Posted 9 months ago on July 13, 2014, 9:52 p.m. EST by LeoYoh
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Released Occupy Activist Cecily McMillan: "There's No Sense in Prison"
Sunday, 13 July 2014 00:00
By Sarah Jaffe, Truthout | Interview
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.
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.