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An involuntary act of self defence means Cecily McMillan could spend 7 years behind bars.

Cecily at an Occupy Wall St protest.

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.

A photograph of Cecily after the assault.

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.’

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Finally, the prosecutor argued that Cecily had done the whole thing – beating herself up, bruising her own breast, faking a seizure, going to hospital, spending two years getting psychological treatment, “for attention”.

The judge put a gag order on Cecily’s lawyers, preventing them from introducing vital evidence, including the fact that other protestors are suing the same police officer who assaulted Cecily, because he assaulted them too.

The judge overruled every objection that the Defence made. He sustained every Prosecution objection.

The whole thing felt like an absurd, dystopian skit. It could have been a Monty Python bit, if it wasn’t for the fact that, one week ago, the jury found Cecily guilty.

The trial was a politically motivated effort to show that there will be no tolerance for the Occupy movement. Almost 40 police were in court on the day of Cecily’s verdict. When her verdict was read out – “Guilty” – another 20 poured into the room, armed with handcuffs, plastic gloves, cable ties. These police surrounded rows of young women – friends of Cecily’s who had witnessed her assault – and grabbed them as Cecily was handcuffed and carted away.

Pussy Riot members visit Cecily at Rikers Island.

In an extremely unusual development, however, 9 of the 12 jurors have since come out publicly to say that they didn’t understand the implications of their decision, that vital information was kept from them.

They have written to the judge, calling on him to show leniency. While these juror’s naïveté is hard to comprehend, I can’t imagine that it will be easy for them to live with what they’ve done.

Cecily is now imprisoned on Rikers Island, New York’s notorious prison, awaiting sentencing. Her lawyers will appeal.

But appeals courts cannot hear new evidence – the evidence that the judge deliberately excluded will remain unheard. Even if the appeal is successful, it will take at least a year, during which Cecily could remain imprisoned.

And if the appeal is unsuccessful?

Then Rikers Island Prison is where this young, bright, passionate, cherished, traumatised woman could spend the next 7 years of her life. The victim of a government and police force doing everything they can to show that opposition to corporate greed will not be tolerated.

WHAT YOU CAN DO:

  1. Write to Cecily. Hearing from people around the world who support her will be powerful and uplifting for Cecily. Find out more about writing to Cecily here.
  1. Sign the petition. Call on the New York state Justice department to handle Cecily’s appeal fairly.
  1. Ask your friends to join you in writing to Cecily and calling for justice.

 Melanie Poole is the 2014-15 Anne Wexler Fulbright Scholar, and is currently completing her Masters in Public Policy at New York University. Committed to women’s and LGBTQ rights, Melanie has worked for CARE Australia, the UNHCR in Kenya, the Aga Khan Foundation in Pakistan and as an Australian delegate to the Social, Cultural, and Humanitarian Committee at the United Nations General Assembly. Melanie is a trustee for the Uganda Village Project and co-founder and co-chair of Vocal Majority.

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