Occupy Wall Street newsmaker Cecily McMillan reflects on experiences at Lawrence

Lawrence alumna and activist Cecily McMillan ’10, was found guilty of assaulting a New York police officer and sentenced on May 19 to three months in prison in addition to 5 years probation and community service. She initially faced seven years of prison time for Class D second-degree assault of a police officer.

McMillan, 25, is a graduate student at the New School for Social Research and Northeast Regional Organizer at Democratic Socialists for America. While at Lawrence, she was a government and theater double major with an education certification, and member of Kappa Kappa Gamma. She was living in New York City at the time of her arrest.

McMillan was supporting the 6-month mark of the Occupy Wall Street Movement in New York on the night of March 17, 2012. She attempted to leave Zuccotti park after evacuation orders when a policeman grabbed her breast from behind. McMillan swung her elbow backward and struck him in the eye before suffering a seizure, bruises and a broken rib. The officer suffered headaches and a swollen eye.

Seventy-three people were arrested in the park that night, and McMillan’s case is one of 2,600 prosecutions against members of Occupy Wall Street. Law enforcement sources say she refused a deal to plead guilty to the assault in exchange for a recommendation that she not receive jail time, but McMillan denies ever being offered the deal. She said she would have still chosen to go to trial, according to The Village Voice.

In total, 9 of the 12 jurors and hundreds of supporters wrote Judge Zweibel, asking for leniency in her prison sentence or no sentence at all. Names like Lauren Mayberry, Spike Jonze and others wrote Zweibel in support as well. Pussy Riot members Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Masha Alyokhina to paid her a visit at Rikers Island where she was held until sentencing. McMillan is continually supported by the group “Justice for Cecily” and members of the Occupy Wall Street Movement.

However, Claudena Skran, Professor of Government and Edwin & Ruth West Professor of Economics and Social Science, draws a different conclusion from McMillan’s case. “It’s been framed as a test of civil rights but she was not actively protesting when she was arrested,” said Skran. “I think the story is more about the high incarceration rates in the U.S.”

“Compared to other developed democracies, the U.S. has much higher incarceration rates,” continued Skran, “but overall there’s a tendency in the U.S. to treat things as criminal offense, and therefore more people get caught in the system. Cecily is a case, but not the only case, of this.”

McMillan’s activism as an undergraduate at Lawrence included an anti-Scott Walker mobilization, in which she helped organize a rally and student trip to protest at the capital in Madison, WI.

“I think she saw herself not only as a Lawrence student, but in a larger group of educators in Wisconsin,” said her friend Nicholas Perez, a senior government major. “She saw her individual situation at Lawrence as connected to what was going on in the political leadership in Wisconsin with Scott Walker.”

McMillan and Perez became friends during his freshman year when she was a senior.  “She was very different and really politically active with a unique voice that was well heard on campus,” said Perez.

Skran said she had McMillan as a student in International Politics and a required seminar course. She remembers McMillan’s trip to protest Scott Walker while a student in one of Skran’s courses.

“She was very involved in the teacher’s union and is very concerned about politics, especially labor rights,” Skran said. “Her father is labor organizer in Georgia which is a Right to Work state, so she grew up in a family that was essentially very involved with the labor movement. She came from a very political background and was very interested in what was happening (with the anti-Scott Walker movement).”

“What’s cool about Cecily is she would take things a step further and engage people,” said Perez. “She taught me to not be afraid of having those conversations and about the importance of that initial aggression, fire, and passion within you.”

McMillan is currently serving her 3 month sentence, 5 year probation and community service, and her two weeks spent in Rikers Island will count towards her 3 months. Perez wondered about what her next move will be after her sentence and what positive outcomes she may draw from the experience.

“I believe in Cecily,” he said.

On May 18, the day before her sentencing, McMillan wrote an exclusive statement for The Lawrentian courtesy of Stan Williams from Justice for Cecily. McMillan composed this from Rikers Island’s Rose M. Singer Center.


“My dearest Alma Mater,

For those of you who directly lent a hand in shaping me, it is only now that I fully realize the breadth of that endeavor. Thank you for your love – and for your patience.

You held me to a standard that I often feared I could not & would not meet – but you pushed me through – “light, more light!”

You taught me to listen to others – to approach each new idea, each new encounter with respectful curiosity, but you also taught me to stand up for myself, to hold fast to my convictions once I had carefully chosen them.

It really took a village – without Lawrence University, I would not be the person I am today.