Longform: Cecily McMillan Faces Prison Time. Where's the Justice in That?

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Photo by Zach D. Roberts
Police remove Cecily McMillan from a bus they'd commandeered for prisoner transport at Zuccotti Park on the night of St. Patrick's Day

Read our May 19 update to this story here.

On a normal day, it's not hard to get to the 11th floor of 100 Centre Street, the hulking gray building that houses much of Manhattan's criminal court system. You pass through a set of gold-rimmed doors and a metal detector and step into a dingy elevator, where no one speaks and some of your fellow riders might be in handcuffs, fresh from central booking in the basement.

On Monday, May 5, though, the crowd trying to get into Judge Ronald Zweibel's courtroom had a harder time. Security had set up a second screening post outside the courtroom doors. Phones were not permitted. Purses were pawed through, wallets opened, and everyone was wanded a second time for weapons. Inside, 33 officers ringed the room.

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"I've never felt so safe," an audience member cracked, half under his breath. A couple of officers swiveled their heads toward him. He shut up.

Behind the squadron at the front of the room, Cecily McMillan was just visible. Accused of assaulting a police officer, the 25-year-old stood at the defense table flanked by her attorneys, Martin Stolar and Rebecca Heinegg. McMillan wore a floaty white dress, gray blazer, and heels in a subdued red. She paled as the jury filed in past her. None of them looked her way.

For nearly a month, these eight women and four men watched two competing versions of McMillan play out in the courtroom. The Cecily of the defense was a peaceful activist, a former cheerleader with a dorky enthusiasm for the political process and a naïve conviction that "the state" — police, politicians, the Democratic Party — can effect radical social change.

The prosecution described someone else altogether: a drama queen, a habitual liar, a drunken seizure-faker. It was that Cecily, they argued, who arrived at a March 17, 2012, Occupy Wall Street demonstration armed with liquid courage and brazenly assaulted a police officer, elbowing him so forcefully that his vision blurred and he sustained a cut on his face and a black eye.

Now, as the jury foreman stood, verdict in hand, after three hours of deliberation, McMillan grew paler still, until the skin around her mouth appeared blue. She stared straight ahead.

Guilty.

A murmur of dismay swept the room.

Judge Zweibel dismissed the jury. Assistant District Attorney Erin Choi, the lead prosecutor, asked that McMillan be jailed until her May 19 sentencing.

"That's not appropriate," Stolar objected. "Ms. McMillan has attended every single court appearance knowing exactly what the outcome could be. . . . She is not someone who's likely to cut and run." He asked that his client continue to remain free on bail.

"The defendant is remanded," the judge replied curtly.

At that, a row of McMillan's supporters stood, pointed at the judge, and began chanting, "Shame! Shame! Shame!"

Security officers shouted at the protesters to sit down. When that proved ineffective, they wrestled the noncompliant back into their seats. A fresh wave of officers poured through a side door, zip-tie handcuffs at the ready.

"Everybody out!" one yelled, and they began clearing the room.

The protesters, still chanting, were removed. The hallway became a mass of outraged humanity; two people trying to capture video of the fracas said later that court security officers forced them to delete the files . On the sidewalk outside, a group of McMillan supporters who call themselves Justice for Cecily gathered along with Stolar for a press conference. Many looked near tears.

"Will Cecily be coming out this front door?" one former occupier asked hopefully, evidently not having absorbed what had just happened.

"Cecily is not coming out," Stolar replied.

As he spoke, the newly minted convict was being escorted through a back door and loaded onto a bus bound for Rikers Island.

Update, May 16: At Rikers Island Awaiting Sentencing, Cecily McMillan Says, "I've Never Felt So Loved Before"


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