Revolution Interview

Cecily McMillan on Rikers Island: "Truly Horrific and Inhumane"

July 28, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


Revolution Interview
A special feature of Revolution to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere in our paper.


On March 17, 2012, Cecily McMillan went to meet a friend at Zuccotti Park, New York City, where hundreds of people had gathered to mark six months since the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The police moved in, beating people and arresting over 70 that night. As Cecily turned to leave the park she was assaulted and arrested. Cecily’s case went to trial and on May 19, 2014, she was found guilty of felony assault on a police officer and given 90 days in jail and five years’ probation. Revolution writer Li Onesto sat down to talk with Cecily soon after she was released from Rikers Island after serving 58 days behind bars.


Li Onesto: You just got out of Rikers Prison after spending 58 days behind bars. On March 17, 2012, at an Occupy Wall Street demonstration you reflexively elbowed an NYPD cop in the temple after he came up from behind you and grabbed you so hard by your breast that bruises were left on your body in the form of a handprint. You were flung to the ground and repeatedly kicked and beaten by other cops. I understand this was not the first time you were arrested and brutalized by the NYPD.

Cecily McMillan: I was involved in a very violent arrest in October of 2011 where I was caught and released. It was an arrest that was covered by the Rolling Stone magazine, and from that period onward when I went to a protest I was told by either sympathetic journalists or someone who had been standing by the police officers, they know who you are, they know what you look like, they’re going to arrest you if you don’t leave after first call.

Cecily McMillan. Photo: Li Onesto/Revolution

I had been on the frontlines of an attempt to actually take Wall Street. It was the same day that the Brooklyn Bridge action was happening and all the police attention had gone to the Brooklyn Bridge, which left Wall Street wide open with about 3,000 of us at the park. And we amassed a group of about over 300 people to try to human barricade into Wall Street and try to hold it. I was in the front lines of that. I was actually the one who counted down until we proceeded forward to try to use the force of human solidarity to take Wall Street. So we were linked arm in arm, 300 of us and we walked as a bloc. And the police had just managed to form the barricades and we walked inward to them, they shuddered and pepper-sprayed us back; we walked into them again, they shuddered, pepper-sprayed us back, one more time.

We were hoping that they would refuse to see us as an idea and have to be confronted with us as a people—nonviolent, right there, we weren’t trying to walk over them, that’s not possible, we were trying to ask them to move. Then on that third time, officers came in through the barricades because we had broken through the barricades and began helicopter status, swinging their batons in a circle whacking people. I got hit to the back of the head and then proceeded to sit down, Native American style, with my fingers up in peace signs and yelled, "Everybody sit down!" So we sat down and that’s when an officer kicked me in the chest, kicked me over and that’s where I got a cracked rib and he stomped on my head as he handcuffed me so tight with his numbered metal handcuffs that corresponded to his badge number, that my wrists were bleeding and then yanked me up at the center of the handcuffs, dislocating my shoulder and then shoved me and said get moving and I felt this terrible pain, it almost knocked me out. I didn’t say anything and I didn’t resist because I had been trained as a nonviolent activist—until he said “shut up you cunt bitch, you get what you deserve" when I was giving my birthdate to someone who was calling out and I said, “I beg your pardon!” And that is the most resistance I have ever had to an NYPD officer, ever. That was the most conscious resistance, right there. So I’m guilty of “beg your pardon.” The Rolling Stone got a snapshot where you could see the mascara tears coming down my face from the tear gas.

Li Onesto: So they targeted you.

Cecily McMillan: Oh yeah. from then on out, literally every protest I went to I left before first call because I was told you’re gonna get arrested, they’re gonna target you—because I had gotten caught and released—because it was the captain that arrested me with his cuffs; his cuffs corresponded to his badge number and they had been ordered not to hurt any women that night after this incident where a Captain Baloney point-blank pepper-sprayed two women in the face who were sitting down....

