[Mike Hastie after he was pepper sprayed by federal law enforcement Saturday night. (Photo courtesy of Mike Hastie) ]
An interview with Mike Hastie, a member of Veterans for Peace who federal officers assaulted with pepper spray at close range Saturday night, unprovoked
by Paul K. Haeder | 27 Jul 2020. Originally published in Street Roots, Portland, OR.
Michael Hastie was a Vietnam War medic with the U.S. Army in the early 1970s. Now, at 75, he’s on the front lines documenting the Black Lives Matter — and now anti-federal troops — demonstrations in Portland.
This week he’s making national news as the Vietnam veteran in Portland who federal officers sprayed directly in the face at close range with OC chemicals.
Hastie likens himself as a peace photographer, a role he has held for more than 40 years. He’s taken his two Nikon cameras to places such as Palestine, Japan, Nicaragua, Lebanon and Vietnam.
He sees the demonstrations as a flashpoint for “revolutionary change” in Portland.
He’s also a member of Veterans for Peace. This is an excerpt from an email sent to the group’s supporters shortly after the incident, describing the mood Saturday evening about three hours before he was assaulted:
“The energy and Justifiable Cause was absolutely electrifying. Once I got into the middle of it, I turned to someone I didn’t know and said, ‘God I love this city.’ The solidarity hairs rose on my back and arms. There were two African-American men leading cheers and chants that hypnotically motivated what would eventually be three thousand Portlanders. At one point, all those people took their cell phones out and turned their flashlights on. What a beautiful scene of togetherness.”
He emphasizes that throughout his decades protesting, sometimes change happens one conversation at a time.
When Hastie approached federal agents just before midnight on Saturday in front of the federal courthouse in downtown Portland, he was attempting to tell them about his experience as a medic in Vietnam.
“I was giving a lecture to the police,” he told Street Roots. “My job as a Vietnam vet is to tell people why I am protesting — to let people know the United States government committed atrocities every day in Vietnam.”
That’s when a militarized federal law enforcement officer wearing a gas mask approaching from his left, abruptly sprayed him with pepper spray — the nozzle mere inches from his eyes as the chemicals were sprayed directly onto his face.
Since then, he’s been fielding interviews, including with CNN and other national news outlets. The viral video of his assault has been viewed more than 5.6 million times.”
The attack came on the heels of another instance of brutality against a veteran in Portland at the hands of federal troops. Navy veteran Christopher David suffered a broken hand after police pepper sprayed him and assaulted him with batons last week.
“People are interested in this because they wonder why are two military vets getting pepper sprayed for standing up for our free speech rights — what we as former military swore an oath to protect,” Hastie said.
Hastie said his eyes recovered around 90% of their normal functioning by Monday afternoon. He’s been contacted by a “couple of attorneys to see if I want to pursue suing.” He said he is not opposed to litigation.
“Neither I or the navy veteran were a threat to anyone. And they just wailed on Christopher David. Two fractures in his hands,” he said.
A Vietnam War medic turned anti-war activist
In his childhood, Hastie’s family moved around a lot, living on both the East and West coasts of the U.S., and in Germany and Japan. His father was a career military man. Hastie enlisted at age 24, and ended up in a medic program at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora, Colo.
“I spent a year there, undergoing advanced medical training,” he told Street Roots.
He turned 25 in Vietnam.
“It was toward the end of the war. We got war casualties from time to time. But everything was falling apart, chaos,” he said. “We saw homicides, suicides, heroin overdoses, addiction.”
Hastie may have gone into the Army gung-ho — due to the influence from his career military father who had fought in World War Two — but he returned to the U.S. a wreck.
“I knew I was the enemy,” he said. “We had no right to bomb Vietnam. It would be as if the U.S. military went into Mississippi and bombed it. Every day we committed atrocities there.”
He mentioned, several times, the horror around My Lai, the infamous murder of more than 500 unarmed men, women and children by a group of U.S. Army soldiers in Charlie Company led by Lt. William Calley.
Hastie has since been all over the United States and to numerous foreign countries to demonstrate against war and U.S. aggression overseas.
He infers a call of duty beyond military allusions: To photograph events and to bear witness and thereby teach people “how the U.S. is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
In 1967 Martin Luther King gave his “Beyond Vietnam” oration at New York’s Riverside Church, and it moved Hastie.
King denounced the U.S. as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” and saw the war was “a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” Later that spring, he asserted that “the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together.” We could not “get rid of one without getting rid of the others (and) the whole structure of American life must be changed.”
These words deeply influenced him — and the fact that, said Hastie, “my own government was spending all this money on war, but not on the poor people, the homeless.”
Hastie quoted King again: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
With protests following the police killing of George Floyd and the wave of social justice demonstrations aligning with Black Lives Matter, Hastie has stationed himself on new front lines.
Hastie was discharged from the military at Fort Hood, and after which he decided to become a nurse. He went to Eugene to go to Lane Community College. Then, he ended up in Portland, finishing his nursing program at Good Samaritan. He’s been in Portland ever since.
For 20 years he worked in emergency rooms as a nurse.
By 1980, Hastie was facing both divorce and the impacts of post traumatic stress disorder.
He was hospitalized for several days with suicidal ideation. That bout was followed by several others — once following a visit to Vietnam where he spoke with survivors of the My Lai massacre.
[Above — Mike Hastie met with Kieu Phan, who had five relatives murdered at the My Lai Massacre in 1968. She broke down as she told him a story at the drainage ditch where 170 Vietnamese were shot at point-blank range. A total of 504 innocent civilians were slaughtered in the massacre. “The horror of My Lai was a metaphor for the entire war. The vast majority of Americans do not know this history,” Mike Hastie told Street Roots. (Photo by Mike Hastie)]
“We were talking to people who had survived it and to family members who did not, right at the very spot at the very ditch where so many murdered Vietnamese were piled up,” he said.
