Occupy Wall Street activist Cecily McMillan has been sentenced to 3 months in jail and five years probation for assaulting a police officer, a charge that sparked outrage and protests earlier this month. McMillan, who said she threw her elbow up behind her instinctively after the officer groped her breast, faced up to seven years in prison for felony assault. The perceived injustice inspired multiple petitions on McMillan’s behalf and close public scrutiny — but could the 25-year-old graduate student’s case help bring attention to others like her?
Despite medical photographs of McMillan’s bruises, including a hand-shaped mark on her breast, Officer Grantley Bovell said McMillan attacked him unprovoked, and prosecutor Erin Choi said McMillan’s claims were “so utterly ridiculous and unbelievable that she might as well have said that aliens came down that night and assaulted her.” Grainy cell phone footage of the altercation makes it unclear whose version of events is accurate.
Bovell has a slew of complaints against him, including allegations that he kicked a suspect in the face while he was on the ground, slammed a man’s face into the stairs of a city bus while arresting him, and ran a motorcyclist off the road. He is also being sued by another Occupy activist for using excessive force during an arrest the same day.
McMillan’s conviction sparked a flurry of media coverage and a protest in Zuccotti Park. But her predicament is unfortunately quite common. Police often charge victims of brutality with anything from assault to disorderly conduct to discredit their claims of police misconduct. While it is nearly impossible to compile exact statistics on this practice, sometimes called “cover” arrests, video recording has helped expose a number of cases where police have wrongfully charged people or fabricated police reports to justify violence.
For instance, another Occupy activist was cleared last year of charges that he “charged the police like a linebacker” after video footage showed cops tackling him as he was trying to get up. In another high profile case, police charged two University of Maryland students with felony assault, claiming they attacked officers on horses after a basketball game. A month later, a video emerged showing the cops beating an unarmed student with batons over a dozen times for no apparent reason.
It probably helps that McMillan doesn’t look like the typical victim of NYPD brutality, who tends to be a young black man. Across the country, “cover” charges tend to target low-income, non-white Americans. In Seattle, half of people arrested for “obstructing a public officer” were African American, even though the city is only 8 percent black. An abusive pattern also emerged in San Jose, CA, where a Mercury News investigation discovered that police used force in 70 percent of cases involving resisting arrest or obstruction charges. A disproportionate number of these arrests were of Latino residents.
Few victims of cover charges have the resources to fight the charges, and they certainly lack the media prowess McMillan and her supporters have demonstrated. Shortly after McMillan was released from police custody in 2012, Occupy Wall Street found her a pro bono lawyer and helped disseminate photos a doctor took of her bruises. McMillan and Justice4Cecily immediately began a media blitz to help spread her story. Even though a jury found McMillan guilty, she has many sympathizers and will likely be able to overcome the blight on her record when she gets out of jail, unlike most victims.
Low-income, low-profile victims who can’t find video proof of the incident will often plead guilty or be convicted of bogus charges. Those convicted of assaulting an officer will be seen as felons for the rest of their lives, closing off jobs, housing assistance, and other opportunities. Even when charges are dropped, anyone who has been wrongfully arrested must explain it on job and school applications. Hopefully, the outrage over McMillan’s conviction will not fade after her three months in prison are up, but help shed light on the countless victims of cover charges who lack a good PR team.