At 5 o’clock this morning, graduate student and Occupy Wall Street protester Cecily McMillan was awakened by a guard in her bunk at Rikers, where she’s spent a little more than two months after being convicted of assault on a police officer. McMillan had expected to be released today, but she anticipated going through the usual procedure: visiting the social services office around 7:30 a.m. with a group of other women also being let out that day, receiving her property back, and meeting her friends at the gates of the jail.
Instead, McMillan says she was taken to an unmarked van by a cadre of police officers.
“I don’t want to go with you,” she later told her friend Lucy Parks she said to them. “You’re not telling me where you’re taking me.” She feared she was being set up.
Eventually, an officer told her she was being released. She was taken to the Queensboro Plaza, where she says she was “dumped” unceremoniously, her arms full of her property. She had no keys, money, or phone. The officers left her with a Metro Card and drove away.
McMillan borrowed a phone from a stranger and called Parks, 19, a close friend who also organized much of her support team both during the trial and while she was in custody. Parks drove to Queens to get her; hours later, McMillan was back at the Rikers entrance, standing in front of a small army of reporters.
“”Fifty nine days ago, the city and state of New York labeled me a criminal,” she said, reading from a prepared statement. “Millionaires and billionaire-who had a vested interest in silencing a peaceful protest about the growing inequalities in America-coerced the justice system, manipulated the evidence, and suddenly I became dangerous and distinguished from law-abiding citizens. On May 5th, the jury delivered its verdict, the judge deemed me undesirable, and officers drove me across that bridge and barred me within.”
In her time before Rikers, McMillan added, “I had spent my time fighting for freedom and rights. On the inside, I discovered a world where words like freedom and rights don’t even exist in the first place. I walked in with one movement, and return to you a representative of another. That bridge right there, that divides the city from Rikers Island, divides two worlds – today I hope to bring them closer together.” (McMillan’s full statement can be read here.)
McMillan also read a list of demands she said had been formulated by the women of the Rose M. Singer Center, where female Rikers inmates are kept. They include timely and adequate access to healthcare, particularly in the wake of incident in which an older inmate with chronic health issues, named Judith but known as “Jack” died in the jail infirmary.
McMillan called Jack’s death “a clear case of medical malpractice,” alleging that she’d been given a very high dose of methadone, and that even after she began coughing up blood, she was denied medical treatment for an entire day. (A Rikers spokesperson previously told the Voice he was inquiring about the circumstances of the woman’s death, but did not want to comment about it on the record.)
The second demand from McMillan and the Rikers women is that corrections officers “should be required to follow the protocol laid out for them at all times.” A woman named Alejandra, who goes by the affectionate nickname “Fat Baby,” recently told McMillan that she tried to file a grievance about being denied access to medical care following a concussion. But after filing the grievance, she says she was presented with a different statement entirely and asked to sign it. (Alejandra isn’t a fluent English speaker and was unable to read much of the statement, McMillan says, but knew enough to recognize that it was not her own.)
Finally, the last demand was for better rehabilitative and educational services for the Rikers women. McMillan previously told the Voice in an interview that the limited drug and alcohol treatment available at the facility leans heavily on Jesus. The women are told they’ve strayed from Christ and need to return to him to be healed.
To close her statement, McMillan reiterated a point she’s made frequently in interviews — that the justice system weighs unequally on disadvantaged people.
“The only difference between people we call ‘law-abiding’ citizens and the women I served time with is the unequal access to resources,” she said. “Crossing the bridge I am compelled to reach back and recognize the two worlds as undivided. The court sent me here to frighten me and others into silencing our dissent, but I am proud to walk out saying that the 99% is, in fact, stronger than ever. We will continue to fight until we gain all the rights we deserve as citizens of this earth.”
McMillan still faces another court date on July 17, for allegedly interfering with an arrest in the subway system . That’s a misdemeanor, for which the maximum penalty would be a year in jail. Until then, both she and Parks said she likely won’t go anywhere in public alone. They fear she will be assaulted by a police officer and re-arrested.
“It’s become clear to me I have a big red X on my back,” McMillan said.
A reporter in the crowd asked her if she has any “regrets.”
“I wish I’d gone to the beach more before the trial,” McMillan replied tartly. (She told us in a jailhouse interview that she spent much of the two years leading up to the trial in a state of shock, frequently unable to leave the house. She has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I stood up there and did what I had to do,” McMillan added. “I’m so lucky to have met the women I did in Rikers, to have a broader view of who we’re working for.” In a moment, she thanked everyone for coming and took her leave, relief visible on her face. She walked towards her friends and a waiting car, a pack of cameras trailing at her heels.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 2, 2014