Occupying War: A Marine Vet Finds His Mission


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There is the military kind of war and then there is the kind of war that happens in the streets. The first produces veterans. The second, gangbangers.

Marine Sergeant Shamar Thomas is that rare individual who has experienced life and its destruction on both battlefronts. What makes him even more rare is the mission he has been on since September to rechannel the anger and frustration of men from “the warrior community” toward the real enemy he says they should be fighting: the 1%.

“We’re all warriors but we’re warriors for the wrong cause right now,” the six-foot-four, 300-pound former defensive tackle said as he sipped beer one recent afternoon at an Upper East Side pub. Shamar, 26, has a boyish face, sleepy eyes and a deep, ready laugh. He uses lots of hand gestures when he speaks, something he does quietly, and comes off as more of a gentle giant than his war resume indicates.

That’s because he now knows it’s words and ideas—not guns—that have the most explosive potential.

“We have a powerful weapon: our voice,” he said. “We’re getting veterans and gangsters around the country together into the movement—understanding why we’re here, why we’re oppressed. We make them question who they are,” and help them to “look at Wall Street—these are the people we need to fight against. Once we take money out of politics, we can take back our communities.”

The decorated war veteran gained a worldwide following after a tirade he unleashed at NYPD officers – who were threatening protesters with violence in Times Square during the October 15 global day of action – went viral on YouTube. The image of Thomas, dressed in military fatigues and waving his arms, admonishing the mostly white cops that their acts of repression had “no honor,” has been viewed 3.8 million times.

First Line of Defense: Shamar Thomas, Marine and Occupier. Photo: Alex Fradkin

Since then he’s helped launch two groups, Occupy Gangbangers and Global Veterans of the 99%. His goal: to engage gangsters and former soldiers in Occupy, transforming the destructive violence bred within warrior communities into a positive, unified power that challenges the corporate state actors who have victimized those communities—by sending them to fight in illegal manufactured wars, disenfranchising the inner-city poor, and failing to offer economic futures to either.

“This is a chance to voice our issues—police brutality, economic injustice, foreclosed homes,” he said. “I’m a warrior, I don’t have any fear in the streets. So how do I sit on a couch and watch people fight for our freedom and not do anything about it? That’s cowardice. This is about my freedom and the freedom of my people.”

Shamar was born in Roosevelt, Long Island, and knew violence almost from the start; when he was two years old his father died “in the streets,” and he was raised by his mother and a stepfather he didn’t get along with. A military tradition ran deep in the family: Shamar’s great-grandfather was a Navy cook in World War II and his grandfather served in the Air Force in Vietnam before he became an officer with the New York Police Department and, later, director of Veterans Affairs in New York City. His mother worked in logistics in the U.S. Army for more than two decades, which kept their family on the move.

It was amid that uprooted childhood—attending schools in Indianapolis, Tacoma, Dallas, Fayetteville and Nuremberg, Germany, among other places—that Shamar joined a gang: When he was 15, he became part of a small group of Bloods in a Brooklyn neighborhood full of Crips. Two years later he entered the Marine Corps as a warehouse clerk, and by 18 he was in Iraq. He fought in the Battle of Fallujah in 2004 and spent two harrowing weeks perched atop an exposed hill with a five-person mobile security assault team tasked with providing fire cover to troops that passed below. “It’s very difficult to deal with the post-traumatic stress” of having killed, and seen brothers die, in combat, said Shamar, who has received nine medals—including the coveted Combat Action Ribbon—for his two-and-a-half year stint.

And it was upon his return to civilian life in 2007 that Shamar faced a new set of challenges which set the stage for his current mission. After studying briefly at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, he transferred to Syracuse University, where he had hoped to get a football scholarship. Instead, the financial support he received from the military was so meager that he ended up living in a homeless shelter for veterans. When he failed to get the scholarship, Shamar left Syracuse, returned to Long Island and began working with gang members in high schools and juvenile detention centers, trying to stop the flow of recruitment.

Since Occupy began, his work with gangs and at-risk youth has been infused with a new urgency. “I tell people, ‘How are you a gangster when you’re killing your own people in your neighborhood, your own army, somebody who’s poor just like you?’” Instead he emphasizes the need to stand together, to march together, against a 1% corporate ruling class that has exploited and abused them.

“If I can inspire certain leaders where I’m from, introducing them to who their real enemy is, then I feel I can change something in my community. We have to practice what we preach. If I can’t help people on a local level, then who am I really helping?”

Sgt. Thomas admonishing a senior officer at an Occupy march last Fall. Photo: Alex Fradkin

Taking a similar tack within the military, Shamar envisions helping Global Veterans of the 99% become a kind of an “octopus head of the veteran community in the Occupy world, to connect the conversations” about wealth inequality, economic justice, accountability and the rest, he said. The goal is to unite Veterans Against War with Veterans for Peace, OccupyMARINES, Occupy Navy, Occupy Airforce, Occupy Coast Guard, Occupy Military Families and other engaged groups so that men and women in uniform “stand with our brothers and sisters in the streets.”

