Last week, 25-year-old Cecily McMillan became one of the only Occupy Wall Street protesters to face serious jail time when a jury convicted her of assaulting a police officer. Her conviction has sparked outrage amongst progressives because McMillan alleges she involuntarily elbowed NYPD officer Grantley Bovell after he grabbed her breast, and because the judge refused to admit as evidence in the trial certain accusations of police brutality against Bovell and other cops the night of the incident. Assaulting an officer, a felony offense, carries a sentence of between two and seven years of prison time.
"What kind of activist would I be if I wouldn't go to jail?" said McMillan.
McMillan is currently locked up in Rikers Island jail in New York City, awaiting her sentencing on Monday. Though the judge, Ronald Zweibel, could end up giving her a sentence as mild as a stint of community service, when I chatted with her Friday in a sterile cement room at Rikers, she seemed prepared to do serious time. She was wearing prison-issued Velcro sneakers, her own hipsterish long johns, and horn-rimmed glasses. "I've had two years to think about [the] decision" to go to trial instead of accept a plea deal, the 25-year-old said, surprisingly upbeat. "What kind of activist would I be if I wouldn't go to jail?"
McMillan, a graduate student in liberal studies at the New School in New York City, says she was raised in a trailer park in the "all white, racist" town of Beaumont, Texas, where she says her mother supported her and her brother on $12,000 a year. She saw her brother and many of her friends thrown in jail. McMillan spent her summers in Atlanta with her grandparents, who had been heavily involved in the civil rights movement. From a young age, she noticed racial and economic differences between the two worlds in which she was raised. She was inspired to follow in her grandparents' footsteps. "To me [activism] isn't political so much as personal," she says. "It's whatever I can do to make life better" for her family and friends—and now her fellow inmates.
The night of March 17, 2012, though, McMillan wasn't protesting with other Occupiers. She says she was passing through an encampment in Lower Manhattan's Zuccotti park to pick up an acquaintance after having had a few beers with a friend nearby. As NYPD officers were attempting to escort protesters out of the park, McMillan says Bovell grabbed her breast from behind and she instinctively jabbed her elbow back into his eye. That night, the police officers arresting her used excessive force, according to her lawyer, and she suffered a seizure before being hospitalized for bruises and cuts on her shoulders, back, head, and breast.
During the trial last month, Judge Zweibel forbade the jury from viewing video clips taken that night that purport to show police beating protesters, and would not let jurors hear about an allegation that Bovell had banged another protestor's head against a bus seat that night. The judge also ruled against allowing McMillan's lawyer to bring up certain previous allegations of police brutality against Bovell. A grainy 52-second video of the incident convinced the jury that Cecily was guilty of deliberately elbowing Bovell. (Once the jurors found out that McMillan could be sentenced to up to seven years, though, nine of them sent a letter to the judge asking him not to send her to prison at all.)
McMillan was immediately sent to Rikers Island, where she's been held for two weeks. She says her experience there so far has been a concentrated reminder of America's failure to adequately address all manner of social ills: drug abuse, mental illness, racism, poverty. "You can see really fucking clearly how fucked up everything is about our society," she says, her voice rising.
"Seven years would be really, really a lot," she says slowly. "I've got a lot of plans."
On a personal level though, McMillan says jail life hasn't been too bad. McMillan sleeps in a dorm with about 40 other women who "all rushed to take care of me" when she arrived. And she has made fast friends with a lady named Fat Baby who hissed and cat-called McMillan when she first got there. "I told her she sounded like a damn construction worker," McMillan says, and then they bonded.
If Judge Zweibel goes easy on McMillan and forgoes a prison sentence, McMillan says she'll finish her master's degree—her thesis is on Bayard Rustin, a leader of the civil rights movement in the 1940s—and keep organizing. She has grand visions about how to fix society. First, she says, we need to start with democratic socialism "to get America on par with the rest of the Western world. Then socialism, then communism, then anarcho-syndicalism."
