Post-Occupy, #myNYPD Makes New York’s Blood Boil

As Occupier Cecily McMillan stands trial, the city’s 99% rediscovers its anger toward the NYPD.

Sarah Jaffe

The NYPD has been roundly criticized for both the repressive tactics it used in response to the Occupy Wall Street movement and the department's general policing tactics. (Sarah Jaffe)

On Tues­day, April 22, the New York City Police Depart­ment had a very bad idea. Some­one at the NYPD decid­ed that the depart­ment could be doing bet­ter with its social media engage­ment and asked peo­ple to tweet pho­tos of them­selves with NYPD offi­cers using the hash­tag #myNYPD.

"At one point, a woman who appeared to be suffering from seizures flopped on the ground in handcuffs as bystanders shouted for the police to remove the cuffs and provide medical attention."

Per­haps pre­dictably, the pho­tos were not what they want­ed. Activists quick­ly flood­ed the hash­tag with pho­tos of vio­lent arrests, many of them from the days of Occu­py Wall Street. The result was that the hash­tag trend­ed, with activists around the world join­ing in, prompt­ing spin­off hash­tags and even gar­ner­ing the notice of the tabloids and the New York Times.

It seems the NYPD does­n’t quite under­stand the depth of the city’s anger toward the depart­ment, even with a new (well, new-old) com­mis­sion­er under a new may­or who ran a cam­paign against stop-and-frisk. May­or Bill de Bla­sio even went so far as to declare: Now that we’ve moved away from that bro­ken pol­i­cy, and we’ve set­tled the law­suits, and we are chang­ing the dynam­ics on the ground between police and com­mu­ni­ty, I think the aver­age offi­cer’s hav­ing a much bet­ter experience.”

The aver­age offi­cer may be far­ing bet­ter, but a whole lot of New York­ers out there still aren’t.

On April 23, the day after #myNYPD hit Twit­ter, I spent the after­noon in a crim­i­nal court­room in Low­er Man­hat­tan lis­ten­ing to some rea­sons why New York­ers don’t feel safer with police around. Ceci­ly McMil­lan, a grad­u­ate stu­dent and Occu­py Wall Street orga­niz­er, sat in the defen­dan­t’s chair, scrib­bling notes to her attor­neys on hot pink note-paper. McMil­lan was arrest­ed on March 17, 2012 — the six-month anniver­sary of Occu­py — when Zuc­cot­ti Park was cleared of pro­test­ers who had briefly tak­en back the park late in the night. She is accused of hav­ing elbowed NYPD Offi­cer Grant­ley Bovell in the face dur­ing the course of her arrest. McMil­lan faces felony charges of assault on an offi­cer; if con­vict­ed, she could serve sev­en years. The tri­al began April 11, and is expect­ed to last about three weeks.

McMil­lan con­tends that Offi­cer Bovell grabbed her breast from behind and she react­ed instinc­tive­ly, elbow­ing back­wards in reac­tion to what she con­sid­ered an assault. 

I nev­er met Ceci­ly McMil­lan at Occu­py Wall Street and I did­n’t meet her on Wednes­day. I was unable to speak with McMillan’s lawyers, who are under a gag order from the judge and pro­hib­it­ed from talk­ing to reporters. Instead, I sim­ply sat in the audi­ence, one of many there to observe.

And I didn’t see McMil­lan’s arrest. But like many peo­ple who’d been around Occu­py Wall Street, I stopped by the park that night after drinks with friends in the area. The park was ringed with police, but for the time I was there, the atmos­phere was cel­e­bra­to­ry if tense. Old friends chat­ted; bag­pipers were play­ing. At one point a small hand­ful of police offi­cers charged into the park and pulled down a tarp draped between two trees, but there were no arrests, and after a while, I went home. Look­ing back at my Alter­net report on the event, I note I told friends: I just want to get out … before they stomp on some­one again.” The park was evict­ed of Occu­piers while I was some­where under­ground on a 2 train.

What hap­pened after I left was cap­tured on cell phone video and livestreams. A video of McMil­lan appar­ent­ly hav­ing a seizure after her strug­gle with the offi­cer was dis­al­lowed from the court­room the morn­ing of April 23, accord­ing to Wall Street Jour­nal reporter Nick Pin­to, who’s been cov­er­ing the tri­al dai­ly. But as the New York Times described the scene back in March 2012

At one point, a woman who appeared to be suf­fer­ing from seizures flopped on the ground in hand­cuffs as bystanders shout­ed for the police to remove the cuffs and pro­vide med­ical atten­tion. For sev­er­al min­utes the woman lay on the ground as onlook­ers made increas­ing­ly ago­nized demands until an ambu­lance arrived and the woman was placed inside. 

