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2014-07-14

"Your Body Is No Longer Your Own": Freed OWS Activist Cecily McMillan on Plight of Women in Jail

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Cecily McMillan, an Occupy Wall Street activist who was recently released from Rikers prison after nearly two months behind bars. She is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

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On July 2, Occupy Wall Street activist Cecily McMillan was driven to Queens, New York, and dropped off on the side of the road, with only a MetroCard, after serving nearly two months in Rikers jail. McMillan’s sentence for allegedly assaulting a police officer was the most severe served for any of the thousands of Occupy Wall Street protesters arrested over the course of the movement. She was detained in March 2012 as protesters tried to re-occupy Zuccotti Park, six months after the Occupy Wall Street movement began. McMillan says she felt someone grab her breast from behind, and swung out instinctively, striking her assailant, who turned out to be police officer Grantley Bovell. Nine of the 12 jurors who convicted McMillan of second-degree assault asked the judge for leniency, saying they did not think she should serve any time in jail. McMillan served 59 days, and has now become an advocate for the women she met behind bars, many of whom she says were denied adequate medical care. "Your body is no longer your own," she says of life behind bars.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: "Friends and Neighbors," Charlie Haden playing bass with Ornette Coleman. The legendary jazz musician and composer Charlie Haden died on Friday at the age of 76, one of the most politically outspoken jazz musicians, also co-founder of the Liberation Music Orchestra. To see our interview with Charlie Haden, go to democracynow.org. Yes, this is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Twelve days ago, Occupy Wall Street activist Cecily McMillan was driven to Queens, New York, and dropped off on the side of the road, with only a MetroCard, after serving nearly two months in jail. McMillan’s sentence for allegedly assaulting a police officer was the most severe served by any of the thousands of Occupy Wall Street activists arrested over the course of the movement. To the Occupy movement, McMillan’s case had become a symbol of police and judicial overreach. She was sentenced to jail even though nine out of the 12 jurors who convicted her pleaded with the judge for leniency, saying they did not think she should serve any time behind bars.

Cecily McMillan was arrested in March 2012 as protesters tried to reoccupy Zuccotti Park, six months after the Occupy Wall Street movement began. She says she felt someone grab her right breast from behind, swung out instinctively, striking her assailant, who turned out to be a police officer, Grantley Bovell, and leaving him with a black eye. McMillan says she then suffered a seizure as police pinned her down and arrested her. She was later treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. She appeared on Democracy Now! six days after her arrest covered in bruises, including one in the shape of a hand print above her right breast.

CECILY McMILLAN: I ended a 40-something-hour stay in jail and ended up with all these bruises. I mean, that’s—I have an open case, so I can’t talk more about it, and I’m sure you can tell that it would be difficult for me to remember some things. But I have these.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Cecily McMillan right after her arrest. Her attorneys showed photos of her bruises during the trial, but the prosecutors rejected McMillan’s claim she was assaulted by police and accused her of making the bruises herself. Cecily McMillan, eventually convicted of second-degree assault, faced up to seven years in prison, a prospect that was apparently shocking even to some of the jurors who convicted her, who did not know this during the trial. The jurors were reportedly barred from researching the case during the trial, including potential sentences. One juror later told The Guardian newspaper, "Most wanted her to do probation, maybe some community service." Well, McMillan was ultimately sentenced to three months in jail, five years of probation. She was released earlier this month, joins us now.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!

CECILY McMILLAN: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how are you doing? How was—you spent your time at Rikers.

CECILY McMILLAN: Yeah. It’s very discombobulating to be out now. Honestly, it’s hard to return to my even loving and supportive community after essentially creating a family in there, people that really sustained me and people who really understand what it means to have all of your agency taken away, to be constantly in a humiliating and oppressive situation. And then to be out here, everything from selecting an outfit to learning how to, you know, rework the Internet, has been a very difficult feat.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we didn’t get to talk to you when you were sentenced and went to prison. The response, not only of people outside, but the jurors themselves—what was your response to them? Very rare to write a letter like that to a judge, to say, "Do not imprison her."

CECILY McMILLAN: Well, I was very thankful that they did step forward and that they did get themselves organized and step up front on my behalf. I mean, I was very shocked that there was, as my lawyer called it, the smoking gun, the handprint on the chest with the scratch marks, and the story that I had maintained the entire time, versus Officer Bovell, who had changed his stories a couple of time—and to hear another woman look at you and say, "Aliens might have—well have sexually assaulted you," is a form of rape culture that—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

CECILY McMILLAN: Well, that’s what the DA said. They said it was more likely that aliens assaulted me than Officer Bovell, and essentially said that I was a liar, which is something women experience all of the time when they try to speak out against their sexual assaulters.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, you went to jail.

