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Police Violence Against Veterans: A Long and Painful Legacy

When I read the headlines earlier this week, I felt as though I were in a time warp. “Police Fracture Iraq Vet’s Skull Clearing Intersection of Protesters.” But the location was wrong: Oakland, Calif. I thought that happened in Hempstead, N.Y.POLICE VIOLENCE: Scott Olsen, member of Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War and a Marine Corps veteran of two tours in Iraq, who was shot in the head last night by Oakland police, is in critical condition with a skull fracture and swelling of the brain. Meanwhile, outrage against police violence and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, already facing a recall election, is growing.(AFP)

I was reading about Scott Olsen’s cracked skull at the hands of the Oakland police, but all I could picture was my friend Nick Morgan’s head, fractured by the Hempstead police, bleeding out on the sidewalk in front of Hofstra University. Three years ago, almost to the day, they nearly killed my friend, a veteran of Iraq...when they fractured his skull...clearing an intersection of protesters.

Police violence against peaceful demonstrators in the U.S. has a long and painful history. Police violence against veteran demonstrators is absolutely no exception.

One need only search the words, “Bonus March,” for a bloody history lesson in how America treats its veterans demanding a fair shake from the 1%. In 1932, under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, U.S. Infantry and Cavalry deployed in the streets of Washington D.C. to violently dismantle a large encampment of WWI veterans demanding benefits promised them for their service and sacrifice. The attack left more than fifty veterans injured and killed an infant who died several weeks later from tear gas-related injuries. While perhaps the largest example in history of state violence against veterans, it certainly is not the last.

Now we are made furious by the injuries caused to Scott Olsen. Like the Bonus Marchers before him, he was a veteran occupying public space, demanding a promise be made good on: a fair shake from the country that sent him to combat. And like the Bonus Marchers before him, we’ve all relearned a valuable lesson. Being veterans protects nobody when the streets become a warzone.

But that lesson is not new to us. Not those veterans who’ve been protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the last decade. As I referenced earlier, veterans were injured by police before when American streets became a warzone Oct. 15, 2008. Outside the last Presidential Debate in Hempstead, N.Y., between Obama and McCain, protesters, including veterans, came out in droves to demand the “People’s Agenda” be heard by the candidates. Within that, the veterans had a very specific demand.

We were demanding two veterans in uniform be allowed into the debate to ask one question of each candidate. What happened when we approached police lines felt unreal at the time. The immediate of us were arrested, and then horses were used to disperse the rest. When protesters found themselves trapped between the advancing horses and a wall to their rear, they were trampled. Among them was Nick, a former Army sergeant, wearing his uniform, whose cheekbone was crushed by a horse on the sidewalk. Graphic Video of the incident still exists here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgOKgpWrT04

More shocking is that after his face was crushed, he was arrested. While unconscious, no-less, he was handcuffed and loaded on a bus to jail. Charges were later dismissed against all 15 demonstrators arrested that evening, but officers of the Nassau County Police Department have yet to be held accountable for their actions.

Nick still has a lawsuit pending against the County, but police lawyers have refused to negotiate as police officials have issued denials of wrongdoing and contradictory police narratives of the events that took place that evening. All of this makes the case that if you’re protesting in America, you are not safe from the police, even if you are in a liberal city, even if you believe they are part of the 99%, even if you are a veteran in uniform protesting the very same war you were sent to fight in. The police are not your friends.

We thought our uniforms made us safe. I wore an American flag bandanna around my wrist when we marched on the debate, and held another folded in my hands because I thought they were symbols the police would recognize and react peacefully to. I don’t wear my uniform anymore, and the flag no longer has any home on my body.

As I write this, Scott Olsen still rests on a gurney in a hospital in Oakland, Calif. And while he is not handcuffed to the gurney as Nick was handcuffed to his, he is no less a veteran survivor of police brutality, and joins the swelling ranks of those who made it home in one piece only to be broken by the system and have their movements dispersed.

But the movement may withstand the system this time. We were much smaller when Nick was attacked, and had nowhere near the publicity. For as shocking as the images of Nick being trampled were, the incident was blacked out by the Mainstream Media. The organizers, myself included, divided ourselves and fought over how we could have protested better, when we should have been rallying around Nick and demanding an end to police brutality. But we were driven into our separate corners, so many of us, and remain largely unreconciled to this day.

That was the third veteran-led direct action at an electoral event that year, the first two being held at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. It was destined to be the last. Police violence functioned to fracture the organizing core.

May the Occupy Wall Street movement never forget that the only people to blame for Scott Olsen’s injuries are the police and the 1%. No matter what circumstances come to light, no matter if he was committing civil disobedience at the time or if there could have existed some better way the situation could have been negotiated. The police and the 1% bear sole responsibility, and it is for this reason that we must grow and continue to confront them.

If veterans like Scott Olsen, Nick Morgan and the Bonus Marchers can’t be safe from violence at the hands of the system, why should any American feel safe? Grow the 99% and create a country where people don’t have their skulls cracked for occupying public space.

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