him without cause.
This picture was taken by a doctor who Cecily consulted several days after the incident.
You can see the marks made by individual fingers. They were not left by no one.
On March 17th, 2012, the six-month anniversary of Occupy and the day of Cecily’s arrest, Occupy Arrests.Com reports that 73 people total were arrested. Publications like the New York Times City Blog report brutal beatings and arrests of protestors over small or nonexistent infractions, like dancing (disorderly conduct) or sitting on the ground to pet a nearby dog (“camping.”)
A group of legal experts from NYU, Fordham, Harvard, and Stanford have published a report entitled Suppressing Protest: Human Rights Violations in the U.S. Response to Occupy Wall Street. According to Business Insider (emphasis theirs) “The first appendix of the 132-page report lists 130 incidents of excessive or unnecessary physical force by police in New York City.” So the violence has been well documented.
However, there was also another pattern that emerged in the police’s actions that day: sexual assault. From March 17th on, there were numerous reports of police intentionally grabbing the breasts of female protestors. An account by David Graeber tells the story of a female friend whose breast was grabbed by a police officer. When she screamed at the officer, calling him on the action, she was dragged behind the lines, partly by her hair. When she was thrown to the ground, she told the officers that she was going to retrieve her glasses, which had fallen off beside her, to clarify that the move was not one of resistance, but when she reached out for them, an officer savagely broke her wrist. When she was arrested, she was restrained with the tightest possible handcuffs although she and other protestors concerned about her begged for them to be loosened.
Sound familiar? The correlation to Cecily’s case is not a coincidence, according to Graeber, but part of a new and frightening system:
"Arbitrary violence is nothing new. The apparently systematic use of sexual assault against women protestors is new. I’m not aware of any reports of police intentionally grabbing women’s breasts before March 17, but on March 17 there were numerous reported cases, and in later nightly evictions from Union Square, the practice became so systematic that at least one woman told me her breasts were grabbed by five different police officers on a single night (in one case, while another one was blowing kisses.)"
There is a pattern of intentional violence here. The prosecution’s story doesn’t fit with the pattern.
McMillan was cautious about getting involved with Occupy at first. She grew up politically active – her grandfather, Harlon Joye, drafted the constitution for the 60’s revolutionary group Students For a Democratic Society. A year before Occupy began, she had protested on behalf of unions in Wisconsin, and during Occupy, she was both a grad student at the New School and the Northeast regional organizer for the youth section of the Democratic Socialists of America. But by the standards of Occupy activists, she was barely considered a leftist.
“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,” she told the blog At The Heart Of The Occupation. “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.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone’s Jeff Sharlet, Cecily clarifies her ideology. She states a belief in a “constrained view of revolution,” which involves “putting pressure on mainstream politicians,” and working within the existing system rather than toppling and rebuilding society. She was involved in the controversial Demands working group, which worked to clarify what the different actions were trying to achieve in order to communicate with the public – most Occupy activists reviled them and thought they were poison to the movement, but McMillan wasn’t afraid to disagree.
Sharlet clearly has a negative opinion of her, describing her as a “former cheerleader” and sarcastically commenting that “she has suffered” when she lists the accusations that have been made against her by other activists. Whatever your opinion about McMillan or her views, you can see, despite Sharlet’s eye-rolling, that McMillan had an individual point of view that she wanted to contribute to the movement, but she didn’t represent the movement as a whole, nor did she claim to. And as an individual, she was passionate about non-violent protest, which was not everyone’s cup of tea.
“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,” she said to At The Heart of the Occupation. The question of whether to “respect a diversity of tactics” or adhere to a policy of strict non-violence was one of the biggest arguments among the Occupiers, and at times it threatened to splinter the movement. The Nation discusses the issue in detail, but basically the “diversity of tactics” supporters were concerned about the danger of limiting personal autonomy to the point that they didn’t want to condemn people who did things like break windows or fight back against police officers who were hurting them (no actions intending to harm people intentionally were ever discussed.)
Meanwhile, the supporters of non-violence felt that it was worth instituting a policy of non-violence in the group even if it meant telling other people what to do, on the grounds of increasing safety and “heighten[ing] the contrast between the decorum of the protesters and the violence of the state, to force a dilemma upon those in power by winning public support and causing defections.”
