"We've Had Our Eyes Opened ... " Veterans Joining the 99% Movement
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11-11-11 is not a variant of Herman Cain’s much-touted 9-9-9 tax plan, but rather the date of this year’s Veterans Day. This is especially relevant, as the U.S. has now entered its second decade of war in Afghanistan, the longest war in the nation’s history. U.S. veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are appearing more and more on the front lines—the front lines of the Occupy Wall Street protests, that is.
Video from the Occupy Oakland march on Tuesday, Oct. 25, looks and sounds like a war zone. The sound of gunfire is nearly constant in the video. Tear-gas projectiles were being fired into the crowd when the cry of “Medic!” rang out. Civilians raced toward a fallen protester lying on his back on the pavement, mere steps from a throng of black-clad police in full riot gear, pointing guns as the civilians attempted to administer first aid.
The fallen protester was Scott Olsen, a 24-year-old former U.S. Marine who had served two tours of duty in Iraq. The publicly available video shows Olsen standing calmly alongside a Navy veteran holding an upraised Veterans for Peace flag. Olsen was wearing a desert camouflage jacket and sun hat, and his Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) T-shirt. He was hit in the head by a police projectile, most likely a tear-gas canister, suffering a fractured skull. As the small group of people gathered around him to help, a police officer lobbed a flashbang grenade directly into the huddle, and it exploded.
Four or five people lifted Olsen and raced with him away from the police line. At the hospital, he was put into an induced coma to relieve brain swelling. He is now conscious but unable to speak. He communicates using a notepad.
I interviewed one of Olsen’s friends, Aaron Hinde, also an Iraq War veteran. He was at Occupy San Francisco when he started getting a series of frenzied tweets about a vet down in Oakland. Hinde raced to the hospital to see his friend. He later told me a little about him: “Scott came to San Francisco about three months ago from Wisconsin, where he actually participated in the holding of the State Capitol over there. Scott’s probably one of the warmest, kindest guys I know. He’s just one of those people who always has a smile on his face and never has anything negative to say. ... And he believed in the Occupy movement, because it’s very obvious what’s happening in this country, especially to us veterans. We’ve had our eyes opened by serving and going to war overseas. So, there’s a small contingency of us out here, and we’re all very motivated and dedicated.”
As I was covering one of the Occupy Wall Street rallies in Times Square on Oct. 15, I saw Sgt. Shamar Thomas become deeply upset. Police on horseback had moved in on protesters, only to be stopped by a horse that went down on its knees. Other officers had picked up metal barricades, squeezing the frightened crowd against steam pipes. Sgt. Thomas was wearing his desert camouflage, his chest covered with medals from his combat tour in Iraq. He shouted at the police, denouncing their violent treatment of the protesters. Thomas later wrote of the incident: “There is an obvious problem in the country and PEACEFUL PEOPLE should be allowed to PROTEST without Brutality. I was involved in a RIOT in Rutbah, Iraq 2004 and we did NOT treat the Iraqi citizens like they are treating the unarmed civilians in our OWN Country.”
A group calling itself Veterans of the 99 Percent has formed and, with the New York City Chapter of IVAW, set Wednesday as the day to march to Liberty Plaza to formally join and support the movement. Their announcement read: “ ‘Veterans of the 99 Percent’ hope to draw attention to the ways veterans have been impacted by the economic and social issues raised by Occupy Wall Street. They hope to help make veterans’ and service members’ participation in this movement more visible and deliberate.”