How Iraq Veteran Scott Olsen, Beaten by Oakland Police, Became a Symbol of the Occupy Movement

3.11.11

Yesterday, in Oakland, campaigners from the “Occupy Oakland” protest movement — part of the global “Occupy” movement inspired by “Occupy Wall Street” — staged a general strike, after calling for “no work and no school on November 2,” and “asking that all workers go on strike, call in sick, take a vacation day or simply walk off the job with their co-workers,” and that “all students walk out of school and join workers and community members in downtown Oakland.” The “Occupy” camp also said, “All banks and large corporations must close down for the day or demonstrators will march on them.”

This is how “Occupy Oakland” described the day’s events on its website:

Huge, enthusiastic, crowds swarmed through downtown Oakland with half a dozen major marches on banks and corporations that shut down Wells Fargo, Chase, Citibank, Bank of America and many others. Police stayed clear of the strikers who ranged freely, from Broadway to Grand Avenue and around the Lake. By late afternoon the crowds had swelled to over 10,000. Waves of feeder marches continued to pour into the Oscar Grant Plaza, including 800 children, parents, and teachers who had gathered at the Oakland Main Library.

The evening march to the Port stretched from downtown to the freeway overcrossing in West Oakland and thousands more protestors kept arriving as the third convergence of the day reached its peak. Over 20,000 people joined the march which made its way to the main entrance of the port and shut it down completely. Port officials confirmed that the workforce was sent home.

Although there was violence late last night between police and a minority of protestors, focusing on this misses the whole point about yesterday’s strike action, which came about as a response to violence, and not as an excuse for it — and, specifically, the violent suppression last week of the “Occupy Oakland” camp, when the police used tear gas, and fired what Reuters referred to as “crowd-control projectiles,” severely injuring one particular protestor, Iraq veteran Scott Olsen, a former member of the Marine Corps, who remains seriously ill in hospital. As Reuters explained, “Doctors and family members have declined to comment on his condition, saying last week that he was awake and communicative, though not able to speak.”

As a result of this unprovoked assault, the 24-year old Olsen has become what Reuters described as “an accidental symbol” of the movement that currently involves occupations in hundreds of US cities and towns, despite a violent response by the authorities in other locations as well as Oakland. As Reuters noted, images of Olsen “lying bleeding on the ground after being hit in the head by a projectile” have “appeared often on social media networks, helping encourage rallies in other cities and drawing more military veterans to the movement.” As Reuters also noted, “The fact that this war veteran fell wounded not on a battlefield in Iraq but in an American city, apparently as a result of police action, strikes many who have followed the Occupy movement as ironic.”

In seeking to understand who Scott Olsen is, Reuters conducted interviews with his “friends, relatives and childhood acquaintances,” which can only reinforce his significance as a symbol for the movement — an ex-military counterpart to the many college-educated and unemployed young people who are also key to the movement’s powerful claims that Western societies, as they are currently configured, have lost touch with many of their own people, and are slaves of Wall Street and corporate interests. As Reuters described it, Olsen is someone “whose personal journey reflects many of the social dynamics that have given rise to the Occupy movement.”

Born and raised in Onalaska, Wisconsin, Olsen “didn’t really want to go to college,” according to Deanna Wolf, the owner of a sandwich shop where he worked for three years, and where his co-workers identified him as “a quiet kid who loved skateboarding, computer games and classic rock, and had a quirky sense of humor.” Wolf added, “He just didn’t think it was the right choice for him,” and explained that he was “drawn to the military” instead, because it apparently “offered him the opportunity to get paid to ‘do what he enjoyed,’ which was playing with computers.”

He served two tours of duty in Iraq, where he worked as a technician rather than being engaged directly in combat, but, as Reuters explained, “he soured on military life,” establishing a short-lived website, “I hate the Marine Corps,” which “served as a forum for disgruntled servicemen.”