But if she's handed a couple years in jail, McMillan is ready to take it in service of the cause. Maybe "it's all part of the plan," she wrote to supporters earlier this month.
And what if the judge gives her the maximum sentence of seven years? She looks down. "Seven years would be really, really a lot," she says slowly. "I've got a lot of plans."
A protester in Seoul, South Korea at a rally Thursday to demand higher wages for fast-food workers.
On Thursday, the fast-food strikes that have been spreading around the country are going global.
Workers at restaurants like Burger King, McDonald's, Wendy's, and KFC are walking off their jobs in 230 cities around the world to demand a minimum wage of $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. Strikers will protest in 150 US cities, from New York to Los Angeles, and in 80 foreign cities, from Casablanca to Seoul to Brussels to Buenos Aires.
The wave of strikes—which began in November 2012, when hundreds of workers walked out of restaurants in New York City—has grown quickly over the past year and a half. The idea behind this coordinated international protest was not just to further raise the profile of the fast-food workers' movement. With labor unions declining in clout at home, organizers hope that the powerful international unions can help pressure US-based companies into making changes. Last week, the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations—a labor federation composed of 396 trade unions that represent 12 million workers in 126 countries—held a summit in New York City where fast-food workers and union leaders finalized plans for the global strike.
The massive fast-food protests come a few weeks after a recent report on the industry by the left-leaning think tank Demos found that fast-food CEOs are paid a thousand times more than the average franchise worker, who makes about $8.69 an hour. Fast-food wages have dropped by 36 cents an hour since 2010. More than half of the families of fast-food workers rely on public programs like food stamps and Medicaid. (Check out our calculator to see if you could live on a fast-food wage.)
Though the industry has not yet raised wages by any significant amount, the strikes are having an effect. In a March filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, McDonald’s said worker protests might force the company to raise wages this year. And as Salon's Josh Eidelson reported earlier this month, the National Restaurant Association, the industry trade group, is growing increasingly worried about the fast-food protests, closely monitoring social media for plans of future actions.
And while Congress is unlikely to raise the federal minimum wage any time soon to the $10.10 an hour wage President Obama proposed in his 2013 State of the Union speech, states are taking up the fight. Over the past year, seven states and the District of Columbia have raised their minimum wages, and 34 states are considering bumping up pay for their lowest-paid workers. In late April, the mayor of Seattle proposed a $15 minimum wage.
Scott DeFife, an executive vice president for the National Restaurant Association, dismisses the movement's potential. As he told the New York Times on Wednesday, "These are made-for-TV media moments—that’s pretty much it."
Image from a video released Monday by Boko Haram claiming to show about 130 of the schoolgirls the group kidnapped in mid-April.
Last week, the United States dispatched a team of military and law enforcement officials to Nigeria to provide advice and surveillance technology to aid in the search for the nearly 300 schoolgirls the Islamist militant group Boko Haram has held hostage since April. In the coming weeks, as the United States and Nigeria hone their strategy to locate and rescue the girls, the United States might supply equipment or funding to the country's security forces. Human rights groups, though, are concerned that increasing US aid to the Nigerian government could backfire.
According to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, Boko Haram has infiltrated his security forces. If so, sensitive intelligence data could end up with Boko Haram sympathizers, undermining the effort to rescue the girls, says Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on insurgencies at the Brookings Institute. And if material support is provided to the Nigerian military, human rights activists are concerned it could wind up in the wrong places. "There is every likelihood that US aid could… eventually land in the hands of the insurgents," says Hamsatu Allamin, a regional coordinator with the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Program, a conflict management organization funded by the British government.
Even if it doesn't end up in Boko Haram's hands, US intel and training could fuel abuses. The Nigerian military has been implicated in torture and rape, as well as thousands of extrajudicial killings of detainees over the past year, according to an analysis of mortuary records by the Associated Press. Last week, the advocacy group Human Rights First sent a letter to the Pentagon and the State Department urging the US government to ensure that any aid directed to the search for the girls "does not support individuals within the Nigerian security services who are themselves complicit in the victimization of... civilians." The group raised this concern because the rescue operation the United States is helping set up does not fall under US laws designed to keep American resources away from human rights abusers.
