February 2017History

From Texas to Occupy to Rikers Island: Cecily McMillan's Bread & Roses Talk

Marches, rallies, demonstrations of all sorts have greeted the new Trump Administration and will likely only grow in the future.  Accounts of how people become involved in organizing and what that involvement means has therefore taken on new meaning for ever greater numbers of people.  Social justice activism can come with costs, but can also enrich a life was the message absorbed by the 50 people who attended a talk by Cecily McMillan December 13 at Busboys & Poets in Takoma. Under the sponsorship of the Metro Labor Council's monthly Bread & Roses program, the Atlanta-based social justice activist and DSA member spoke about and read from her memoir, The Emancipation of Cecily McMillan (Nation Books, 2016). It describes her upbringing in Texas, her burgeoning political awareness, engagement in Occupy Wall Street and her subsequent arrest and imprisonment at Rikers Island in New York City.

David Duhalde, Deputy Director of DSA (a co-sponsor of the event) introduced McMillan and spoke about first meeting her at a DSA Youth conference -- that connection being important, for McMillan distinguished herself at Occupy by her commitment to nonviolence and by her insistence that radical protest movements must make demands upon established power if they are to have relevance for working people far beyond the circles of the already committed. This aspect of her talk (and in her memoirs) is of particular importance when trying to develop strategies to respond to the challenges posed by the Trump Administration. Her recounting of the inner dynamics of Occupy addressed the need to combine a Utopian vision of a better world with a concrete program that can have a political impact in the here and now.

Of perhaps most interest to those in attendance, however, was McMillan's description of her early life and the process by which she became politicized in Southern communities where left-wing organizations and activism were more absent than present. As she related, this was due both to the empathy she developed for those being pushed around at an early age as she tried to cope with her own displacements and hardships, and by her personal readiness to challenge received wisdom and act on her beliefs. Her account of how she learned from 9/11 the need to oppose all forms of hatred and racism, including Islamophobia, and her recognition that racism within the US constitutes its own form of terrorism that must be condemned as such, was particularly compelling in painting a picture of her politicization.

McMillan was arrested a year after Occupy during a police sweep of the area in which it had taken place. Although herself a victim of police brutality, McMillan was arrested, charged and convicted of assault on a police officer -- her treatment and trial an expression of all that is unjust in our criminal justice system. But during the two months in which she was locked up, McMillan became friends with and learned from the other women held on New York's infamous Rikers Island prison, women whose crime can be summed up as being trapped in a life of poverty, a life without resources. The "Emancipation," referred to in the book's title, speaks to what she gained from these women. The evening ended with Cecily's talk of that time and the need for all to continue to fight to end the injustices perpetrated by the prison system itself.

This theme will be addressed again at Bread & Roses' February 21 event when the film 13TH will be shown (6-8 pm at Busboys and Poets in Takoma, 235 Carroll St. NW). The movie, so titled because the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution allows one exception to the abolition of "involuntary servitude" -- those who are in prison. Carmen Berkley, AFL-CIO Civil, Human and Women's Rights Director, will introduce filmmaker Ava DuVernay's movie (at this writing an Oscar nominee in the documentary category) which explores the history of racial inequality in the United States and within our nation's prison system, giving greater historical background to the prison life McMillan described.

More information on McMillan's book.

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