It was a beautiful, sunlit fall morning when the patrol, many in camouflage jackets, no more than 40 of them in all, headed directly into enemy territory. Their ranks included one sailor in uniform, three women, and a small child named Viva in a stroller. Except for Viva, all of them were vets, a few from the Vietnam era but most from our more recent wars.
As they headed for Wall Street, several carried signs that said, “I am still serving my country,” and one read, “How is the war economy working for you?” Many wore Iraq Veterans Against the War t-shirts under their camo jackets, and there was one other thing that made this demonstration unlike any seen in these last Occupy Wall Street weeks: there wasn’t a police officer, police car, or barricade in sight. As they headed out across a well-trafficked street, not a cop was there to yell at them to get back on the curb.
In the wake of the wounding of Scott Olsen in the police assault on Occupy Oakland last week, that’s what it means to be a veteran marching on Zuccotti Park. Scott Kimbell (Iraq, 2005-2006), who led the patrol, later told me: “Cops are in a difficult position with vets. Some of them were in the military and are sympathetic and they know that the community will not support what happened to Scott Olsen.” Just before Broad Street, a line of waiting police on scooters picked up the marchers, for once feeling more like an escort than a gang of armed avengers, while media types and photographers swarmed in the street without police reprimand.
Suddenly, the patrol swiveled right and marched directly into the financial heart of the planet through a set of barricades. (“Who opened up the barrier there?” shouted a policeman.) It was aiming directly at a line of mounted police blocking the way. In front of them, the march halted. With a smart “Left face!” the platoon turned to the Stock Exchange and began to call out in unison, “We are veterans! We are the 99%! We swore to protect the Constitution of the United States of America! We are here to support the Occupy Movement!”
Then, the horses parted like the Red Sea, like a wave of emotion sweeping ahead of us, and the vets marched on triumphantly toward Zuccotti Park as a military cadence rang out (“...corporate profits on the rise, but soldiers have to bleed and die! Sound off, one, two...”)
The platoon came to attention in front of Trinity Church for a moment of silence for “our friend Scott Olsen,” after which it circled the encampment at Zuccotti Park to cheers and cries of “Welcome Home!” from the protesters there. (One of the occupiers shouted to the skies: “Hey, police, the military’s here and they’re on our side!”) And if you don’t think all of it was stirring, then you have the heart of a banker.
Soon after, veterans began offering testimony, people’s mic-style, at the top of the park. Eli Wright, 30, a former Army medic in Ramadi, Iraq (2003-2004), now on military disability and Viva's dad, parked her stroller when I asked him why he was here. “I came out today to march for economic justice," he responded. "I want a future for my daughter. I want her to have an education and a job. I served seven years for our country to defend our constitution only to see it being dismantled before my eyes. I think it’s time for vets and others to stand up and fight back.” As for two-year-old Viva, “This,” he said, “is the introduction to democracy that she needs to see.” As a matter of fact, amid the tumult, Viva was soundly and peaceably asleep.
Joshua Shepherd, in the Navy from 2002 to 2008, told me that, during those years, he came to realize "it wasn’t about protecting anyone, it was about making money.” Now a student, he was holding up a large poster of his friend Scott Olsen. He had been with Olsen when he was hit, possibly by a beanbag round fired by the police, and had flown in from San Francisco for this march. “It’s important that the people at Wall Street know that we support them. For the life of me I’m not sure why the police escalated the way they did [in Oakland], but the powers that be are threatened. Income disparities have never been higher and they want to keep it that way. It’s my intention to raise my voice and say that’s not right.”
T.J. Buonomo, 27 and unemployed, a personable former Army military intelligence officer, told me that he had come up from Washington specifically for the march. “Seeing what happened to Scott Olsen made me feel like we had to stand up for Americans getting their democracy back. If this country keeps going like this, we’re going to look like Latin America in the 1970s.”
Of course, as with so much else about Zuccotti Park, there’s no way of knowing whether these vets were a recon outfit preparing the way for a far larger “army,” possibly (as in the Vietnam era) including active-duty service people, or whether they were just a lost American patrol. Still, if you were there, you, too, might have felt that something was changing in this country, that a larger movement of some kind was beginning to form.
And speaking of such movements, if you’ve read the final essays in the remarkable new book Who’s Afraid of Frances Fox Piven?, an essential guide to the writings of the activist and professor “Glenn Beck loves to hate,” then you know that no one came closer than her to predicting the rise of OWS. Having covered the fate of the poor memorably for almost half a century, Piven in her latest piece, “The War Against the Poor,” has a bead on just what kind of a “war” these vets are now facing on the American home front.