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.
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?”
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?”