Review: The Emancipation of Cecily McMillan: An American Memoir (Nation Books, 2016)

Reviewed by Adam Cardo


Karl Marx once said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Former YDS organizer and Occupy Wall Street activist Cecily McMillan learned that lesson early. In her engaging and relevant memoir, we learn the back story of a young woman who has been fighting capitalism since high school. McMillan became known as the "last Occupier" when her court case for an alleged felonious assault on a police officer clearing Zuccotti Park on the six-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street became national news. She spent time in the women's prison on New York City's infamous Riker's Island, where she saw firsthand the conditions she'd only read about before

But the seeds of dissent had been sown earlier. Her mother’s side, “an affluent family of doctors and businessmen, learned ladies and prima ballerinas,” was rendered destitute after the 1982 Mexican debt crisis, precipitated by a collapsing oil boom. Forced from an estate in Mexico to a small house in eastern Texas, Cecily’s grandmother grew bitter and resentful, which her children bore the brunt of. Oil also brought Cecily’s paternal family to eastern Texas. The first gusher of the Texas oil boom was struck at Beaumont, Texas, bringing thousands to the region looking for work. Cecily’s parents met in Beaumont, where Cecily spent her childhood and early adolescence. After her parents’ divorce she shuttled from one unstable home to another, including a stint in a trailer park. Informed by her working class background, Cecily’s activism has always retained a class-based nature, from drafting demands during Occupy Wall Street, to high school walkouts against the Iraq War, to joining DSA and becoming a YDS regional organizer - inspired by her activist grandfather, Harlon Joye. Her work has always shown a keen awareness of the particular way the present system concentrates its brutality on the poorest and most disenfranchised.

Arising from this class-based perspective, a theme of anti-authoritarianism pervades her memoir. From fighting her father's household rules to her Occupy activism, Cecily exhibits a constant rebellious streak that informs her work and approach to life. Throughout her book, she mentions the similarities between U.S. government policies and society and those of the “terrorists,” the enemies of freedom. Of particular note is her time in eastern Texas post-9/11, when the casual authoritarianism of “you can’t criticize the President during a war” was the norm. She makes note of one particular high school pep rally, when an athlete grabbed the mike and shouted “This one's gonna be for the troops - tonight we’re gonna go out there and kick ass like they was sandn******.” She also continually butts heads while living with her father, who runs his household as a self-described dictatorship.

Similar experiences come to the fore during her imprisonment on Riker’s Island, following her arrest for assaulting an officer who had actually assaulted her. After a trial marked by false testimony and a prejudiced judge, she enters a world where the underlying authoritarianism of American society comes to the front. Almost all women there have accepted plea deals due to either lack of funds or information, resulting in an entire segment of American society lacking access to due process because they are too poor to afford it. Inside Riker’s the limited democratic rights afforded to (some) people are stripped away, and a regime of isolation, medical neglect, and psychological torment reigns supreme. Only the massive resources of a publicity campaign and a team of top-notch lawyers kept Cecily plugged in to the outside world.

But blind resistance to oppression is not Cecily’s modus operandi. Her memoir also provides a viable critique of other methods of resistance, including liberalism. Before Occupy, Cecily attended Lawrence University in Wisconsin. There, she quickly discovers that the supposed intellectual community she was promised was not completely different from what she had left behind. Her classes are often filled with young, white men, raised with superior educational resources, who use their skills to embarrass and bamboozle students of a lower economic class. At parties, these students then make jokes as racist and sexist as ones heard in Southeastern Texas, but the perpetrators have been raised with enough sense to say “just kidding” to soften the blow. This disillusionment with the liberal north fortifies Cecily’s resolve to create a more radically democratic and egalitarian world. It is not just enough for her to resist. She must also struggle for a better world. She is now an advocate for the human rights and dignity of the women she encountered in Rikers – finding that voice is her “emancipation.”

Among Cecily McMillan’s memoir’s most valuable attributes is that it manages to be a quick, easy read, as it portrays the struggles that led her to activism. Often, people turn to activism through their own personal trauma and tribulations, which bring into focus the extensive injustices in the world. For young activists, just knowing that others have gone through similar experiences and reached similar conclusions is a comfort. So for young activists, especially those whose hard life has led them to socialism, this book can be a great resource.

Adam Cardo is a founder of Emory U. YDS, a member of Metro Atlanta DSA, and a member of DSA’s Anti-Racism Working Group.

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