The Silencing Of Cecily McMillan

Kathryn Funkhouser’s previous work for The Toast can be found here. This post was brought to you by A Fan in Minneapolis.

I almost pushed a friend of mine into traffic once. We were walking in midtown Manhattan and I had been hiccuping ungracefully for the past twenty minutes. My friend tried to scare my hiccups away with an unsuccessful series of tiny exorcisms, faking the tragic cancellation of TV shows and threatening to date jerks we knew. The hiccups persisted and I was getting frustrated, so I resigned to coexisting with them, possibly forever, and steered the conversation back towards other things. We walked and talked until a group of tourists congested the sidewalk ahead of us, so we parted to pass through them. Suddenly, a hand grabbed my shoulder in the crowd. In a flash of panic, I shoved my assailant and leaped away the exact moment I realized that it was, of course, my friend. A new, colder fear hit me the second before I saw where she had staggered and run into a woman by the curb, who cursed at her. She started laughing before I had even caught my breath. “Well, are they gone?”All I could hear was the blood pounding in my chest and my ears. All I could see was her tripping off the curb, where the woman had stood, into the path of the cab that had just hissed by. I still had the hiccups. I was deeply angry at myself, suddenly, for the moment I thought somehow I was in danger. Why didn’t you think? Of course it was her. Who else would it be?  

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In another crowd two years ago, someone behind Cecily McMillan suddenly grabbed her right breast, hard. She recoiled in panic and threw an elbow, striking him above the eye. The man was a police officer. McMillan is charged with intentionally assaulting an officer with the intent to interfere with the ability to perform his duties, and faces a felony charge, which carries with it up to seven years in prison. Her trial began on April 7th.

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On March 17th, 2012, Occupy Wall Street was celebrating its six-month anniversary and Cecily McMillan was 23 years old. McMillan is an activist who was participating energetically in Occupy, but on St. Patrick’s Day she was not there to protest. She had dressed in bright green and planned to meet up with friends at the corner of the park so they could head to a nearby bar together. They had just gathered when the police announced via bullhorn that they were clearing the park. In compliance with the order and eager to go out, McMillan and her friends headed for the exit. According to McMillan, this is when a hand abruptly grabbed her breast and she was lifted off her feet from behind. She startled and flailed out. Her elbow connected with Grantley Bovell’s head before she realized he was a police officer. Several nearby officers rushed over and arrested her. These events will be discussed at the trial.

What will not be discussed at the trial is the event that was recorded in these videos (the sound in the second video cuts out around the 3:30 mark):

Protestors stand behind a barricade, near a city bus where the police are taking the people they have arrested. McMillan is being escorted there in handcuffs when she collapses to the pavement and begins to seize uncontrollably. The police officers stand over her in a tight circle wordlessly watching as she, in her bright green shirt, lies on the ground, unable to breathe as her body jerks violently. The visual is chilling. Do they think she’s faking? The protestors curse and shout for the officers to help her, protect her head, give her space, but none of them acknowledge the cries. Several officers finally pick her up, take her out of the street, and put her down on the sidewalk, removing the handcuffs. It’s more difficult to see her, but she seems to be going in and out of consciousness and she’s clearly in distress. The protestors begin to roar for a medic. The officers respond by fanning out along the barricades, looking around warily at the protestors, their faces unreadable. McMillan tries to sit up, can’t seem to breathe, then collapses, again and again.  All of the officers seem to be moving maddeningly slowly, milling around with hands on hips. It takes a very, very long time for the ambulance to come.

When she wakes up in the hospital, she’s covered in bruises and doesn’t know where she is. She thinks her rib is broken, it hurts so much. In the next forty-odd hours, she is shuttled between the hospital and jail, and although she asks over and over, she is not allowed a phone call to a lawyer, friends, or family.

This is not about McMillan’s elbow. This is about changing the conversation.

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Marty Stolar, Cecily’s lawyer, motioned to submit the personnel file of Grantley Bovell, the arresting officer, for examination by the court. Bovell was disciplined for his participation in the Bronx ticket-fixing scandal of 2011, and has a record of accusations against him involving the use of excessive force, including such activities as “running a motorcyclist off the road [in an unmarked police car] to make an arrest, kicking a suspect in the face while he was on the ground, and slamming an arrestee’s face into the stairs on an MTA bus.” Another Occupy protestor is suing him for an assault that he claims occurred on the same day. Judge Zweibel ruled that these incidents are not relevant to the establishment of Bovell’s credibility or lack thereof in Cecily’s case, and the file is now sealed (although Stolar can ask Bovell questions about prior incidents when he takes the stand.) Bovell claims that he did not grab Cecily’s breast and that she elbowed him without cause.

This picture was taken by a doctor who Cecily consulted several days after the incident.

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You can see the marks made by individual fingers. They were not left by no one.

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On March 17th, 2012, the six-month anniversary of Occupy and the day of Cecily’s arrest, Occupy Arrests.Com reports that 73 people total were arrested. Publications like the New York Times City Blog report brutal beatings and arrests of protestors over small or nonexistent infractions, like dancing (disorderly conduct) or sitting on the ground to pet a nearby dog (“camping.”)

A group of legal experts from NYU, Fordham, Harvard, and Stanford have published a report entitled Suppressing Protest: Human Rights Violations in the U.S. Response to Occupy Wall Street. According to Business Insider (emphasis theirs)The first appendix of the 132-page report lists 130 incidents of excessive or unnecessary physical force by police in New York City.” So the violence has been well documented.

However, there was also another pattern that emerged in the police’s actions that day: sexual assault. From March 17th on, there were numerous reports of police intentionally grabbing the breasts of female protestors. An account by David Graeber tells the story of a female friend whose breast was grabbed by a police officer. When she screamed at the officer, calling him on the action, she was dragged behind the lines, partly by her hair. When she was thrown to the ground, she told the officers that she was going to retrieve her glasses, which had fallen off beside her, to clarify that the move was not one of resistance, but when she reached out for them, an officer savagely broke her wrist. When she was arrested, she was restrained with the tightest possible handcuffs although she and other protestors concerned about her begged for them to be loosened.

Sound familiar? The correlation to Cecily’s case is not a coincidence, according to Graebel, but part of a new and frightening system:

Arbitrary violence is nothing new. The apparently systematic use of sexual assault against women protestors is new. I’m not aware of any reports of police intentionally grabbing women’s breasts before March 17, but on March 17 there were numerous reported cases, and in later nightly evictions from Union Square, the practice became so systematic that at least one woman told me her breasts were grabbed by five different police officers on a single night (in one case, while another one was blowing kisses.)

There is a pattern of intentional violence here. The prosecution’s story doesn’t fit with the pattern.

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