CECILY McMILLAN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk—describe a day in jail.

CECILY McMILLAN: Well, every day is mostly waiting. You have to wait for up to—I never went to sick hall and was there for less than six hours. You could be waiting for up to 12 hours to see a doctor, even sometimes 12 hours two or three days in a row. There are constant searches, where you’re made to lay face down, put your hands behind your back, and it’s a three- to four-hour process where dogs can even be brought in around you, strip searches all of the time—deep knee bend, deep knee bend. I mean, everything about—the best thing I could say that might share some sort of insight to the audience is, in the entire experience that I was there, I had, I think, a grand total of 30 seconds ever alone. It was in an elevator where there was nobody there, and yet the camera was still watching me. Literally, from using the restroom to changing, I mean, you have—your body is no longer your own.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the message of women, knowing you were getting out now, to people on the other side of the bars?

CECILY McMILLAN: I mean, that was a really big discussion. We had launched some campaigns while we were in there, particularly the fact that mail, medication, meal and recreation was called every day at the same time, forcing women to choose between the four services, in order to either achieve their antidepressant medication or to eat that day or to spend the 45 minutes we’re allowed outside in the sun that day, to correspondence from their family and loved ones. So, by the time that I was moving towards leaving, we had had sort of a Zuccotti Park-like participatory democracy where we really did discuss the fact that there was no rehabilitation effort whatsoever that was realistic associated with our punitive system, and what were some demands and changes that could be put forth in order to make those changes. And I firmly believe that those who struggle understand the source of their struggle best, and therefore understand its solution. So I sat there with 53 little pieces of paper on the phone with my team reading out what these women said. And they essentially called for basic tenets of what, you know, we have been talking about, the Democratic Party, for at least as far as I’ve lived. We talked about healthcare, access to healthcare, to emergency medical services, to—

AMY GOODMAN: One woman died while you were in prison?

CECILY McMILLAN: Yeah. Well, not one woman died. I mean, that’s—I mean, one woman that I personally witnessed died. Another woman died the day that I left, a 17-year-old. So, Judith came into our dorm, and she seemed fine. She was happy. She was very funny. And within three days, she had been reduced to vomiting blood, what looked to be chunks of her liver. At this point, she hadn’t eaten for over 24 hours. She was so confused that she would sit on other people’s beds, didn’t know where her bed was. And when two medical professionals came up, and she, you know, was not enthused about the idea of going down with people who had denied her her medical services before, they said, "OK, well, she said she didn’t want to come with us, so she denied medical service, and we’re not going to take her down." And it was very clear that she was absolutely delusional, that there’s no way that she could have made any sort of decisions for herself. And it was not until all of the inmates rose up, I mean, got her dressed and carried her down and said, "This is a medical emergency. You have to take her to the hospital." And even then, the doctor, as she’s standing there covered with her own blood, said, "Huh! You call this a medical emergency?" And they waited there with her until they made sure she went to the hospital, where she remained in critical care condition until her death a couple of weeks ago.

And this, though, I would like to say, is not an anomaly. I witnessed women that had stomach cancer, that could not help themselves up, that had been crying out for hours, their bunkies—roommate, their family, until medical professionals showed up with a gurney and would not help her up on the gurney as the gurney moved to two wheels. They said, "We’re not helping her." And, I mean, again, every single day there was something like this.

AMY GOODMAN: So, where do you go from here?

CECILY McMILLAN: Well, on behalf of the inmates, I will be calling on the Mayor’s Office, City Council, the Board of Corrections. We have already started looking into what community oversight councils they have—and there are few, and not at all very working. We’ll be calling for every inmate to have a full and thorough physical examination and psychosocial examination upon entering the facility. We’ll be asking that the protocol that governs Rikers is reviewed and made sure that it’s in the best interest of all of the inmates. We’ll also be asking for a grievance process. At this point, the director of grievances told me point-blank she’s not accountable to uphold the inmate handbook because she didn’t write it. We will also be calling for resources, career training as well as domestic abuse resources and housing resources for women who are returning to their families and would like nothing better to stay out of jail, be happy and take care of their families. I don’t understand what we think of as prisoners in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. The system might be very sorry you ultimately were imprisoned. Cecily McMillan, I want to thank you for being with us, Occupy Wall Street activist who was recently released from Rikers Island after serving nearly two months behind bars, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

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