The Leahy Law, passed in 1997, bars the United States from providing assistance or training to units of foreign military forces that have committed human rights abuses. But that law can be bypassed: The search team that US operatives are setting up with the Nigerian government is a new unit, meaning that it will not have a record of abuse, and will not be subject to the Leahy Law, explains Heather Hurlburt, a research fellow at Human Rights First.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Myles Caggins says that the DoD is "committed to upholding the letter and the spirit of the Leahy provisions" by providing plenty of oversight and imposing restrictions on US search assistance in Nigeria. But it is unclear how effective that oversight is, Felbab-Brown says. The US-backed search unit—which will help plan rescue and hostage negotiation efforts, provide satellite images of sites where Boko Haram is suspected to be, and intercept the kidnappers' communications—could include people who were complicit in past human rights abuses, Hurlburt warns.
"There's never a full guarantee where US aid ends up in a country like Nigeria," Caggins says. For instance, he explains, if the Nigerian military needs more trucks for the rescue effort, "who's to say [the Nigerian military doesn't] end up with a bad sergeant behind the wheel or a good sergeant behind the wheel." (The United States does not currently provide weapons or other such "lethal aid" to Nigeria.)
More United States involvement in Nigeria could also prompt Boko Haram to ramp up attacks on US targets in the country. For years, the US has provided non-lethal aid behind the scenes to the Nigerian military to combat the Al Qaeda-linked group, which has killed roughly 5,000 Nigerians over the past five years in its effort to take down the pro-Western government. Increased United States involvement in Nigeria via the search operation could "cause Boko Haram to focus more on US interests," Retired Gen. Carter Ham, who until last year led the Pentagon's Africa Command, told NPR last week.
It's a catch-22. "The girls have become such an important issue," Felbab-Brown says. "It's easy to be tempted to say, 'Ok, let's do more, let's do more.'" But if the United States rushes in with additional assistance, she says, it could lead to "a very counter-productive counter-insurgency."
It looks like a new front has opened up in Cliven Bundy's war against the US government.
This Saturday, angry residents of San Juan County, Utah, plan to illegally ride their ATVs through Utah's Recapture Canyon—an 11 mile-long stretch of federal land that is home to Native American archeological sites—because they don't think that the federal Bureau of Land Management should have designated that land off-limits to motor vehicles. The protest was meant to be a local affair. But on Thursday, Bundy, the rancher who wouldn't pay the feds grazing fees and sparked a gun-drenched showdown in Nevada, called on his supporters to join the anti-government off-roading event, E&E Publishing's Phil Taylor reported. Bundy, whose crusade against the federal government became tainted by his racist comments, is looking to spread the cause from cattle to cross-country cruising.
"We don't expect any violence," San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge told the Denver Post last week. Others aren't so sure, especially since the out-of-staters in attendance could help rile things up—which is what happened during the Bundy stand-off. "This may blow up to be significantly more than they thought," Bill Boyle, a resident of San Juan and publisher of the San Juan Record newspaper told the Post. "I think there are those who would like everyone with an AK-47 to be here."
San Juan County residents who plan to attend Saturday's event are Bundy supporters and Ted Nugent fans, according to an analysis of their Facebook pages by the Denver Post. They also hate President Barack Obama and Senate majority leader Harry Reid, according to the newspaper, which reports that "BLM employees in San Juan County have had windows shot out of their homes and their yards torn up by ATVs in the middle of the night."
The BLM made the Recapture Canyon land off limits in 2007 because ATVs were damaging the land and folks were vandalizing Native American sites. San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, who is organizing Saturday's protest, does not believe the feds have the authority to protect cultural resources. He says the goal of the ride is to reassert county jurisdiction in the face of federal "overreach," according to the Salt Lake Tribune. Federal overreach was the theme that Bundy's champions in the national conservative media repeatedly pressed—until Bundy's racist comments became news.
