Will the Cecily McMillan Sentence Dampen Occupy’s Future?

It took six working stiffs to assemble the magnetometer in front of Judge Ronald Zweibel’s chamber: one held the long left unassembled side, a second knelt down trying to figure out how this white plastic dolmen attached at the top corner, a third held the flashlight, three more police officers stood behind them to the right. It was a tableau that could have been stage-managed by the late filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos: deliberately slow, long, a good deal of fuss over something extraneous.

On Monday morning, the eleventh floor of the New York City Criminal Court building filled up with a time-honored mix of optimistic activists who believed in justice and cynical reporters who boasted over who had been the first to cover Occupy. Most had to wait in the hall outside the courtroom, tapping their feet on green marble stepped on by countless innocents.

Then the two metal doors opened and an activist, not calling for a mike check, quietly informed all surrounding parties that Cecily McMillan, a young woman who had been found guilty of assaulting a police officer on the most draconian and iniquitous of pretexts, was sentenced to 90 days in jail, with five years probation. This was a far cry from the maximum sentence of seven years, but just long enough to annoy anyone with a social conscience. Just short enough for any random party to wonder what the fuss was about. Just perfect enough to trivialize a movement.

McMillan’s attorney Martin Stolar attempted to persuade Judge Zweibel to commute the sentence further. The judge would not budge from 90 days. McMillan read a statement. The judge would not budge from 90 days.

It was impossible to attend the sentencing and not feel as if you were inhabiting some preordained role as awkwardly rigged as the magnetometer. Once the courtroom had filled to capacity, it was pushed unceremoniously to the side of the door in minutes, as quickly as McMillan’s sentence.

Cecily McMillan will do her modest time and spend the rest of her young adulthood checking in with the authorities, released from their tendrils only after the last remaining flames of idealism have been doused from her spirit. She is, after all, on a leash. Can she still be a revolutionary? Or even the moderate that some Occupy activists have presented her as? Those who remain part of Occupy will preach to the choir, calling for more appeals and more petitions.

But Occupy succeeded not because of political stridency. It was amorphous enough to enliven the variegated strains in our national conscience. The movement still carries a formidable strength in finding quick organizational remedies to inflexible bureaucracy, seen with Occupy Sandy and still very much in place on Monday morning when several activists rapidly collected the phones that weren’t allowed in the courtroom with improvised identifying slips handed to owners. But I am not so sure what it can do beyond this. After the sentence, the crowd gathered across the street from the courthouse and sang songs and attempted to conjure a responsive plan to the McMillan sentence (they are also rallying tonight at Zuccotti Park), yet the strategies now feel flat and old hat. All because of a sentence that will be interpreted by most as no big deal. We certainly have the New York Police Department and Judge Zweibel to blame for this. But there may be a deeper problem.

As I stood in line, hoping to get into Zweibel’s courtroom this morning, I chatted with an African-American woman who identified herself as Aanis. She was waiting for another case in another chamber. She wondered if this seemingly indomitable group would stand up for her the next time she was arrested. But most ignored her. And as the Occupy protesters disseminated literature, passing me up because I’m the kind of man who tends to go to the courthouse wearing a suit and tie and they presumed I’d be uninterested, I had some idea of what she was talking about.