- Scott Olsen
former Marine who served two tours in the Iraq War and was critically wounded after being shot in the head by a police projectile at Occupy Oakland. He was hospitalized in critical condition with a fractured skull, a broken neck vertebrae, and brain swelling. He was released from the hospital last month, but his recovery process is only just beginning. Scott is a member of Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War.
For our last broadcast of 2011, we turn to someone who became one the faces of the global Occupy movement this year. Scott Olsen, a 24-year-old former U.S. Marine who served two tours in the Iraq War, was critically wounded after being shot in the head by a police projectile at Occupy Oakland. In a rare interview, Olsen joins us to discuss his life-threatening ordeal, his involvement in this year’s historic Wisconsin and Occupy protests, the case of accused Army whistleblower Bradley Manning and how he too had access to similar types of information, and the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. "They aren’t respecting our right to assemble, protest and redress our government for grievances," Olsen says of police repression of the Occupy protests. "They are terrorizing us from going out [to demonstrations]. That is a sad statement for our country." Olsen also says he expects to rejoin the Occupy and antiwar protests as his recovery progresses. "I look forward to being a part of the 99 percent and Iraq Veterans Against the War in 2012," he says. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: As we broadcast our last show of 2011, we turn to someone who became one of the faces of the global Occupy movement. His name is Scott Olsen. While his name made headlines around the globe this past year, his voice has seldom been heard.
Just over two months ago, on October 25th, the 24-year-old Iraq war veteran was taking part in a protest in defense of the Occupy Oakland encampment. By the time the night ended, Olsen was hospitalized in critical condition with a fractured skull and brain swelling. He had been shot in the head by a police projectile while the police were firing bean bags and tear gas to clear the Occupy protesters.
At the time of the shooting Olsen, who served two deployments in Iraq, was wearing military fatigues and a Veterans for Peace T-shirt. Moments after he was shot, police fired a bright flash grenade at a group of Occupy protesters who attempted to help treat him. Soon after that, the protesters carried him away as blood streamed down his face.
PROTESTER 1: Medic!
PROTESTER 2: We need a medic! Medic! Medic!
PROTESTER 3: What happened? What happened?
PROTESTER 2: He got [bleep] shot!
PROTESTER 3: What’s your name? What’s your name?
PROTESTER 2: What’s your name?
PROTESTER 4: Dude, wake up!
PROTESTER 3: What’s your name?
PROTESTER 4: What’s your name?
PROTESTER 5: Can you say anything? Medic!
AMY GOODMAN: Video and images from that evening in Oakland were soon broadcast around the world. Protests condemning the police use of force were held from New York to the Bay Area. The attack galvanized the Occupy movement in Oakland. Within a week, a general strike temporarily shut down the Oakland ports. Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace condemned the shooting of one of their own members.
But during this time, Scott Olsen remained hospitalized, unable to speak for days. Scott was released from the hospital mid-November, but the recovery process is only just beginning. Scott Olsen now joins us from a studio in San Francisco.
Scott, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.
SCOTT OLSEN: Good morning, Amy. It’s great to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you remember that day, what led up to those moments?
SCOTT OLSEN: Yeah, I remember almost the whole day. After work, I got off at five to six, and I went over to Occupy Oakland because I heard that they needed support over there, that they were—they had been removed from their camp. And then, so I went over there, and I met up with another Veterans for Peace member who I knew already, Josh. He was the one in the Navy blues standing next to me. So I was standing next to him, and then I stepped away for a while, and next thing I know, I’m on the ground. My left side was turned towards the cops, and that’s where I got hit, right here.
And I woke up sooner on the ground and was being carried away by all these people. And I didn’t want to—necessarily want them to take me away, because I didn’t think that I was injured all that bad at the time. So, once they asked me my name over and over, and I couldn’t muster up an answer of any sort, I knew that that wasn’t the case, and I knew that they should take me away.
AMY GOODMAN: When we couldn’t talk to you, Scott, I interviewed Jesse Palmer, the member—one of the other members of Occupy Oakland. And I wanted to play for you his description of what happened that night that your skull was fractured.
