Veterans of color say video of police pepper-spraying a Black Army officer shows that not even a military uniform is protection from police violence

  • Police hold at gunpoint and pepper-spray a uniformed Black Army officer in a shocking video.
  • The soldier was not charged with any crime or ticketed for any violation.
  • Veterans of color said that the video shows that not even a uniform is protection from police violence.
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A video of police officers holding a uniformed Black US Army soldier at gunpoint and pepper spraying him during a traffic stop in Windsor, Virginia is a troubling reminder that sometimes not even a military uniform is protection enough for Black Americans against threats of police brutality, veterans of color told Insider.

“Once you put on the uniform, it doesn’t erase the fact that you are a Black person in America,” Richard Brookshire, a former Army medic who co-founded and serves as the executive director of the Black Veterans Project, told Insider.

US Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, a Black and Latino health services administration officer with the Virginia Army National Guard, is suing two Virginia police officers, Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker, for aggressive actions taken during a traffic stop in December that started over a license plate issue but quickly escalated.

In video footage from the incident released late last week, two police officers can be seen shouting at Nazario with their guns drawn, pepper-spraying him, and physically striking him repeatedly as they force him to the ground.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/RlS8ht3PERs

At one point during the traffic stop, as the police officers yell for him to get out of the car, Nazario told them he was “honestly afraid” to get out, to which one officer responded: “Yeah, you should be.”

Mark Herring, Virginia’s attorney general, said on Twitter that “the video doesn’t show anything to justify how Lt. Nazario was treated,” adding in another tweet that Nazario showed “incredible composure.”

Nazario was not charged with any criminal wrongdoing or traffic violation, his attorney told NBC News. He says that the police violated his clients constitutional rights.

Nazario’s attorney writes in the lawsuit that the video footage is “consistent with a disgusting nationwide trend of law enforcement officers, who, believing they can operate with complete impunity, engage in unprofessional, discourteous, racially biased, dangerous, and sometimes deadly abuses of authority,” adding that Nazario, while in uniform, was a victim of this trend.

The town of Windsor, Virginia characterized the incident as “unfortunate” and announced Sunday that one of the two officers involved has been fired.

‘Deeply troubling’

“One of the things that probably stuck out the most to me was the fear in Lt. Nazario’s face and actions and voice because he’s realizing right from the get-go that even though he’s in uniform and he’s an active-duty service member, he is still at risk of suffering the same fate that many Black people have suffered at the hands of the police,” Jeremy Butler, a Navy veteran and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told Insider.

“He might have expected it if he were in civilian clothes, but the fact that’s he’s in uniform and this is the way he’s being treated by the police, it almost does not compute.”

“We have been consistently told this message of how much the country salutes our services and appreciates our sacrifice,” Butler said, but “what you see in this instance is that is not always the case.”

In the video footage of the traffic stop, Nazario can be heard multiple times saying “I’m serving my country and this is how I’m treated” with a tone of what sounds like disbelief.

The Black Veterans Project said on Twitter that such developments, while upsetting, are neither shocking nor surprising given the police violence that many Black service members and veterans have faced throughout US history.

“I thought it was deeply troubling,” Brookshire said of the video. “It reminded me, especially because he got maced and thinking about his eyes, of Isaac Woodard.”

On February 12, 1946, Woodard was pulled off a bus and beaten by police, who blinded him in both eyes, as he was returning home to his wife after the war. Woodard is just one of many Black war veterans who experienced such brutality.

“Wearing the uniform doesn’t protect Black people from racism,” Brookshire said, explaining that “this idea that black folks are somehow cloaked or protected because they are in uniform, because they serve in the military, or that somehow their skin color is not an issue once they join this institution is a farce and a misreading of history.”

Naveed Shah, another veteran of color and a staff member at Common Defense, argued on Twitter that what happened to Nazario is “another example of why we demand that #BlackLivesMatter.”

The country has been forced to look more closely at issues of racial injustice and police brutality since the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died last May after a police officer knelt on his neck for more than 9 minutes. His death sparked nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. 

The murder trial for one of the officers involved is ongoing.

But even as the US takes a closer look at problems that have long affected the country, there continues to be alarming incidents of police violence involving Black Americans.

“Even though I do feel generally overall that we are making progress,” Butler said, “there are still too frequent reminders that we have a very, very long way to go.”

The governor of Virginia called the incident involving Nazario “disturbing,” writing in a statement that “we must keep working to ensure that Virginians are safe during interactions with police, the enforcement of laws is fair and equitable, and people are held accountable.”

Not only are state police investigating the incident at the direction of Gov. Ralph Northam, but the Virginia attorney general announced Monday that he is launching a civil rights investigation into the two police officers involved. He characterized their actions as “dangerous, unnecessary, unacceptable and avoidable.”

Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston said Monday that Nazario “represented himself and our Army well,” stating that while he is proud of him, he is concerned by the video of the traffic stop.

The sergeant major offered an assurance that Nazario “is receiving the support from his leadership he needs during this time.” The incident is said to have given the soldier nightmares, The Washington Post reported.

Nazario’s attorney said Saturday that his client is seeking at least $1 million in damages to send a clear message “to officers that this type of behavior will not be tolerated.”

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