Analysis Violence

Cecily McMillan’s ‘Occupy’ Trial, and the Fight Against Sexual Assault at Protests

Sheila Bapat

Cecily McMillan is now on trial for defending herself at an Occupy Wall Street protest after she felt someone grab her breast. McMillan's decision to fight back—both immediately after she was groped and now, in court—is brave, and sends a powerful message that women should not be blamed for defending themselves.

The Occupy Wall Street movement was responsible for some of the largest protests the United States has ever seen, with thousands of people rallying and occupying spaces to fight Wall Street greed and economic inequality.

But large demonstrations, such as OWS protests and those we saw during the Arab Spring, have also seen significant incidents of male violence against women. As other writers commenting on violence at protests have noted, law enforcement officers have been known to commit some of that violence.

Cecily McMillan is one activist who says she was a victim of such violence. According to McMillan, someone grabbed her right breast from behind on March 17, 2012; photos supplied by McMillan show bruising in the area of her right breast. She says after she was grabbed, she accidentally elbowed Officer Grantley Bovell in the face as she spun around, swinging her arm, and that she was unaware he was law enforcement. McMillan, who was, according to reports, yelling and flailing her arms in response to the police clearing the park, was then injured as the officer attempted to subdue her, and she had a seizure, after which she was hospitalized.

In an interview she gave to Democracy Now! several days after the incident, McMillan says she was repeatedly denied her constitutionally protected right to call an attorney following her arrest.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

McMillan has been charged with “intentionally assaulting an officer with the intent to interfere with the ability to perform his duties” and faces up to seven years in jail. McMillan’s attorneys did not respond to Rewire’s request for comment.

McMillan is one of some 2,600 OWS protesters who were arrested as part of the movement. But, according to the New York Times, she is one of just a handful of arrested Occupy protesters who has chosen to go to trial in an attempt to avoid a felony on her criminal record. Her trial started in New York City earlier this month.

To prosecute a woman who was apparently trying to defend herself at a demonstration seeking to disrupt systemic wealth inequality—an issue that disproportionately affects women—speaks volumes about sexism in this country.

McMillan’s decision to fight back—both immediately after she was groped and now, in court—is brave, and sends a powerful message that women should not be blamed for defending themselves.

Women and OWS

McMillan, now 25, has for years been active in demonstrations for economic justice causes. In 2011, she protested Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to dismantle his state’s public sector unions—particularly those representing teachers, nurses, and child-care providers, all of which are women-dominated fields.

McMillan went on to participate in the Occupy demonstrations in New York City, which began in September 2011. OWS, too, was a protest against economic injustice—though on an even grander scale, targeting the people, businesses, and systems that led to the economic collapse of 2008 and the resulting recession. As progressive writer Naomi Klein wrote about OWS, “We have picked a fight with the most powerful economic and political forces on the planet.”

It is impossible to disconnect OWS from the economic status of women in the United States and globally. Not only do women the world over dominate the lowest paid sectors, but they are also the least likely to be in a position to hire, set wages, or influence the flow of capital or how private or public resources are allocated. Women are also saddled with most unpaid domestic labor.

In other words, the issues OWS sought to address are in many ways fundamentally women’s issues. But the Occupy protests became yet another place where women were at times physically unsafe and vulnerable to sexual assault.

Sexual Assaults at OWS

As the New York Times reports, “Ms. McMillan has said that Officer Bovell grabbed her right breast from behind and that she reacted reflexively, unaware that he was a police officer.”

Why might McMillan have “reacted reflexively”?

There were numerous reports of sexual assaults happening at Occupy protests, though details were, at times, difficult to come by. A Feminist Wire article from November 5, 2011, reported that “As of today, there are at least 4 reported rapes in Baltimore, Cleveland, Glasgow and Dallas, the latter of which includes a14-year-old runaway girl and a convicted sex offender … Occupy Wall Street created a 16-square-foot ‘safe house,’ designed to shelter up to 30 women.” The piece quotes writer Katha Pollitt saying very on point, “Can you imagine hetero MEN having to set up a safe space to protect them from women and LGBT?”

