Interview: Activist Cecily McMillan

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Utne Reader recently spoke with 25-year old activist Cecily McMillan, who was released from jail earlier this month after being convicted of assaulting a police officer at a 2012 protest.

On March 17, 2012, hundreds of people gathered in Zuccotti Park, the epicenter of Occupy Wall Street, to celebrate the six-month anniversary of the movement. That evening, the jubilant mood turned angry as the NYPD ordered the park cleared and began arresting people. One of those arrested was Cecily McMillan. She was charged with assaulting a police officer and was convicted this May. McMillan, now 25, served 58 days at Rikers, the main New York City jail. During her incarceration, she got to know many of the women there and was also visited by Pussy Riot. A petition to end human rights abuses at Rikers can be found here.

During the trial, it was emphasized that you’re more of a reformer. Do you still believe that this line of activism is the best way to create change?

That’s a really complicated question. A lot of people would like to just boil this down to an either or scenario. In terms of my own personal politics, what would I like to see? I would like to see prisons be abolished completely. What we need in this country is a true rehabilitative process – food sources, daycare, job programs, domestic abuse programs, drug rehabilitation. You want to create jobs, keep people out of jail, you want to see citizens flourish to their fullest capacity which to me sounds like democracy, you have to get rid of prisons. So is that revolution over reform? The discussion is there.

But in terms of what I’m advocating for right now, the grand expertise of Cecily McMillan is very, very, very little at 58 days where I had an entire group of supporters on the outside. I was able to get medication when other people weren’t because there were people on the outside standing up for me. So is it right for me to come out and talk about my agenda and my politics and my platform? No. I was asked by these women in my last week to voice their opinions, their demands, their realistic points of view from an understanding of the struggle that is much deeper than mine. I think they have something solidly to offer about the solutions and in that degree, I do believe in reform.

What is the point of sitting around a table talking about revolution all of the time if there are people dying in jail, if there are people being abused in jail, if there’s not safe medical care in jail? So in that sense, revolution, in my thought, in the world we live in today, starts with a social movement and social movements are gained through pathways that are socially acceptable, pathways that are socially accessible. And most of the time, that’s couched in a conversation about reforms and if we do our jobs correctly as organizers, then what we’re able to entice is a growing movement where the public has been activated, the public has taken on a greater democratic role in showing up, as we saw in the 60’s – people hitting the streets, people engaged in voter registration.

If you transfer privilege enough and allow for a variety of diverse voices, then there’s a variety of diverse problems and there within, if you put up the right coalitions, then you have a series of back-to-back-to-back movements which can lead to the structural changes we want to see. I think we have to use the façade of democracy that is left to take over that term, reclaim that term, and apply that term in a way that more people can engage in, in a way that more people can enter the discussion, in a way to reclaim our democracy and move forward from there. I don’t know if that makes me a reformist. I think it makes me a realist. 

What are some of some of the specific changes you’d like to see in the prison system and how did these get formed through your experience?

The big platform that we’re calling for is tri-fold. It calls for medical and mental health changes, a procedural grievance change, and greater education and rehabilitation programs.

The first one is that all inmates should receive a thorough physical as well as a psychological evaluation upon entering Rikers, that all inmates should have from that point, prescribed to them all current medications and forms of treatment, and that immediately specialty appointments should be set up and scheduled for inmates. When you go in now, you get a physical. A physical that has not been really thorough, you don’t have a doctor listening to you, you’re not listing your medical history. They’re just giving you a rapid HIV test or taking your blood to make sure you don’t have hepatitis B – they’re just covering their backs.

In terms of psycho-social examination, you don’t get called down for about a week. It’s not a hospitable environment; you get the sense that you’re in an asylum. I think that having an adequate, safe psycho-social examination upon entry would be a good thing. You do not get the medications or the treatments that you are prescribed. If you were per say undergoing therapeutic treatment for bipolar or PTSD or AA, that’s not something that you will necessarily have available.

The other two demands: the DoC [Department of Corrections] review the inmate handbook and follow a grievance process for inmates to be able to report indiscretions with the rules. The final thing is all inmates should have access to educational, career, and mental health programs. At this point only a small handful of people really have access to any programs, determined upon how long you’re staying or if you’re a detainee or sentencee inmate.

