Occupy Activist Who Was Jailed After Clearing of Zuccotti Park Now Works to Reform Prison
Menacing police dogs and correctional officers in bulletproof vests greeted activist Cecily McMillan when she returned to Rikers Island last week. Stacks of disposable zip-tie handcuffs, omnipresent during Occupy Wall Street, dangled from their belts at the ready. While the sight was familiar to the Occupy activist, recently released from 58 days in the jail following a highly controversial trial, the show of force surprised her—after all, she was just there to deliver a stack of paper.
The show of force that landed her behind bars came during the chaos of the 2012 clearing of Zuccotti Park, where Occupy Wall Street had made encampments to protest a broad, alarming trend of injustice in banking, housing, and other matters. In a physical struggle, McMillan says she was groped from behind by a police officer and reared back with an elbow as a reflex, but the courts decided that was assault of a police officer.
After her release from Rikers Island on July 2, McMillan immediately launched an ambitious campaign to improve the conditions she witnessed in the Rose M. Singer Center, the women’s jail at Rikers. The petition she delivered on Aug. 15, which amassed more than 10,000 signatures, demanded adequate mental and physical health care for female inmates, access to an accountable grievance process, education and vocational programs, an end to a newly enforced 9 p.m. lockdown procedure, and an end to solitary confinement.
Commissioner Joseph Ponte, to whom the petition was addressed, didn’t meet McMillan and her fellow demonstrators at Rikers that morning, sending Department of Corrections Director of Media Relations Robin Campbell in his place. McMillan refused to hand off the petition to Campbell until they negotiated a sit-down meeting with Ponte to discuss the demands. That’s set to take place Aug. 25.
“We asked for an inch and they gave us a mile,” said a pleased McMillan when we spoke the day after the successful demonstration at Rikers. “Going over the [Rikers] bridge is a drastic act, but that’s what we had to do. You have to literally stand in solidarity with the people you want to help.”
Activism is nothing new to McMillan, who was union organizing in Madison, Wis., before her participation in Occupy Wall Street. But her time served in Rikers reinvigorated her interest in women-backed collective action and sparked a dedication to the cause of incarcerated women.
“I’ve never been in a position in society where 50 women of different cultures and different backgrounds, different languages, have had the time and the space and the conditions to come together as women,” McMillan said. “Rikers is the only place I’ve ever felt that against one unified problem, and it was an incredible feeling of female solidarity.”
In recent months, the spotlight has shone brightly on the problem that inspired that unity. A disturbing Department of Justice report following three years of investigation highlighted the plight of juvenile offenders at the jail, concluding that a “deep-seated culture of violence is pervasive throughout the adolescent facilities at Rikers” and noting that “the systemic deficiencies identified in this report may exist in equal measure at the [adult] jails on Rikers” as well.
According to McMillan and others, there is no question that this violence extends well beyond the juvenile facilities. Of particular concern to McMillan is the “medical and mental health malpractice and negligence” suffered by women in the Rose M. Singer Center. To address the issue, McMillan explained, the women are “organizing heavily on the inside” and are “building toward having a woman in every single dorm to investigate every single infraction by medical and mental health personnel, as well as correctional officers.”
Outside the jail on Aug. 19, a coalition of city council members, activists, and criminal justice experts joined McMillan to call on the NYC Board of Corrections to hire a former inmate and a former correctional officer to fill two vacancies for permanent positions, staffing that could add perspective to the board’s work.
“People closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” said Glenn Martin, a formerly incarcerated criminal justice reform advocate and founder of JustLeadershipUSA, who joined the roundtable discussion to advocate for the two new positions.
“I have three stab wounds on my body, and all of them come from time spent on Rikers Island,” added Martin. “I’m telling you, not much has changed.”
In the midst of such violence and darkness at Rikers, McMillan found an unexpected source of motivation to work harder than ever for change.
“There’s a certain equalizing factor in the humiliation, degradation, and abuse of prison,” she said. “It’s a parallel experience that takes away all of the alienation and competition and leaves you with a sense of camaraderie and community.”
Camaraderie or not, the reason for the closeness that forms the community is the struggle.
“I’m not saying that it wasn’t horrific or abusive, but in that moment you had nothing to do but unite together in order to keep your humanity,” she said. While McMillan and her team have their work cut out for them, she has her sights set on the future: “My activism has taken a direction I always hoped it would go. I just want to keep moving forward and getting closer to what it means to be human.”