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On Friday, the trial of Occupy Wall Street protester Cecily McMillan began, more than two years after she’s accused of assaulting NYPD officer Grantley Bovell during a March 17, 2012 demonstration at Zuccotti Park. Jury selection took the better part of a week, as both sides had difficulty finding jurors who didn’t have opinions about the Occupy movement. Testimony began late Friday; this morning, court was almost immediately interrupted when supporters of McMillan entered the courtroom wearing pink paper hearts on their lapels. After the hearts were confiscated by court security, Officer Bovell finally took the stand for the first part of his testimony, telling the jury that McMillan deliberately elbowed him in the face as he was trying to escort her from the park.
McMillan and her attorneys, Martin Stolar and Rebecca Heinegg, don’t disagree that she elbowed Bovell, but say she was doing so instinctively, in self-defense, not knowing he was a police officer. During opening statements, Heinegg told the jury of of 10 women and five men that McMillan, now 25, is known by other activists “for her commitment to non-violence.” The incident occurred, Heinegg said, as McMillan was stopping by Zucotti Park during a night out celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with out-of-town friends. She only elbowed Bovell after he suddenly grabbed her from behind by her right breast and yanked her backwards, “leaving the shape of a handprint” on her body.
“Reacting to being grabbed by a stranger is not a crime,” Heinegg told the jury.
Assistant District Attorney Erin Choi, though, told the jurors Friday that McMillan assaulted Bovell unprovoked: “She thought she could get away with assaulting a police officer in the name of protest.”
McMillan’s supporters, calling themselves Justice for Cecily, have been present for every day of jury selection and trial. Judge Ronald Zweibel had previously banned them from wearing pink hands made out of construction paper on their chests, which they said were symbolic of Bovell’s assault on her. (A photograph of the bruise on McMillan’s breast allegedly caused by the officer can be seen here.)
But today, just after the jury sat down, about a dozen people filed into the gallery, all of them wearing pink paper hearts on their chests. Zweibel immediately asked the jury to be escorted out.
The judge turned, clearly furious, to Stolar and Heinegg, McMillan’s lawyers.
“I directed previously that nobody was to come in with pink parts on their chests,” he told them. “I’ve seen hands outside the courthouse, and today it’s hearts. If anybody comes in with something like that on their chest, they’re going to be escorted out of the building and not allowed back… The jurors are already asking, ‘What’s that about?'”
“You’re looking right at me as if I’m somehow behind this,” Stolar said indignantly. “And I’m not.”
A courtroom security guard waded into the audience and gathered up the hearts. The Justice for Cecily crowd, handing them over, seemed to be trying hard not to laugh.
With the hearts safely disposed of, ADA Choi continued questioning Sergeant Joseph Diaz, an NYPD officer with Manhattan South, the precinct usually assigned to cover protests and demonstrations. Diaz, who began his testimony on Friday, claimed not to remember virtually anything about the events of March 17, even telling Stolar on cross-examination he wasn’t sure whether there were 10, 50, or 100 people present in Zuccotti Park, or how many people were arrested that night.
Sometimes, the exchange between the two men swerved into comedy. At one point, Stolar asked what the NYPD did between when they arrived at the park, around 5 p.m., and when they were told by their superior officers to get everyone in the park to leave around midnight, so the park could ostensibly be subjected to a thorough, impromptu late-night cleaning.
“I dunno,” Diaz replied. “What a cop does? Drinking coffee? Talking about baseball?” The jury tittered.
Bovell, though, recalled the night much more clearly when he took the stand.
Bovell is now 35; he is black, soft-spoken, wears heavy glasses, and arrived to court in uniform, accompanied by another officer, both of them squinting in shock as two tabloid photographers leaped up to snap their photos.
According to his testimony, Bovell is divorced and lives with his mother. He grew up in Barbados, moving to New York at age 13. Before joining the NYPD, he served in the Navy for four years, spending time in Afghanistan as well as India, Pakistan, Russia, and Spain. He’s been a police officer for nine and a half years, all of it as a patrol officer at the 40th Precinct in the Bronx.
On March 17, Bovell testified, he worked from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Madison Square Garden and Penn Station, assigned to make sure St. Patrick’s Day revelers weren’t drinking in public. He handed out one summons and several warnings, but made no arrests. He volunteered to work overtime at Zuccotti, arriving around 4 p.m. Like Diaz, he said no arrests were made before 11:30, and recalled mostly standing around the perimeter of the park with other officers for nearly seven hours.
When the NYPD announced through a bullhorn that everyone would have to leave the park for the midnight cleaning, Bovell said, “individuals were saying they didn’t want to go, that they shouldn’t be forced to leave, and didn’t have to leave. They weren’t happy.” Some of them, he added, “stayed, locked arms, laid on the floor and said they weren’t leaving.”
Bovell said that he first noticed McMillan “screaming at” another officer, a woman, and that when she kept refusing to leave, he approached her, put a hand on her shoulder, and escorted her out, telling her she was “more than welcome” to come back after the park was clean.
“She was yelling, ‘Are you filming this?'” Bovell added, apparently directing her words towards a man with a cellphone camera standing nearby. Bovell turned to look at who she was talking to. “Then she crouched down and elbowed me in the face.” The blow was “pretty hard,” he said. He felt a “sharp pain,” followed by a “minor headache around my left eye.” His glasses were knocked askew and McMillan “attempted to run,” getting one or two steps away before he grabbed her. At that point, he said, McMillan began to fall and Bovell fell on top of her.
“She didn’t want to get up,” he said. “She decided to lay on the floor.” McMillan was lying on her stomach and then on her side for about five minutes, refusing to be handcuffed.
With that, the court recessed until Wednesday. McMillan’s supporters say that Bovell didn’t fall on her at all, but that she was actually flung to the ground by him and a number of other officers, then kicked and beaten into a seizure. It’s not yet clear how the District Attorney’s office will counter that accusation, but some of ADA Choi’s opening arguments on Friday indicated that they will argue that the seizure wasn’t real.
Both sides have said they will show YouTube clips from that night, although no videos clearly show the arrest itself. Other incidents from the evening may also become part of the trial: another protester, Austin Guest, also accused Bovell of brutality. A witness tweeted that Bovell had smashed Guest’s head into a window and stomped his neck; a lawsuit that Guest filed against Bovell and the NYPD in federal court alleges that the officer also “intentionally bang[ed]” his head on each seat of a bus used to transport prisoners.
There’ll be plenty of time for both sides to argue over every second of the arrest; Judge Zweibel told jurors that the trial could take up to three weeks, with multiple delays for religious holidays, and many character witnesses expected to testify on McMillan’s behalf.