Cecily McMillan’s Awakening

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Filed under: First Amendment Issues

I Went From Grad School to Prison
As Told to Abigail Pesta
August 12, 2014

This past spring, Cecily McMillan rode a bus across a bridge to Rikers Island, home of the notorious New York City jail. When the Occupy Wall Street activist was released nearly two months later, she had left her old self behind.


I didn’t cry my first night in jail.

By the time I got through the 12 hours of intake “” the lines, the fingerprints, the strip search “” it was 4 a.m. In a dorm with 50 women, I lay on a cot smaller than a twin bed, with a mattress so thin, I could feel the cold metal beneath my back.

I didn’t feel much of anything emotionally, except a vague sense of resolution. At least I knew my fate now. I was a convicted felon.

I had spent two years awaiting a trial, accused of assaulting a policeman at an Occupy Wall Street protest in New York City in March 2012. As I remember it, the officer surprised me from behind, grabbing my right breast so forcefully, he lifted me off the ground. In that moment, my elbow met his face.

At the time, I was a graduate student at The New School for Social Research and volunteering as a union organizer, in fact helping police negotiate contracts. I was studying nonviolent movements and had been inspired by pacifists like Bayard Rustin, the activist who helped Martin Luther King Jr. My arrest was the opposite of everything I stood for.

I remember someone pushing me to the ground, my face hitting a grate. Next thing I knew, I was strapped to a gurney, my skirt up above my hips. I had bruises across my body and a handprint on my chest. Officers were joking about my “Ocupussy.” I learned later that I had been beaten on the head, triggering a seizure. Videos posted online showed people shouting “Help her!” amid the seizure while the cops stood by. The first time I saw those videos, I watched in horror “” I couldn’t believe that I was the person going through that ordeal.

At the trial, I sat trying to appear calm as I got ripped apart. Prosecutors said I had inflicted the injuries on myself. They said I hadn’t immediately mentioned being grabbed “” but I was completely disoriented after the seizure. The judge didn’t allow evidence that my attorney wanted to show the jury, including a range of videos of the incident. I was found guilty and sent to Rikers Island to await my sentence. My lawyer Marty Stolar, a human-rights expert and watchdog for Occupy who had taken my case for free, was so shocked at the verdict that he was visibly shaken.

The prosecutors had offered a deal that would have kept me out of jail, but I refused to plead guilty to something I didn’t do, especially a felony. So I sacrificed my freedom for my convictions. I will never regret that. But I will never be the same person after Rikers Island. I know now what it’s like to lose your freedom, to abandon any sense of personal space, and to face a level of humiliation that is almost impossible to describe. Read the rest of this article here.