On March 17 [the day of the arrest that led to the trial and conviction] that was my first sexual assault. I’m exposed literally with my skirt above my waist. The one time I cried in the courtroom is, I had never seen, the fact that I had to sit in that courtroom watching a video that to me shows my sexual assault, with my sexual attacker, as I’m being called the attacker. That was too much for me. And yeah, I did cry. And fucking sue me and if you want to paint me as an hysterical woman—I mean it was like a Clockwork Orange, like we will beat the agency out of you, you fucking bitch, that’s what it felt like, like my eyes being made to stay open, and I’m supposed to stay calm as you parade my attacker up here who is calling himself a victim as you make me watch this video alongside of him as he is looking me in the face and calling me Cecily, like we have some familiarity. As you rape-culture me, saying, “she isn’t shy, you see her today, if she had been sexually assaulted, she would have been screaming”—through what? The hospital room I was in? Because I wasn’t in a hospital room. I was in a storage closet, handcuffed, hands and feet, open, in a room, my tights torn, my vagina exposed as officers walked in and out charging their phones and bloody rags all around. What am I supposed to say, hey officers, in between you making comments about my exposed vagina, would you like to talk to me about me being sexually assaulted by one of your own? Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. It was fucked up. I cannot believe that rape culture that blatant was allowed in what is called our justice system. It is obscene.

Li Onesto: And yet you end up at Rikers.

Cecily McMillan: Yeah, I end up at Rikers.

Li Onesto: It’s interesting, this whole story of what happened before the March 17 arrest is not that well known—so I’m glad you went through that because a lot of the media just starts in the middle of the story.

Cecily McMillan: And now I’m facing another trial September 15 and I’m very much expecting that they are capable of securing the outcome that they want and that outcome will come with more prison time. I think it’s really important that people know what the inmates seem to understand better than anyone else, which is that there’s no such thing as a right to trial by a jury of your peers, there’s no such thing as a fair and impartial judge, there’s no such thing as a speedy trial, there’s no such thing as a justice system. They understand it better than anyone. I did not meet a single inmate my entire time there who had gone to trial....

Li Onesto: So let’s talk about some of the things that you experienced at Rikers. At your press conference after you were released, you talked about how many of the things being done to people in prison “seem to be aimed at simple dehumanization.” Could you talk about that from your experience at Rikers Island, and talk more generally about the conditions there?

Cecily McMillan: So a day at Rikers? There’s for instance, Diaz. She is a mother of four or five children, two staying at home. She had been going to the restroom and there was blood in her stools every time, which means generally that you have an ulcer or that it started out as a hemorrhoid and now you have an ulcer. She had gone down to the clinic and people are really terrified of the clinic because you wait and wait and wait and then you get treated for something that you don’t have or the doctors talk to you like you’re pill-searching or, worst case scenario, you’re made to trade sexual favors in order to get your medication. There’s a doctor specifically that will prescribe anything you want as long as you tug on his penis or let him touch your breast. There’s another doctor who tells people that your chromosomal count is off and you need to pull down your panties and so he can feel you to make sure you’re a woman and that you’re in the right facility.

And so Diaz goes down there and after going three days in a row, waiting for 12 hours before she is seen by anybody, she says I have blood in my stools, this has been happening for two weeks—which means you have a pretty progressive ulcer; I have been having trouble using the restroom to the point where I don’t really want to eat anything anymore because it’s so painful. And they said, ok, you need to give us your stool sample. And she’s like, I need to what? And they said, yes, we need your stool sample. And she’s like, ok, and takes this little bottle. And so I’m sitting around talking to her and she’s like, I have like three weeks left and I don’t really want to do this, I have to poop in this little cup and then I have to go and hold this cup and wait for them, I don’t even want to do this because they’re just hacks and they don’t care about you. So I said you have to give it to them, do you know what an ulcer is? She has no idea what an ulcer is. So I explain that it’s like a tear in the side of your bowel and when that tear gets irritated and inflamed enough as the feces move through it, then when it opens up, if it bursts through your bowel, then it’s leaking feces into your body which will cause you to go into systems failure within 24 hours and you will die from sepsis. And she says, oh my god, that’s why they made me sign the sheet that said on pain of death we require you to bring back this sample. But the thing is they took this woman—they didn’t explain anything, they just made her sign this paper. Which to the people who are constantly lying to you, assaulting you, making you wait for 12 hours, you’re not inclined to believe any fucking thing they say. So I told her, you have to do this, I talked to her for another two or three days. She finally does it, she brings it down to sick call, it takes her six hours. I’ve never been through sick call in less than six hours. She’s like sitting around, anxious, waiting for the results. She gets called back two days later, they lost her stool sample. So she’s like upset. They have to do it again and it turns out that she does have an ulcer that could have been a death sentence, if somebody wasn’t there to explain to her something very basic.