JESSE PALMER: It was about 7:45. People had marched at 5:00, and by the point that the first tear gas and concussion grenades were used, people had been marching for over two hours. At the time, there was a large group of people standing at 14th and Broadway, which is the intersection right in downtown Oakland closest to Oscar Grant Plaza. The police had given an order to disperse, but there was no aggressive behavior towards the police. It was basically just a standoff. People were standing around.
All of a sudden, you know, in just an instant, with no real warning, concussion grenades went off and tear gas canisters went off all around us. I was right in the middle of the intersection, and it was very shocking, because you just heard the explosions in every direction all around you. Most of the crowd I was with proceeded north on Broadway, but people went in every direction. The other two intersections, people left.
At that time, I didn’t see that Scott had been struck. And in fact the tear gas makes it very hard for you to see. You can’t see. So people fell back about a half a block down Broadway, then somebody said that somebody had been hurt. And so, a number of people ran back up into the tear gas. And he was lying on the sidewalk, and there were a couple of medics already with him, and they said, "We need to get him farther out," because it was very very unsafe at that location. And so, we picked him up, and we carried him about a block, around the corner from where they could safely work on him.
AMY GOODMAN: What exactly was his condition as you tried, with others, to carry him?
JESSE PALMER: So, we picked him up, and my initial—I told him, "You’re going to be OK. My name’s Jesse. Can you tell me your name?" because I knew it was a terrifying situation, and I wanted to comfort him. But he didn’t respond at all. His eyes were open. He just stared blankly. And that was when I realized. You know, there was blood coming out of—it was a little hard to say, but his eyes, his mouth, his nose, there was a lot of blood on his face. And it was a terrifying, you know, moment. I mean, he was alive, and we didn’t know how badly he was hurt. And he didn’t speak back to me. And I tried a few times, because I thought, "Oh, he’ll be able to speak back." And he never spoke. We got him around the sidewalk, and then there were—the medics said they were EMTs, and they had experience. So that was when I left. But he—yeah, he was seriously hurt.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Jesse Palmer describing what happened that night. Now Oakland officials say that they’re hiring a team of—or they’ve appointed a team of outside investigators who will look into the use of force by police after they cleared the city’s Occupy encampment. Mayor Jean Quan was in Washington, D.C., at the time of the raid and the evening protest that took place, but she’s reviewed the video. And among those who are going to be included in this are the LAPD Deputy Chief Mike Hillmann, San Jose Deputy Chief Don Anders, U.S. Coast Guard Captain Richard Cashdollar, the former executive director of the public safety for Mobile, Alabama. Scott Olsen, does that satisfy you, a commission being appointed to investigate the violence at Occupy Oakland?
SCOTT OLSEN: Well, they can appoint all the commissions they may want. I expect the truth to come out from them, but I’m not too hopeful that a—well, I mean, look at the makeup of the—this new committee that they appointed. They’re all former police. And we know how that has sometimes worked in the past. You know, they’re an all-boys club, and I don’t know if they’ll be subjective or objective.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Scott, I’d like to get a better sense of you and how you got to Occupy Wall Street. How long had you been there? What brought you there? And my understanding is you had also previously been also at—in Wisconsin, in the protests in Wisconsin. Could you talk about that?
SCOTT OLSEN: Sure. Well, early in the year, I went up to Madison. I was living a couple hours away, and I went up there the day I heard that the senators left the state. That was the budget repair bill. So I was up there for a couple weekends, even while I had a job. And I went up there, and I participated in it. And when I initially heard about Occupy coming up, before it started, it seemed like something that might have the same type of energy involved, and I thought it was almost like a continuation of what happened at Wisconsin. And I wanted to get involved with it and make it successful. So that—so that’s what got me involved. And I was here at San Francisco’s first Occupy on September 17th, I think, and then a couple weeks later, I started camping almost full-time.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And how soon after you returned from Iraq did you start getting involved in the protest movement? And how did your two tours of duty in Iraq influence you or affect your thinking on these issues?
