Cecily McMillan: “Bring voices back to those who have had their voices taken away”

October 6, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


The following talk by Cecily McMillan was given at the August 2, 2014, New York City kick-off meeting for the Month of Resistance to Mass Incarceration, Police Terror, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation. Cecily McMillan had recently gotten out of Rikers Island prison in New York City after serving 58 days for an Occupy Wall Street case in which she was attacked and sexually abused by the NYPD.

Cecily McMillan speaking at a press conference announcing the Month of Resistance, August 5, 2014.

My first experience with prison, with the mass incarceration network, comes from Southeast Texas. I grew up in a trailer park and where I come from there is also a war on drugs being waged against the young, mostly white men there. My brother is a victim. He is an addict. He was taken, starting at the age of 17, and has spent most of his life in and out of jails, long term stints, all related to drugs. As I worked with him in his imprisonment, I had some sense of what went on in prisons. I often called the warden for his treatment. But it was not until I went to Rikers and was imprisoned there on May 5 for my work with Occupy Wall Street that I really understood what was happening in there. When you’re so divorced by the fences, by the bridges, by the razor wire and you have 21-minute phone calls that can cost you up to $15 for that phone call, it’s really hard to get a sense of what goes on in there. So despite what I thought was a familiarity with the horrors and the atrocities of the jails and the prison systems through those phone calls with my brother and my friends, I had a very rude awakening upon my time in Rikers.

I experienced much more closely to what [people have been talking about here today]. I only met a handful of folks that were from Manhattan. The large majority of folks came from the Bronx and from Brooklyn. I was never in a room with more than two or three women that looked to be white. And most of those women I found out were at least half Latino. The women I did meet were incredible. I consider them to be organizers in and of themselves. When I listened to their stories, when I talked to them, when I related to them, I found it incredible that they managed to organize their communities, even while inside on the phone, often screaming things like, “what do you mean you don’t know the PIN number, the PIN number is your birthday, you have to pay this bill, you have to give $25 to this person, and $100 to this person.”

It was incredible to see that these women managed to, in spite of roaring atrocities both in and outside Rikers, organize themselves to be human beings, to even live every day, to maintain a humanity, to continue to take care of their communities as they are completely under attack every day, both inside and outside Rikers. I met a woman with a child that was one year old that had been diagnosed with a serious heart defect. They would not consider her, her insurance would not cover the surgery that he needed and she needed to come up with $50,000 fast. She had gone to college, she went to CUNY. She was studying the internet, web stuff and she found a way that she could get that money fast. She was taken down in the conspiracy investigation of the Target credit card scandal. I thought this was very interesting in that nobody in our banking system has been taken down yet.... But she got the money that she needed. This woman was not stupid, she was very intelligent. She knew that she was going to get caught. Getting that much money that quickly. She knew that she was gonna go down. But she knew that she could save her child’s life and she did what she needed to do to take care of her child. I met another woman who defended herself with a knife against her ex-boyfriend who came at her after years of abuse.

Because she was a police officer, the DA argued that she was not helpless, that she had the training to de-escalate the situation and therefore she was forced to take a plea bargain of a year in jail for protecting herself, for daring to be a woman that would stand up for herself and refuse to take another beating from a man. Like these woman, many of the women I met at Rikers were what I would call political prisoners. To me a political prisoner is someone who goes against social norms or rules to stand against oppression, to stand for what is right, or to stand up for those they love. All of the rest were victims of what I believe to be political repression. When our government consigns entire classes and communities to cyclical homeless and joblessness, to racism and classism and then criminalizes this helplessness that comes out of this, as characterized by the “broken window theory” or by the war on drugs—this is political repression. And when they put our people in prison they not only separate our people from society, they take away their personhood. At Rikers I learned, I felt and I suffered the reality that the term “prisoner” is divided from the word “person.” That criminal is distinguished from citizen. That being convicted of a felony meant in a very real way that I was no longer seen as a worthwhile contributor to society.

The very society that I love, the very society that I have fought for and the very society that I went to jail for. When our society creates these false distinctions, when our society makes it so that there can be people as a part of our society that can be degraded to the level of prisoner and silenced and they can no longer participate in the process that governs their lives, this falls in the face of everything that this country says that it’s supposed to be. It falls in the face of democracy and it is a great wound to humanity. It cannot exist. This cannot go on any longer. We cannot put people in a distinction that makes it so they cannot participate in the everyday decision-making that governs their lives.

We must make it so every person has a voice, that their voices can be heard—and that is a division that must be separated from our prison system. So I’m joining this Call [for the Month of Resistance to Mass Incarceration, Police Terror, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation] because I want to make sure that everybody from here on out can at least have a voice and the circumstance that have rendered so many voiceless. I want to make sure that everybody from here on out can at least have a voice in the circumstances that have rendered so many voiceless.

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