Scott Olsen: Casualty of the Occupation

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Scott Olsen speaks to crowd at Occupy Oakland.
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.

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