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

Justin Maxon
Scott Olsen in a neck brace after being shot.
By |

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?"

Scott Olsen speaks to crowd at Occupy Oakland. (Photo: Justin Maxon)

Despite the gray skies, about 2,000 people have gathered around the park. Most seem to recognize Olsen, who receives a steady stream of fist bumps, shoulder clasps and quiet thank-yous as he looks for his friends. He's gracious to a fault about his new fame, patiently giving interviews to Al Jazeera, NPR and a kid using his iPhone as a recording device.

The former Occupation campground has become a vast, muddy field. Otherwise, the air is festive, with a tinge of revolutionary danger. When a cop tries to film the proceedings with a camcorder, an angry mob confronts him and begins chanting, "Go away!" An early-morning march had successfully closed down much of the port of Oakland, and similar actions had taken place in Portland, Seattle and San Diego. After the current rally, there would be another march to the port, about two and a half miles away, and there was already talk of extending the Oakland port shutdown to cover the overnight shift, all of which added up to about $4 million in lost business, according to port authorities.

Olsen spots a white Veterans for Peace flag and makes his way through the crowd. The young man holding the flag, a Navy veteran named Josh Shepherd, is a friend. "I was with this guy when he went down," Shepherd says, nodding at Olsen. That morning, the police had cleared out the park and set up a barricade. By evening, Occupiers returned to take back the park. Shepherd and Olsen had shown up in uniform – Josh in crisp dress blues, Scott in a camouflage jacket – and intentionally placed themselves between the police line and the seething, chanting protesters. "I swore an oath, which is an oath to the Constitution, not to protect some bullshit local ordinances," Shepherd says. "I thought our uniforms might be a sanity check for the cops." He smiles ruefully. "That didn't work out so well."

In the chaos that followed, Shepherd lost track of Olsen, and didn't realize until later in the evening that his friend had been hurt. In the Navy, where he served for six years, Shepherd had been a computer tech, and he says that's part of his attraction to Occupy: He simply couldn't believe the amount of money being wasted overseas. "It cost $16 million to redo the computers in my little section," he says. "They spent $300 million on the computers on my ship alone. And that's one small ship in a huge navy."

The Occupy organizers want Olsen to address the crowd. He tries to beg off, saying he doesn't really have anything prepared, but they won't really take no for an answer – from Jessica Lynch to Ron Kovic, military folk have long held irresistible symbolic value for both left and right – and so Olsen finds himself led toward the (actual, not human) microphone. Activist Angela Davis, holding a little white dog, stops Olsen to shake his hand and tell him she's glad he's feeling better. Boots Riley, the flamboyantly Afro'd MC of the radical Bay Area hip-hop group the Coup, and one of the most visible faces of Occupy Oakland, claps Olsen on the back and introduces him to the crowd. Olsen tells the protesters he appreciates their "positive energy," adding, "Stay peaceful. Stay safe. And let's do some real. Action today."

The crowd roars. Nearby, someone has set up a large funeral wreath with a sign reading "RIP Capitalism." A middle-aged man pushing an infant in a stroller leans down to the little girl clutching his hand and says softly, "You know what that means? Rest in peace, capitalism!"

Olsen grew up in Onalaska, Wisconsin, a riverside suburb of La Crosse, where he played hockey, skateboarded and liked Insane Clown Posse enough to get a pair of Juggalo tattoos on his upper arms. Other than an uncle who'd served in Vietnam, Olsen doesn't come from a military family – his mom works as a caretaker for mentally disabled adults, his father as a computer programmer – but Scott enlisted at 17, "under the impression," he notes wryly, "we were facing a dire existential threat."

Olsen had always been into computers, and during his two deployments, both in Iraq's Al Anbar province, he worked as a network administrator, a dangerous enough job when you consider how much time he spent on the road servicing area bases. "Luckily, our Humvees had armor," Olsen says. (In the deployment prior to Olsen's, the Humvees still had canvas doors.)

