Cecily McMillan Gets 90 Days in Prison, 5 Years Probation; Police Brutality Continues

Cecily McMillan, recently convicted of assaulting a police officer after she elbowed him when he sexually assaulted her at an Occupy Wall Street protest, was sentenced today to 90 days in prison and five years probation.

Yes, McMillan got far less time than the seven years she could have faced. But any time in prison for this act which was clearly self-defense is completely unjust. Furthermore, Cecily’s five years of probation, though it will let her live outside prison, is still a highly restrictive and stressful way to live. This case is a clear demonstration of how the criminal justice system is systematically shutting down people’s right to protest and to hold state law enforcement accountable.

Even though McMillan’s sentencing is unjust, her case shouldn’t be looked at as an unusually brutal act of the criminal justice system. If anything, the leniency of her sentencing should be looked at as an exception, one that comes as a result of pressure on the court from the press surrounding McMillan’s trial. McMillan had the public eye on her case, and nine of her twelve jurors, city council members, Pussy Riot and the force of #JusticeForCecily calling for her leniency in sentencing. McMillan noted, in a statement from Rikers Island Prison,

“I become painfully aware of how privileged I am despite what is supposed to be the great equalizing suffering of the prison experience.

Unlike my peers, I have a hell of a lawyer—Marty Stolar—who made the long journey to hold my hand and promise ‘I will not stop fighting for you.’ I also have a gifted team of friends and organizers—#Justice4Cecily—that continues to provide around-the-clock care and mobilize public support.”

McMillan is one among many who have been punished for attempting to defend themselves against violence, a further example of a justice system silencing public efforts to protest the state while allowing police violence to continue without consequence.

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  1. McMillan has been organizing other inmates for better conditions from inside prison, and has been quite clear about how her case is only a small part of a much larger phenomenon. Her brother is incarcerated down South, so she went in knowing how cruel the prison system can be.

    People, especially those in NY, might be interested in knowing about Just Info, a project started by Occupiers who wanted to bring what they had learned during Occupy about how to navigate the criminal justice system to the many New Yorkers caught up in the system, mostly black and brown, who don’t have an activist community standing behind them.

    Last time we talked about this, I brought up how in the protest world, activists of color (as well as trans/gender non-conforming activists and those in certain operational roles) are often targeted. McMillan herself is multiracial (Irish/Mexican), though she can pass for white. I encourage people to read about Michael Premo and Shawn Carrie, two men of color and OWS organizers who were viciously targeted by the system, as well as brutality against Sade Adona, an OWS woman of color, and Justin Adkins, an OWS trans man.

    Justice for Cecily, and justice for everyone who has been brutalized by the police and the system.

  2. Apparently putting too many links in my comment gets it stuck in the moderation queue. Oops. I was trying to link to stories about McMillan’s inmate organizing, an OWS project to bring free legal info to people who don’t have activist communities behind them to help them, and several stories about OWS protesters of color and trans/gender non-conforming protesters being targeted. There are quite a few other stories I could have posted, including from other cities.

    My point in posting all those stories is that police brutality against activists, and police brutality against communities of color and other marginalized communities, are parts of the same problem, and often intersecting.

    The sentencing process is also steeped in privilege and oppression. When I wrote a letter to the judge on Cecily’s behalf, the suggested talking points were all about her existing and potential contributions to society and social justice, her bright future and potential career, her lack of a previous criminal record – privilege markers. And I don’t really blame the defense and the support team for invoking those because that’s how the game is played in an unjust system. I went with talking about the obstacles that she’s overcome (poverty, racism, unstable schooling and housing that resulted in a guardian taking legal custody of her from her parents when she was a teen), which is still problematic because it implies that an up-by-the-bootstraps story is more worthy than someone who didn’t pull off the social mobility thing, but it was the best that I could think to do – the reason that I wanted leniency was that I felt that 1) the conviction itself was unjust, and 2) our society should seriously reduce its dependence on prisons, but neither of those seemed likely to be helpful with the trial judge.

  3. I can’t get over how this privileged girl is sort of making herself the face of “police brutality.” Sorry, relatively, this isn’t police brutality.
    Where was this press when John Williams, a disabled Nitinaht woodcarver, was fatally shot five seconds after a police officer saw that he was carrying a knife (with a block of wood). That’s police brutality.
    At its core, Occupy Wall Street is incredibly white and privileged. Racialicious has a good piece on it. So coming from that environment, and then this…it’s a sort of Piper Kerman situation.
    If McMillan had been brown, especially a brown man…she’d be dead. Or severely injured. And she sure as fuck would not be sentenced to a measly 90 days which she probably won’t serve all of. And probation? God, I know so many victims of police brutality that would give anything just to be facing probation!
    Although, if she had been brown, especially a brown man, she would’ve known better than to elbow a police officer. I’m ALL for protests (when they’re not so gd white) but I think it’s absolutely stupid to elbow a police officer. How do you not know that putting your hands on a police officer isn’t going to turn out well for you? But then, maybe that’s what she was going for…

    • WTF is your problem? This Latina/Irish woman from a poor family in rural Texas WAS injured, both physically and psychologically (she ended up with PTSD). She responded instinctively to a sexual assault and was beaten up by a group of cops and publicly displayed with her skirt hiked up. She has harped over and over and over on how relatively privileged her situation is, used her position to try to amplify the stories of people who are worse off. Where the heck do you get off saying that someone’s experience of police violence isn’t police brutality because someone else had it worse? You sound like Richard Dawkins’ “Dear Muslimah” letter applied to a different context.

