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Sarah Leonard | The Nation

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Sarah Leonard

“Wherever you find injustice, the proper form of politeness is attack.”

A Plea for Humanity at Rikers

Rikers prison

(AP Photo/ Bebeto Matthews, File)

Women imprisoned at Rikers, the notoriously violent and abusive New York prison, have crafted a list of demands for better conditions. Those demands have been ignored by Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte. Cecily McMillan, the Occupy protester whose unfair trial resulted in a three-month sentence in that prison, has issued the following statement. Tomorrow, you can join her at Rikers, to press the case of inmates who are regularly assaulted, denied medical care, and abandoned to suffer from mental illness to the point of death.

 

Dear Commissioner Ponte:

On July 1st, the women of my dorm (4 East A, 800 Building) in Rose M. Singer Center came together in the spirit of democracy—we collectively drafted demands to make our lives livable. When I was released on July 2nd, I read their words at a press conference in front of the gates of Rikers Island—our only opportunity to be heard without a working grievance process at RMSC. We hoped you would hear us.

When those demands went unanswered, I repeated them in a New York Times op-ed that further stressed the need for immediate change, specifically the circumstance of my friend Judith who suffered an untimely death due to the medical neglect and malpractice that is a part of everyday life at RMSC. Still, our experiences did not reach you. Still, we did not hear from you—despite a thoughtful response from former Corrections Commissioner, Martin Horn. Still, I remained hopeful that you would one day listen to our pleas for dignity.

I started a petition. It has been widely endorsed by elected officials and prisoner advocacy groups alike—we have nearly ten thousand signatures. Since you still have not been moved by these voices, we are bringing them to your doorstep. We are members of the public who have loved ones amongst the people labeled prisoners, and we insist that their humanity is equal to our own. We are taking the demands of those incarcerated across the bridge to Rikers Island for you to receive and acknowledge them at 10 a.m. in front of the Samuel Perry Building on the morning of Friday, August 15th.

We respectfully request your presence to recognize the desperate needs of our imprisoned brothers and sisters. We will calmly await your arrival and make every possible preparation to allow you to receive the thousands of signatures calling for basic human rights at Rikers: adequate mental and physical healthcare, and an accountable grievance process. Please take time out of your day on Friday, as we will, to listen to the people being abused in your correctional facility.

I look forward to meeting you there.

Sincerely,

Cecily McMillan

Free Cecily McMillan! A Special Issue of the Occupy Gazette

(Credit: Molly Crabapple)

On Monday, May 5, Occupy Wall Street protester Cecily McMillan was found guilty of assaulting NYPD Officer Grantley Bovell at the OWS anniversary protest on March 17, 2012. She now faces two to seven years in prison, with the possibility of probation.

Her conviction was a terrible miscarriage of justice. Abundant evidence of McMillan’s abuse at the hands of police—photos of bruises on her breast and arms, testimony that she suffered a seizure once handcuffed—were questioned in the spirit of what we’ve come to call rape culture: maybe, the prosecutor suggested, she faked it. Maybe she inflicted the bruises herself. Reports of NYPD misconduct during the Occupy protests were deemed inadmissible as evidence in court, as were the more violent parts of Officer Bovell’s record. In the absence of substantive background, the jurors came to their verdict based on a grainy video.

Upon hearing the terms of sentencing—which were, somehow, unknown to members of the jury—Charles Woodward (Juror #2) wrote a letter on behalf of nine of the twelve jurors asking Judge Zweibel for leniency in sentencing. They expressed remorse. One anonymous juror told Jon Swaine of The Guardian, “Most just wanted her to do probation, maybe some community service. But now what I’m hearing is seven years in jail? That’s ludicrous. Even a year in jail is ridiculous.”

To tell McMillan’s story and assess its consequences, a group of editors revived the Occupy! Gazette in anticipation of her May 19 sentencing. Our hope is to enter into evidence what the court ignored. Any meaningful conversation about McMillan must address the nationwide trend of suppressing protest, the NYPD’s ongoing assault on communities of color, the justice system’s failure to investigate wrongdoing by the police, and the tendency to disbelieve women’s testimony in cases of sexual assault. As Sarah Jaffe wrote in In These Times, excerpted in the Free Cecily Gazette, “Cecily McMillan’s case can’t just be about her,” and it isn’t.

—The Gazette Editors

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