Outtake: Scott Olsen, who almost died for Occupy

Eight years ago this week, a NYPD riot at New York’s Zuccotti Park evicted the last remaining Occupy Wall Street activists. That year had seen an incredible amount of movement-building, with organizing from coast to coast–including by dissenting veterans.  Below, a vigil for Iraq vet Scott Olsen at Occupy Oakland.occupyoaklandvigil

In 2011, Obama’s Afghanistan “surge” came and went without accomplishing its goals, making the projected 2014 end date of the war feel questionable. The exit of troops from Iraq set the stage for a far-more-developed debate about services for veterans, and Iraq Veterans Against the War initiated its first “Project Recovery” campaign, demanding that a PTSD diagnosis automatically preclude a return to the war zone. They also linked up with local social-justice struggles, such as Occupy Wall Street and its “Occupy” off-shoots—including Marine Scott Olsen, whose treatment at Occupy Oakland by that city’s police would make the latter notorious and deepen Olsen’s commitment to dissent.

Olsen had joined IVAW soon after coming home: His doubts about the war had begun in his first tour, at the border town of Qay’im, after “conversations with other Marines, and with some Iraqis, through “witnessing some of our actions and inactions, through putting my life on the line and seeing my brothers lose their lives that they had put on the line—for what? Where are these liberated Iraqis? Where is their democracy and right to self-determination? What have we done? And what are we still doing here?” His second tour, as part of the troop-withdrawal phase, made him close to cynical, since his Kilo Company had one specific assignment: the opening of Al-Anbar Province’s massive K3 Oil Refinery. Joining IVAW, “it felt good to know that I wasn’t the only Iraq vet who felt betrayed, ripped off, or used.”[i]

Olsen kept in touch with IVAW when he moved to San Francisco to take a software job. Rather than immerse himself in Northern California’s tech scene, Olsen found himself also drawn to Occupy San Francisco, one of a dozen such encampments that had sprung up after the takeover of Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan on September 17, 2011.

Created to protest rising income inequality, Occupy had from its start been welcomed by the more left-leaning soldier-dissenters. Vietnam veteran Bill Perry had traveled from Philadelphia to join the original, growing encampment at Zuccotti Park, and stayed there until the encampment was evicted by the NYPD around Thanksgiving; by then, the Occupy movement had metastasized, with similar encampments from coast to coast. The San Francisco camp, with its collective breakfasts and speak-outs, was regularly evicted. Across the Bay Bridge, a more militant, diverse group occupied Oakland’s City Hall and regularly threatened to close the busy Port of Oakland.

None of which had escaped the national-security state; the Department of Homeland Security was publishing a weekly national “intelligence report” with FBI-generated data on encampments from Boston to California. Police chiefs across the nation held conference calls to share strategies on how to combat the smelly, not-quite-violent masses. Police departments deployed their most militarist riot gear when evicting protesters—as Scott Olsen learned in Oakland, on October 25, 2011.

The resulting scene, immortalized on cell phone video, would be used as evidence in Olsen’s lawsuit against the City of Oakland. Between the wall of helmeted police and the mass of blue-jeaned Occupiers was a steel police barrier in front of two IVAW members: Joshia Shepherd,  in Navy service uniform, and the less-imposing Olsen in a Marine Corps fatigue jacket. As the sun set behind them, police warned the remaining protesters to disperse or else. Then the video shifts as protesters scatter and begin to scream, “[Olsen]’s been hit!” They carry the young man, bleeding from the scalp, to the side and wait until paramedics arrive.

Olsen had been hit and nearly killed by a tear gas canister thrown by police. When released from hospital he was, for a long time, unable to speak. But he did recover, and stayed involved with IVAW; I met him in 2014 at the group’s tenth-anniversary gala, not long after the City of Oakland agreed to a $4.5 million settlement in his case. I told him about the book, and the likelihood he was in it; I’m still sad that my editor’s very smart cuts included his story.    When I come to the Bay Area, I hope he’ll join me in honoring his role in an important movement.

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