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Scott Olsen: Casualty of the Occupation

He was a Marine who survived two tours of Iraq, but it was the Oakland police who almost killed him

January 19, 2012 10:00 AM ET
Scott Olsen in a neck brace after being shot.
Scott Olsen in a neck brace after being shot.
Justin Maxon

A little more than six weeks after being shot in the head, Scott Olsen boarded a BART train and rode it across San Francisco Bay to Oakland. Olsen can't say for sure who shot him, or what with, but all evidence suggests it was probably a tear-gas canister fired by riot police as they cleared out the Occupy Oakland encampment last October. The chaotic footage of the night raid ended up all over YouTube. Billowing clouds of tear gas enveloped the streets surrounding Oakland's City Hall and took on an eerie, sulfurous glow, at least in the videos, while flash grenades erupted disorientingly and masked, silhouetted figures – many of the protesters had bandannas tied across their faces, guerrilla-style – scrambled for cover. For weeks, Occupy protesters had been complaining about heavy-handed police tactics, but this evidence didn't make anyone think of the Rodney King tape. It looked like a military crackdown in the West Bank.

The projectile that struck Olsen fractured his skull and left him in critical condition. More crucially for the narrative, Olsen turned out to be a 24-year-old ex-Marine who'd survived two tours of duty in Iraq. For a movement supposedly without leaders, this sort of compelling personal story was enough to make him an overnight icon, the perfect almost-martyr. Though he couldn't even speak for days, a shaky video of other protesters carrying him to safety got endless replays. In the footage, you can hear people around him screaming, "Medic! Medic!" as if a MASH unit might be somewhere nearby, and see Olsen himself, who looks absurdly young, staring up wide-eyed, but unable to speak, as someone shouts, "What's your name?" As the bedlam churns around him, Olsen slowly reaches up and touches his bleeding head.

"When I heard he was a Marine, I was expecting some six-foot-four guy," the Bay Area journalist Edwin Dobb, who has been covering Occupy Oakland, told me. "But he could pass for a junior in high school."

It's true. On the BART train this afternoon, Olsen looks like a fourth member of Hanson, circa 1999. He's heading to Oakland to attend his first protest since he got hurt, and so has decided to wear a sort of costume: a brown camouflage Veterans for Peace T-shirt over a loose pair of American flag pants, minus the stripes – it's just white stars on that patriotic shade of blue – and an inside-out bandanna worn like a headband, his shoulder-length hair tied into a ponytail. Olsen has a slight frame and delicate features. He still wears one of those oversize white neck braces, the kind you'd see in a sitcom courtroom scene whenever the plaintiff had whiplash, and the padding thrusts his head forward in a birdlike manner, making it look as if he's always leaning closer to hear exactly what you have to say. His doctors expect close to a full recovery, though his speech remains halting and flattened, calling to mind a speaker with cerebral palsy. The erratic modulation can make his voice sound loud and aggressive, which is an odd contrast with his acutely gentle demeanor. His eyes, large and almond-shaped, with unusually long lashes, seem to be doing extra work, taking everything in to compensate for the slowed speech.

We miss our stop. Olsen says, "You're following directions. From a guy with. Brain damage."

From the window of the train, we can see the ports of Oakland in the distance – or, rather, we can see the towering metal cranes longshoremen use to load the ships, and which, according to Oakland lore, a young George Lucas (who lives in nearby Marin County) used as inspiration for the AT-AT Walkers from the ice-planet scenes in The Empire Strikes Back. Lucas refuted this rumor, but it surely influenced the unofficial title of today's Occupy Oakland action: Occupy Strikes Back. The plan involves shutting down the port, not only in Oakland but in a half-dozen other cities. According to protest planners, these ports "play a pivotal role in the flow and growth of capital for the one percent in this country and internationally [and are] the ideal place to disrupt their profit machine." Goldman Sachs, in fact, owns a stake in one of the big port operators, and the unions of port workers have been under attack.

Oakland has a long and storied radical history. In 1896, The San Francisco Chronicle described the writer Jack London as "the boy socialist of Oakland... holding forth nightly to the crowds that throng City Hall Park" – now Frank Ogawa Plaza, where Occupy Oakland set up its camp. In the Sixties, the Black Panther Party was founded here by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, and historic tension between black residents and the police have added to a feeling of war between the cops and the Occupiers. Occupy Oakland renamed Frank Ogawa Plaza after Oscar Grant, the unarmed 22-year-old black man who was fatally shot in the back by a white police officer while lying on the platform of an Oakland BART station. (The officer later claimed he thought he'd been using his Taser and not his gun.)

As a result, Occupy Oakland feels far more militant and confrontational than Occupy Wall Street. "We don't believe police are part of the 99 percent in Oakland," says Barucha Peller, one of the principal organizers of the port shutdown. "Maybe materially, but not ideologically. People here are very accustomed to police brutalizing people of color, and they understand the state will protect capital." Melvin Kelley, a 19-year-old Oakland resident who is part of the Tactical Action Committee, puts it more succinctly: "If you have a protest here, people's gonna come out just to support the 'fuck tha police' cause."

Olsen had said he wasn't nervous about returning to the scene of his injury. But climbing the stairs at the Frank Ogawa Plaza BART station, he glances at me and says, "Time to put my. Game face on."

Occupy Oakland is much more racially diverse than Occupy Wall Street. As with other Occupations, there's a heady carnival vibe, laced with serious debate and an old-fashioned communitarian civility. If someone bumps into you, they say, politely, "Excuse me, brother." People hold signs reading "Decolonize Oakland: Occupied Since 1492." There's a guy wearing a V for Vendetta mask and a tent. The tent is slipped over his head, like a poncho, and on the side it reads "We Will Provale" [sic], with the "o" drawn as a peace symbol. In the crowd, a man with a beard tells another man with a beard, "The track record of revolutionary parties leaves me a little skeptical." Another guy, wearing a hoodie and a bandanna covering most of his face, leans down to a young woman and asks, "You on Twitter?"

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