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“I Believe Bearing Witness is a Moral Imperative”



Michael McQuillan is an activist protesting the conditions at Rikers Island, NYC’s largest jail
Michael McQuillan is an activist protesting the conditions at Rikers Island, NYC’s largest jail (photo: Sharon Kosakoff)

The Insider:

Hi Michael--Thanks for talking with The Insider today.

Michael McQuillan:

The pleasure is mine. Good wishes to The Insider community.

The Insider:

What city do you live in?

Michael McQuillan:

I'm a longtime Brooklyn resident in New York City. I grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side, which was racially diverse before that phrase was part of our vocabulary, at a time when political involvement was encouraged.

The Insider:

Did you go to school here in the city?

Michael McQuillan:

I did indeed, Joan of Arc Junior High in Manhattan plus the Bronx High School of Science.

The Insider:

And for college?

Michael McQuillan:

Washington University in St. Louis for my BA in political science. My master’s in history is from Long Island University's Brooklyn Campus. I did graduate work in Southeast Asia Studies at Ohio University after my return from the Peace Corps in South Korea..


The Tragedy of Rikers Island

The Insider:

How did you first get interested in the situation at Rikers Island?

Michael McQuillan:

Graham Rayman's Daily News reporting reignited my memory of Kalief Browder's story. The precedent of the 1971 Attica rebellion also came to mind. Could that happen on Rikers Island if local leaders didn’t lead? My own previous writings on policing and race relations on the History News Network, plus chairing the New York Police Department Training Advisory Council’s Race Subcommittee in the aftermath of the Eric Garner killing, made me ready to receive Rikers news.

The Insider:

Yes, I read the New Yorker's stories about Kalief. They were very sad. Could you very briefly explain what happened to him?

Kalief Browder
Kalief Browder

Michael McQuillan:

Kalief Browder suffered in solitary confinement through two of his three years in detention on Rikers Island while steadfastly asserting his innocence of an alleged backpack theft. While the UN Human Rights Council calls more than 15 days of isolation "torture," Kalief was repeatedly beaten, starved, and surveilled throughout his two years of solitary confinement. Kalief was ultimately released from Rikers Island without a trial, began rebuilding his life by taking classes at Bronx Community College, but trauma-scarred, hanged himself at home in 2015 at age 22.

The Insider:

Tragic! How did his story then become public?

Michael McQuillan:

Jennifer Gonnerman’s extensive reporting in the New Yorker, first in 2014, and then followed up for four years ignited protests, as did a documentary about Kalief Browder that Jay Z produced.


The Insider:

How did you first get involved with this? Did you attend a protest?

Michael McQuillan:

Yes, the Katal Center’s "Close Rikers Campaign” announced a City Hall rally that I felt compelled to attend, I felt bound by the moral imperative of Tikkun Olam in my Jewish tradition, that one must act to repair a broken world. I felt resolute that I would do more than make it to rallies, but that's how I started.

I was astonished to find padlock gates along City Hall Park's perimeter. Peering through, I saw Mayor De Blasio under a striped umbrella at what seemed like a cafe table beneath the City Hall steps. A pigeon near me was the only outsider inside. Thus, the rally crowd of perhaps one hundred people squeezed itself into the commuter and tourist mass on the sidewalk outside the gates.


Photos by Michael McQuillan

Remembering Rikers Island victims
Remembering Rikers Island victims
Akeem Browder, Kalief's brother, at Foley Square
Akeem Browder, Kalief's brother, at Foley Square
NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams alongside the protestors
NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams alongside the protestors
NYC City Council, a far cry from Rikers Island
NYC City Council, a far cry from Rikers Island
Protestors rally again on February 28th for closing Rikers Island
Protestors rally again on February 28th for closing Rikers Island
Members of the Katal Center's Close Rikers campaign team
Members of the Katal Center's Close Rikers campaign team

The Insider:

Do you go regularly to these public protests?

Michael McQuillan:

I’ve been involved since then for 18 months in a sequence of public protests. The latest rally happened last week, on February 28th, outside of 633 Third Avenue in Manhattan, the skyscraper location of New York Governor Kathy Hochul's downstate office. They are more or less monthly. Close Rikers phone banking actions occur between rallies.

The Insider:

Do you do these things regularly?

Michael McQuillan:

Absolutely. I believe that bearing witness is a moral imperative that awakens the compassion from which unforeseen ideas for actions emerge.

The Insider:

You've also testified about this, right?

Michael McQuillan:

Yes, at the December 13th public hearing that the City Council's Criminal Justice Committee conducted on the status of Rikers Island.

Michael McQuillan Testimony 12-13-22
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Download • 89KB

The Insider:

What was that like?

