Thursday, October 27, 2011

Iraq War Vet Critically Wounded During Police Raid On Occupy Oakland

Police Assault on Occupy Oakland by Swarm Gallery Oakland
Oakland police cleared the Occupy Oakland encampment on Tuesday morning, but in the evening protestors returned to retake Frank Ogawa Plaza, which they renamed Oscar Grant Plaza in homage to the young man assassinated by BART police last year. The protest was mostly peaceful and nonviolent, except for a few thrown water and paint bottles. However, rather than ignoring these minor incidences or arresting the culprits, police fired projectiles into the crowd, hitting Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen in the head and critically wounding him. Olsen suffered a fractured skull and only just started to regain consciousness late this afternoon. He remains in critical condition.

Police ready to crack heads after being paint "bombed" by protestors (Image by Oakland Local)
The East Bay Express tweeted a picture of rubber bullets one of their journalists found at the scene. However, no police agency has admitted using rubber projectiles. Interim Oakland police Chief Howard Jordan said that his police had used tear gas and bean-bag bullets, but did not fire rubber bullets, according to the Bay Citizen. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department said that its officers used foam-like bullets, paint guns and tear gas.  The Berkeley Police Department, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, the Santa Clara County Office of the Sheriff and the California Highway Patrol also participated in the assault. In all, 17-18 different police agencies participated.

While no police agency has admitted using rubber bullets (certainly none wants to take responsibility for Olsen’s injury or possible death), what they have admitted using is appalling: Bean bag bullets, foam-like bullets, paint guns and tear gas. Furthermore, demonstrators claim that police launched flash-bang (concussion) grenades at them as they attempted to rescue Olsen and cart him away. The You-Tube footage of Olsen’s rescue appears to support this claim. (Click here to see the footage)
Police readying to fire on protestors (Image by Oakland Local)
 While the police assault was clearly excessive and unnecessary to simply clear a few hundred demonstrators from the street (only 100 were arrested), it was likely intended to send a message to demonstrators that they cannot beat the overwhelming firepower or the will of the state. The Bay Citizen quoted one cop who complained that “We’ve been placating these people so long that they don’t take us seriously.” Clearly, they intended to change this view. Other police expressed dismay at the fact that the mayor allowed the encampment to last as long as it did, as if the mere presence of a tent city would somehow lead to violence or criminal activity.

The message not to mess with the state may have backfired, though, by galvanizing the movement and causing its popularity to snowball. Last night, spontaneous marches in support of Occupy Oakland erupted in New York and elsewhere. Occupy Oakland is now calling for a city-wide General Strike on November 2 which, if successful, will disrupt business far more than the Occupy movement has done up until now.

The overwhelming police violence has also landed Oakland’s Mayor Jean Quan in the hot seat, prompting her to reverse her stance and allow the Oakland protestors to remain in their encampment, giving the protestors a small, short-term victory. Police in San Francisco are considering calling off their planned raid on the Occupy SF encampment today. Both actions come out of fear of escalating the size and militancy of the movement as well as fear of alienating voters.

Quan’s Facebook page had dozens of calls for her resignation and her phone number was posted leading to her voicemail being quickly filled with angry messages. One of her advisors has resigned as a result of the police assault. City finance officials are complaining about the $1 million price tag for the police overtime and clean up. One was quoted by the Bay Citizen saying “Wall Street’s not going broke, but the city of Oakland will,” in a sympathetic nod to the protestors.

They Shoot Veterans, Don’t They?
Scott Olsen served two tours of duty in Iraq, despite the fact that he opposed the war. When he returned, he joined Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace. He participated in the Wisconsin State Building occupation last year and had been an active participant in both the Occupy Oakland and Occupy San Francisco movements. He had been going to his job during the day and returning to the encampments at night, according to his roommate and comrade from the war. He was, according to his roommate, an incredibly peaceful and nonviolent man.

Television footage of his shooting showed him moving away from police just prior to being shot, not toward them. He was not throwing anything or doing anything at all threatening. There was no justification for picking him out from the crowd and, in all likelihood, he just happened to be the unlucky one who got hit by a trigger happy cop.

The cops couldn’t have chosen a more sympathetic victim, short of shooting a child or a kitten. War veterans are considered heroes by most Americans. Patriots love them. Even those who oppose war generally have a sympathetic respect for their sacrifices and trials. The thought that an American could risk his life in a war zone and return to the U.S. only to be shot and possibly killed by police in an American city while exercising his free speech rights must be horrifying to most Americans, particularly in light of the popular support for the movement.

On the other hand, we will likely see much more of this sort of police violence in coming weeks, as they attempt to clear out Occupy encampments in other cities, including more serious injuries and possibly even deaths, as were more common in the 60s and early 70s. Atlanta recently used SWAT teams to arrest 50 or so Occupy protestors in their city. And if protestors in Oakland attempt to shut down business as usual by blockading roads and highways or by marching on major banks and corporations during their General Strike, they will likely meet more police violence.

I remember a similar call for a General Strike during the first gulf war in 1990, when activists decided to shut down San Francisco, without the support of labor, by blockading roads and highways. It was an interesting idea, but completely implausible. Without workers walking off the job, the only hope of shutting down business was to prevent workers and customers from getting into the city, a naïve and absurd goal for a few hardcore activists and their supporters. Though thousands participated in blockades of the federal building and protests marches, only a few dozen, at most, participated in direct actions intended to halt traffic into the city. While the police did not use tear gas, rubber bullets or concussion grenades, they did beat people silly. One friend of mine was clubbed in the leg repeatedly until he had compound fractures.

Times are different now. People may be more galvanized by the brutal police assault on Tuesday night and their sympathy for Scott Olsen. Who knows, maybe a significant number of workers will buck their unions and stay home from work on November 2 or even march in the streets. At the same time, the police and the state seem much more willing to shoot protestors now than they were 20 years ago. They are also better organized, have more sophisticated weaponry and communication systems, and greater support from the federal government under the Department of Homeland Security.

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