OccupyMARINES and Veterans for Peace will be joining an Occupy Wall Street march against police brutality this Saturday, March 24, beginning at noon in Liberty Square.

“They’re robbing the veterans first-hand,” Shamar said. “How do you consciously give an 18-year-old $1,500 a month to fight a war where he’s on the front lines, so he can’t even save up enough money to get his own place when he gets out? We talk about supporting our troops and ‘honoring our veterans,’ but how are veterans going to send their kids to college or even buy a car on the pensions they’re paid?

“We all know in our hearts that there is one thing, or many things, wrong,” Shamar added. So his question to vets is this: “Would you fight for freedom?”


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  • david

    Is the problem that soldiers aren’t being compensated enough for the killing and dying they do or is the problem that soldiers are killing and dying in the first place?

    I would care about this a great deal more if he was concerned with the nature of the US military itself rather than the care given to soldiers after they’ve been used up. What about the endemic physical, psychological and sexual abuse without which the phrase ‘military discipline’ would be meaningless? What about the contradiction of an institution that denies the most basic democratic freedoms to its members and actively participates in the surveillance and assassination of dissident citizens turning around and claiming to be a ‘force’ for democracy on a global scale? What about the historic relationship between our military and the corporate-financial class this fella identifies as the ‘enemy’? How about the Christian Fundamentalism that structures our military’s imperial ideology or the free-market mythology that spokesmodels for military power repeat ad nauseum through popular media? It’s nice that this guy isn’t shooting at people in their own backyards anymore, but I hope he’ll turn his criticism toward US military power, in addition to domestic para-mlitary power and capital as a system rather than messing around with yelling at a few individual cops and spitting in the wind about political corruption or whatever.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Smedley-D-Butler/100003521961927 Smedley D Butler

      David, here you have a real answer in front of you, a real man of honor and you question his integrity? And then you ask even more questions as if he’s supposed to have all the answers? You will not crucify him on my watch, you are going to need to big cross if you try sir. SDB

    • Anonymous

      “His goal: to engage gangsters and former soldiers in Occupy, transforming the destructive violence bred within warrior communities into a positive, unified power that challenges the corporate state actors who have victimized those communities—by sending them to fight in illegal manufactured wars, disenfranchising the inner-city poor, and failing to offer economic futures to either.”

      It is right there in the article, you fucking long-winded, narrow-minded, tunnel-visioned dunce.

      • david

        Problem is, gentleman, that our police are merely behaving toward OWS the same way our military behaves toward the populations it targets for control via force… If you want to do something about the cops, you have to transform the military. So, yes, fine, it really is wonderful that he shouted down police and it’s great that he’s helping to focus the energy of gang members and soldiers toward fighting corporate power instead of intra-community violence and imperial war. I’m just saying that a campaign against corporate corruption is necessary but not sufficient to the task at hand and I for one would like to see a spokesman as compelling as Shamar Thomas take on corporate and financial power by starting with its relationship to the institution that he knows best – the US military.

    • Jacob

      What an amazing post. First of all why do you even start off with the presumption that all of us care about the level of care you have for this article? We dont.

      Ok, with that said, almost everything else in your run-on paragraph is all opinionated and not fact checkable and makes wonder if you have ever served in this countries armed forces? I would assume not by the perception you have of the military and its ‘military discipline’ as you put it. Try posting about something to which you are actually knowlegable about and not just things that you have strong opinions against. Then I might care a great deal more about your post.

      And whats up with your contradiction sentence regarding the denial of basic democratic freedoms in the military? Are you suggesting that they should live no different than a civilian? Then what would be the purpose of them protecting our country if they did everything like a civilian? They give up all their privacy after being checked in and out just to get into the service. They check your criminal background, court background, personal references (up to 4 friendly non family and up to 4 others that can verify jobs youve had and places youve lived) and they give up their free time to serve the cause for which they believe in, which is democracy.

      Its called sacrifice. Maybe you’ve never tried it.

      And again, another useless statement about some connection between corporate-financial classes and the military? Could you be more vague? Stop wasting our time.

      When you assumed this guy shoots people down in their back yards, thats when I just completely lost all respect for any points you were even attempting to make, because it just became a logicless rant of yours including crap statements like the one I just mentioned about shooting people in their own backyards. How ridiculous.

      This guy stood up on the fly, without planning anything, against cops that were hitting unarmed protesters on the street in times square. Who are you or who is anyone to say that he should have done more at that moment, like criticize other organizations? He stood up for what he believed in, and its something that most of us, probably including you, believe in. We shouldnt have to worry about getting beaten by our own police on our own soil protesting our own issues.

      At the end you try to downplay his actions because he was yelling at a few individual cops. Yes, it was a few individual cops, because you have to start small. You cant make changes by getting donations and having an administration and working your way down through a ‘system’ thats proving to be dysfunctional. You have to start on the grassroots level, on the street, just like this man did.

      Now, shut up and do something for your country or this world, and quit being an arm chair diplomat.