It was clear on what side Cecily fell. As with her advocacy of the Demands Working Group, she did not hesitate to voice her opinion even if it didn’t make her friends in the movement. According to activist Yoni Miller, in the Visions and Goals Working Group, a General Assembly they were involved in together, Cecily was nicknamed “queen of non-violence”.
When McMillan worked as a union organizer, among the unions she represented were policemen’s unions. A friend of hers told me that she often likes to say “It’s not ‘fuck the police’, it’s ‘fuck the police state’.”
In a statement she released four days after her arrest, Cecily wrote:
"Most importantly, I want to reiterate my long-standing personal commitment to non-violence, and non-violent forms of civil disobedience . . . It doesn’t need to be this way. In Madison, Wisconsin, a year ago, when we were protesting the governor’s attacks on unions, many of the police worked with us to help keep these protests peaceful. Going forward, I hope we can similarly work with local law enforcement officials in New York City, and that they receive training in de-escalation and the use of less violent tactics. And we as a movement also need to adhere to non-violent forms of protest."
The Saturday night before jury selection begins, there is a fundraising dance party in support of McMillan. It’s in a scruffy two-story Brooklyn apartment where McMillan and a small circle of activist friends live communally and regularly welcome a rotating cast of visiting allies. This group is clearly seasoned at throwing parties and tasks are briskly delegated until the floor is swept, furniture rearranged, and beverages chilled. The Trader Joe’s wine in cardboard boxes and the cans of beer nestled in ice will be sold to guests for $2 that will go to Cecily’s defense. The walls are adorned with colorful posters full of information about everything from the whereabouts of the recycling bin to the phone number to text for updates on the trial. A look around the house is all it takes to confirm that if there’s one ideology that all radicals can agree on, it’s appreciation for a good poster.
Although a lot of the residents seem to be unnervingly accomplished NYU undergrads or career contributors to counterculture, they are friendly to the notebook-toting square in their midst. When I tell them I’m working on this piece, they are polite and helpful, but when I also mention that I met Cecily through my brother, a friend of hers who has worked with her on activist projects and often visited this house, they brighten and relax, and soon we’re joking around. While most of the media coverage of Occupy highlighted intensely serious youth proclaiming things or out-of-control partying, this particular group comes across as earnest, but supplied with a sense of humor. They tease each other about their collection of communal socks and there’s a poster on the wall for a Socialist Drinking Game where if you draw a 10, it’s Mass Suppression (the first person who talks, drinks) and a 5 is Total Equality (everyone drinks!). But there’s also a wall covered in paper badges, where guests are invited to write about their experiences with police brutality. There’s no hard liquor or marijuana allowed in the house, because of Cecily’s situation. When the activists talk to me about the police, they talk about pressure, they talk about broken systems, they talk about the logistics of why people become cops. Even standing next to a wall of written accounts of police violence, these activists don’t really seem to hate them.
I realize, as I begin to be introduced around, that Justice4Cecily, McMillan’s support team that covers press and outreach, is mostly made up of the activists who live in or frequent the house – basically, McMillan’s friends. Her team is intelligent and knowledgeable but also young, working on a volunteer basis, and learning about the court system as they go. Her lawyer’s working pro bono. They’re selling beer to cover trial costs. I worry about these underdogs as they prepare to take on the vast machine of the New York government and the money standing silently behind it, yet I’m also oddly thrilled that their voices are powerful enough to be considered a threat worthy of targeting by the establishment. I start to understand why someone might make this their life.
In an interview with Democracy Now soon after her arrest, you can see when the camera pans back that McMillan swings her foot back and forth frenetically under the table as the reporter describes her injuries. She smiles a lot during this interview, and it’s definitely masking something. She seems unsure and physically uncomfortable as she is asked to describe what happened to her, but as soon as she starts talking about activism, she straightens, sharpens, and firmly makes the case for non-violent protest. You can see, suddenly, the organizer, and you can tell she’s good at it. At one point, she is asked if she was afraid to return to protesting, in reference to her participation in the Million Hoodie March. “Yes. When I saw the lines of police officers, I, I had to do what, uh my therapist said, you know: ‘The grass is green. The sky is blue.’ And reconfirm my place in reality and center myself.”
Let us take a moment, then, to re-center ourselves. The grass is green. The sky is blue. And here in reality, there should not be a story about Cecily McMillan’s elbow. This story should end with an acquittal.
This piece was originally published on The Toast.