Also dis­al­lowed from the tri­al was Offi­cer Bovel­l’s record; he has faced pri­or alle­ga­tions of bru­tal­i­ty, and is cur­rent­ly being sued by anoth­er Occu­pi­er, Austin Guest, who says Bovell dragged him down the aisle of a bus while inten­tion­al­ly bang­ing his head on each seat.” The NYPD has paid out thou­sands to set­tle claims by Occu­piers. That includes a $55,000 set­tle­ment announced Thurs­day, April 24 [video at the link] to be paid to Josh Boss, who was livestream­ing an Occu­py march when he was thrown to the ground and kneed by Chief Thomas Purtell, who was at the time the com­mand­ing offi­cer of the Man­hat­tan South Patrol Divi­sion. Also among the final tal­ly is $82,500 to Shawn Schrad­er, who goes by Shawn Car­rie, over three sep­a­rate vio­lent arrests. A joint report from NYU’s Glob­al Jus­tice Clin­ic and Fordham’s Wal­ter Leit­ner Inter­na­tion­al Human Rights Clin­ic [PDF] found that the police’s treat­ment of Occu­py includ­ed fre­quent alleged inci­dents of unnec­es­sary and exces­sive police use of force against pro­test­ers, bystanders, jour­nal­ists, and legal observers; con­stant obstruc­tions of media free­doms, includ­ing arrests of jour­nal­ists; unjus­ti­fied and some­times vio­lent clo­sure of pub­lic space, dis­per­sal of peace­ful assem­blies, and cor­ralling and trap­ping pro­test­ers en masse.”

Yet Ceci­ly McMil­lan, not Offi­cer Bovell, is on tri­al, and the judge ruled that the offi­cer’s record is irrelevant.

When tes­ti­mo­ny began at the tri­al that after­noon, Offi­cer Lin­da War­ing was on the stand. War­ing took cus­tody of McMil­lan after she was sent to the hos­pi­tal, to jail and even­tu­al­ly to Cen­tral Book­ing. McMil­lan’s lawyer, Mar­tin Sto­lar, asked War­ing repeat­ed­ly whether she saw injuries to McMil­lan, what her com­plaints were at the hos­pi­tal, how she react­ed to the news that she was being charged with assault­ing an offi­cer. War­ing respond­ed that McMil­lan seemed sur­prised, that she did­n’t know why she’d be charged with such a thing. When Sto­lar asked her opin­ion of the Occu­py protests, the judge dis­al­lowed every ques­tion except: Were the pro­test­ers smelly?” and Was it per­son­al for you?””— to which War­ing replied, No, it’s business.”

What they don’t tell you about court, what the court­room dra­mas don’t show, is how dead­ly bor­ing it is. At one point dur­ing the tes­ti­mo­ny of the Dis­trict Attor­ney’s Office foren­sic video expert, explain­ing a video that alleged­ly depicts McMil­lan’s alter­ca­tion with Offi­cer Bovell, at least one juror appeared to actu­al­ly fall asleep. And yet as you sit there, watch­ing, lis­ten­ing to the same ques­tion being asked over and over, you remem­ber that some­one’s life is on the line, that the third rep­e­ti­tion of a blur­ry YouTube video from the night of March 17 could make the dif­fer­ence between con­vic­tion and acquit­tal. The video expert — in his three-piece suit and his smiles at the jury box, point­ing at a green blur on a screen— becomes less bor­ing when you remem­ber that. You begin to sift through the hun­dreds of answers, look­ing for some­thing that seems rel­e­vant. The fact that struck me was that the video was, accord­ing to the expert’s tes­ti­mo­ny, down­loaded from YouTube on the morn­ing of March 18, 2012, just hours after McMil­lan’s arrest. How quick­ly did the pros­e­cu­tion begin prepar­ing its case? But those indi­vid­ual bits of infor­ma­tion don’t add up to any­thing on their own. You have to go every day for them to make a sto­ry, and even then you have to decide which bits fit into the sto­ry you believe is true. 

Ceci­ly McMil­lan’s sto­ry fits into a big­ger sto­ry about the NYPD and the city that I’ve been fol­low­ing for a while. Like many white women in New York, my first expe­ri­ence get­ting pushed around by the NYPD was at Occu­py Wall Street. As a reporter, I would attempt to ask ques­tions of offi­cers and be rebuffed, some­times phys­i­cal­ly; in a crowd, I looked like oth­er pro­test­er and was shoved around accord­ing­ly. I wit­nessed plen­ty of vio­lent arrests, includ­ing those of friends and fel­low reporters. I tweet­ed a few pho­tos of those inci­dents on the #myNYPD hashtag.

These days, protest arrests are scarce and atten­tion has fad­ed from the NYPD’s repres­sive tac­tics; some seem to con­sid­er the mat­ter of police abus­es closed with the reforms passed by City Coun­cil and imposed by a court of law. Yet protest arrests have large­ly fad­ed because Occu­py no longer holds parks and takes streets — and out in res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hoods, there are no livestream­ers and few reporters. I rarely go a week with­out see­ing police detain­ing some­one, usu­al­ly a young man of color.

Of course, it is impor­tant to cov­er Ceci­ly McMil­lan’s case, and to speak up for the rights of peo­ple every­where to peace­ably assem­ble in protest. It is equal­ly impor­tant not to for­get that there are peo­ple all over New York whose tri­als are not get­ting this kind of atten­tion, or who do not go to tri­al at all because they have no help, no sup­port, no one to stand by them while they refuse a plea bar­gain in an attempt to keep felony charges off their records. There were only two reporters who seemed to have stuck around for all of McMillan’s mul­ti-week tri­al. How many reporters cov­er the cour­t­hous­es for every­day arrests?

Ceci­ly McMil­lan’s case can’t just be about her, about whether she’s a nice girl or a paci­fist or not. It has to be — as the #myNYPD hash­tag remind­ed us with its seem­ing­ly end­less stream of vio­lent pho­tographs— about a police force that has got­ten away with too much for too long and has not changed near­ly enough. 

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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