New York • An Occupy Wall Street protester who became a cause celebre for activists after she was charged with assaulting a police officer was sentenced Monday to 90 days in jail, with a judge saying a protest is no excuse for an attack.
Cecily McMillan apologized for injuring the officer but defiantly proclaimed her innocence as she was sentenced on one of the few felony convictions resulting from the New York protests. She could have been sent to prison for seven years.
"I have been exhausted of almost everything that makes me me, with one key exception: my dignity," said the 25-year-old graduate student, jailed since the May 5 verdict in a case that she said showed "the personal is inseparable from the political."
Prosecutors said McMillan baldly hit an officer in the face, misrepresented what happened and used her trial as "a grandstand for her political opinions," as Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Shanda Strain put it.
McMillan was arrested as activists observed the Occupy’s six-month mark on March 17, 2012. Police were clearing people from the movement’s former home base at Zuccotti Park.
Prosecutors pointed to video showing McMillan elbowing an officer in the eye as he walked behind her, ushering her along. She said she reacted out of alarm after her breast was grabbed from behind, which the officer denied doing and isn’t clear in the video. She said police then roughed her up while arresting her as she suffered what she believed was a seizure.
McMillan’s case became a rallying point for Occupiers, and members of the once-jailed Russian punk group Pussy Riot have visited her behind bars. Director Spike Jonze, Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon, some City Council members and even several of the jurors who convicted her wrote to the court asking for leniency. More than 171,000 people have signed an online petition.
For all that, "a civil society must not allow an assault to be committed under the guise of civil disobedience," Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Ronald Zweibel said. "Ms. McMillan must take responsibility for her conduct."
McMillan’s supporters overflowed the courtroom Monday, singing "We Shall Not Be Moved," a folk song recorded by Pete Seeger and long a protest staple, as they filed out afterward. More than 30 court officers lined the courtroom as well, an unusual show of crowd control that came after some spectators shouted "Shame!" when she was convicted.
McMillan’s lawyer, Martin Stolar, said she plans to appeal the verdict and ask for bail while the appeal plays out.
Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter (at) jennpeltz.
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