      White privilege at Occupy and other protests is absolutely a real thing, and privilege absolutely played a role in how this case played out. That is why I linked to a whole bunch of stories above about police abuse of protesters of color and trans/GNC protesters. That is why I make efforts to amplify stories of police brutality that aren’t against protesters. But you, you’re just trivializing the violence that someone experienced. Worse, you’re justifying it, buying into the prosecution’s narrative about what she did.

      • Ok, first of all, don’t compare me to Richard Dawkins making a comment on Muslimah. That’s absurd, and just plain wrong. I’m Native and Latin, yo, not some random rich white dude commenting on brown women. That comparison is pretty ignorant.
        Secondly, McMillan has mad passing privilege. The police aren’t going to look at her and say “wow, her DNA reads partially Latin so I’ll treat her as such.” They’re going to look at her and think white woman. How’s she’s treated in prison and in the courts is going to be as a white woman. She has a name that reads white, a face that reads white, and honestly, Latin doesn’t equal of color. Cubans are largely white. Argentinians are largely white. I know PLENTY of white Mexicans. Latin is an ethnicity, not a race. So.
        I don’t want her being the face of the movement and based on what I’m seeing/reading, that’s what’s happening. I think that’s problematic as fuck and almost laughably so. I’m not “trivializing” or “justifying” the violence. I’m calling attention to acts of violence that are ignored because the face attached doesn’t make privileged people feel so comfortable, and the fact that this woman received a very small sentence for something illegal (putting her hands on an officer) when people like Williams didn’t (he was carving wood), and he’s dead. She can’t compare her experience to the experience of people like Williams. Especially when her experience happened while involved in the Occupy Wall Street “movement.” Williams was walking down the street.
        An allegory for what I just said: when a white (or white passing) little child goes missing, everyone freaks out. Nationwide news. Vigils. Etc. When a child of color goes missing, silence. Is it just as heartbreaking and horrible either way? Yes. But it’s still problematic that more people have their hearts broken over a little white child than a little one of color. Except this is more like, little white child goes missing, but is found alive, and the little child of color isn’t. Is it absolutely horrible that the white child had to go through that? Yes. But the child of color is dead.
        And the white child is getting laws passed with their name on it, books written, movies made, while the story of the child of color barely makes the local news.
        That’s my problem.

        • So, first of all, I want to apologize for kind of jumping down your throat that way. Today was the second anniversary of the protest that resulted in my getting PTSD. It’s been a triggery sort of day, and I was maybe not in a headspace where I should have been reading and responding to a comment on a story about protests and policing. And that’s on me, to not have used better judgment in that regard.

          You still seem to be accepting the prosecution’s framing of what she did – that she intentionally hit an officer (and therefore was at fault for what happened to her and not an innocent victim) rather than reacting to an assault from an unknown person. Your rant even implied that she did this because she wanted it to end badly (to get attention?). I don’t see any reason to accept that framing, and I don’t see any reason to accept a victim hierarchy that makes judgments about which victims of violence did something to bring it on themselves vs being proper innocent victims. I don’t do that when I’m crisis counseling people who have been sexually assaulted or teaching workshops on sexual violence, and I don’t do it with people who have experienced police brutality either. To switch tacks and agree with you completely about a point, I also don’t agree with a victim hierarchy that goes in the other direction and says that a [light-skinned, educated, feminine-presenting] protester is a more worthy-of-sympathy victim than a dark-skinned person who’s just walking down the street. Because that’s messed up. And there are absolutely people who do that, and they are wrong, and some of them have latched on to the McMillan case.

          I don’t think it’s really right to blame McMillan – someone who was angry about the privilege dynamics that she saw at OWS when she first showed up and worked hard to address them, someone who has repeatedly given statements acknowledging her own privilege, someone who is encouraging her supporters to pay attention to the plight of her fellow inmates and not just her – for the fact that some people who didn’t give a crap about police brutality until there was a light-skinned feminine face attached have latched onto her case. She’s not comparing herself to people who have been murdered by police simply by labeling her experience as police brutality.

          This case is a strange one for me because we talked about it (and others) for two years and nobody was paying attention, and then all of a sudden, within days, everybody was. I’ve medicked protests in NYC, and seen how the cops act, and been hit and threatened by them. I have friends who were eyewitnesses to McMillan’s arrest and were very badly shaken by it. I have friends who were part of the team waiting for released arrestees when McMillan got out of jail. I was in NYC a few days before the verdict. It’s hard to overstate how much a lot of people that I care about had riding on this case emotionally because she’s their friend, because they’ve been brutalized and/or sexually abused by police too (not just at protests either) and nobody cared outside their immediate bubbles, because this was a public reckoning on the legitimacy of their own trauma (and the prosecution’s case was a vicious public gaslighting). And we wanted people to care about it, there were so many things that we wanted people to care about where nobody paid attention, and then somehow this one actually went viral. But at the same time it’s still so very raw back in our bubble – it’s always especially raw when it’s someone in your own community.

          People SHOULD pay more attention to the stories of brown and black people brutalized and killed by police. A lot more. You are so right about that. If I have any influence at all my circles will be, and are, paying more attention to it – personal experience with police violence at protests really made it a priority for me to promote awareness of police brutality in general, and to support great organizations aimed at combating police brutality against youth of color, like Streetwise & Safe in NYC or BreakOUT in New Orleans.

          That there are so many people who aren’t making that connection is a really big problem. I just have a problem with blaming McMillan (or her personal support network, or Occupy in general) because a major societal failing has manifested itself in some of the recent public support for her. I hope that I’ve been a little more clear this time about where I’m coming from.

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