On the night of March 17, 2012, a crowd gathered in New York City’s Zuccotti Park to mark the six-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. Cecily McMillan was out to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and had just stopped by the park to meet a friend. She was in the plaza when police announced they were clearing everyone out (“for cleaning”).
McMillan, by her later account, was making a hurried hustle out of the park to obey orders when she was struck from behind. An officer grabbed her breast and she was slammed to the ground, where she went into a bout of seizures—an ordeal captured on protesters’ cell phones. Taken into custody, she was held for about forty hours without proper medical treatment. In the end, she was charged and convicted of assaulting a police officer because of an event some say should have led to charges against the police.
McMillan’s newly published memoir chronicles her life from her childhood in Texas, to her assault, trial (spoiler alert: it’s a sham), and eventual imprisonment, for fifty-eight days, at Rikers Island. The memoir is a page-turner, telling the story of someone who endured a relentless succession of hard knocks, got up again, and grew through her experience.
McMillan and her trial gained national attention, keeping the Occupy Wall Street movement in the news long after the protesters were evicted from their encampment. But the stories of Occupy and of Cecily McMillan, though entwined, are not the same. The Emancipation of Cecily McMillan is a coming-of-age story that shows how the personal became political and the political became personal for one young woman.
McMillan’s book would be gripping even without her harrowing trial and subsequent incarceration. Her central tale isn’t about Rikers Island or Occupy, but about growing up working-class in Beaumont, Texas, and seeking a different life somewhere far away from her small-town roots.
McMillan enrolled in Lawrence University, a private liberals arts school in Wisconsin. During a small group discussion on affirmative action, a classmate made McMillan’s blood boil by saying “poor people of color and first-generation applicants shouldn’t be accepted into schools unless they can compete and get in on their own merit.” The professor then called on McMillan for a response. Like many exchanges in the book, her response, as she recalls it, was pointed and fiery:
“Let me tell you something about poor, uneducated people like me: No one gives a damn about us, whether we live or die—we survive on sheer will, not on Daddy’s bank account. We make our own way.” She continued: “[W]e take nothing for granted: teeth cleanings, toilet paper, medication, you name it. It can get pretty ugly, yes, but it’s not that people can’t do better: it’s that most are never given the chance.”
When McMillan arrived at Lawrence, she relates, “I was unprepared, and, thanks to kids like you with your bright ideas about people like me, it was humiliating! I failed that first year.” She almost dropped out, but instead held on and caught up to the rest of her class.
In one episode, McMillan describes telling a room full of people, with tears streaming down her face, about her brother, who was in prison for drug dealing. Afterward, the professor invited her to his office, where she talked about feeling responsible for her brother’s plight. The professor assured McMillan it wasn’t her fault and encouraged her to see the underlying social issues. He astutely described the “two worlds” she was struggling to straddle.
McMillan thought about that, and it informed her world view, and her often biting critique of the “two worlds” she has continued to navigate.
Barbara Ehrenreich opined in The Guardian that “only the rich can afford to write about poverty” in America. McMillan’s writing about her childhood gives voice to the working-class experience that is too often overlooked in American journalism.
The book opens with a tragic sentence:
“My mother always said we were perfect for each other; she never wanted to be a parent and I never wanted to be a child.” McMillan’s childhood was marked by a string of broken relationships—starting when her parents’ marriage collapsed—that she felt made her grow up faster than most other children.
When McMillan was about twelve, her mother moved in with a new guy. She describes their relationship as “a tragedy masquerading as a romantic comedy.” She prepared herself for the inevitable, saying, “[I]t’s always fun until it’s not and someone always gets hurt in the end. This time, I vowed, that person would not be me.” She anticipated that plates would be shattered: “I began to believe that calm was not the absence of chaos; it was the sign of a storm ahead. To weather it, I learned to expect the worst—after all, high hopes only got you a longer fall down.” To cope, McMillan escaped into sports and extracurricular activities that kept her out of the house and away from conflict.
Despite tension and hardship, Cecily McMillan and her mother were very close. Although her mom was burdened by mental illness, when times were good the two of them developed a feeling of solidarity. After her mother was hospitalized they moved in with a friend and shared a bed. They would relax together and talk about the music they liked.
Unlike her father, who declared his house a “dictatorship,” McMillan’s mother gave her a taste of direct democracy:
“We didn’t argue, we debated—and a good point was a good point, regardless of who had made it.”
McMillan went to college filled with idealism and determined to become a teacher. Her life had the trajectory of the American Dream: She had grown up poor, and through grit and determination had gotten herself into college and then into a position to serve others. Realizing that she was working within the constraints of a “broken system,” McMillan decided that service wasn’t enough. She began to explore other options, like direct action and organizing.
While she was still at Lawrence in 2011, citizens converged on the capitol building in Madison in a mass uprising against Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting Act 10. She joined the occupation of the state capitol and developed a “love affair” with activism. After Wisconsin, she moved to New York City for grad school and was soon swept up in another movement that was just beginning to take shape.
Cecily McMillan, on her release from Rikers Island.
The Emancipation of Cecily McMillan can be easily divided into two parts: before and after Occupy. By this point McMillan was thinking a lot about the bigger picture. The Occupy movement forced McMillan to examine her political beliefs.
During the first planning session for Occupy, a black-clad anarchist called McMillan a “liberal.” While this was meant as an insult, McMillan took it as a compliment, since she was used to being the most radical person in the room. She put her energy into a working group on movement demands, which she saw as the most practical. This experience exemplified the dissonance, felt by many at Occupy, between using movements to make practical demands or using them as a vehicle to voice the need for bigger societal changes.
The story of McMillan’s trial is disturbing and disheartening, beginning with the fact that it happened at all: It is common for charges to be dropped in situations like McMillan’s. But the judge assigned to her case was notorious for being a “prosecutor in robes,” and at every opportunity made it easier for the prosecution and harder for the defense. McMillan’s account of the trial is an indictment of a broken justice system.
The book offers a feminist critique both of the courtroom and of Rikers Island, where McMillan served her sentence. She writes about the plight of other women she was incarcerated with, of the dehumanizing lack of medical attention, and of male doctors who could touch inmates any way they wished. McMillan also explores how her fellow inmates maintained their families and communities on the outside; when women are incarcerated, so are the people they support. McMillan speaks for the women she met at Rikers, following an ethic of mutual aid for people who cared for her.
McMillan’s story illustrates how she ended up in prison not because she was a criminal but because power was not on her side.
The Emancipation of Cecily McMillan is a wake-up call. In telling her story, and by amplifying voices that are often ignored, McMillan finds the love and empathy necessary to true solidarity—the only thing that can emancipate us all.
Will Meyer is writer and musician from Western Massachusetts.