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They Can’t Outlaw the Revolution

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Posted on May 18, 2014

By Chris Hedges

  Cecily McMillan. Photo by Lucy Parks CC-BY

Update: On May 19 Cecily McMillan was sentenced to three months in jail and five years of probation, plus community service. Click on the word Guardian and the words Huffington Post to see articles on the sentencing.

RIKERS ISLAND, N.Y.—Cecily McMillan, the Occupy activist who on Monday morning will appear before a criminal court in New York City to be sentenced to up to seven years on a charge of assaulting a police officer, sat in a plastic chair wearing a baggy, oversized gray jumpsuit, cheap brown plastic sandals and horn-rim glasses. Other women, also dressed in prison-issued gray jumpsuits, sat nearby in the narrow, concrete-walled visitation room clutching their children, tears streaming down their faces. The children, bewildered, had their arms wrapped tightly around their mothers’ necks. It looked like the disaster scene it was.

“It’s all out in the open here,” said the 25-year-old student, who was to have graduated May 22 with a master’s degree from The New School of Social Research in New York City. “The cruelty of power can’t hide like it does on the outside. You get America, everything America has become, especially for poor people of color in prison. My lawyers think I will get two years. But two years is nothing compared to what these women, who never went to trial, never had the possibility of a trial with adequate legal representation, face. There are women in my dorm who, because they have such a poor command of English, do not even understand their charges. I spent a lot of time trying to explain the charges to them.”

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McMillan says Grantley Bovell, who was in plainclothes and did not identify himself as a police officer, grabbed her from behind during a March 17, 2012, gathering of several hundred Occupy activists in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. In a video of the incident she appears to have instinctively elbowed him in the face, but she says she has no memory of what happened. Video and photographs—mostly not permitted by the trial judge to be shown in the courtroom—buttressed her version of events. There is no dispute that she was severely beaten by police and taken from the park to a hospital where she was handcuffed to a bed. On May 5 she was found guilty after a three-week trial of a felony assault in the second degree. She can receive anything from probation to seven years in prison.

“I am prepared mentally for a long sentence,” she told me this past weekend when I interviewed her at the Rikers Island prison in the Bronx. “I watched the trial. I watched the judge. This was never about justice. Just as it is not about justice for these other women. One mother was put in here for shoplifting after she lost her job and her house and needed to feed her children. There is another prisoner, a preschool teacher with a 1-year-old son she was breastfeeding, who let her cousin stay with her after her cousin was evicted. It turns out the cousin sold drugs. The cops found money, not drugs, that the cousin kept in the house and took the mother. They told her to leave her child with the neighbors. There is story after story in here like this. It wakes you up.”

McMillan’s case is emblematic of the nationwide judicial persecution of activists, a persecution familiar to poor people of color. Her case stands in contrast with the blanket impunity given to the criminals of Wall Street. Some 8,000 nonviolent Occupy protesters have been arrested. Not one banker or investor has gone to jail for causing the 2008 financial meltdown. The disparity of justice mirrors the disparity in incomes and the disparity in power.

Occupy activists across the country have been pressured to “plea out” on felony charges in exchange for sentences of years of probation, which not only carry numerous restrictions, including being unable to attend law school or serve on a jury, but make it difficult for them to engage in further activism for fear of arrest and violating their probation. McMillan was offered the same plea deal but refused it. She was one of the few who went to trial.

“I am deeply committed to nonviolence, especially in the face of all the violence around me inside and outside this prison,” she said in the interview. “I could not accept this deal. I had to fight back. That is why I am an activist. Being branded as someone who was violent was intolerable.”

McMillan’s case is as much about our right to nonviolent protest as it is about McMillan. It is about our right to carry out such protest without being subjected to police violence intended to crush peaceful and lawful dissent. It is about our right to engage in political organization without our groups being monitored and infiltrated by the security and surveillance state. It is about our right of free speech and free assembly, guaranteed under the Constitution but effectively stripped from us in a series of judicial rulings and through municipal ordinances that make it impossible to protest in many U.S. cities.

Judge Ronald A. Zweibel was caustic and hostile to McMillan and her defense team during the trial. He barred video evidence that would have helped her case. He issued a gag order that forbade the defense lawyers, Martin Stolar and Rebecca Heinegg, to communicate with the press. And, astonishingly, he denied McMillan bail.


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