It was sometime during his initial deployment ("pump," in Olsen's militarese) that he began to experience his first pangs of doubt about the war. Fox News constantly played in the chow halls, but the cheerleading Olsen heard from the pundit generalissimos didn't jibe with the utter purposelessness of what he'd been witnessing on the ground. Still, he wasn't politically engaged enough to research conscientious objection (though it fleetingly crossed his mind) or to bother to get his absentee ballot together in time to vote for his preferred 2008 candidate (Obama).

Then he got kicked out, eight months prior to completion of service. The technical term was "administrative discharge," which could apply to any number of infractions. Olsen insists he'd love ("love love love" is the exact quote) to discuss the circumstances of his departure from the Marine Corps, but says he can't while the ruling, which he hopes will be overturned, remains under appeal. The right-wing blogosphere, of course, wasted no time in combing through Olsen's online presence, which included shots on his Flickr stream of a marijuana plant and a web forum he'd started called "I Hate the Marine Corps." Olsen doesn't back away from the latter website, which he and a buddy came up with one night in the barracks, "sitting around drinking beer and, as usual, bitching about our day," prompting Olsen to register the domain name and write the code that very night, the idea being Marines should have a place to speak freely without fear of punishment. The site expired when Olsen switched servers, but he says the criticism has inspired him to start it up again.

A June 17th, 2010, post on another Marine Corps message board by someone with the chat name ihatethemarinecorps also sounded very much like Olsen. Responding to the discussion topic "the most annoying thing you've been called in the MC," ihatethemarinecorps cites "data dink, data dude, data shut the FUCK UP!" and goes on to casually mention [sic] "talking to my 1stsgt regarding a pending adsep [administrative separation] since i had been accused of using cocaine."

Regardless of what led to his dismissal, Olsen's post-military college plans went out the window, as the adsep made him ineligible for the GI Bill. Instead, he took a systems-administrator job at an Illinois company that made landscaping products like mulch. When unions seized the Wisconsin state capitol to protest Republican governor Scott Walker's attacks on public-sector workers' rights to collective bargaining, Olsen took a personal day and drove up to Madison. "That was the first time I occupied," he says. Not long after that, a friend from the Marines persuaded him to move to San Francisco for a job at a software company. Olsen didn't know anybody in the Bay Area except for his roommate and some friends he made at the local chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

In many ways, there's a natural constituency for the Occupy movement in the U.S. military, with its long history of dubious governmental spending and a workforce that's exploited almost by definition. Today, veterans have a higher unemployment rate than civilians, along with higher rates of homelessness and suicide. Olsen's friends at IVAW include people like Dottie Guy, a 29-year-old Army veteran from Halifax, Virginia, who was sent to Iraq without armor plates in her vest and remains unemployed thanks to a lingering foot injury, and Matt Howard, a 29-year-old Marine who served near Fallujah and watched as military personnel making 30 grand a year, with wives back home on federal assistance, were "downsized" in favor of contractors being paid three times as much. Howard says he joined up for the same reason as many of his colleagues: to escape from a small town, save up some money for college.

Olsen will second all of these complaints about the military. But he admits his camping at Occupy San Francisco started, in large part, out of a craving for community. "It was that more than anything," Olsen acknowledges. "It was just so great to go there and find somebody new to talk to, somebody who wants to listen to you." That's the social-media aspect of the popular uprisings of 2011 that has been largely ignored: how the more perpetually connected we feel online, the more crazy-making the dissonance of real-world isolation becomes, and the more it drives people (like Scott Olsen) to turn away from their screens (or, more likely, take their screens with them) and head for the public square.

Olsen began living full-time at Occupy San Francisco. In the morning, he'd wake up around seven, get a free breakfast at the Occupy kitchen and walk the mile or so to work, occasionally stopping by his apartment to shower and recharge. One day after work, on his way back to the campground, he read a call for support on Twitter put out by Occupy Oakland. "So I thought, 'Fuck it,' and got on the BART train," Olsen says. "I had nothing better to do that night."

