Monday, October 17, 2011

Brother Courage:
Shamar Thomas’ truth to power



Former Marine Sgt. Shamar Thomas stood tall in a prominent American place on Oct. 15 and called out a symbol of American authority on the way it was behaving towards ordinary American people. There are pictures and videos. The images of Thomas’ stand on principle won’t have the long-term global power and resonance of other such images, like the one of the lone brave figure who galvanized the world by standing in front of a tank at Tiananmen Square. But Thomas’ actions on Saturday, like those in his previous place of employment, went above and beyond the call of duty.

Supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement were rallying on Saturday in Times Square, an historically target-rich environment for those seeking to publicize products, passions and policies. A phalanx of New York City police officers had been dispatched to the scene to disperse the protesters, and the meeting of those protesters and the police had the potential to become a flashpoint not unlike that of Zuccotti Park, the lower Manhattan location where Occupy protesters were beaten and pepper-sprayed a few weeks back, before the eyes of the world.

At one point on Saturday, after Thomas observes Occupy protesters being accosted by a group of cops that had encircled them, the ex-Marine who served two tours with the Corps’ 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in Iraq, hit some personal wall. What happened next was absolutely riveting:



“THIS IS NOT A WAR ZONE!” he shouted at the officers. “THIS IS NOT A WAR ZONE! THESE ARE UNARMED PEOPLE! STOP HURTING THESE PEOPLE, MAN! WHY ARE YOU ALL DOING THIS TO OUR PEOPLE? … LEAVE THESE PEOPLE ALONE! THEY’RE U.S. CITIZENS! U.S. CITIZENS! U.S.! …

“HOW DO YOU SLEEP AT NIGHT? THERE IS HO HONOR IN THIS! THERE IS NO HONOR IN THIS SHIT! THERE IS NO HONOR IN WHAT YOU’RE DOING TO THESE PEOPLE! YOU’RE HERE TO PROTECT US! PROTECT US!

Thomas — a veteran of 50 combat missions in Iraq, including action in the crucible of Fallujah — made his passionate actions equally plain in an interview with Keith Olbermann on Current’s “Countdown,” and in this statement on Thomas’ YouTube channel:

“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. No one was brutalized because our mission was to 'WIN the hearts and minds.' Why should I expect anything less in my OWN Country.”



Thomas’ righteous outburst is even more compelling in the face of the NYPD’s history for terminally dispatching unarmed black men for transgressions real and imagined. Lucky S7even, commenting in HuffPost, got this right away: “I am [pleasantly] surprised that the NYPD didn't shoot him 41 times.”

That wasn’t going to happen on Saturday. You could see it in the eyes of the officers standing around him, some of whom had almost certainly been in the simultaneous sucks of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The NYPD, whose foundational code of conduct has much in common with the military, was essentially faced with the prospect of beating down one of its own, and that was a line they wouldn’t cross. The NYPD blinked in the face of populist courage, and it won’t be forgotten.

In the life of a protest movement — if the movement’s to have any resonance with the public it hopes to reach — there are clarifying moments that cut through all polemics and bullshit, distilling what’s really at stake for all concerned. There’s an instant when the narrow avenue of protest inescapably intersects with the broad power of true populism. When it's clear that “all concerned” means “everyone.”

Shamar Thomas just brought us one of them.

Image credits: Shamar Thomas in Times Square: From SgtShamarThomasUSMC's YouTube channel.

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