      • david

        Soldiers don’t necessarily give up their free time to serve. They trade time that they would otherwise have spent going into debt to pay for school while working a low-wage job and trying to fulfill basic community responsibilities. The conditions under which people sign up are not so simple as choosing free time on the one hand or military service on the other.

        Also, I’m not sure how it is that a soldier in our military is supposed to know that he loves democracy enough to kill and die for it when the vast majority of them have never participated in a democratic process of any kind outside of casting a ballot and none of them experience anything like democracy while they’re in the service. So, if they’ve never experienced democracy and they currently serve an institution that systematically denies them the opportunity to actualize democracy in their daily lives, how can they possibly know that they believe in ‘the cause’ of democracy?

        A follow up to that, if these soldiers are deployed by a state that uses its domestic police force to stamp out democratic protests, why would we assume that the soldiers sent to foreign lands by that same state would serve a different function? And one more, when in history has US military intervention lead to the overthrow of rule by a dictatorial minority and the attainment of power by a majority of the population through popular, substantive democratic processes?

        Be careful how much faith you put into the albeit very important mission to ‘take money out of politics,’ independent of the will to transform our foreign and domestic military apparatus.

    • Anonymous

      You win 1000 cawks like a sir.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Smedley-D-Butler/100003521961927 Smedley D Butler

    Sgt Shamar Thomas, lets give it up for the man people, your favorite FB page is mentioned. OOH-RAH!

  • Anonymous

    BRAVISSIMO I DIRITTI VANNO DIFESI CON OGNI MEZZO.

  • Anonymous

    Gotta love this guy! Good luck pal.

  • FAIRSALLYB

    Thank you brothers for your service to our country. And thank you for standing up for non violence. You and your team are appreciated from those that cant attend. SEMPER FI

  • Bobby

    america has simply become a police state…

  • Anonymous

    I’m a Fallujah veteran and an anti-war activist, and I’m extremely disappointed with this article’s glorification of veterans and its indifference to our illegal and immoral occupations abroad. I’m not sure which siege of Fallujah Thomas took part in, but the first one killed about 500 civilians and the 2nd (which I participated in) killed over 800. It is not something he should be proud of or that anyone should honor him for. During Thomas’s famous tirade against the police he said “[i]f you want to go kill or hurt people, go to Iraq. Why are you hurting U.S. citizens?” This dismissal of the value of Iraqi lives speaks volumes about the nature of Thomas’s activism–which focuses on justice for us, not justice for our victims–and I find it very troubling that this has generally been overlooked by Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Wall Street should be making connections between our immoral foreign policy and our immoral domestic policy. Iraqis and Afghans are part of the 99% too, and their lives should matter. We need to stop honoring veterans, because veterans don’t do anything honorable. We veterans don’t defend the 99%, we defend the 1%, and we have killed over 1 million civilians in Iraq and tens of thousands in Afghanistan. Where is the honor in that? If anyone wants to see the information supporting my claims, visit my website: http://www.thefallujahproject.org

  • a white firstgeneration girl

    Sgt. Thomas, from the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU

  • Sarah Sears 77

    Thank you. It’s not enough, I offer solidarity.
    Down with America Inc.!

  • Maribel Hernandez

    Thank you for this RossLucianoCaputo

    During Thomas’s famous tirade against the police he said “[i]f you want to go kill or hurt people, go to Iraq. Why are you hurting U.S. citizens?” This dismissal of the value of Iraqi lives speaks volumes about the nature of Thomas’s activism

    –which focuses on justice for us, not justice for our victims–and

    I find it very troubling that this has generally been overlooked by Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Wall Street should be making connections between our immoral foreign policy and our immoral domestic policy. Iraqis and Afghans are part of the 99% too, and their lives should matter.

    We need to stop honoring veterans, because veterans don’t do anything honorable

  • Gprado561

    David – Political dissent in the iliad ” there is a crisis in politics.

  • Something to say

    Evening libs. You are all respectively entitled to your own opinion. I am not a right-winged blow hard on a trolling mission. Power to the people and to you for what an excellent nation we live in to be able to bitch about the government on the internet without the fear of being beheaded for our comments. But I have one question:

    What the fuck kinda Marine wears ribbons on his fatigue blouse and wears his fatigue blouse as a common jacket? I respect any man who has fought in war especially a decorated veteran such as this…gentleman I guess. Especially a veteran of the highly unpopular Iraq war. But this guy has disgraced his fucking uniform. Active duty Marines don’t even wear their uniforms off duty, let alone a prior service Marine who thinks its ok to wear the goddamn thing as a trendy fucking sport coat. If he was such a good Marine he would AND SHOULD know better. Shamar Thomas you have dishonored the Corps.

    Disclaimer: I am not a Marine so don’t ask “oh when did you serve? blah blah blah”. My father was a Marine. My grandfather was a Marine. My uncle was a Marine. Other family members have served in different branches. My brother is off to boot camp soon and I plan to join the Corps after HS. From all of this I have gained enough knowledge to know that no Marine would ever be caught dead in dressed in such a state as Mr. Thomas was. He has truly dishonored his uniform. And that’s a damn shame.

    Good night libs.