Writer Kristen Gwynne spent a good deal of time reporting on OWS for AlterNet. During one afternoon, Gwynne spoke at length with a young woman who was sexually assaulted by the man sleeping next to her. Gwynne told Rewire,

At times, the space’s dedication to inclusivity and anti-authoritarian sentiment made remedying character — and even sexual assault — complaints challenging. How does one, for example, forcibly evict an alleged predator without involving the police or becoming physical? This woman, and several others, were angered by what they considered to be a persistent problem: lack of established, reliable methods of accountability and remediation. Obviously, patriarchy is everywhere — including in spaces that want to smash it — and the combination of typical misogyny, apolitical freeloaders, anti-authoritarianism, and the painstakingly slow system of decision making made dismantling it a challenge in a space where people were literally sleeping next to strangers.

The violence and sexual violence was both a problem inflicted by protesters against each other and by police against protesters. One report published by experts at Stanford, Fordham, Harvard, and NYU law schools, entitled Suppressing Protests: Human Rights Violations in the U.S. Response to Occupy Wall Street, shows that there have been “130 incidents [of physical force] in New York City which warrant investigation by authorities.”

There is also substantial history and context revealing the vulnerability of women to sexual assault by law enforcement outside of the context of protests; police taking advantage of women they arrest or detain; the 1991 Supreme Court case Mary M. v. the City of Los Angeles illustrates a more egregious example of this. And according to the National Police Misconduct and Reporting Project, of the nearly 5,000 cases of police misconduct in 2010, sexual misconduct was the second highest type of misconduct officers were accused of nationally (following excessive force). Sexual misconduct and excessive force can go hand in hand, however, as McMillan’s bruises reveal.

McMillan herself has stated that based on her experiences in Wisconsin, New York, and elsewhere, “I’ve come to the opinion that police are scary.”

“A New and Frightening System”

In her terrific piece in The Toast, entitled “The Silencing of Cecily McMillan,” writer Kathryn Funkhouser chronicles McMillan’s case and possible targeting of women by the New York City police on March 17, 2012:

From March 17th on, there were numerous reports of police intentionally grabbing the breasts of female protesters. An account by David Graeber tells the story of a female friend whose breast was grabbed by a police officer. When she screamed at the officer, calling him on the action, she was dragged behind the lines, partly by her hair. When she was thrown to the ground, she told the officers that she was going to retrieve her glasses, which had fallen off beside her, to clarify that the move was not one of resistance, but when she reached out for them, an officer savagely broke her wrist. When she was arrested, she was restrained with the tightest possible handcuffs although she and other protesters concerned about her begged for them to be loosened.

The correlation to Cecily’s case is not a coincidence, according to Graeber, but part of a new and frightening system:

Arbitrary violence is nothing new. The apparently systematic use of sexual assault against women protestors is new. I’m not aware of any reports of police intentionally grabbing women’s breasts before March 17, but on March 17 there were numerous reported cases, and in later nightly evictions from Union Square, the practice became so systematic that at least one woman told me her breasts were grabbed by five different police officers on a single night (in one case, while another one was blowing kisses.)

Again: OWS sought to shed light on broader scale economic injustice that, for so many reasons, disproportionately affects women. Sadly, OWS has also shown the dangers women face simply by speaking about economic justice in a public forum.

McMillan’s decision to fight these charges is brave. She could, like many of the more than 1,300 OWS protesters who were arrested but whose cases were “adjourned contemplating dismissal,” just slink off into the night and never challenge the premise that it’s fair to lock her up for defending herself when she felt someone violently grab her breast.

By choosing to take her case to trial, McMillan can of course avoid having a criminal record, but she is also bringing to light the cruel message to women from all of this: “You are worth less money than men. You must manage all unpaid labor. And you can’t even participate in advocating for better economic conditions because you may be groped, raped, or worse.”

Cecily McMillan’s case fights back against this message. I hope she wins.

News Race

#FreedomNow Protests: Police Union ‘Protects Violent Officers’

Michelle D. Anderson

In New York City, activists called attention to the role the union plays in preventing police accountability. The activists called for the firing a police officer who fatally shot 37-year-old Delrawn Small while off duty in a road rage incident on July 4.

Several activists demanding police accountability were arrested at a local police union building in New York City during a protest that began during Wednesday’s early morning hours.

Organized by the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100) NYC, the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, and The Movement for Black Lives, the protest was held at the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association headquarters building in Lower Manhattan.

The action was part of the two-day #FreedomNow national call for justice for Black lives. The movement seeks to counter failed policing strategies and disparities in health, education, and housing across the United States.

Rahel Mekdim Teka, the organizing chair for BYP 100 NYC, said in a statement Wednesday that police are trying to manipulate conversations on protecting Black lives by leading the public to believe law enforcement officers are at risk.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Police officers in Louisiana were recently given hate crime protections after the state’s Republican-held legislature passed the so-called Blue Lives Matter bill. Texas is primed to become the next state to give law enforcement officers hate crime protections, even as violence against police has plummeted in recent decades.

