Blog

Cecily McMillan: On being a woman inside and outside of the criminal justice system

On March 17, 2012, Cecily McMillan, a graduate student and Occupy activist was arrested at Zuccotti Park and charged with assaulting a police officer, a felony that carries a seven-year prison sentence. McMillan did elbow the officer in the eye; however, it was a reflexive response to him violently groping her breast while arresting her. Although she has the scars to prove it, she was still sentenced to three months at Rikers Island.

Recently released on probation, McMillan’s activism continues, as she works to advocate for the women incarcerated at Rikers Island and across the country. Last week, I got the chance to catch up with Cecily about her activism, her experiences with the criminal justice system and the myriad ways that gender shaped both her own experiences and those of incarcerated women.

Warning: discussion of sexual assault and rape.

When did you first have the activist spark? What inspired you to study and seek social and political change?

I think that it was something about going to school in an all white, not suburban but pseudo-rural school in Beaumont, Texas, and spending my summers in Atlanta, which is very multi-racial. Somewhere around the time that Howard Dean was running for president, I realized that where I was going to school in Lumberton, Texas — high school, ninth grade — we weren’t really having a real discussion or discourse about the way the country was moving, especially post 9/11. I thought that there needed to be, at the very least, a discussion. So I helped to start the Young Democrats organization at my school with the purpose of debating the Young Republicans, and having conversations about what it meant to be gay, about the war, about the lack of diversity at our school. There were no black folks, and I was one of a handful of people that identify as Latina. That moment, I got really excited by Howard Dean, actually. The fact that he was excited about politics made me really excited. From there, I ended up finding that though I loved the community I came from in southeast Texas and its very strong values on community and what it means to be an American, some of the values I had were sort of irreconcilable there.

I moved to Atlanta and I got involved with the Geopolitcal Action Club, which was my first entryway into nonviolent direct action. We staged die-ins for mobilizing against the Iraq War, and then helped to organize a school-wide student walkout to the first anti-George Bush protest in Atlanta.

What was your participation in Occupy like? What are your thoughts on the three-year anniversary coming up?

I think Occupy is more of a statement than a movement; a statement of the fact that dissent is still American. I think that by way of a movement, it brought a bunch of people out of the woodwork, mostly the people who already had voices, but people who had never used the power of their voices to critique the institutions.

My generation was set up to believe that there was such an American dream that would allow for a good, progressive lifestyle and a good job. We worked very hard for it — AP classes, SATs, GREs, very competitive college entrance and graduate school, and then we found out there was nothing left for us to compete for; it was all a ruse. I think these people for the first time figured out how to critique the system that they had once set out to fit in to, or to remold.

I think that is a lasting sentiment that has grown and morphed and continually expanded out from Occupy to Stop and Frisk to climate change — through prison justice activism and Ferguson. Not that I’m saying Occupy can claim all of those things, but what I mean is that people felt like it was American again to say, “No, I don’t agree” and “This is wrong.”

What were your first thoughts when you learned that you might be in prison for seven years?

It was something that I had to live with every day for more than two years. I spent every day for two years preparing for that reality. There were a lot of days, weeks in bed; a lot of asking, “why?” There were hardships in my relationships, my family, my friends, my romantic relationship.

I haven’t done anything but that sentence, and now another sentence — another year I am facing on September 15 — I haven’t done anything but that night for more than two years now. Now it is going to be another however many to appeal it, another however many to seek retributions from the city for this. I am on five years probation now.

What does probation mean for your day-to-day?

Try to think of every law that you can think of. Now try to think of how many laws there actually are. Now try to think of how many times per day you probably break the law, knowingly or unknowingly. Every single one of those moments for you is a moment that I could return back to Rikers.

What surprised you the most about the criminal justice system?

How swift and total it is in revoking your sense of agency or personhood. I remember being on my back in a gynecological table in Rikers, having consented to a cervix screen, not even knowing what that was. It was a violent rape crime, essentially.

