Scott Olsen: Casualty of the Occupation

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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.


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."

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