Cruel injustice for an Occupy activist

May 7, 2014

Will Russell reports on the verdict against Occupy activist Cecily McMillan for supposedly assaulting a police officer--and how we can organize to support her.

THE GUILTY verdict against Occupy Wall Street activist Cecily McMillan represents a gross miscarriage of justice and a blow to the movement for social justice that Occupy represented. Having been denied bail by the judge, Cecily now sits in Rikers Island and awaits her sentencing--which could include up to seven years in prison.

Cecily was charged with second-degree felony assault of a police officer stemming from a March 2012 attempt by activists to reoccupy Zuccotti Park, the site of the Occupy Wall Street encampment, on the six-month anniversary of the launch of Occupy. She was accused of elbowing an unidentified, plainclothes officer in the face during her arrest. But Cecily says that she elbowed the officer only after he sexually assaulted her by grabbing her breast from behind. Later, she was left on the sidewalk, surrounded by police, as she suffered a seizure.

Throughout the trial, it was clear that the judge wanted a conviction as much as the prosecution. Evidence of the officer's prior history of violence, including video evidence, wasn't allowed, and discussion of Occupy was deemed irrelevant to the case. Also not allowed was the testimony of many witnesses called on to speak about Cecily's character--including this author, who worked closely with Cecily during the run-up to, and in the early days of, Occupy.

Cecily McMillan
Cecily McMillan (Sparrow Media)

Those who were allowed to take the stand were hardly permitted to speak, with the judge sustaining each of the prosecution's relentless barrage of objections. The prosecution's cynical arguments against Cecily rested on her allegedly having faked her seizure and having self-inflicted the bruises that were left on her chest after the arrest.

When the guilty verdict was delivered, a packed courtroom erupted into an uproar. According to one person in the audience, Cecily's supporters:

were immediately suppressed by the police and threatened with arrest for contempt of court. Police physically forced all present into the hallway and demanded they move on, corralling more vocal supporters into the hallway corners and forcing the rest to move into the elevators and out of the building. Outside the courthouse, we gathered to debrief and discuss next steps. Police were positioned outside to keep an eye on the crowd. I heard a cop tell one supporter--an army veteran who served in Bosnia--to "get a fucking job."

THE VERDICT against Cecily McMillan is only the most recent and dramatic of reprisals against Occupy activists, including the coordinated suppression of Occupy protests that was ordered in most cities by Democratic mayors. McMillan, arrested with 73 others on the movement's six-month anniversary, counts as just one of the 7,765 total Occupy activists arrested since the launch of the movement on September 17, 2011--though the vast majority of those arrested ultimately had their charges thrown out.

The officer who Cecily says assaulted her, Grantley Bovel, also faces a lawsuit by another Occupy activist, Austin Guest, who was arrested on the same night as Cecily. Guest claims that after having been arrested, Bovel dragged him down the aisle of an NYPD bus, purposely slamming his head into each of the seats on the way down.

Unsurprisingly, Bovel's history of police violence doesn't end with Occupy. He was also implicated in a 2010 incident where he and his partner, in an unmarked squad car, allegedly ran down a 17-year old boy on a bike, resulting in serious head injuries for the adolescent. In another 2010 incident, Bovel was filmed in a Bronx bodega kicking a suspect lying on the ground.

Astonishingly, the judge presiding over Cecily McMillan's trial found these incidents of violence to be irrelevant to the case and would not allow them to be presented. The only aspect of Bovel's history allowed to be presented in court was his involvement in a 2011 ticket-fixing scandal in the Bronx.

Bovel's sordid history of police violence shows the connection between the repression of Occupy and the daily police violence and humiliation experienced by people of color in New York City and beyond. As Sarah Jaffe pointed out in an article in In These Times, despite reforms limiting the use of stop-and-frisk in New York, it is still a daily reality for people of color in neighborhoods across the city. The hopes of many that new Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio would end these practices were dashed when he nominated William Bratton, the architect of stop-and-frisk and New York's so-called "broken windows" policy, as police commissioner.

As Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow, very few stop-and-frisk cases make it to court to be heard by a jury, as defendants are pressured to make plea deals in order to avoid lengthy prison sentences. In Cecily McMillan's case, she was offered a plea bargain that would have allowed her to plead guilty to assault in order to avoid jail time--but she refused to accept it.

Cecily's courage was no doubt a huge factor in her willingness and ability to fight her case. It's important to take note that having a movement like Occupy to back her up and draw out a strong support team was decisive in helping to do this. While this may not have been sufficient to win in court, the support of activists and others dedicated to her case will be necessary to build a movement to prevent her from being sent to prison.

The case will certainly be appealed, and the Justice for Cecily team will be organizing a campaign to win back her freedom. This has already begun with a rally and vigil held in Zuccotti Park on the evening of the verdict. It will take the sustained efforts of activists who are in solidarity with Cecily and the goals of Occupy to build the political pressure we need to win justice.

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