The first time I heard about Cecily McMillan’s trial I couldn’t make sense of it.
“You’re telling me,” I quizzed my classmate, “that Cecily was sexually assaulted by a police officer, but now she is the one being prosecuted? That she’s facing seven years in prison because she instinctively lifted her arm to protect herself?!”
“Yes,” said my classmate, “that’s exactly what I’m telling you.”
In 2012, Cecily attended an Occupy Wall St protest. When this legal demonstration was brutally disrupted by police, a policeman grabbed Cecily’s breast from behind as he tried to push her from the space. This is a tactic that many NYPD officers began using during Occupy demonstrations in order to intimidate female protestors. A number of women protestors have since sued.
I began showing up at the New York City Criminal Court to watch the trial.
It was there that I first saw Cecily: an intelligent, gently spoken, petite 25-year-old. Cecily is a Masters student and union organiser, with a record as a committed anti-violence advocate. Over 50 of Cecily’s friends packed the courtroom daily. They described a person who is warm and generous, serious and principled, courageous and fiercely loved.
When Cecily was grabbed from behind, her arm flew up in instinctive self-defense, hitting her attacker in the eye. In response, a pack of other NYPD police tackled this tiny woman to the ground, beating and kicking her until she lapsed into a 7 minute seizure. She was then arrested and thrown into a cell with other protestors, where she passed out repeatedly.
There are photos of the bruising on her breast. On her legs. There were reams of records – from hospitals, social workers, psychiatrists who have treated her for severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the two years since.
Cecily’s prosecutor – herself a woman, young and heavily pregnant, argued that the policeman ‘couldn’t have grabbed Cecily’s breast because she had too many layers of clothing on’. That Cecily is ‘an actress’ (because she was in a drama club in high school), who ‘made the whole thing up’. Including beating herself up, bruising her own breast and body, and faking the seizure that onlookers witnessed after the police beat her.
The prosecutor also argued that the fact that Cecily didn’t report the sexual assault when admitted to hospital that night, when she was handcuffed to the bed and surrounded by police and male doctors, is “proof” that it never happened. Apparently ‘an educated woman like her would not be afraid to tell everyone if she was grabbed by the breast.’