As friends and reporters waited near the bridge to Rikers Island on the corner of Hazen street and 19th avenue, barely able to tolerate the sun’s relentless rays, she stepped out of a car smiling, happy to feel the sun shining on her skin. A fresh feeling of freedom can make even the worst heat bearable.
Cecily McMillan, a 25-year-old grad student at the New School, had just finished serving a 58-day bid in jail for elbowing a policeman in the face during an Occupy Wall Street event after he unexpectedly grabbed her right breast from behind. Ever since that surreal St. Patrick’s Day in 2012, she’s become an icon in radical and left-wing circles. But today, her focus wasn’t on what happened that night. McMillan, true to the promises she made in a June 26th statement from jail, was here to list the grievances and demands of her fellow female inmates at Rikers Island’s Rose M. Singer Center.
“I walked in [to Rikers] with one movement and return to you a representative of another,” she said. “Incarceration is meant to prevent crime. Its purpose is to penalize and then return us to the outside world ready to start anew. The world I saw in Rikers isn’t concerned with that. Many of the tactics employed seemed to be aimed at simple dehumanization.”
Among the “collectively drafted” list of demands read by McMillan were: “adequate, safe, and timely healthcare at all times” including mental health services and the ability to request a female doctor; the reexamination of protocol for corrections officers and the requirement that the protocol be followed at all times; a “clear and direct means to file a grievance” against corrections officers; and the provision of “rehabilitative and educational services” to help inmates with addictions and give them the skills they need to make a living outside of jail.
The journal entries and statements McMillan made while locked up had already hinted at what the demands would be. A journal entry from June 30th detailed an incident where corrections officers, acting against protocol, attempted to kick an inmate off the phone, hit her in the face for refusing to get off the phone, and then threatened to pepper spray the inmate for not following a “direct order.” A statement made on June 26th told of a fellow inmate’s death due to undiagnosed and untreated liver cancer and Hepatitis C. Today, McMillan, while reading off the demands, told the story of an inmate named Judith who was prescribed and forced to take an extremely high dosage of liquid methadone for back problems. After three days of taking the methadone, Judith was barely lucid and coughing up blood along with what other inmates “believed were parts of her liver.” Judith, covered in blood, tried to get medical treatment but was refused. Finally, she was taken to a hospital but died shortly after.
“My time in Rikers has changed me permanently,” McMillan stated. She went on to call her time in Rikers an “even more formative experience than Zuccotti Park itself.”
It was in that now-legendary park that Officer Grantley Bovell, while attempting to empty the park of protestors, grabbed McMillan’s breast from behind and promptly received an elbow to the face (along with a black eye). The experience for McMillan soon became life-changing as police beat her to the point where she began having seizures on the ground as NYPD looked on. McMillan, dressed in green in celebration of St. Patty’s Day, was then thrown into a paddy wagon and charged with assault. She later showed up on Democracy Now! covered in bruises including the infamous bruise over her right breast allegedly caused by Officer Bovell’s hand.
McMillan’s trial was no less life-changing. Despite being known as a reformist committed to peaceful change amongst Occupy’s more radical activists, McMillan was accused of deliberately assaulting the officer during her trial. Assistant District Attorney Erin Choi even implied that McMillan wanted others to record her assault of Officer Bovell just for the attention and that she gave herself the bruise on her chest. Officer Bovell’s shady history, littered with corruption and brutality, was also ruled inadmissible by the obviously biased Judge Ronald Zweibel. The jury, having no idea that McMillan faced up to seven years imprisonment, voted her guilty of second degree assault, even though many of them didn’t think that McMillan deserved any jail time. The judge, in an act of quasi-leniency, sentenced McMillan to 90 days in Rikers Island and five years probation.
Once she was locked up, McMillan’s treatment didn’t get much better. Her letters arrived weeks later than postmarked, her guests took much longer to be allowed in to visit her, and once released, she was dropped off in the middle of Long Island City with nothing but a MetroCard. She also has another court date ahead of her where she will face up to a year in jail.
“It has become painfully aware to me that I have a big, red X on my back,” she explained to reporters. “And that I have been told to ‘be very careful or we will throw you back in there.'”
Despite those threats, McMillan said she doesn’t plan on stopping her activism.
“If Judge Zweibel, [Manhattan District Attorney] Cyrus Vance, or [former Mayor] Michael Bloomberg set out to make an example out of me to dissuade dissent, this has had the exact opposite impact,” she said defiantly. “I am absolutely and further committed to fighting for rights and freedoms that I did not even realize had been eroded to the extent that they have.”
Before leaving, McMillan politely invited everyone to her release party to be held this Friday in Brooklyn. She also stated that, even though this whole ordeal has been extremely painful and difficult for her, she wouldn’t have done anything differently.
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” she proudly stated. “I am so incredibly lucky to have met the women that I met in Rikers, to have had them as guidance, to be given a broader view of the people that we’re fighting for. No, I don’t have any regrets.”
**Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Cecily McMillan was in Rikers Island for 90 days. Though she had been sentenced to 90 days, she was, in fact, in Rikers for only 58 days.