He also struggled with alcoholism, but stopped drinking in 1976. A decision that he said “saved my life.”
He said he realized the myth of American exceptionalism believes the country’s “good guy reputation” began to tarnish in Vietnam.
“The biggest positive thing that came out of the Vietnam War was that I saw myself as a global citizen,” Hastie said.
When the blinders come off, he said there can be a disquieting and disorienting reverberation.
“Your core belief systems are dismantled. It was like an emotional white out for me,” he said. “I was a stranger in a strange land when I came home.”
Hastie developed a new belief system based on the war experience, his awakening and the Black soldiers in Vietnam who showed him what solidarity means.
He cites Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, as another influence that helped him frame feelings he had about atrocities hooked to his own memory of the Vietnam War. Much of the trauma comes from enlightenment, Hastie said — from “knowing about the continuing atrocities” this country has perpetrated.
Frankl once said: “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.” He was referring to the psychological makeup and behavior patterns of prisoners in concentration camps during World War II.
Hastie concluded his email to Veterans for Peace supporters early in morning Sunday, July 26:
“Everyone at these demonstrations are committed to standing up for monumental change, at any price. While this government preaches Democracy, that is the very thing the U.S. Government steals from other countries when the U.S. Military invades them. Domestically, the militarized police in America are doing the same thing. Being in Viet Nam woke this white boy up, and so much of that awareness came from Black soldiers who educated me on racism. The Viet Nam War was a racist war, and those who resisted U.S. Power were called, ‘Gooks.’ Power To The People!”
Hastie emphasized that during the Portland protests of late, his role as a freelance photographer is often superseded by his role as sandwich maker.
“I show up three times a week to various spots in Portland with my homemade sandwiches,” he said.
“Too many people know what’s going on but don’t put their feet on the streets,” Hastie said of the ongoing demonstrations in Portland. “I don’t know if the empire can be stopped with a peace sign, but we are doing what we can. Unfortunately, and I’ve said this often, but this country needs to go through more suffering before real change will happen.”
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The following is an email from Mike Hastie, still in Portland, still downtown, still fighting fascism, police brutality, and the way of jack-booted pigs and a fascist POTUS and GOP and many in the Democratic Party . . . .
Never Surrender In Portland, Oregon
I took these photographs on the night of August 13, 2020. It was the night that I and a few others got trampled by the charging cops. I took these 4 pictures before my body hit the pavement. I wanted to send these out because they are all story telling images that have come out of the non-stop resistance against police aggression and brutality that have plagued America since the beginning of corporate power against regular everyday people. And, if you happen to be a person of color in America, you have a spotlight on your very existence. When George Floyd was executed by a white police officer on May 25, 2020, all hell broke loose.
There is a whole new generation of Americans who have decided that non-stop resistance is the only way to confront the lethal power structure that is bound and determined to tattoo obedience on their very souls. That relentless longevity of energy is being acted out in Portland, Oregon like no other city across this nation. This has really become a profound awakening of historical precedence. The Black community only represents 6% of the population in Portland. Most of the demonstrators have been predominately young white people who are strong supporters of Black Lives Matter. There has been some very effective Black leadership that has guided many of the demonstrations.
I am also seeing a strong white leadership coming to the surface. Not only are they supporting BLM, but they are also identifying with their struggle for survival. Many of them are seeing themselves as victims of a tragic system of violent capitalism that is draining hope in their stressful lives. They are young anti-fascists and anarchists who are sick of the world they have inherited. They have very little respect for the so-called ” Boomer ” generation, with the likes of Clinton, Bush and Trump.
They see blithering narcissistic monsters who have destroyed their future with terminal unbridled greed. These young people are going head-on with the police and the power structure they protect. I am going to say this very slowly: These young people have their entire lives ahead of them, and they see a grim future, and that is why they are so fucking angry. They are yelling at the cops to go fuck themselves and the lethal drug injection rules they enforce. These kids are serious, and they stand their ground with great courage. It is amazing how many of them have come up to me and thanked me for what I said when I confronted the Feds in that video that went viral. They simply identify with me, and that gave them validation. These young people take great risks every night when they confront the police with their lies. They have such a mistrust for a political system that suffocates them on a daily bases. They look at the horrifying effects of climate change, war after war, extreme income inequality,and a president who is gutting the EPA, and at the same time is so dangerous that he is killing countless Americans across this country with his lack of leadership involving the Coronavirus Pandemic.
So, there they are on the front lines every night with their armor on, lined up on the street with their shields side by side. Many of them have been injured by the police, who throw flash-bang grenades, fire so-called non-lethal projectiles that have the potential to kill you, fire tear gas canisters with choking consequences, use pepper spray up close that completely debilitates you, throw people to the ground, often hitting them with batons, and arresting people at random. You got to teach these kids a lesson, let them know who is in charge. And, while this is all going on, the American Empire of Elders is using our military to kill and steal all over the world. Corporations can’t make a killing off of peace. And to think, President Donald Trump called these Portland protesters a beehive of terrorism. Keep in mind these kids may not have their whole lives ahead of them. Maybe that’s why they are on the front lines every night.
Army Medic Viet Nam/ August 15, 2020
W A R = Wealthy Are Richer
( Closing statement I now share with young people.)
You do not win wars by just killing military combatants.
You ultimately win wars by killing innocent civilians, because they are military targets. The primary goal of the aggressor nation is to break the will of the people, and their ability to defend their homeland. This strategy is as old as warfare itself. Geneva Convention Rules are for fools.