Two and a half years after the Occupy Wall Street movement took the country by storm, injecting topics like income inequality and class war into the realm of permissible national political discourse for the first time since the 1930s, the nation’s legal machinery of repression has come down like a proverbial ton of bricks on the movement just as nationally coordinated police repression crushed its physical manifestation in late 2011.
The prosecution, and Monday’s ultimate conviction of Occupy Wall Street protester Cecily McMillan on the ludicrous charge of felony assault against a brutal male police officer who had grabbed her right breast from behind so hard it caused bruising, makes Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. the prosecutorial equivalent of the thug police officers like NYPD deputy inspector Anthony Balogna. Balogna, recall, was the “white shirt” police supervisor who was notoriously caught on video gratuitously spraying several young women directly in the face as they stood peacefully behind a police barricade during the early days of Occupy.
Vance, as Manhattan DA, is doing the same kind of thing with legal prosecutions, making a name for himself by gratuitously prosecuting the wrong people and meanwhile letting the real criminals skate.
Last year, he brought criminal charges against one of the city’s tiniest financial institutions, little Abacus Bank, a Chinatown-based community bank, claiming it had committed mortgage fraud. As I wrote here and in the magazine Crain’s New York Business, Abacus actually had discovered that a loan officer had been allowing loan applicants to lie about their income and had taken action itself, firing the individual and reporting the situation to the federal Office of Thrift Supervision. But Vance decided to go after the bank anyhow to make an example of it, claiming it was an classic case of the bank behavior that had caused the 2008 financial crisis. In fact, however, as Vance surely knew, Abacus Bank boasts a loan default rate of less than 0.5%, well below the national average of 6%. It had no involvement in subprime loans or derivative products, hadn’t cost either the FDIC or Fanny Mae a cent, and didn’t need a taxpayer bailout. Furthermore, as I pointed out in my articles, Vance has never sought criminal prosecutions of any of the truly criminal banks that are in his jurisdiction that did commit mortgage fraud on such a massive scale that it caused the nation’s financial and economic collapse: Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase, Citicorp, Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers, all of which have or had their headquarters right in Manhattan.
Instead of frog-marching the crooked CEOs of these massively corrupt institutions before media cameras to their arraignments, Vance had the media come to Abacus bank to run their cameras as a “chain gang” of young tellers was led out of the bank to an arraignment. The case against Abacus is still awaiting trial, and a court is still considering a motion by Abacus’s attorney to have the charges dismissed.
Now Vance has gone after one small person, McMillan, who’s only “crime” was defending herself against a violent sexual assault by a police officer, at a time when she was doing nothing wrong — just attending, along with several dozen other people, a memorial protest action in Zuccotti Park. Vance had his prosecutor in the case, Erin Choi, employ the worst kind of over-charging and abuse of power in order to win a conviction and, it appears, a penalty that is clearly designed to chill protest in New York City. (After charging her with felony assault of a cop, the DA offered McMillan the prosecutor’s bargain: plead guilty to one lesser charge with a promise of no jail time in return for having the more serious charge dropped. McMillan refused such a deal on principle, insisting on her innocence.)
The shameful prosecution of McMillan is clearly designed, just like the brutal police response to protesters in 2011, to intimidate people from protesting against corporate power as the partisans of Occupy Wall Street did. It’s a message to the people of New York, and indeed to the citizens of the United States, that when you stand up to police, even when — or maybe especially when — you are exercising your Constitutional First Amendment right to protest and seek redress of grievances, you are liable to first be beaten or brutalized, and then to be jailed on trumped-up felony charges if you in any way resist police assault.
The city’s main newspaper, the New York Times, didn’t even report on McMillan’s conviction on Tuesday, the day after the jury reached its obscene verdict, but Molly Knefel, writing in the British Guardian newspaper, which unlike the city’s supposed “newspaper of record,” covered the trial from start to finish, wrote:
“As disturbing as it is that she was found guilty of felony assault against Officer Grantley Bovell, the circumstances of her trial reflect an even more disturbing reality – that of normalized police violence, disproportionately punitive sentences (McMillan faces seven years in prison), and a criminal penal system based on anything but justice. While this is nothing new for the over-policed communities of New York City, what happened to McMillan reveals just how powerful and unrestrained a massive police force can be in fighting back against the very people with whom it is charged to protect.”
Vance was aided in his persecution of McMillan by a judge, Ronald Zwiebel, who brazenly sided with the prosecution from the get go, refusing to allow the defense to present evidence of the officer’s prior brutal behavior, refusing even to allow jurors to get a clear view of a video showing how McMillan was assaulted and how her elbow was directed at someone she couldn’t have even know was a police officer, as he was behind her.
As Knefel wrote:
“In the trial, physical evidence was considered suspect but the testimony of the police was cast as infallible. Despite photographs of her bruised body, including her right breast, the prosecution cast doubt upon McMillan’s allegations of being injured by the police -– all while Officer Bovell repeatedly identified the wrong eye when testifying as to how McMillan injured him. And not only was Officer Bovell’s documented history of violent behavior deemed irrelevant by the judge, but so were the allegations of his violent behavior later that very same night.
“To the jury, the hundreds of police batons, helmets, fists, and flex cuffs out on March 17 were invisible – rendering McMillan’s elbow the most powerful weapon on display in Zuccotti that night, at least insofar as the jury was concerned.”
McMillan, who has displayed extraordinary courage as she faces a potential seven-year sentence she doesn’t deserve, will hopefully have her absurd conviction overturned on appeal, but in today’s massively corrupted legal system, in which judges increasingly side with the state, there’s no assurance of that happening. Meanwhile, she is locked up for defending herself against a police assault which, from the looks of the video and her bruise should have had him fired from the force.
The McMillan prosecution, and the Abacus Bank prosecution as well, are black marks that will forever mark DA Vance as a quentessential defender of wealth and privilege instead of justice. But the two cases are also emblematic of a wider crisis — the utter corruption of the US legal system — as the nation continues its slide towards a totalitarian future.
Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).