Last October a group of 25 veterans and their supporters were arrested at New York City's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Lower Manhattan while reading the names of Americans who died in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Their crime: assembling at the Memorial past the 10 p.m. curfew. The trial for seventeen of those demonstrators who were handcuffed and arrested—including eleven Vietnam veterans and one WW II veteran—began yesterday.
The defendants are being represented by attorneys from the National Lawyers Guild-NYC, who argue in a brief that "the Memorial is in constant use by pedestrians, dogwalkers and other people after 10 p.m.," and that the veterans "were in fact singled out for arrest precisely because of their First Amendment protected activities."
While the NYPD has narrowly interpreted the First Amendment for years, recent Occupy Wall Street demonstrations have further spotlighted the department's willingness to arrest people for merely standing on a sidewalk, or for doing nothing at all. In this context, a group of a few dozen Vietnam veterans standing in a park after curfew presents a clear and present danger to the NYPD's authority.
Vietnam veteran and Veterans for Peace member Mike Hastie, who was one of the first to be arrested that night, says in a video of the demonstration and the subsequent arrests, "If the police were smart they'd just leave us alone. I don't know why they want to make an issue of this, especially with veterans…Just let us do our thing, let us have our memorial service."
Later, as he is arrested (around the 4:00 mark in the video below), Hastie castigates a police officer for arresting his peers. "Where's your soul? Where's your heart, man? Why are you doing this? I saw American soldiers die in Vietnam! I had their brains in my goddamn lap!"
The trial is expected to last four or five days.