Occupy, prison and her experiences
On May 8, 2015 I conducted an interview with Cecily McMillan. I had some questions prepared in advance by myself and a handful of the collective but the interview went where it went the way a river might. We first covered basic biographical information; Cecily grew up mainly in Southeast Texas and Georgia betw een her mother’s home and her father’s. She ran away at 14 and though they were poor it was well hidden from her. She recalls donating canned goods for her school’s canned food drive unaware at the time that was where her family was getting some of their food.
A young rebel
I asked her about her political beginnings because it’s fascinating to learn what radicalizes people. Cecily says that right after 9/11 she was in East Texas and her all-white school which had resisted integration was holding a pep rally to support the soldiers. She said it looked like a klan rally and she remembers the word “sand nigger” being tossed around. She was confused by what the word “terrorist” meant and upon doing research decided that the people using this word were hypocrites. Cecily says, “I started asking questions and no one had the answers. So I started to challenge.”
Her first brush with authority came when she refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance, an act protected by court decisions since the 1940’s. Cecily says the pledge was called “the pledge of allegiance and required moment of prayer.” The principal asked why she would not stand and she told him that there were people who did not believe and it was not right. He told her to stand or she would be back in trouble. She continued to resist and the next time Cecily says he used a paddle to beat her while she was bent over a desk facing a picture of George Bush and the American flag.
The young Cecily kept challenging the system. She tried to have the school’s dress code changed and staged a walkout against the Bush regime when she was 17.
What did Occupy accomplish?
She sounded frustrated when I asked this. She had a lot to say though and it echoed what I have been hearing from other people who were at other Occupy camps. Cecily said that it forced people to accept a truth that, “they don’t have a democracy, those that played a part in their local Occupy had a learning experience, to speak, to participate, that it doesn’t have to be this R and D [Republican and Democrat] system.”
I was glad to hear her say that. A lot of people feel this sense of failure from Occupy but I do not. I saw it as a school for people to learn that the old ways of what people thought would work are dead and they could better learn and network with each other. It is interesting to see how some of the residual effects of Occupy are still playing out at police brutality protests I organize or attend.
Cecily says, “Occupy showed people that we don’t have the right to peacefully assemble. We don’t have the right to hear the charges against us. Why was I even arrested? Why was I even touched by that officer?”
She mentions that in her youth she supported Howard Dean’s campaign starting a Young Democrats club in east texas as a teenager and arriving at Occupy as a democratic socialist. The events at Occupy changed her outlook on politics, the people she met and the experiences she had. As Abbie Hoffman said, “the revolution is the best education you can get.” Without having to be asked, Cecily volunteered, “We have no say in our government.” And then later, “People don’t give a fuck, I don’t want to vote, for either [party]. It’s a circle jerk.”
While doing research for this article I stumbled upon an article in Cosmopolitan about Cecily, saying the other Occupiers would call her “the Paris Hilton of Occupy.” We had to know why so I asked her. Cecily explained that most of the images of her that we are all familiar with are not really an accurate depiction, she was dressing for court getting her hair blown out, wearing nice clothes and pearls in a strategy to appeal to suburban middle class mothers sitting in the jury box who although they convicted her, it was later revealed recommended she not be jailed.
The Paris Hilton comments came from anarchists who used the comment as an attempt to attack what they perceived as privilege unaware of her tumultuous upbringing, and likely that Cecily is Mexican-American. All they see is a person arguing in favor of democratic socialism, a statist view and they think, “How can we remove her? Oh yeah, nice shoes, love your hair.”
For her part Cecily admits she made similar assumptions about anarchists at first. She assumed they were, “All middle class kids, who were dressed in all black and hadn’t washed. I didn’t know what an anarchist was at the time. I thought of a logo on a Hot Topic T-shirt. I spent a lot of time just trying to pass.”
A prison for inmates and guards alike
Cecily told me that if you have an anxiety attack in jail, the response would be for the “turtles”, guards in full riot gear, to beat you until your “tantrum” went away. People did not get cancer medicine. She said she is surprised more people did not die. When Cecily left Rikers Island she had malnutrition.
Due to what I had read in other articles about a gynecologist who was known to grope female-bodied inmates, I asked Cecily if she was fearful of being sexually assaulted by guards. This was the most difficult of the questions to ask but it brought I think one of the most important responses of the entire interview.
“I was assaulted by guards but not sexually.” Guards do not necessarily sexually assault inmates the way people typically think, but take advantage of their position of power and trade contraband drugs for sexual favors. “The women in there run entire projects, families, businesses from prison. If Occupy were half as organized we’d have a revolution.” Cecily says, “Their bodies already don’t belong to them so they use it to bargain with. Is it rape? I would say yes. Are they victims to society or to the guards or to both?”
Cecily says that people do not like to talk about that. People on the inside talk about pregnancy and relationships though. As it turns out female-bodied corrections officers have it pretty bad according to Cecily. Many of them are people of color coerced to brutalize their own people in an industry that rewards cruelty and punishes kindness. There is no average day. According to Cecily, as she left a group of CO’s confided in her that in order for female-bodied CO’s to advance in their careers they had to sleep with their superiors. The job requires no degree and it carries benefits, but female-bodied guards are routinely pressured into being sexually exploited by their bosses. Cecily was present when the new corrections officers or “new boots” were brought in for their first cell inspections. Cecily had hundreds of neatly organized letters and books that the new boots began to carefully place off to the side. Their supervisor was displeased and tossed her bucket of letters across the room shouting, “This is prison! How come you have so many fucking books McMillan?”
It is cruelty for cruelty’s sake.
The modern McMillan
I asked Cecily what female-bodied revolutionary most inspired her. She stated without missing a beat that it was a tie between Jane Addams and bell hooks. It makes sense since both were teachers and philosophers on educational theory, and Cecily taught school in Chicago for a while. While teaching Cecily would teach “know your rights” lessons to students that she knew would be harassed by the police. I asked her if she missed teaching and she stated that it is her dream to start a teaching collective in Atlanta. As it turns out, bell hooks played a large part in Cecily’s decision to not take a plea deal from the prosecution in New York at her trial. She says that reading the book Love is an Act of Freedom was a major factor is taking that gamble which could have found her facing seven years in prison. Cecily speaks quickly, faster than I can write at times and she quoted bell hooks with such exuberance that I was unable to copy the quote at the time but I went back and looked it up later:
“The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.”
Cecily is currently writing a book on her experience as part of the millennial generation. Maybe it will help answer the questions I have that I did not ask Cecily. Surely there were other people her age of similar backgrounds and situations, where are they? Why do some stand up and not others? We cannot blame entertainment or football either. Cecily is a huge football fan and when I asked her about her favorite albums she said, “Anything by Modest Mouse. I’ve listened to them since I was 12 or 13.”
At 26, Cecily has packed more resistance into just a few years than most Americans will have in their whole lives. I hope that readers realize that there are people struggling for justice and that they will be inspired to take action.
Ballentine is an activist, writer, former political prisoner, artist and a retired political science teacher from nevada. She helped found the sunset activist collective, which focuses on issues of inequality, police brutality, the environment and anti-war.
This article was originally published on the Sunset Activist Collective website and was submitted to WIP by the author.