SCOTT OLSEN: Well, I mean, the Wisconsin protests that I talked about earlier were probably my first protests that I went to of that nature. But after I got out of the military, spent—I would spend a lot of my time just getting my life together, trying to get a—build my life, get a job. And I spent a lot of time educating myself and doing a lot of reading also.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Scott Olsen is with us on this last 2011 broadcast of Democracy Now!, served two tours of duty in Iraq, was born in Wisconsin, where he grew up, member of Veterans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War. He’s wearing a neck brace and a headband. He was hit by a projectile on October 25th, standing in front of police at Occupy Oakland. After we finish speaking with Scott, we’ll be talking with Richard Cohen about the massive protests that are rocking Moscow—Stephen Cohen, professor of Russian studies at New York University. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Scott Olsen, served two tours of duty in Iraq, grew up in Wisconsin, went home to Wisconsin, participated in the Madison protests, and then came out to the Bay Area, where he was involved in Occupy San Francisco and then went to Occupy Oakland, where he was hit by a police projectile on October 25th which fractured his skull. Actually, Scott, do you know who shot that projectile at you?
SCOTT OLSEN: I don’t. The question is up in the air. I don’t know particularly who, but there is no doubt that it came from the police, because of the—where I was standing. I was standing with one side, my left side, towards the police, and there was a small gap right there. And I’m not sure who it was, and no one has come upfront with that.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, one of the more horrifying pictures at that time, when people, who didn’t know you, came up to you after the pepper spray, tear gas cleared, and they saw someone was down, you were laying right in front of the police line. The police didn’t break the line to help you. You were laying there bloodied. But young people came back, and they were asking who you were. They were trying to pick you up. And then they were hit by a flashbang grenade. So they had to back up, because they were so shocked by it. And then they came back again to try to help you and then carried you away. Do you remember—this is what we see in the video and the photos at the time. Do you remember that period?
SCOTT OLSEN: I don’t—I don’t really remember the flashbang going off or that. I remember people coming and then going and then coming back again. But I mean—but what they did with that is just unbelievable, that they would terrorize people from coming to help me. And the police themselves were supposed to be providing medical care for when they use chemical agents.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Scott, I’d like to get back again to the time that you spent in Iraq, because we so often see these sensational events, but we don’t really get an idea of what brings people to make the decision to participate in them or to stand up in one way or another. What was it about your experience in Iraq that made you decide you had to go to—first to Wisconsin, your first protest, as you said, that you had ever participated in, and then to Occupy Oakland?
SCOTT OLSEN: Well, basically, it was just—I didn’t really—I went over there, and I didn’t see what we were doing as a nation, as a military. I didn’t see that we were actually helping these people. I wasn’t convinced. And it was a slow—you know, a slow process throughout my time of being there. I can’t really point to any one or two specific incidents which would clarify that, but—
AMY GOODMAN: You—
SCOTT OLSEN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: You went back. You served two tours of duty.
SCOTT OLSEN: Yeah, yeah, I went—I went again. And at this time, I was mostly, more or less, opposed to the war, but I thought it would be best to stick with the Marines that I was with and that I had under my charge and that I was responsible for at the time.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about the other—your fellow soldiers in the units that you were stationed with? How did they feel about the war?
SCOTT OLSEN: You know, it’s really not a topic that comes up much very often among active-duty soldiers or Marines. It wasn’t something that I talked with my peers with. We were there, and we were there to do a job. And that was kind of the—you know, the mindset.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott, as we travel around the country to Occupy encampments, there are veterans everywhere in these encampments. One of the Iraq War vets that you have been standing up for, speaking out for, is Bradley Manning. You, too, were interested in computers. Can you talk about whether you knew him, why Bradley Manning is important to you, who is now facing a court-martial, facing life in prison, possibly death, accused for leaking documents and videos when he was in Iraq, uploading them to WikiLeaks, the whistleblower website?
SCOTT OLSEN: Yeah. Bradley Manning, I didn’t know him until he hit the news. And as soon as I heard about him, as soon as I saw the documents that he leaked, or allegedly leaked, I could see myself almost in his shoes, because I—you know, I, when I was in the Marine Corps, I had access to many of the same types of files. And, you know, if I wanted to, I could have gone up and got them, and—but I didn’t see any that, you know, were particularly—pointed to any particular crimes. But he came across a lot. And what he did is—that’s true heroism. I mean, he faced up against a real enemy. And I think that those documents also tie in with what we are seeing today with this global awakening, with all this information, has been another pile on top of the tinder that’s sparked Occupy, that’s sparked the Arab Spring. It’s played into that, as well.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Scott, in the days after you were so seriously injured, you became the face of the Occupy movement around the country and around the world. Were you surprised by the outpouring, the rage of your fellow occupiers at what had happened, and also the attention that was given to your case?
