By Nathan Schneider
This article originally appeared on the Waging Nonviolence website.
Unlike some of Occupy Wall Street’s iconic actions in recent months, May Day did not include a scene of mass arrest. Several dozen arrests were scattered throughout the day and night during various marches and actions. But, as never before in the movement’s short history, arrests of military veterans in particular featured prominently.
The day’s first arrest was of OWS regular Bill Steyert, who momentarily blocked the intersection at 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, waving a yellow flag, just as the morning “99 Pickets” actions were beginning. Among the last and most dramatic arrests were of members of the newly-formed Veterans Peace Team, at a memorial dedicated to Vietnam veterans.
As night fell and tens of thousands of marchers arrived at New York’s Financial District, police blockades thwarted Occupiers’ plans to hold an after-party in Battery Park. Those who remained gathered instead at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza on Water Street. A drum circle played, while others formed a large assembly in the round, amplifying each other’s voices with the “people’s mic.” There, Tarak Kauff, a founder of Veterans Peace Team and a longtime Veterans for Peace member, announced that his group would stand on the front lines before the police, who were already surrounding the area by the hundreds. Referring to the environmental crisis and the prolonged wars on behalf of powerful interests, he told the crowd, “We are in a fight for survival.”
Kauff and seven other Veterans Peace Team members, along with two clergymen, would be arrested within the hour, holding their ground at the memorial.
Veterans Peace Team began organizing and training late last year, as a wave of evictions and violent repression against the Occupy movement spread across the United States. Their first mission, however, was abroad — in support of those resisting the construction of a military base on South Korea’s Jeju Island. The South Korean government deemed these American veterans enough of a threat to warrant deporting them from the country upon arrival.
In late March, Veterans Peace Team took part in an OWS march against police brutality, and its members have been in ongoing discussions with the OWS Direct Action Working Group before that and since. Symbolic arrests like what Veterans Peace Team practiced on May Day, along with the recent “Cardboard Roses” civil disobedience actions on Wall Street, have been part of OWS’ ongoing search for the means, post-encampment, to make its message heard and resonate.
After his release from police custody, I spoke with Tarak Kauff about the action.
What led Veterans Peace Team to join Occupy Wall Street on May Day?
A number of us have been involved in the Occupy movement since, well, before the beginning, and we had been following the organizing leading up to May Day. We say in our statement of purpose, “As veterans, we stand with the Occupy movement as members of the 99 percent and oppose any and all use of force by police against peaceful protesters exercising their right to peaceably assemble to seek redress of grievances.” We were aware of the potential for police violence and wanted to be on the scene both as people participating in May Day and also as U.S. military veterans and allies to stand, if needed and requested, as a front line facing the police.
Did you know that you’d be arrested that day? Did you have an idea of what the circumstances would be?
We were aware of the possibility of arrest but were not specifically looking to be arrested. We actually did not have any idea how this would play out but were on call in case of a situation where police repression seemed imminent. I don’t think anyone knew how this would eventually evolve, as the police were calling the shots, erecting barricades and directing the march where they wanted it to go. It wound up at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza, an appropriate place for us to take a stand.
You spoke to a large assembly there as people were discussing whether or not to stay past the 10 p.m. closure of the memorial. What did you think when others didn’t seem to be staying? What did you do?
At the assembly it initially looked like the crowd was determined to stay, so we made the decision to stand as a front-line buffer between the police and the Occupiers. We had already lined up with two of the clergy from Occupy Faith, one of whom was a Vietnam veteran, and at that point we were committed. But, just a few moments before the police moved in, we were told that the crowd was leaving. Though we probably had time to change our minds, we felt it would not be appropriate at that point to leave. We had every right to be where we were and stand there. I could understand the Occupiers leaving; the police presence was massive and there was a possibility of arrests and violence from the police. A lot of these kids have been roughed up before and the prospect of a day or two in the Tombs is not appealing. I think it would have been great if they stayed, but I don’t blame them for leaving.
How did the police treat you? Do you think they treated you any differently for being veterans?
They treated us generally with respect. I think there were a few factors — firstly, that we were veterans, secondly, that we obviously were not resisting and, thirdly, that our attitude was not confrontational or angry, just determined. We recognize that they are human beings. We understand fully that the police protect the interests of the ruling elite or the 1 percent, but we treat them as individuals, not as enemies. I often see that many of them have considerable anger, fear and the capacity to be brutal, but there are also many who are good, decent people who sympathize with the Occupy movement. You can see it in their faces and in how they act. We were lucky; the cops who made the arrests were all pretty decent, and a few of them even expressed considerable sympathy for the Occupy movement during the booking process.
Why is it so important to have a group composed mainly of veterans? Is it more a matter of who veterans are, or of how they tend to operate?
For whatever strange reason, veterans of military service get a certain amount of respect and credibility from the public. Often, even the police will say, “Thank you for your service.” Many police officers are vets and identify with us, so our presence could discourage violence on their part. If not, then the world will see the system using violence on its own military veterans. Of course, we realize that while in the military we were actually serving the 1 percent, who profit off of war and exploitation. Because of that, when we now denounce war and its many attendant evils, people tend to realize that many of us are speaking and acting from experience. So it’s more a matter of who we are than anything else. I think that anyone can operate with discipline, purpose and integrity. You don’t have to be a vet. Some of our best members are non-veteran allies.
Do you have plans for future actions?
Yes. We will be in Chicago at the NATO protests, and we have a letter for NATO which we intend to deliver in person. If we are stopped at the barricades, we will stay there without anger or hatred, face to face with the police state.