On March 17 2012, Occupy protesters attempted to reclaim New York's Zuccotti Park to mark six months since the beginning of the movement. 23-year-old Cecily McMillan was attending the protest when an altercation with a police officer called Grantley Bovell changed her life forever. McMillan and her supporters allege that Bovell sexually assaulted her, and McMillan elbowed Bovell in the face to protect herself. Yesterday, to widespread outrage, she was convicted for assaulting a police officer. She now faces up to seven years in prison.
It's a punishment that seems perfectly imbalanced in favour of the NYPD. Despite numerous and consistent reports of the police repeatedly acting with brute force throughout Occupy Wall Street, Judge Ronald Zweibel opted to come down fiercely on McMillan, irrespective of the fact that she is a first-time convict, had bruises in the shape of a handprint on her right breast and was seen convulsing in a seizure after the incident. It's also worth noting that during the trial, Bovell repeatedly misremembered which eye McMillan had struck him on.
We spoke to McMillan's housemate Bex Kuuleipoinale, who is also a leader of the Justice For Cecily campaign. The two have lived together for the past five months and throughout the trial. Kuuleipoinale spoke to us about the next move for the campaign, McMillan's mental state and the fallacies of the American justice system.
Dazed Digital: What was Cecily's mental state like in the build-up to the trial?
Bex Kuuleipoinale: She remained very composed during the trial, but opened up to those close to her about how difficult it was to see her life being taken completely out of her hands. She knew the possibility of a guilty conviction and as a good organiser, prepared for the worst. Cecily is very strong and capable and she tried to make the most of a nearly impossible situation.
DD: Have you spoken to her since Monday? Are you worried about her?
Bex Kuuleipoinale: I have not spoken to Cecily since she was remanded to Rikers Island. I am not worried about her. I have a lot of confidence in Cecily as an organiser, activist and human being. I am saddened by the events that took place on Monday, but I know that Cecily will not let this verdict keep her from doing what she is so passionate about.
DD: Cecily appears to be a victim of a crime and yet faces up to seven years in prison. Why do you think that the courts have come down so hard on her?
Bex Kuuleipoinale: I believe the courts wanted to use Cecily's case as a way of scaring people out of dissenting. They wanted to make a statement that our First Amendment rights are not really protected anymore. I also believe that they wanted to use her trial as a bookend for the Occupy movement. In a way, they can say that the state has won and Occupy has lost. I believe the authorities are trying to squash dissent. I believe they also want to remove as much of the potential leadership of future movements (either through scare tactics or locking them away). However, we will not stand idly by as these injustices continue to take place.
DD: Grantley Bovell has a documented history of violence. Why do you think that was ignored by the judge?
Bex Kuuleipoinale: The judge had a very narrow scope of what would be considered evidence (at least in regards to the defense case). He said the reports on the officer's previous misconduct were irrelevant as they did not at any point say "Cecily McMillan is innocent or guilty." I believe this shows the great bias the judge had throughout the trial.
DD: How are you planning to move with Justice For Cecily now? What is the next step?
Bex Kuuleipoinale: We would like to use the mobilization that has centered around this case to open a wider conversation about police brutality and the injustices of our current judicial system. As far as the next step, we are currently meeting and will release more information in the coming days.
DD: What do you think the conviction says about America's justice system?
Bex Kuuleipoinale: I think this conviction highlights the gross misconduct against many more people than just Cecily. We are fortunate that Cecily had immense support. She had a wonderful legal team comprised of Marty Stolar and Rebecca Heinegg. Cecily also had the Justice For Cecily support team, comprised of ten members and a packed courtroom of supporters. Even with all this, she was still wrongly convicted. Her conviction sheds light on the horrifying circumstances people without all of her resources must suffer. I do not believe we currently have a justice system in America. I believe our system is unjust and the Justice For Cecily Support Team along with many others plan on doing something about it.
Follow Thomas Gorton on Twitter here @angstromhoot