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Escape From New York: the Emancipation of Activist Cecily McMillan

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Cecily McMillan, the New York City woman who bravely resisted an assault by an unknown assailant at an Occupy Wall Street observance, believes if a jury had been allowed to see the photos and videos of the incident, it would not have found her guilty of second-degree felony assault against what turned out to be a police officer who had grabbed her from behind.

McMillan’s was one of the most high-profile cases to come out of the Occupy Wall Street movement. But the perverse way in which McMillan was treated also is highly typical of how prosecutors in the U.S. treat victims of police violence. In this case, McMillan was sentenced to 90 days in prison and five years of probation.

Conversely, one could argue that if not for the plethora of photos and videos of the police assault, the prosecution would have sought an even longer prison term for McMillan. In a new book titled “Occupy These Photos,” McMillan writes that the judge in her case, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Ronald Zweibel who is known as “a prosecutor in robes,” allowed only a couple minutes of video and only a handful of photos into the trial. The judge ruled out the majority of photos and videos as, in McMillan’s words, “too harmful to the reputation of the NYPD.”

After the trial, the media ban was lifted and the jurors were finally free to review all the facts, videos and photos that the judge did not allow in the trial. “Almost immediately, nine of the 12 drafted a personal letter to Justice Zweibel pleading for my immediate release from Rikers,” she writes in the book. “Whereas the prosecution initially planned to propose two years, by sentencing day, they instead suggested three months’ imprisonment and five years’ probation.”

If the jury had been allowed access to all of the photos and videos that McMillan’s defense wanted to present at the trial, she believes the jury would have come to a different decision, the right decision: “I would have been found not guilty and released to continue on with my life.”

Instead, McMillan was sent to prison and put on probation, while New York City Police Officer Grantley Bovell was able to continue on with his life. McMillan was released from Rikers Island on July 2, 2014, after serving 58 days. Inside Rikers, McMillan was treated poorly as are most men and women in the jail complex. She was denied prescribed medication and was allegedly assaulted by a prison pharmacist.

The 26-year-old McMillan, who has since moved to Atlanta, explains that her case is still pending appeal in New York. And every day, “I live with the constraints of felony probation,” she writes.

On the night of March 17, 2012, in Zuccotti Park, McMillan felt someone’s hand around her waist and then nearing her breast. She thought it was a stranger attempting to assault her. “There we were: moving in sync, my elbow swinging backward into his face and him flinging me forward to the ground,” she writes. In the photos and videos, McMillan saw the aftermath of Bovell’s attack as half a dozen NYPD officers kicked her and beat her body with batons.

“Without all the images captured that evening, I would’ve never really known what happened to me that night — I might’ve never really been able to move on,” she explains.

McMillan’s follow-up to her contribution to “Occupy These Photos” will be a book called “The Emancipation of Cecily McMillan,” published by Nation Books. The book, scheduled for publication in May 2016, will chronicle her journey from a trailer park home in Texas, her “emancipation” from her parents as a teenager when she went to live with one of her teachers in a black neighborhood in Atlanta, through graduate school, to the pivotal night in Zuccotti Park, her ordeal at New York’s most notorious prison, and ending back in Atlanta, where she lives now.

Since her July 2014 release from Rikers Island, McMillan has been working as a social justice organizer and advocate of prisoner rights. In a recent article, McMillan wrote about how New York City officials need to scale back their police state tactics against activists. “The policing of protest is having the opposite effect of the one intended. The time has come for our elected officials to decriminalize dissent — no matter how disruptive, disobedient or radical it may seem. A democratic society demands nothing less,” she wrote.

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Mark Hand has reported on the energy industry for more than 25 years. He can be found on Twitter @MarkFHand.

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