As a veteran protestor in the US and abroad who started out as a pacifist and later marched with the Black Blok and other groups that argue violence is sometimes necessary in defense of our freedoms, I’ve spent the last several years in the United States too frightened to protest. The risks are simply too high, especially in a disabled body: despite the fact that the technology to document them is growing ever more accessible, police beatings and brutality are on the rise. Young men of colour are shot to death by police while activists are beaten at protests and excessive force is used at arrests, even as mentally ill people are shot or severely beaten by police.
The case of Cecily McMillan illustrates precisely why I’ve hung up my vinegar-soaked bandanna and sensible shoes.
In 2012, McMillan arrived at Zucotti Park on the 6th month anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street protests, ostensibly to meet a friend. Trapped in the crowd, she felt someone groping her breast hard enough to leave a bruise—photographic evidence of the clearly hand-shaped bruise is but the first of many documented injuries she suffered that night. In response, she jabbed her elbow backwards, fighting off her groper in the way she thought would be most effective in the crowded conditions, and using a tactic women are routinely taught in self-defense classes: go for a vulnerable area to get an attacker to lose contact with your body and provide a distraction so you can get away.
What McMillan didn’t know was whose eye socket her elbow landed in: that of NYPD Officer Grantley Bovel, who proceeded to drag her out of the crowd, raining down a hail of kicks and blows so severe that it left her with bruised ribs and severe bruising across her body. Her injuries were so significant that members of the audience panned in to document the beating—and the moment when she started seizing on the pavement, going into a seizure that lasted seven minutes while she wanted for medical attention in the crowded, chaotic environment. Once she finally reached the hospital and was formally arrested, authorities didn’t even let her contact an attorney.
If the United States was a functional nation that protected the civil rights of its citizens, McMillan would be receiving restitution from the City of New York for being brutalised by the NYPD in the course of her arrest (and, indeed, the grounds for her arrest would be under investigation as well, since it appears that she was simply exercising her Constitutional right to peaceful assembly). Instead, she waited for two years in a state of limbo as the city prepared to bring charges against her and dragged her through trial for, yes, assaulting a police officer.
At no point was McMillan offered a plea deal. She struggled to get through graduate school and dealt with intense post-traumatic stress disorder related to her beating and the aftermath. Even as advocates rallied around her, the police department prepared to muster forces around one of its own, as is commonly the case in police beatings. Despite the fact that Officer Bovel had been written up on multiple occasions for excessive force, the jury wasn’t provided with this information—and in the video of the beating they were shown in court, the clip of the incident mysteriously started with McMillan’s elbow jab, not with the moment that had sparked it.
On Monday, the jury convicted McMillan of assaulting a police officer. They weren’t provided with information about her past as a thoroughly convicted pacifist and nonviolent activist. Nor were they offered context about the crowded, chaotic, intense conditions at the protest. Furthermore, no discussion of the original Occupy Wall Street protests and their violent breakup by police officers was provided; instead, her case was presented as though it had taken place in a vacuum.
McMillan was one of the few protestors who went through the court system, instead of having her charges dropped after processing. It’s clear that the city intended to make an example of her, sending a signal to protestors. It’s equally clear that protestors are resisting that signal and fighting back on her behalf; convicted of a felony, she could face up to seven years in prison, and her supporters are not accepting this outcome in her case, arguing that she was the victim of police brutality.
No matter what sentence the judge hands down, it seems likely that she will appeal, with the assistance of her legal counsel. Appealing is critical in her case not just because a felony conviction could ruin her career and cause serious problems in her life. It’s also important for her healing as a victim of sexual assault and police brutality, and for the movement as a whole. Without an affirmation that witnesses to police violence will ultimately see justice for police violence, society loses out, because anyone could have been in her situation.
Anyone can attend a protest, or just be walking in a public venue, or socialising with friends. Anyone can interpret a hand on the breast or a touch on the shoulder from behind as a hostile act and fight back—especially a woman, as women are socially taught to believe that any kind of assault is their fault and they have a moral obligation to fight back. When police officers can assault people and end up being cast as the victims by the court, society loses.
Police brutality in a myriad of forms is on the rise in the United States. Thanks to inexpensive cameraphones as well as digital cameras and other recording devices, it’s also extremely easy to document, upload, and share; from the instant of spotting a violation of civil rights to sharing it on the internet, minutes can elapse, instead of having to return home or to an organizing centre, painstakingly process, and then distribute or upload material.
Witnesses who turn not just their eyes but their lenses to police violence are exposing the widespread and pervasive nature of harmful and common attitudes on the part of police officers, who seem to be under the impression that they can engage in acts of violence without consequences. Even in the face of witnesses, police feel comfortable beating someone who is clearly not resisting arrest.
What happened to Officer Bovel’s eye was an understandable mistake; in a crowded environment, sometimes people get hurt. Whether he groped her breast or someone else did, McMillan reacted on gut instinct to protect herself—even as a nonviolent protestor, she wasn’t going to tolerate sexual assault. What happened next, however, was a gross violation of civil rights, made all the more egregious by the fact that McMillan went to trial for assault—and lost.
This is the state of police violence and society in the United States: a protestor can be beaten in the midst of a massive crowd in a scene that’s witnessed and recorded, and she can be accused of assault as people raise questions about whether a police officer’s violent attack was ‘provoked’ or not. The very fact that this is up for debate is a telling statement about how people view police brutality in the US: by asking if the attack was provoked, people are tacitly suggesting that some forms of police brutality are justified, placing police officers above the law.
Were a civilian to beat someone to the tune of multiple bruised ribs, obvious bruising across her body, and an extended seizure, it would be called assault. Here in the good old US of A, it’s called ‘resisting arrest’ when a police officer does it.