This is a lot of what I did every day, to read people their charges, to read people the details of their probation, to call my mother who is an RN to ask her about the myriad problems going on so I could tell people what they needed to do, to call Nairobi, my guardian who works in women’s sexual health and women’s sexual justice to ask what is and what is not right about the way they are doing things.

There is no rule of law. The rule of law is "our house, our rules." And the rules change by the shift. There’s no way of keeping up with who has to do what because nobody has to do anything and those orders are not coming from the COs [correctional officers]; they’re coming from the captains....

The most horrific things were the searches. And I’m just thinking, nothing in the whole of my life could have prepared me for this truly horrific and inhumane… I mean the whole process is just to come into your home, this tiny bit of sanity and society you manage to make for yourself in these neighborhoods and organizing your stuff in your buckets—I mean just organizing your stuff in your buckets, this is your sanity.

Li Onesto: You’re talking about the guards searching the dorms?

Cecily McMillan: The scheduled searches, they destroy everything. Even in these situations, these women manage to salvage their humanity. I remember the guards coming in and yelling, "Turn Down! Turn fucking face down! Turn down!" And then like this one girl goes, “Turn down for what”—the Lil Jon song that just came out and then everybody started like singing and giggling. Then [the guards go]—“Get up against the wall!” And three women say at the same time, “Motherfucker.” How can you manage to be so human during these experiences? It’s incredible.

You have a grand total of 20 to 30 guards coming in, 10 or so are the turtles, who are dressed from head to toe with the helmets and the Plexiglas on their faces, the Plexiglas around their bodies, the shields on one hand and the other hand holding this three-and-a-half-foot crazy wooden bat, like you know it took someone’s face off once. Then a series of women file into the bathrooms and line up and then you have the turtles in the day room and a captain in the bathroom and 10 or so in the dormitory.

Then you have to lay face down with your hands behind your back, like literally face down, so imagine if you have asthma or if you’re old or whatever and they can come in with dogs or whatever....

So you lay face down with your hands behind your back as people are walking around you, you look up—[and they yell] “I said face fucking down, do you want to get sent down to the bing, do you want to lose your good days," so you can’t look up even if they bring in dogs, even if they whack the side of our bed with a baseball bat. And these searches are specifically used with the intent to haze and to train new COs so if the COs are not being humiliating enough then a captain will come over and show them how it’s done.

So then you lay face down as row by row is called, you stand up, turn in line, go to the bathroom, totally undress, lift up your breasts, shake out your hair, squat forward, squat backwards, get re-dressed—if they think you have something, squat and cough. Then they take you out to the chair, the metal detector chair, that you sit in that can inspect your body cavity. Then you do check, chin, check on this little thing that examines the metal in your mouth and then you line up and you face the wall and you stay there until everybody has gone through that. And if you have four or five captains, they’re all telling you different things and you’re trying to obey these different orders with them yelling at you.

And then they have you come back in, line by line, and you stand there after they’ve taken over your bed. They’ve flipped your bed, your tiny thin mattress, that you can literally still feel the cold of the metal bed beneath you. They’ve flipped that and they’ve taken off your sheets and you’re made to hold the green mattress off the ground, it can’t be touching the ground, as they go through every single piece of your belongings. They open everything, they tear up everything, they can crumple your pictures, they can tear up your pictures. If you have any pictures that have you in them they take them away. You cannot have any pictures of yourself.