I was told that I need to have a pap smear to get a very routine birth control after I turned over my record, which said that I had already had a pap smear. And it said that it was the only way I could get my birth control. I’m on Depo. So, if I didn’t get my birth control, there would be a hormone flood that I was afraid would cause me to act in a way that was “mal-adjusted” or not well-adjusted, and could therefore be dangerous. Anything besides well-adjusted behavior can land you in isolation. After you were either pepper sprayed or beaten with wooden bats. So I consented to this pap smear, and was told, “There are things that are irregular, you might have cancer, I’m going to need to do a cervix screen.” I heard the word “cancer” and the next thing I know I’m being cauterized or something because I’m bleeding after this nurse had told me already that he tends to be overly invasive and a bit handsy, and I look down and his fly is unzipped. I was just sobbing thinking, “How did I let myself get into this position?”

Can you talk more about how gender impacted your experience?

Well, March 17, 2012, was the first time I was ever sexually assaulted by a man. I would say profoundly that was an experience that made me feel more “woman” than anything in my life ever has. When I went to Rikers, I was shocked that you are not given any clothes as a detainee — no jumper, no nothing, until your sentence. So whatever you have, whatever you walked in there with, that’s all you have. Unless somebody else gives you something or your family or friends send you it. So that one outfit, that one bra that you are wearing, that one pair of underwear, if you are wearing a skirt, if you are wearing heels, that is all. So a lot of people have to wash their clothes every day and sleep in the nude. That is technically not allowed. People have to sleep wet, essentially, because there are men in your dorm. Because there are video cameras in your dorm room with men watching them. I have never, as a woman, been made to sleep in a room with a strange man present.

What was that like?

I was terrified for the first two weeks that I was there that someone was going to do something to me. Part of the reason why the birth control was so important to me was I was afraid of what would happen if I got raped. Raping is something that we women have to live with as an everyday reality that there is a possibility that that could happen. The concept of becoming pregnant as a byproduct, of not being able to receive adequate medical care, not knowing if abortions were provided by the state at Rikers — I mean, that’s very real.

What was it like to be surrounded by so many women?

As a woman, when in society are we ever put in a room with women, as women, of different cultures, different races, different values, different languages, possibly of different classes? In that sense, there is something pretty incredible about having to provide our own sense of humanity to an inhuman circumstance and having to find camaraderie.

I have never talked about my body so openly. I have never talked about sexual assault and rape so readily. I have never more routinely tapped into what it is that women do in our society — we are the organizers. Every woman in there was an organizer. Every single woman in there was on the phone or writing letters about how to pay bills or who to take care of. It didn’t matter what their lot was in life; every single woman in there was worried — worrying constantly — about all of the things that they needed to do when they got out to take care of their communities. Gives you a sense of pride. A terrible sense of understanding of how under-appreciated and devalued, how difficult the plight of women is in the 21st century. Now we’re supposed to be equal in the workplace, we’re supposed to work with the men in the workplace and then we’re supposed to take care of these communities too and we get no equality in either. How many women were there [Rikers] indirectly because of domestic violence, arrests as sex workers? How many women were there because of addiction and self-medicating when there were no resources?

Then to have a guard say something like, “You women really ought to be at home. It is an unattractive place for a woman to be. This is a man’s place. Jail is for men. You women ought to be home taking care of your kids, your families. Not here.”

I mean, it is a big wake up call, I guess, when you sit in university as a grad student, and you’re a “feminist” and you talk about feminism in your classroom and it’s all good and strong as a woman, arguing with other male intellectuals. But the reality is most of us are so busy competing against other women for tokenized positions that we don’t see the whole picture of what the woman’s experience really is. We still struggle in silence, and I don’t think it is that bold to say that we haven’t come anywhere since the 1950s. You are supposed to take what you are given and suffer in silence. It is a pretty universal experience for women.

How does this fit in with the mainstream feminist “movement” in your eyes?

Is there one? Because I’m under the impression that it is just a bunch of blogging. I don’t see a mainstream feminist movement. I’ve never seen one. I really think that women are over-exhausted and over-extended trying to keep up in the workplace and maintain their home — whether or not they have a family. The fact is that we’re supposed to take care of our neighborhoods, we’re supposed to look out for the child that looks confused on the train. I don’t think there is a feminist movement because where do we have time for that?

Do you see potential for any kind of feminist “movement”?

I don’t see a movement coming unless it is led by women, cross-class, cross-culture, cross-race. I think this has got to be a highly collaborative movement. I think women are the only ones who have been socialized with a certain experience to be able to do that. If we can work on behalf of women, on behalf of families, on behalf of communities collaboratively then we will see a movement of the 99 percent, and the only way we will get at that is through the inter-workings of the people who are the community leaders and those are still women.