Any One of Us Could Be Cecily McMillan

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Have you ever been in a crowd of people that’s moving with a mind of its own? I’ve come close — various rallies in front of the White House, concerts, and the 2012 Inauguration all caused me to find myself in situations where I had basically no control over where I moved. I’m barely five feet and I’m petite — if someone wanted to move me or shove me they could do it with little effort.

Now luckily, none of those crowds that I’ve been swept up in turned into anything violent. I’ve always been able to push my way out, eventually. But I know that if a crowd I’m in ever does get violent and I’m forced to run, I have to be careful. I need to protect myself. And I would bet that most young women feel the same way–it’s a scary thought, but a realistic one.

I bet Cecily McMillan felt the same way.

Cecily McMillan was an Occupy protester in New York’s Zuccotti Park on November 15, 2011. Police were brought in to break up the crowd, and it turned to chaos. Those who were there that night described it as an “attack.” Many protesters had their clothing ripped and were pushed to the ground. At one point Cecily McMillan threw an elbow into a policeman’s face, and last week she was found guilty of second-degree assault. She has yet to be sentenced, but could face up to seven years in prison. She is currently being held without bail on Rikers Island.

At first glance the case seems cut and dry. A protester tangled with a cop and is now paying the price. But in reality it is so much more complicated than that.

Cecily McMillan has her own side of the story. She claims that she threw the elbow as a gut reaction to having her right breast grabbed by the police officer who later accused her of assault — his name is Officer Bovell. Here’s a picture of McMillan after the incident in Zuccotti Park:

That’s a bruise from where Officer Bovell allegedly grabbed her. Despite the prosecution’s contention that McMillan caused the injury herself, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Officer Bovell, at the very least, grabbed her from behind, regardless of how she reacted or why he did so.

That’s Officer Bovell right behind her with his hand raised. It certainly looks like he’s going to grab her, and it really looks like she’s not expecting it.

There’s some other conflicting evidence, including a video of McMillan elbowing Officer Bovell in the face, but it’s really hard to see why, or what he’s doing. It could be on purpose, or it could be because he had grabbed her.

So the case went to trial, where it seemed even more convincing that something fishy was up — Officer Bovell had a hard time identifying which eye McMillan had actually so viciously elbowed. He got it wrong, multiple times. Clearly her crazy attack left him traumatized.

And there’s also evidence that McMillan was in pretty bad shape when the police grabbed her. There’s a sixteen minute video of McMillan having a seizure:

If you watch closely, for the first few minutes no one really does anything. Finally, at the eight-minute mark she gets some medical attention. The photos of her that night can be found here, and they’re equally disturbing. She’s being thrown around like a rag doll. In some of them her feet are barely touching the ground. In some ways that’s what upsets me the most. This woman did not deserve the kind of brutality that she received that night. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Especially when one of those wrongs is dealt out by the people who are supposed to keep us safe — the police.

I understand that the police needed to clear the area. I understand that things got messy. But now she might be facing seven years in prison. And that’s plain ridiculous. Even the jury that convicted her thinks so — nine out of the twelve sent a letter to the judge stating,

We the jury petition the court for leniency in the sentencing of Cecily McMillan. We would ask the court to consider probation with community service. We feel that the felony mark on Cecily’s record is punishment enough for this case and that it serves no purpose to Cecily or to society to incarcerate her for any amount of time. We also ask that you factor in your deliberation process that this request is coming from 9 of the 12 member jury.

Trials are bifurcated for a reason — the jury has no say in McMillan’s sentencing. But that they felt so compelled as to ask for a lighter punishment for her shows this case was never cut and dry.

So I want you to put yourself in McMillan’s shoes again. Imagine that you’re swept up in a crowd and have no control. You panic, and someone grabs you, and you flail to get away. It’s not a new story, and it’s not that hard to imagine. I know because I imagine it every damn time I’m in a crowd that size.

I could be Cecily McMillan. So could you. And the way this case was handled should scare you.

Anneliese Mahoney (@AMahoney8672) is Lead Editor at Law Street and a Connecticut transplant to Washington D.C. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University, and a passion for law, politics, and social issues. Contact Anneliese at

Featured image courtesy of [Timothy Krause via Flickr]

Anneliese Mahoney
Anneliese Mahoney is Managing Editor at Law Street and a Connecticut transplant to Washington D.C. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University, and a passion for law, politics, and social issues. Contact Anneliese at



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