“They are not at risk. Police officers are the threat. Police do not keep us safe,” Teka said. “Police do not protect us. They are the danger that keeps Black people unsafe. We [must] divest from institutions that do not value us and instead invest in Black communities.”

In New York City, activists called attention to the role the union plays in preventing police accountability. The activists called for the firing of New York Police Department (NYPD) officer Wayne Isaacs, a three-year veteran of the NYPD who fatally shot 37-year-old Delrawn Small while off duty in a road rage incident on July 4.

Isaacs has been placed on “modified duty” and assigned a desk job while the office of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman investigates Small’s death. The NYPD announced that the officer had been stripped of his gun and shield, the New York Daily News reported.

Monica Dennis, a Black Lives Matter organizer, tweeted protesters’ demands, charging that the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association “only serves to protect violent officers.”

The Million Hoodies Movement for Justice announced that ten activists from its ranks and BYP 100 had been arrested during the protests. The group sought donations for a bail fund that had raised around 70 percent of its $10,000 goal as of 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch issued a statement about the protests and arrests on the union’s Facebook page.

He called the protest “a display of misdirected and misinformed anger that should have been pointed at City Hall, not the police officers who were on hand to protect the demonstrators’ First Amendment rights.”

Lynch criticized protesters for entering the lobby and not dispersing when ordered. He asked local politicians to support police officers and to denounce violence against law enforcement.

The event garnered mass participation at the headquarters, located at the same address as the New York Civil Liberties Union and several private firms.

The New York protest was among several similar actions across the country. In Washington D.C., protesters with BYP 100 DC and Black Lives Matter DC “occupied” the legislative office of the National Fraternal Order of Police, according to a notice on the BYP 100 website.

D.C. protesters wanted officers who supported their fight for justice and accountability to show solidarity by not paying their dues.

On Twitter, Mervyn Marcano, a communications strategist for the Movement for Black Lives, said the successful shutdown in D.C. had lasted more than six hours.

Clarise McCants, an organizer for BYP 100 DC, said in a statement that the FOP functioned like a college fraternity.

“Just like college frats that further rape culture by closing ranks to protect members who are sexual assailants, the FOP has proven that their primary commitment is to protect the worst of their members behind the ‘Blue Wall of Silence’—even in the most heinous of circumstances,” McCants said.

News Race

At ‘Pro-Life’ Conference, Silence on Police Violence

Amy Littlefield

Among the only contributions to the national dialogue taking place over racial justice and state violence was a card circulated in the exhibit hall by a group called the Radiance Foundation that read “All Lives Matter In & Out of the Womb.”

As one of the nation’s largest anti-choice groups launched its three-day conference in Herndon, Virginia, Thursday, a very different conversation was underway on the national stage.

Across the country, peaceful protests erupted over the police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.

As Rewire’s Imani Gandy has documented, the anti-choice movement has long attempted to appropriate the language of racial justice and the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag as part of a wider effort to shame Black women and cast abortion as “Black genocide.”

But at the National Right to Life Convention, the overriding response to last week’s police killings was silence. Among the only contributions to the national dialogue taking place over racial justice was a card circulated in the exhibit hall by a group called the Radiance Foundation that read “All lives matter In & Out of the womb.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Rewire asked convention director Jacki Ragan whether she thought the issue should have been raised explicitly at the conference.

“We are very single issue,” Ragan said. “We are here because of a threat to human life. We believe the unborn child is a human being from the moment of fertilization. We believe the disabled should have the same rights, [the] elderly should have the same rights, so we’re very single issue. So, no, I don’t really think it would be appropriate to address what had happened other than through prayer at the conference.”

At a prayer breakfast on Friday morning, after conference-goers awoke to the news five police officers had been killed by a gunman in Dallas, Rev. Dennis Kleinmann of St. Veronica Catholic Church in Chantilly, Virginia, prayed for guidance “to make this a better world, a world free of war and violence of every kind, including attacks on those who protect us.”

Ernest Ohlhoff, National Right to Life Committee outreach director, addressed the violence more directly.

“I don’t know if any of you heard the news this morning, but unfortunately we had another catastrophe in our country,” he said. “Five police officers in Dallas were killed in a shooting and [at least] six wounded, and I would ask you to pray for them and their families.”

No prayers were offered for Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, or their families.