By Alexander Reed Kelly
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.
Feelings of dread took hold around the nation May 5 as reporters announced that a Manhattan jury had found Occupy Wall Street organizer Cecily McMillan guilty of assaulting an NYPD officer. Since the incident two years ago, McMillan’s case has become a hallmark of the U.S. government’s ongoing use of the law to suppress dissent, and for many observers, news that the 25-year-old graduate student could serve up to seven years in jail for self-defense was a chilling confirmation of the desertion of ordinary citizens by officials.
What exactly did McMillan do? According to prosecuting attorney Erin Choi, McMillan committed deliberate assault. Choi told the court that as Officer Grantley Bovell proceeded to remove McMillan from Zuccotti Park, McMillan “crouched down, then bent her knees, and then aimed her elbow at the officer and then jumped up to strike.” Photographs showed Bovell developed a black eye. He told the judge and jury that he went on to suffer headaches and sensitivity to light.
McMillan’s defenders told a different story. On March 17, defense attorney Martin Stolar said, McMillan had taken a “day off from protest.” She stopped by the park to pick up a friend she planned to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with. McMillan got “caught up” in the NYPD’s “manufactured need” to clear the park on the sixth anniversary of the start of the occupation. During the sweep, Bovell grabbed McMillan’s right breast from behind, and she, without seeing him, swung her elbow and hit Bovell in the eye. Then officers pinned McMillan to the ground, and as she claims and video footage seems to confirm, she then endured a seizure. She woke up in a hospital with a black eye, bruises on her arms and back, and another that could correspond to the shape of a hand on her breast. She was one of roughly 70 people arrested as police cleared the area of protesters, journalists and bystanders.
Exactly what happened between Bovell and McMillan may be impossible to say. The grainy video shown to the court confirms the elbowing. But as Stolar pointed out, it does not show what happened to his client just before. And Bovell’s history is suggestive. According to the NYPD’s own files, Bovell was twice investigated by the force’s bureau of internal affairs. In 2009 he was suspected of kicking a man on the floor while arresting him in a Bronx bodega. In 2010 he received a “command discipline” for failing to tell his supervisors that he and a partner were chasing a 17-year-old boy who was riding a dirt bike through the Bronx. The boy sued Bovell, “claiming he was intentionally run down and sent flying head-first into a street lamp,” The Guardian reported. “He said he was left with broken teeth and a wound requiring stitches in his head.”
Stolar added that he had seen documents showing Bovell was involved in a scandal in which officers were charged with covering up hundreds of traffic tickets as favors to relatives and friends. Attorneys for another litigant claimed that on the day McMillan was arrested, Bovell carried their client, also an Occupy activist, through a police bus “like a battering ram so that his head struck each seat as they took him to the back of the bus.” None of this was considered relevant by Judge Ronald Zweibel. In addition to ruling that the jury would not hear about officers’ aggressive behavior throughout the park on the night of McMillan’s arrest—including Bovell’s—Zweibel barred personal history and character references for both the plaintiff and the defendant. Presumably that included references to her expressed commitment to nonviolence, such as instances in which she was criticized for suggesting the movement as a whole commit to stand “against violence as a means of political action.” For these and other prohibitions, Stolar told the judge that his ability to refute claims made against McMillan was “totally handicapped.” The fact that Bovell repeatedly identified the wrong eye when testifying to how McMillan injured him casts doubt upon his credibility as well.
There are sound reasons for judges to forbid evidence in a trial, but Zweibel’s impartiality is easily impugned. As Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges wrote in a profile of McMillan, Zweibel “repeatedly [threw] caustic barbs at her lawyers and arbitrarily shut down many of the avenues of defense.” Zweibel issued an unusual gag order “that [barred] McMillan’s lawyers from speaking to the press.” Others in numerous places have referred to him as a “prosecutor in robes.” He even made a point to forbid laughter during the trial. The apparent prejudice by guardians of the law in favor of members of established power—be they Wall Street bankers, U.S. Marines or city police officers—is the antithesis of justice.
In a society whose leaders are shrinking the territory of freedoms available to the public—including those of speech and press—people like Cecily McMillan, who try to preserve those freedoms with their bodies, are heroic. But the fact is they shouldn’t need to under a constitution that guarantees the right to protest, and especially in a city like New York, which boasts a proud history of struggle for economic justice. McMillan is a moral descendant of other women who have been persecuted for their commitment to dissent, including Emma Goldman and Angela Davis. One wonders where is the women’s movement that should be protecting McMillan, or the officials who espouse liberal values. Maybe they’re too busy protecting their friends on Wall Street.
Whether on May 19 she will be sentenced to a full seven years in jail (a term a majority of the jury was horrified to learn she might serve) or she receives a lesser sentence, the sacrifice she is being forced to make may awaken a number of Americans to the predatory wrongness of those who are entrusted to lead them. For paying for others’ sins of obscene wealth and unbridled power with her body, time and whatever she might have done with both but now won’t be able to, we honor her as our Truthdigger of the Week.
Occupy Wall Street activists Eric Linkser, center left, and Cecily McMillan, far right, take turns shouting information to fellow protesters preparing to return to Zuccotti Park in 2011. AP/Bebeto Matthews