SCOTT OLSEN: Well, kind of was surprised, because I’m not the first case of police brutality since Occupy, since 10 years ago, since whenever. But I’m glad that maybe me getting hurt sparked enough attention, and it got people involved to see that there is such a problem, that it is going on and that it continues to go on, even in our country. And I think the fact that it was, you know, me, a veteran, who got hit wearing my uniform took a big toll on people’s minds. And they thought, you know, this is what we’re doing to our veterans now. And I think that’s what was kind of responsible for the outrage a little more.
AMY GOODMAN: IVAW, Iraq Veterans Against the War’s membership has gone up something like fivefold since being involved with the Occupy movement. We’re also speaking to you on this last day—the last days of 2011, when most U.S. soldiers are pulled out of Iraq. What are your thoughts about the end of the official war, U.S. involvement in Iraq?
SCOTT OLSEN: Well, the end of it officially, it’s—
AMY GOODMAN: Looks like we just lost Scott Olsen. He’s back on.
SCOTT OLSEN: —can’t help but think, what have we won? Like, what did we win? There’s nothing—nothing to look back on and think that we were victorious or that anyone benefited anywhere from our involvement in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott, in the days after your skull was fractured, you couldn’t speak. You are wearing a neck brace, a headband. How is your rehabilitation going, and what does it involve?
SCOTT OLSEN: Well, my rehab has been going quite well. The neck brace is because I broke a neck vertebrae when I was injured, and I’m still recovering from that. And my speech is getting a lot better. I’ve been going to speech therapy typically once a week. And, you know, I’m satisfied with the progress I’ve been making. And I think that I am still recovering, and I will continue to get better, but I do feel very much stronger than when I look back at how I was when I first woke up in the hospital. I’ve made amazing progress, I think.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the way that the Oakland police and authorities dealt with the protest, not only on that day, but in subsequent days, trying to clear the—first supporting the protesters, then clearing it, then allowing them back in, then clearing them again. The mayor there, Jean Quan, who has a liberal or even radical history, received a lot criticism for the way she handled the occupation. Your thoughts on how authorities dealt with you?
SCOTT OLSEN: Well, I don’t think that they’re respecting—first and foremost, they’re not respecting our right to assemble and to protest and to redress our government for grievances. They’re not allowing us to do that. They’re—by the tactics they’re using, they are—in effect, they’re terrorizing some of us from going out at all. You know, you look at me. This is at least the worst that could happen to you if you go out to one of these. And that’s a sad statement for our country.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Scott, as you sit here talking to us, as you are being rehabilitated here, you could be any veteran of the war, any soldier who has returned who’s been injured, but you were not injured in Iraq. You were injured here in the United States after you returned home. What are your plans, after all that you’ve been through, as a Marine in Iraq, increasingly becoming antiwar, coming to this country, then participating in the protests in Wisconsin, where your family lives, then coming out to the Bay Area? Has it changed your path in life?
SCOTT OLSEN: Well, it certainly has. It’s made me who I am today. Everything from being in the Marine Corps to being involved with Occupy to going through this injury has all made me who I am today. And I’m going to use that in the future to effect even more change and to—you know, I look forward to being a part of the 99 percent here in 2012, being a part of IVAW here in 2012. But I’m also maybe looking forward to returning to work part-time and maybe starting my old life again soon and see how that goes for me.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott Olsen, thanks so much for being with us. Scott Olsen, a Marine, served two tours of duty in Iraq, came back to this country, on October 25th was standing in front of police at Occupy Oakland and was hit by a projectile. It fractured his skull. Thanks so much for being with us, and best to you.
This is Democracy Now! Protests are rocking Moscow in Russia. When we come back, we’ll speak with Stephen Cohen, Russian studies professor at New York University, author of numerous books, including Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War. Stay with us.