Antiwar vets attacked by police outside debate

October 17, 2008

Lucy Herschel and Hannah Wolfe report on how police met antiwar dissent with batons and horses at the last presidential debate in New York.

WHILE BARACK Obama and John McCain were getting makeup touch-ups for their Wednesday night debate at Hofstra University, in Hempstead, N.Y., police outside made sure that the voices of antiwar veterans wouldn't be heard.

Officers of the Nassau County Police Department reacted with reckless violence to a protest organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) outside the debate site. Among several people injured in the assault, former Army Sgt. Nick Morgan was knocked unconscious and his cheekbone broken when he was trampled by a police horse.

"We were there to force the issue that the leaders of this nation are not listening to or are not caring about veterans," said IVAW member Matthis Chiroux, who was among several veterans and activists arrested. "And they couldn't have done a better job of proving us right. They stomped my friend Nick's face into Jell-o. I put this on both candidates, on the major press and on the Nassau County police."

The IVAW had sent a request to the debate moderator that they be allowed to ask their own questions of the candidates at the Hofstra event, but this was ignored--and so the third and final presidential debate passed without an antiwar voice being represented.

Nassau County police injured several people in their assault on antiwar protests outside the presidential debate
Nassau County police injured several people in their assault on antiwar protests outside the presidential debate

That night, IVAW organized a nonviolent demonstration to request entry into the debate. Marching in uniform and in formation, IVAW members led several hundred activists to an intersection in front of the Hofstra campus gates--where they were confronted by an army of mounted police and riot cops.

Ten IVAW members were arrested, apparently for no more than insisting on their right to be heard. Mounted police then pushed the crowd back onto the sidewalk, recklessly pulling their horses around and at times backing them into the crowd. The police continued to drive protesters back, pinning the crowd up against a fence.

Riot cops reached past the IVAW members at the front of the crowd, grabbing protesters behind them and dragging them into the street. A mounted cop leapt with his horse onto the sidewalk and trampled protesters, including Morgan.

Chiroux said the police took Morgan aside and bandaged him, but then placed him in a truck with other arrestees to go to processing and detention.

"He was incoherent, he couldn't even say his name," Chiroux said. "He had blood running down his face. We kept telling the police he needed immediate medical attention. One officer said, with a smirk, 'Get him to say it. He has to say it.' I said, 'He can't even talk!' The officer said, 'Tough luck.' Finally, we said, 'Nick, you have to say I need to go to the hospital.' We got him to say it, and they took him in."

CHIROUX SAID that while they were detained, he and his fellow IVAW members were verbally harassed by police. "They called us traitors, cowards, idiots," he said.

Three women IVAW members who had been arrested were handcuffed to a bench, and "the male officers kept coming closer to them, verbally sexually harassing them," Chiroux said. "One kept holding up Marlisa's ID to her face and saying, 'Wow, you look like you came out of a Barbie magazine.'"

Morgan was brought back from the hospital, still incoherent and in great pain. He was left chained to a bench for five hours without further medical attention, Chiroux said. IVAW members repeatedly asked officers for their names (they weren't wearing badges) or to contact lawyers--they were refused on all counts.

When most of the IVAW members were finally released at 2:30 a.m. (according to reports, one vet remained in custody as this report was written), they went, still in uniform, to a nearby diner--where the same group of cops who had detained them were eating.

Chiroux went up to them and asked again for their names. One officer "got up in my face," he said, "screaming and waving his finger at me and saying, 'I'm gonna kick your ass if you keep asking that.'"

The IVAW members say they wanted to ask Barack Obama if he would support soldiers who refuse to serve in Iraq, since in the past, he had called the Iraq war illegal. They also wanted to question John McCain about his votes to cut veterans benefits.

"Neither of the candidates have shown real support for soldiers and veterans," said Jason Lemieux, a former sergeant in the Marine Corps and a member of IVAW who served three tours in Iraq.

"We came here to try and get serious questions answered--questions that we, as veterans of the Iraq war, have a right to ask--but instead we were arrested. We believe that the time has come to end this war and bring our troops home, and we will be pushing for that no matter what happens in this election."

IVAW members thanked activists for coming to support the march and for enduring the police violence.

"For many of our members, this was their first protest," said Hannah Fleury of the Campus Antiwar Network, which mobilized chapters from as far away as Boston for this protest. "Now that we see what we're up against, we're going to fight even harder on our campuses to end the war, and to support the veterans."

The New York Civil Liberties Union is asking for an immediate investigation into the use of horses at the demonstration. "It is shocking that someone who served his country would be treated so disgracefully by the Nassau County Police Department," Tara Keenan-Thomson, director of the group's Nassau County chapter, said in a press release.

As Chiroux said, "Both candidates claim they support veterans. And this is how we got supported last night: by being pushed back, trampled and arrested.

"We demonstrated to the country and the world that democracy is not dead in the United States--that the people in the U.S. still ultimately hold the power. They can try to force our voices to be silent, to block us out of the media, but we won't let these people shut us down."

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