He can't remember getting shot in the head, though everything else about the night remains vivid. Getting intel updates, via text, from a friend in Illinois who was watching a live helicopter feed. Being carried away by people asking his name, and not being able to answer, but wanting to. Worrying about his backpack. Worrying about having to fill out paperwork in the ER. Still not being able to speak. Hearing a nurse say something about morphine and thinking, "All right..."

Olsen tells me most of this story while sitting in a little park near the office where he used to work. He's still on leave, receiving speech therapy, but he wanted to get a shawarma from one of his favorite lunch spots. (He developed a taste for Middle Eastern food in Iraq.) As he speaks, whenever he gets stuck on a word – often words beginning with "st" or "th" – he stares straight ahead and his lips start to quiver slightly.

St- st- STEPPING.

He's pulled his bandanna low on his forehead, and with just a tug it would cover his eyes and he'd become a blindfolded guy awaiting his last cigarette and the firing squad.

The girl behind the counter at the gyro spot recognized him – he used to be a regular – and asked in a teasing voice, pointing at his neck brace, "What happened to you?"

"The Oakland police. Shot me in the head," Olsen told her.

Her eyes widened. "Oh! That's crazy! They shouldn't be able to do that." Olsen agreed with this. The older guy making the gyros called out from the kitchen that he supported the Occupy movement.

Boots Riley happened to be performing in New York shortly after Occupy Wall Street began. He stopped by Zuccotti Park and came away feeling the process of decision-making by general assembly was overly drawn out. Back home, he checked out Occupy Oakland on occasion, but it wasn't until Olsen got hurt that the movement's potential dawned on him. For the first time since Occupy began, the national focus had shifted from New York to the West Coast. In the wake of police violence and Olsen's injury, Occupy Oakland called a general strike. Five percent of city employees didn't show up for work that day; an estimated 10,000 demonstrators shut down the port. Riley, who was becoming one of the most prominent spokespeople for Occupy Oakland, told San Francisco Weekly, "This is just a warning, like us flashing our guns and saying, 'This is the power that we have.'"

A series of events at Occupy Oakland – Olsen's injury; rioting by a small group of window-smashing anarchists during the general strike; the shooting death on the outskirts of the camp – have only added to Oakland's reputation as a possible tinderbox. At the same time, Oakland's willingness to directly attack the problems of labor and production has made it one of the more exciting and potentially disruptive branches of the movement.

Several thousand protesters turned up for the march on the port. Everyone was nervous about Olsen getting hurt again. At one point, organizer Barucha Peller pulled me aside and asked, "Will you be sticking near Scott today? If the police attack us, can I call you?"

But the police kept their distance, and the march was peaceful, almost merrily triumphant. Olsen led the way, clutching the center of a long "Port Closing" banner featuring an image of Bart Simpson wearing a guerrilla bandanna. As the sun went down, the clouds turned pink in the soft California light, and even the cranes looked less ominous in the distance, backlit so prettily. A bicycle brigade raced ahead to scout for potential police trouble, while marchers chanted things like "Whose streets? Our streets!" and "The system has got to die! Hella hella Occupy!" Finally, word came down, before we reached the port, that the authorities had thrown in the towel and canceled the 7 p.m. shift. Cheers broke out. A mic check was called and Boots Riley announced the group would continue to the port and hold a general assembly.

There was no longer a feeling of danger or confrontation, only the heady air of victory. At the port, a bunch of kids climb atop one of the idling semitrucks. The driver seems amused. A New Orleans-style brass band begins playing – note to Occupy Wall Street: this is much better than tribal drumming! – and Olsen changes into a more incognito outfit, pulling on a pair of loose blue pants and a hippie poncho. "Now I look like. Any stoner," he says, smiling. Keith Olbermann had asked him to appear on Countdown tonight, but Olsen declined. He didn't want to miss this.