Can you tell us a little more your friendship with Judith [an inmate McMillan met at Rikers] and what transpired?

They moved her to our building and when she first came there, Buddha [another inmate] introduced her to all of us. She was funny, she was interesting, she was in good spirits. Over the course of three days, she was prescribed 190 micro millimeters of methadone liquid which is a very dangerously high dose of methadone in liquid form for back pain. She deteriorated and it is in our opinion that it caused liver failure but that’s not confirmable. But she went from totally alert and going down that morning to get commissary, so we had just spent a lot of time together, and you get a feel for how someone is doing—to the first day after she took the prescribed liquid methadone, fading in and out consciousness. Then the second day she wasn’t really able to get up at all, she had stopped eating which you know when someone’s not eating right after commissary … Stopped conversing with people, rolling forward, rolling backward.

By the third day she was coughing up blood, to the point she was splattered with her own blood down her chest. So the CO [correctional officer] was very helpful in this case and she called down for medical, medical came up. Despite the obvious case that she was far too delusional to make any medical decisions for herself and despite the fact that we inmates had specifically called attention to that and told them everything that had happened, after two plus weeks of arguing with these people [medical] to give her the correct medication, she was not inclined to go downstairs with them. We were like ‘No you have to take her down, there’s blood all over her, look at the blood in the bathroom’ They said she refused medical advice. She continued to throw up. We had the CO call down a couple more times but they said, ‘We’re not coming up, she refused medical attention.’ Eventually the inmates in the room got pretty rowdy, and two of the girls ended up getting her dressed and carried her downstairs which means the CO had to let us do that. They are not allowed to break orders and that’s breaking the order. That is being helpful beyond what the code of ethics technically allows a CO to do. So you have to think in different terms, when you think in jail. They brought her down and they waited there with her until they saw that she was being taken to the emergency room and she was placed under critical care until her death.

I was more shocked more often by a greater humanity displayed on behalf of a handful—a handful—of COs and often appalled at the complete lack of humanity of medical and mental health staff.

What’s your opinion of the police and how can that system be improved?

That’s a big one and one that I am most hesitant to address. I remember being a part of the Occupy Wall Street movement and being down there at Zuccotti and wanting to talk about economic justice and corporate personhood and create our own micro-society where we could re-imagine how things could work if we just worked together. And all of the sudden we got de-railed by the FTP [fuck the police] narrative. I mean that makes sense, they were the first obstacle in our faces, keeping us from moving forward.

But the police, like the COs, generally speaking, if I can say it from the mouth of someone that knows better – Natasha Carter, a woman I was in there with. She said, ‘The only people who think there’s a real difference between the COs and the inmates are people who have never been to jail. These folks come from our neighborhoods. There isn’t a CO in here that doesn’t know an inmate from the outside. These are the ones that were able to get a job that has a pension and insurance.’ But who really wakes up and says I want to live in a prison or I want to be sent out to the same neighborhood that looks like my neighborhood and pick up people who look like me? In that degree, is the biggest problem the police or is the biggest problem the fact that we don’t know who’s giving the orders or why. Where are the community oversight councils? How was it that deBlasio [mayor of New York City] who we liberal people elected, got away with naming the very man who invented stop and frisk as the commissioner after we called for stop and frisk reform?

We set up an entirely unaccountable system from the COs to the NYPD to the judicial and prosecutorial overreach that has enabled an entire Rose M. Singer Center [the unit at Rikers where McMillan was housed] of people where I never met a single other person who ever went to trial. We as citizens, especially those of us who call ourselves politically inclined, we’ve got to say how did we have the concept of democracy that inferred our elected officials were accountable to us and where did that accountability go? I think Occupy did the biggest jump in getting close to this, to examining that question, but we haven’t really followed up.

What are you up to right now and what do you have planned for the near future?

I have another trial September 15 where I am facing another year in Rikers. At this point there seems no indication that I can expect any fairer of a trial.

So right now I am working on staying in my house, avoiding contact with police officers as not only a logical thing, but as a tenet of my probation. All of my friends are setting up trips to come see me in New York because I cannot leave as per my probation. I am writing, possibly a book, that’s … weird. But that’s what I’ve been asked to do on behalf of my thesis requirements. So I finished my classes, technically I graduated in Rikers. Now I’m just in thesis mode. And appeals court.  

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