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An Open Letter to Cecily McMillan

By Robert J. Burrowes - Posted on 25 May 2014

Dear Cecily

I have been reading accounts of your recent trial and conviction following your arrest at the Occupy Wall Street celebration at Zuccotti Park in 2012.

I found your brief statement at sentencing and your statement to your supporters both insightful and evocative and it brought to mind the compassionate and powerful statements of the great nonviolent activists – such as Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. – who have gone before you.

I write this open letter to you in the hope that it will inspire you and our fellow nonviolent activists to consider one other course of nonviolent action that we can take in our efforts to create the world of peace, justice, sustainability and love for which so many of us strive.

In writing to you I admit that I am asking you and others to consider something for which you might not feel ready but if I don’t ask you and our fellow activists, then who can I ask?

In asking you to consider this course of action, I also admit that it has taken me the experience of some 30 arrests for nonviolent acts of conscience (with a variety of outcomes including jail terms, imprisonment as a psychiatric patient and forcible injection with ‘anti-psychotic’ drugs, seizure of my bank account, garnishee of my wages, bankruptcy and seizure of my passport) and I confess that I have been slow to learn and come to the suggestion that I make to you now. But every time I have appeared in court my conscience, principles and love for all that lives have been trashed in favour of laws that, for example, made my swimming in front of a nuclear warship to impede its entry to an Australian port, sitting in front of a bulldozer in defense of old-growth forests or ‘trespassing’ at a US military base located on land stolen from indigenous people ‘illegal’.

So you see, as I read accounts of your trial, I am reminded of my own trials, those of my wife and fellow nonviolent activist, Anita McKone, as well as the trials of many other activists that I have followed over the past three decades. I am also reminded of the analyses of the legal system offered by people as diverse as Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy and Gandhi, each of whom clearly identified the primary role of the legal system: to inflict violence in defense of elite interests.

That is why it did not surprise me, as Chris Hedges noted, that Judge Ronald A. Zweibel ‘was caustic and hostile to McMillan and her defense team during the trial. He barred video evidence that would have helped her case. He issued a gag order that forbade the defense lawyers, Martin Stolar and Rebecca Heinegg, to communicate with the press. And, astonishingly, he denied McMillan bail.’ See ‘They Can’t Outlaw the Revolution’. It also did not surprise me that Zweibel protected Grantley Bovell, the plainclothed police officer who assaulted you at Zuccotti Park, against challenges to his credibility and hid Bovell’s history of violent misconduct and corruption as a police officer from the jury. See ‘NYPD officer embroiled in assault trial sued by another Occupy campaigner’. Nor did it surprise me that prosecutor Erin Choi and Assistant District Attorney Shanda Strain ridiculed your testimony and accused you of lying. See ‘Occupy Wall Street Protester Cecily McMillan Sentenced To Three Months In Jail’.

Sadly, I have seen such things in courtrooms many times. I have also watched a judge manipulate a jury. But sometimes you need to witness something very many times before you realise that it is not just an aberration; it is systemic. As I said, I have been slow to realise the nature and full extent of the violence inflicted by the legal system but I know it now. See ‘The Rule of Law: Unjust and Violent’.

And one reason I finally understood this violence is because I now know that all perpetrators of violence – irrespective of whether they inflict their violence institutionally or directly – such as Judge Zweibel, prosecutor Choi, Assistant District Attorney Strain and police officer Bovell, have certain psychological characteristics: they are terrified, self-hating and powerless as well as devoid of love, compassion, empathy and sympathy as a result of the violence inflicted on them when they were children. See ‘Why Violence?’ and ‘Fearless Psychology and Fearful Psychology: Principles and Practice’.

Obviously, no doubt like you Cecily, I sincerely hope that Judge Zweibel, prosecutor Choi, Assistant District Attorney Strain and officer Bovell find the courage to seek the emotional support they need to heal from the psychological damage they suffered as children. For, as you so clearly stated, whatever violence they inflict on us, our world includes love for them as well.

In the meantime, here is my suggestion for you to consider as you ponder an appeal.

As you, I and many others continue our nonviolent struggle to create a world of peace, justice, sustainability and love for all, while both in and out of prison, one of the issues that we must address is this: How can we nonviolently resist legal systems that, by elite design, perpetrate injustice and inflict violence?

I now believe that one important way for us to do this is for powerful individuals to noncooperate with courts (which delegitimizes the process and makes judges powerless). By refusing to participate in the delusion that courts are concerned with justice (by refusing to enter a plea and to present any defense whatsoever), the resister will no doubt end up in prison and, in the era of privatized prisons when maximum prisoners means maximum profit, any prison term might not be brief.

The point, however, is simply this: There is no point speaking when a judge’s fear makes them incapable of listening. And until we make it clear that we are fearless enough to no longer submit under threat of the legal system’s violence, legal action will remain a key tool in the elite’s armory against us. Moreover, every time we participate in the legal system, we legitimize it in the eyes of the 99%. Our message should be: The rule of law is the rule of elite violence.

In simple English: The legal system is a ‘stacked deck’ and the only winning move is not to play.

Hence, it is apparent to me, our strategy to remake society in accord with principles of justice and love must include recognition of the fact that the legal system is part of what must be removed. More sophisticated methods for dealing with conflict and violence – ranging from listening and needs-based processes to truth and reconciliation commissions as well as nonviolent action – have long existed.

So the sooner we embrace wholesale noncooperation with the legal system as part of our strategy the better. Of course, many political prisoners, such as those at Guantanamo and elsewhere, noncooperate with particular abuses by the legal system already. But we need to expand this noncooperation. Like you, I have spent time in prison where the typical prisoner is someone who is poor, indigenous or marginalised in some other way. My experience is that many of these prisoners would be happy to noncooperate with courts and other legal processes which they are well aware abuse them too. They just need a reason for doing so and to feel the solidarity that arises in a shared struggle in which all can participate equally.

Anyway, whatever you decide in this instance Cecily, I appreciate your enormous courage on behalf of us all.

For a world of truth, justice and love; Robert

P.S. You might also be interested in joining the worldwide movement to end all violence. If you are, then, once you have the opportunity to do so, you can sign online ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World’.


Biodata: Robert has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of ‘Why Violence?’ His email address is and his website is here.


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