Occupy Wall Street's Last Battle
On March 17, 2012, Occupy Wall Street activists celebrated the six month anniversary of their protest movement by attempting to re-occupy Zuccotti Park. A scuffle with police took place that night which eventually led to a trial about to take place in New York. It is, in a sense, the last battle of Occupy Wall Street, one that encapsulates the troubled movement's internal contradictions and inevitable downfall.
Cecily McMillan has a long family history of radicalism to live up to. Her grandfather
drafted the Constitution for the Students for a Democratic Society. At 25, she had become an organizer for the Democratic Socialists of
America with a solid history of far-left activism. In
early 2011 she attended the pro-union protests in Madison, Wisconsin.
Later that year she became a supporter of Occupy Wall Street. She was arrested after charging Wall Street three times.
McMillan was featured in a Rolling Stone profile of OWS. As the head of the "Demands" committee, she appears as a kind of unwanted outsider in her own movement:
The question of demands, in all their variety – whether to make them,
when to make them, what to demand – is a peculiar one in that it's at
the heart of the national occupation debate, and yet mostly irrelevant
to the occupiers at Wall Street. Their demand is simply for a better
world, which, as far as they're concerned, they've already started
building. So to say that McMillan's group didn't have broad support
would be kind.
Moments later as McMillan is being interviewed for the Rolling Stone piece, a group of Occupiers performs an "intervention" to insure she is not trying to co-opt the movement:
"We were hearing there's a Rolling Stone interview about demands," said a longhaired man in shorts and only wool socks on his feet, a leaf pinned to his sleeve.
"We're actually just talking about my history?" said McMillan.
"There's been a lot of issues with the demands," no-shoes said,
ignoring McMillan. "As well as the kind of press we're getting. The
place we're in now, as a movement, is actually slaying co-opters. Any
political, ideological co-optation of the movement."
But by the time the Rolling Stone article was published, the occupation was over. On November 15, 2011, police made a surprise raid, facing off with protesters chanting "No retreat, no surrender." In the end, 200 people were arrested and the park was cleared despite their objections. Tents, tarps and sleeping bags were tossed into the trash. From then on, protesters were allowed back into the park, but no sleeping gear was allowed with them.
Months later, Occupy decided to re-occupy Zuccotti Park on the 6-month anniversary of the start of the protest. Hundreds gathered on March 17, 2012 which also happened to be St. Patrick's Day. Cecily McMillan showed up at the park after dark dressed all in green. She claims she was not protesting that day but partying. She went to the park to meet friends so they could all go out together.
What happened next became a matter of international attention. Police announced over a bullhorn that the park was being closed for
cleaning and began removing people. As always, some scuffles broke out. At one point Cecily McMillan threw an elbow at a police officer which connected just under his left eye. No one really denies the elbow was thrown. That would be difficult since there is video and contemporaneous eyewitness reports saying it happened.
McMillan was immediately arrested, roughly some say, while protesters screamed for "media" to document the police's behavior. Moments later, while McMillan was seated on a sidewalk awaiting a bus which would take her and others to jail, she began to hyperventilate and then to have a seizure. The seizure apparently went on for several minutes while protesters once again screamed, this time for medical help.
McMillan was shuttled between jail and a local hospital. A few days after her arrest, she appeared on Democracy Now to display bruises on her elbows, back and her breast. When asked by host Amy Goodman to describe why she was there and how the injuries happened, McMillan was vague. She would only say that she had an open case and couldn't remember all the details. She refused to watch video of her own arrest on a monitor saying her therapist had suggested seeing it could cause additional psychological trauma.
Flash forward two years and McMillan's trial for assaulting police officer Grantley Bovell is finally moving forward. McMillan's attorney, Martin Stolar, maintains that his client is "an innocent woman" with a longstanding commitment to non-violence. He frames the incident as an accident prompted by an unexpected touch, "her swinging around and her arm hitting the cop in the face was a reaction, a response to being grabbed on the breast." He says McMillan didn't know the person grabbing her was a police officer.
For their part, prosecutors are expected to introduce eyewitness testimony by police officers who saw the elbow thrown to officer Bovell's face. They also have a video clip of the incident.
Earlier this week the Guardian reported that the court was struggling to find jurors who claimed they could remain unbiased in the trial. "I’m involved in Wall Street things. I’m on the Wall Street side, not their side," prospective juror George Yih told the judge, adding "They can protest all they want, but they can’t brainwash my mind."
Jason McLean, an equity trader, echoed Yih's sentiments, "Everything I believe – my morals – are kind of the antithesis of what they represent." Alan Moore, whose wife is a bond trader, said he didn't trust Occupy, "in terms of Occupy Wall Street in general, I would give less credibility to that group than average."
There's good reason to question Occupy's morals and credibility. Word of sexual assaults and violence inside the camps initially turned public sentiment against them. Then it was a rash of vandalism against banks and even Oakland's City Hall. Six weeks after Cecily McMillan's arrest for assaulting an officer, five men with close connections to Occupy Cleveland were arrested for plotting to bomb an Ohio bridge.
Maybe if Cecily McMillan had been able to convince OWS to translate their energy into some concrete political demands it wouldn't have unraveled so quickly. And maybe she really was there in Zuccotti Park that night in March 2012 just to meet friends before going out to party. She certainly seemed dressed for it. But instead of going out for green beer, McMillan wound up part of a melee allegedly striking a cop in the face and going to jail.
McMillan's experience is a metaphor for the entire movement. Occupy Wall Street was always animated by an inner tension, an awkward balancing act between left-wing idealism and anarchic chaos. In the end the chaos won and took the idealists like McMillan down with it.