Around two years ago, he received an “administrative discharge” from the military, and, although the exact reasons for this are unclear, it is obvious that, after his discharge, Olsen found himself becoming first of all “a critic of America’s wars,” and then an “anti-establishment activist,” not because of any “specific searing experience in Iraq, but rather from a more subtle evolution in the way he saw the world.”

Keith Shannon, who served with Olsen in the Marines, told Reuters, “He started a bit before he got out [but] he got really into it right after he got out.” Deanna Wolf agreed. “When he came back, he had a different perspective,” she said. “He seemed to be very passionate about everything. I guess having seen what he saw it had just given him another perspective. I just saw a change. He had been a funny kid, with a witty sense of humor. He was more serious.”

After he left the military, Olsen worked for a while as a computer network administrator in Illinois, where he “became increasingly involved in the peace movement, and his political activism deepened.” In a Twitter message in March 2010, he wrote, “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people” — a message that is central to the “Occupy” movement.

Olsen’s uncle told Reuters that, after attending a few peace group meetings in Chicago, he joined the hugely influential protests in Madison, Wisconsin in February, when protestors against Republican Governor Scott Walker’s disgraceful proposal to remove collective bargaining rights from public sector unions suddenly discovered that, inspired by the people’s uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, there was a widespread interest in collective resistance to injustice — whether it was from politicians, bankers or corporations, as I noted in articles at the time (see here, here and here).

He then moved to San Francisco and took up a a job at a software company, while also maintaining his interest in activism, and those who met him at this time noted that he “did not seem to suffer from the kinds of emotional and psychiatric problems that afflict many veterans.” Aaron Hinde, an Army veteran and friend of Olsen’s at Iraq Veterans Against the War, “He just showed up at one of our monthly meetings. It was a real surprise to have a new face just walk in. He just sat down and introduced himself.”

Emily Yates, a musician and another Army veteran, who met Olsen when “he came to her first concert at a neighborhood bar,” said that he helped her “broadcast her show live on the Internet,” and explained, “It’s the fact he has a good job, he can maintain close relationships, which a lot of vets have trouble doing. That’s a litmus test. If he’s dealing with stuff, he’s dealing with it in a healthy way.”

Most recently, when “Occupy Wall Street” began, soon spreading to other cities, Olsen started camping out with protesters in San Francisco, while traveling to work in the daytime, and when police attacked activists in Oakland on October 25, he and other veterans decided to join the Oakland protesters as they sought to regain access to the plaza in which they had been camping. Matt Howard, a friend and former Marine, who is now a student at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “They came out to show support for the occupiers and protesters,” but Olsen, of course, ended up hospitalized, along the way becoming a symbol for the “Occupy” movement as a whole. As Reuters explained, with the attack on Scott Olsen, “Police brutality and the plight of veterans have joined joblessness and income inequality as key issues for many in the movement.”

Reuters also noted that some Conservative bloggers “have called Olsen a traitor, citing his anti-Marine website and his online support for WikiLeaks [and] Bradley Manning,” the former intelligence analyst in Iraq who is accused of providing WikILeaks with the documents — the Afghan and Iraqi war logs, the diplomatic cables and the Guantánamo files — that it has been releasing since last year. However, his friends from Onalaska were not convinced.

Christy De Ruyter, who worked with him at the sandwich shop, and who said she cried when she saw the video of him after he was injured, said, “I was not surprised that he was at a protest, speaking up. Scott had gotten older, he’d grown up and gotten a voice. He wasn’t a completely different person when he came back. He’d just seen a lot things. And I was proud of him, standing up for something he believed in.”

She is not the only one. And I do hope that Scott Olsen recovers fully, so that we can hear more about his beliefs — and his hopes for a better world.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

2 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, David J. Clarke wrote:

    Thanks for the background Andy. A well written, concise evaluation as always. It is refreshing to have something with depth and intelligence to digest as opposed to the prevalence of poster/jargon/info bytes that predominate on fb. Cheers!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, David. That’s very much appreciated.

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