Local officials do not have a good estimate of how many mad-as-hell ATV riders will show up to zoom through sacred Native American land on Saturday. But the BLM has decided to stand back and avoid a conflict for now, as it did several weeks ago on the Bundy ranch in Nevada. Utah's BLM director Juan Palma, however, said there will nonetheless be consequences for the anti-government activists. "The BLM-Utah has not and will not authorize the proposed ride and will seek all appropriate civil and criminal penalties against anyone who uses a motorized vehicle within the closed area," he said in a statement.
Democrats plan to use a student loan bill introduced Tuesday by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as a wedge issue in the 2014 midterm elections, forcing Republican candidates to either support it or explain why they don't. Dem strategists think Warren's legislation—which would lower interest rates on most federal student loans below 4 percent, reducing millions of Americans' bills by hundreds or thousands of dollars a year—could help turn out young people, who tend to vote for Democrats. Fifty-seven percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 say student loan debt is a "major" issue for them, according to a recent Harvard poll.
Senate Democrats plan to hold a vote on Warren's bill, or a version of it, it early June, and to hold Republicans who vote against it accountable. The bill, which would be funded by eliminating tax breaks on millionaires, is one plank in what Democrats have dubbed their "Fair Shot Agenda," an election year slate of proposals aimed at highlighting Republican opposition to politically popular legislation. (The Fair Shot campaign also includes raising the minimum wage and equal pay legislation, measures Senate Republicans have blocked.)
Some Dems are already on the attack. Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), as well as Shenna Bellows, who is running against Sen. Susan Collins in Maine, and Rick Weiland, who is hoping to replace outgoing Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson in South Dakota, are holding events this week aimed at pressuring their Republican opponents to support Warren's legislation—or embarrass themselves by publicly opposing it.
Warren's student loan bill "is a perfect messaging item for the Democrats," says Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. He expects Democrats to continue to use the student debt issue to hammer Republicans, who generally oppose debt relief, over the next six months. "Republicans, in general, will oppose [Warren's bill]," Baker adds, which he says could raise the ire of young voters—a large portion of whom are currently expected to sit out this election—and push them to the polls.
Adam Green, the cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal PAC that supports progressive candidates and calls itself the "Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party," says that Warren's bill is already having an effect. His group has launched a national petition in support of Warren's bill, which the group is sending to all Republican Senate candidates this week. The progressive PAC is also organizing events aimed at pressing four more Senate GOP candidates on the student loan issue.
The PCCC is not the only outside group hoping use student loan debt to take down GOPers. In April, Student Debt Crisis, a group that advocates for student loan interest rate reform, nominated Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) for television host Bill Maher's "Flip-A-District" contest, a campaign Maher launched to find the worst member of Congress and boot him from office. The group chose Kline because he is one of the few members of Congress who has proposed raising student loan interest rates.A few weeks after the group entered Kline in the running, he shot from 75th to first on Maher's list of terrible lawmakers.
Last year, GOP senators filibustered student interest rate relief before acquiescing to a compromise bill at the 11th hour. That legislation prevented interest rates on new federal loans from doubling to 6.8 percent. But the law didn't do anything to help the 40 million Americans swimming in existing student loan debt, some of whom are paying back loans with rates of up to 10 percent. Warren's bill—cosponsored by 23 other Senate Democrats—would reduce most of these Americans' federal student loan interest rates to the current rate on new undergraduate loans: 3.86 percent.
Even if her bill is approved by Congress this year, Warren says she will keep pushing for further debt relief for students. She says she'll only stop when the government no longer profits off student debt. The feds will rake in $66 billion in revenue on the federal student loans the government doled out between 2007 and 2012. As Warren said on the Senate floor Tuesday, "Those are the kind of interest rates that would make a Fortune 500 CEO proud."
Watch Warren's full floor speech on the bill here: