“My lawyer has told me to expect two years,” Cecily McMillan said yesterday from the visitation room at the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island, where women in New York awaiting trial or sentencing are held. The 25-year-old wore an extra-large grey jumpsuit that dwarfed her frame, prison-issued sandals and horn-rim glasses. She looked exhausted but sounded steady, if not exactly thrilled about the prospect of going to prison.
“Two years is nothing compared to what other people in here deal with,” she added.
On May 5, McMillan, a 25-year-old graduate student and Occupy Wall Street activist was found guilty of assaulting a police officer during a March 17, 2012 demonstration at Zuccotti Park. She’ll be sentenced May 19, when she faces anywhere from probation to seven years in prison.
McMillan maintains that she only elbowed officer Grantley Bovell after he grabbed her breast from behind; photographs of her injuries have been widely disseminated, including a handprint-shaped bruise on her breast. Her case has quickly become a cause celebre, with Russian activists Pussy Riot visiting her at Rikers and nine of the twelve jurors in her case writing to the judge for leniency. Her supporters have also written hundreds of letters to Judge Ronald Zweibel on her behalf. They plan to deliver 500 of them tomorrow, and another 500 or so on Monday. An online petition asking Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo to intervene on her behalf has garnered more than 43,000 signatures.
McMillan, meanwhile, is wary that she’ll be perceived as a media hog or someone gunning for political martyrdom. “I am not happy to be here,” she said plainly.
The process of getting into Rikers to see McMillan took nearly three hours. The Voice accompanied her friend Lucy Parks, 18, who spent much of the trial organizing McMillan’s support team: helping her get up in time for court each day, finding trial-appropriate outfits through endless shopping trips at Macy’s, and appearing for TV interviews after McMillan was found guilty, when no one else wanted to do it.
Parks tried yesterday to bring in a few items McMillan needed: the pink dress she’ll wear at sentencing, black flats, black Skechers sneakers, a bra, pajamas, a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You, and some notes McMillan’s thesis advisor has made on the statement she’s drafting to read at her sentencing. The bra was rejected by correctional officers at the facility, because it had an underwire, which could be used as a weapon. The Skechers were also deemed unacceptable. Sneakers on Rikers must be black Puma brand; the flats were returned without explanation. In order for McMillan to have shoes to wear at her sentencing, her lawyer will have to bring them in. (Writing implements and paper were also disallowed; all direct quotes from the hour and a half conversation with McMillan have been rendered to the best of my recollection.)
McMillan has been denied the medication she needs to treat her attention-deficit disorder since arriving at Rikers, and she’s struggling to focus on finishing her statement (she also wrote this letter to her supporters a few days after she arrived). The rest of the time, she rises at 4:30 a.m. for breakfast and has been tasked with cleaning her 40-woman dormitory. She’s trying to learn Spanish from the other inmates, and to convince the guards she’s not a dangerous, violent criminal. Many of them are avid readers of the New York Post and Daily News, she says, who have provided less than sympathetic coverage of her case. When she arrived on the island, she heard some discussion among the guards about the “poor officer” she’d subjected to two years of legal proceedings. The clerks in the mail room were convinced she was facing 25 years to life on an especially violent crime, she says, because she was been remanded without bail, not a common situation.
Law enforcement sources told us that McMillan was twice offered a plea deal that would have allowed her to escape with just a misdemeanor conviction and no jail time. She denied that offer had ever been extended to her, and said she thought much of the pre-trial discussions with the District Attorney’s office were a ruse designed to find out damaging information about her to use at trial. But she admitted, too, that she likely wouldn’t have taken any offer, even a misdemeanor, that meant she had to plead guilty to a violent crime.
“Non-violence is my core,” she said. “It’s my anchor.” She called the idea of accepting the label of a violent offender “intolerable.”
McMillan called jail “a series of constant humiliations,” but said she’s more aware than ever of how privileged she is, with a high-powered attorney who worked for free, lots of friends and supporters, and the option to go to trial. “Nobody goes to trial here,” she says. “Everyone takes a plea.” With the amount of public support directed her way, she adds, “I’ve never felt so loved.” (In the unlikely event she’s released on Monday, she says, she’ll start a fundraiser to try to give her lead attorney, civil rights lawyer Martin Stolar, some money, although he likely won’t accept it.)
The real lesson of her arrest, she says, is that “this could have happened to absolutely anyone,” and often does, in poorer communities of color, with far fewer cameras and reporters to cover it. “It’s not about me.” She talked feverishly about her dreams of reform: for prisons, the justice system, society at large. She and Parks still dream of moving to Atlanta together, where McMillan spent much of her childhood, and starting a communal house, what they call a small “prefigurative pocket of revolution.”
In the meantime, she’s already been invited to join an inmates council, and she’s agitating for more solid reforms: pillows for the inmates, laundry soap (they wash their clothes with hand soap), and, most pressingly, a female guard on the night shift. A male correctional officer watches over her dorm while they sleep, something McMillan finds baffling and potentially unsafe.
“Almost everyone in here is a victim of rape or sexual assault,” she says. “Why is there only a male on that one shift?”
After an hour and a half or so, the guards came to escort McMillan back to her cell. Parks had begun to look desperately sad. McMillan didn’t want to leave her. They hovered for a time, looking at each other, McMillan pulling anxiously at her jumpsuit. Finally, McMillan hugged Parks, then found a quote from activist and labor organizer Joe Hill.
“Don’t mourn, organize!” she said, as cheerily as she could. They both cracked a tired half-smile, looking a little teary, and then McMillan was gone.