Michael McQuillan:

Gratifying in that I made myself present, moving to stand beside Rikers survivors who in frigid cold from the City Hall steps were addressing the media about their travails and the crisis there now. I appreciated that Public Advocate Jumanne Williams as always joined us. Not one council member came out.


I then waited inside for two hours and 20 minutes to testify for an allotted two minutes to Committee Chairperson Carlina Rivera, the lone council member remaining, her colleagues and the City Hall press corps long gone.

Corrections Commissioner Louis Molina, surrounded by his seven-member executive staff, ignored the Rikers Island survivors as he swept up the chamber aisle after his 90-minute dais appearance. I wondered whether Lincoln’s Gettysburg vow that a “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” which is displayed on the City Council’s ceiling, will fall prey to the arrogance of power.

I averted my eyes from the scoreboard clock's scarlet numbers as I made my public statement, head held high, completing my task to my satisfaction because this was my Super Bowl.

The Insider:

Politicians have been talking for years about closing down Rikers Island. Why hasn't it happened, do you suppose?

Michael McQuillan:

Yes, they talk, but they don't close the Rikers detention facility, which now incarcerates 6,000 people--twice the intended amount. Ninety percent are awaiting trial, making a farce of the Sixth Amendment right to speedy public trials. Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s Independent Commission on Criminal Justice and Incarceration five years ago endorsed closing Rikers Island. That was a mandate. The Council three years ago voted a closure plan that would replace Rikers with borough-based jails into law. The current mayor, Eric Adams, however, rejects that.

I wonder how many men and women inside feel compelled to plead falsely to guilt, ruining futures for themselves and their families, in order to release themselves from Hell. I mourn Kalief Browder and praise his brave assertion of innocence.

The Insider:

Do you think one of the reasons that Rikers Island is allowed to fester is that the population is disproportionately African American? Is this a "Black Lives Matter" situation?

Michael McQuillan:

Absolutely. Racism is so normal, the late Congress Member Shirley Chisholm said, that most people don't even notice. Moreover, the remote physical location of the jail complex makes it easy to ignore by both accident and intent. Whether we attach the Black Lives Matter or any other label to the human rights crisis on Rikers Island, it constitutes a human emergency that cries out for action.


Because of overcrowding, many prisoners are required to sleep on the floor and relieve themselves in plastic bags
Because of overcrowding, many prisoners are required to sleep on the floor and relieve themselves in plastic bags

Apathy prevails among whites at large since the incarcerated are predominantly Black and Brown humans. When I slide off the mattress of bed in the morning, I'm aware that many at Rikers sleep on tile floors in shower stalls, knowledge I take through my day.

The Insider:

Has anyone ever been surprised that you are interested in this issue, since you are white?

Michael McQuillan:

"Why don't you help your own people for a change?" my mother asked when I was a community organizer for the NYPIRG Citizens Alliance in Queens. A friend said I should have helped get Brooklyn Heights its new library when I came home from volunteering with post-Hurricane Katrina rebuilding in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

But high school students to whom I taught history voted me "best loved and most inspiring" because, they wrote, I "practiced what I'd preached about confronting injustice." President Kennedy’s call to service was a beacon of light when I was young, and now that I’ve aged, too. The notion that "here on earth God's work must truly be our own,” concluded his Inaugural Address.

The Insider:

I wonder if I may ask you a nosy question on behalf of The Insider's readers? You talked about your Jewish beliefs being part of your impetus for your activism. Some of them are sure to say, "But McQuillan is an Irish name!"

Michael McQuillan:

With my mother being a lapsed Catholic, and my father, an atheist, a spiritual life was beyond mine for decades. However, my conversion to Judaism 26 years ago anchored me with my wife in the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. There, we are active in the Social Action Committee, striving with others to live our values authentically, sowing a spirit of community for all people.

The Insider:

Many thanks for your time today, Michael! Good luck with your good cause.

Michael McQuillan:

Thanks for including me in The Insider’s community. Good wishes!

 

Photo credit: Karen Greisdorf
(photo: Karen Greisdorf)

Michael McQuillan, former U.S. Senate aide, Peace Corps volunteer and history teacher, chaired the N.Y.P.D. Training Advisory Council’s Race Subcommittee and writes for The Write Launch, History News Network, Harlem World Magazine and his blog. His work is also featured in the Covid Rebels 21 Poets anthology.


1 comment

1 Comment


Guest
Mar 10, 2023

Hi Michael: Thanks for your work on behalf of those unfairly incarcerated and neglected at RIker's prison. I admire your grit and commitment to justice and share your view on the importance of bearing witness. I've spent much of my creative and teaching life speaking out, physically protesting, and writing about similar social and political injustice here in Canada and abroad.

Keep up the good work.

Gary Geddes, Thetis Island, Canada

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