As millions of Americans were readying their television sets to tune into the final presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, a much different scene was unfolding outside of Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY where the debate took place.

At least five members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), a group of military veterans who are calling for immediate withdrawal from Iraq, were arrested, as well as at least four civilians, according to National Lawyers Guild observers. Nassau County police on horses trampled one member of IVAW, Nick Morgan, a veteran who served in Iraq for about a year. Morgan was knocked to the ground, and according to witnesses, the horse hooves slammed down on his face. A gash was visible on the side of his head as blood dripped down onto the pavement.

Protesters in the crowd said that Morgan was taken to a local hospital.

“The horses were pushing, like really pushing, against [members of IVAW], and physically touching their bodies,” says Erika Ward, an NYU student and intern at Democracy Now! “To see people laying on the ground…was crazy. For me, it was really emotional, [and] I saw people crying,” she continued.

AT THE HEMPSTEAD STATION

The protest began slowly, with about 70 anti-war activists rallying at a parking lot nearby the Hempstead train station. Speakers included a member of the New York Civil Liberties Union, a local civil rights advocate, a Military Families Speak Out activist and a member of the May 1st Coalition for Immigrant and Worker Rights. As more activists from the NYC area poured in, the march to the campus of Hofstra started, with defiant chants of “Stop the torture, stop the war, this is what we’re fighting for,” and “They’re our brothers, they’re our sisters, we support war resisters!” filling the streets of Hempstead.

With IVAW members at the front, the crowd swelled to around 400 demonstrators. Members of the local Planned Parenthood joined in along the way. At one point, as the antiwar march neared the campus, a group of ten members of the Gathering of Eagles, a conservative pro-war organization, heckled the demonstrators. They shouted epithets like “traitor” and “treasonous” at the Iraq veterans.

The troops have “been promised so much…it’s important for IVAW to have a voice,” says Chelsea Florio, a freshman at Fordham University and a member of the Fordham Anti-War Coalition.
The members of IVAW, backed by a crowd of anti-war protesters, were allowed to pass through one line of police before they were met with lines of Nassau County riot police and cops on horses who would not allow the veterans to enter the Hofstra campus. IVAW members Matthis Chiroux and Kris Goldsmith, who organized the protest, went first and were promptly arrested. At least three other veterans and four civilians followed and were arrested as well.

The arrests seemed to energize the crowd, and as they chanted, “Let them in,” it looked as if things could easily get out of hand.

The police on horses pushed back against the crowd, which was fronted by a group of about 15 Iraq veterans, until the demonstrators had been moved onto a nearby sidewalk.

After a tense standoff for five minutes, it looked like the police in riot gear shoved veterans and demonstrators to push them even further back, and around four people were knocked over by riot police and horses. It was during this fracas that Morgan was injured. After the police assault, a standoff between the cops and demonstrators occurred for over an hour.

A COUPLE OF QUESTIONS

A week ago, Chiroux, who this past May publicly declared his intent to refuse to deploy to Iraq, sent a letter to CBS debate moderator Bob Scheiffer spelling out the demands of IVAW. Chiroux’s letter demanded that two members of IVAW, himself and Goldsmith, be allowed entry into the debate to ask Senators Obama and McCain one question each. CBS or Schieffer did not respond to the letter from Chiroux.

“What yourself and the candidates must decide now, Mr. Schieffer, is what the legacy of this debate will be. Will this be remembered as an event where both sides of the [aisle] and the media came together to hear from our nation’s heroes…or will the words and promises of both candidates be forever shrouded in the image of a host of uniformed veterans and their supporters going to jail because these campaigns cared too little to hear from them?” Chiroux’s letter read.

“Our goal is to make Iraq and veterans the forefront of the debate,” said Goldsmith.

Chiroux planned on asking Obama a pointed question: “My question is, as President of the United States of America, are you prepared to back up your own words [about the illegality of the Iraq War] and the U.S. Constitution by supporting service members refusing to participate in what you describe as an illegal occupation?”

Goldsmith wanted to ask McCain a question about his lack of support for veterans. “What promises are you willing to make, as a veteran, as a senator, as a presidential candidate, to the veterans of the United States, to prove that you will ensure the V.A. is fully funded, staffed and capable of preventing troops from suffering as they are now?” he says.

With the crowd emotionally exhausted and worn down, the protest started to taper off at about 8:30 PM.

“We have a blind media [and] deaf candidates, but [IVAW] has a voice that will be heard,” James Gilligan, a member of IVAW said earlier in the day.