Li Onesto: Because?

Cecily McMillan: You’re asking why. It’s because. There’s this one woman who doesn’t have family who can contribute to her commissary—she made these little things, she would take soap parts and break them down and reform them into hearts and take pictures and put them on there and say little things like I love you or I’m your best friend or happy birthday and you’d pay her something like three bags of SunChips for that. And they can take that away from you for “mis-using correctional property.” They can take little sheets that people have cut out and made little letters, they make things like I love you or happy birthday—to send to their daughters or sons and they can take those away from people for “mis-using correctional property.”

Li Onesto: After you got out of Rikers you signed the statement for the Month of Resistance to Mass Incarceration, Police Terror, Repression, and the Criminalization of a Generation.

Cecily McMillan: Of course. I mean, I was sitting there with the Harlem families at the Stop Mass Incarceration Network meeting, the friends and the families of these folks of the raids... talking about these young men who were raided [by the NYPD], who were dragged out like that, who were hunted down in this raid.... And it reminds me of being on the phone and looking at the jail barge where it was rumored that all of those men [from the raid] were still being held. They have literally built a prison boat [because they can’t fit them on Rikers] and it was rumored that all these men [from the raid] were on that boat.... Immediately I was in the middle of a solidarity struggle that I had never felt before. These women weren’t there when these kids were taken. These women talk to their sons while they’re sitting in my room, a three-way call, perfectly orchestrated. You ever tried to be on a conference call with a bunch of organizers, that shit is a fucking mess. These women can manage a three-way call with someone sitting on a boat, or you’re sitting in the room, through a cousin or a family member, community member.

So I’m sitting there next to a woman who’s looking at the boat that her son is on, talking to her daughter who is out in Harlem as they’re communicating through the daughter in a three-way call to the boat to our room about the Harlem raids—as I’m sitting there looking at the boat, talking to my team about what happened at the Harlem raids. Like this shit is coming and it’s coming fast and nobody is ready for it.

Like that was what I said in my speech—I walked in with one movement and left a part of another. And that’s why I’m telling people, really, take your ideas and follow them through, from the street, to the jail, to the trial, to the jail, to the prison—you know, you have to follow them through because if you really mean what it is that you say, if you really mean to have a movement of the 99 percent, if you really mean to have solidarity, class solidarity, to really have a class confrontation, to really have class coalitions that are counter to the one percent—and I can say this as a woman, that is raping us—you have to be anti-fear, you have to not allow the concept of jail, which is the daily lives, which is not the if, but the when for most of these people. You have to give yourself over to the reality that that’s going to be your life too, that standing up for the poor, standing up for the persons of color, standing up for yourself has all got to become intertwined, that it can’t just be rhetoric, that you have to do it, you have to go there, you have to understand it. You have to be ready to understand that your rights as a privileged person are no longer going to keep you from this fate and you’re going to have to take it because the prisons, that fear is the only thing they have subduing us, the only thing they have that keeps us from really starting this movement and we’ve got to transcend that fear that is the daily lives of these people. We can’t sit around talking solidarity if we’re not willing to go there.

Li Onesto: The Month of Resistance aims to take this question of stopping mass incarceration to a whole other level where all kinds of people throughout society cannot stand by and let this go on. Maybe you could say something about that.

Cecily McMillan: I think it’s a really, really great initiative. I’ve already started to participate and as I’ve said, whatever I can do, use me as a tool. I’m not a prison justice activist so much as somebody who had an experience that can be used. I had 58 days, I’m not the expert on this experience. I had a taste of what it is—these people just being hunted down in the streets and being returned to this place again and again and again. I’m but a small blip on that discussion. And I’ve said, whatever I can do, please, please—I can’t even live with the reality of my friends who are still in there...

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