A slightly haggard man with a white beard and a walrus mustache approaches Olsen and, like many before him, offers his thanks. He turns out to be a veteran too. He wants to give his first name only, Jack.

Jack had been helping out at Occupy Santa Cruz, because they needed people with first-aid experience and he'd worked as a paramedic. "The last time anything like this happened in this country, I was in Vietnam," Jack tells me. "I had a different job back then. I was killing people." He shrugs. "I'm hopeful, but I don't want to get excited. I've seen things like this become flashes in the pan. What's the best we can hope for? If anyone here thinks the one percent will give away anything to the rest of us, they're delusional. It won't happen without a real fight." At this last line, a dark glint comes into his eye. He's clearly not talking about more protests. "I'm afraid that's what has to happen. During Vietnam, it almost jumped off in that direction with us soldiers. Remember, we were the ones with guns. There was a reason so many lieutenants were getting fragged out there." He laughs mordantly. "You have to watch history, man, or it'll repeat itself."

As Occupy regroups, there will no doubt be debates over whether to adopt Oakland's more confrontational approach nationally or to press on with the awareness-raising teach-in vibe of Occupy Wall Street, which so far has been highly effective in shifting the political debate – in part, one suspects, because many of the protesters in Zuccotti Park seem so nice. (And, one further suspects, so white.) It's a classic tactical argument: propaganda by word, as anarchists used to call political theorists, versus propaganda by deed, their euphemism for people willing to blow things up.

"Here's the thing we've got to remember," Riley says. "Every progressive movement in U.S. history has been portrayed negatively by the media at the time it happened. Look at articles about the Montgomery bus boycott while it was happening. It's kind of like with black music, the way it's always the music from black people 30 years ago that's the good shit. And music that black people are making right now is the ignorant shit. That's always the story."

Riley did not vote for Obama in 2008 – he has described himself as a communist and on principle only votes for propositions and ballot initiatives, not candidates – and he has no plans to support the president in 2012. "If this movement gets involved in electoral politics, that will kill it," he predicts. "The anti-war movement was strong right before Kerry ran, and then it got turned into a pro-Kerry movement. Killed it. The folks that are suggesting Occupy move to electoral politics are ignoring history, ignoring what actually creates change. People get involved in electoral politics because they think there is no movement that can create change. But now we have one, and we have to continue to create a movement that can stop industry at will around whatever demand. At that point, we'll get politicians to do whatever we want them to.

Olsen also expresses ambivalence about the political system as it stands. He thinks more highly of Ron Paul than a number of politicians on the left – he doesn't agree with Paul's politics, but he respects the fact that he hasn't been bought. Before he goes back to work, he's also thinking about how he might put his newfound fame to positive use, perhaps embarking on what he's calling an "Occupy crawl" to other locations around the country.

"Honestly, I don't know if we'll see anything directly attributable to Occupy happen in the political world," Olsen says. "It would be great if we could get money out of politics, if we could end all of our wars, if we could..." He trails off. "These are the things we're fighting for. But the commonality among just about everybody out there, whether they call themselves a libertarian or an anarchist or a communist, is that they want politics returned to the people. And that's what I think will happen. We're not going to give up until we feel like we are being properly represented." Olsen, the accidental radical icon, flashes a tight smile. He starts talking about his own injury and subsequent notoriety again, though maybe he's also speaking about the Occupy movement as a whole. Olsen says, "I don't want to see this go to waste."

Related
The Latest From Occupy Oakland's General Strike
Inside Occupy Wall Street
Taibbi: My Advice to the Occupy Wall Street Protesters
A Sign Occupy Wall Street Is Having Political Impact
Photos: Occupy Wall Street Timeline

This story is from the February 2nd, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1149: February 2, 2012