On March 17, 2012, Occupy Wall Street activist Cecily McMillan and a police officer allegedly assaulted each other while police were clearing Zuccotti Park. When a jury found McMillan guilty and a judge sentenced her to three months in prison, it created a national outcry. This month the 27-year-old Atlantan’s memoir, The Emancipation of Cecily McMillan, introduces readers to the woman behind the headlines. It chronicles her life from her childhood in southeast Texas to her teenage years in Atlanta to the 58 days she served in Rikers, where she became an advocate for prison reform. McMillan hopes the book will inspire millennials and help older generations understand her and her peers.
Why did you decide to write a memoir at such a young age?
I wasn’t ready to leave the [women in Rikers] behind, and I wasn’t ready to stop fighting for them—for us. I found it so hard to get people to connect to the basic idea that these women are women. It took so long to figure out how to build the story up to the point that people would walk with these women.
You spend a lot of time in the book discussing your childhood. Why the focus on your upbringing?
Nation Books [her publisher] said to write it chronologically. They said, “You’re human. You’re flawed. You don’t have all the answers. You aren’t a radical revolutionary; you just found yourself caught up in what it is to be a citizen.” I wanted to try to put myself in the context of what does the family and school structure look like for millennials. This book has definitely brought me and my family a lot closer.
Where does the title come from?
Cecily McMillan is meant to be a stand in for every woman. It could’ve been anyone. But I didn’t feel really emancipated until writing the final chapter on the women [at Rikers]. They’re my emancipation. I never felt like I fit in anywhere, and [through] these women, I found a way I can be me and help people [who] I can identify with. It’s about the freedom to look in the mirror and say, “I’m doing my best.” What is the price you pay in today’s America to be a good citizen?
Who do you hope will read this book?
It’s really important for me to not have it be niche left [wing]. I wanted this to appeal to those 60 percent in the middle of the political spectrum, who neither Trump nor Hillary nor Bernie appeals to. It’s for people who are [asking], “Who the are these Occupiers?” and for millennials asking what they’re supposed to do now.
What’s next now that you’re back in Atlanta?
I’m trying to keep the dialogue [around prison reform] alive. [The goal] is to draw a big young populace to really come together to see how politics, how grassroots, works. To ask, “What does our generation’s SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) or SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) look like?”
On August 13, McMillan launches her book at Edgewood Speakeasy/The Music Room with a reading, cocktail hour, and live music.
A version of this article originally appeared in our August 2016 issue.