Scott Olsen on Militarization of the Police, ISIS and Occupy Oakland

Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) member and activist Scott Olsen was the featured guest on Tim “Sole” Holland’s podcast titled Solecast on June 3, 2015. The Occupy Wall Street movement galvanized after the life-threatening attack on Olsen when he was put into a coma after being hit in the head with a bean bag round shot by police at an Occupy Oakland protest on October 25, 2011. In March 2015, Olsen was awarded 4.5 million by the city of Oakland after a federal lawsuit was filed concerning his injury. Olsen discussed IVAW, militarization of the police, Occupy Oakland, ISIS, the surveillance state and creating cultures of resistance.

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Olsen, who is a board member of IVAW, discussed the organization’s four main areas of focus involving issues with US militarism abroad; veterans rights and access to care; reparations and the US being accountable for how it has affected populations abroad; militarism in schools and with the police; and addressing what refugees experience when they come to the US and what veterans go through when they come home.

Regarding militarization and the police, Olsen explained that a lot of veterans are victims of the police and many join the police. Olsen commented on veterans with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) joining the police stating, “When you have PTSD, especially from war, it’s almost like you are stuck in that frame of mind that you are still at war and police get that message through their training already – that the civilians are the other, essentially the enemy – and when you have a mental illness, that reinforces that: it’s very dangerous.” Holland and Olsen discussed the militarized appearance and weaponization of police at protests. Olsen stated, “We ought to be treating the police and talking about the police as if they are an occupying force, similar to what my role was in Iraq; I see essentially zero difference.”

Concerning the Occupy Oakland protests, Olsen explained that in 2011, he was new to activism stating, “I felt a need to be involved, a need to speak out, especially with my role as a veteran; I felt I could be a symbolic barrier between the police and the protesters.” Olsen explained that after being severely injured from the bean bag round shot by police, he was even more focused on his path of resistance and activism. Shortly after Olsen was injured, a general strike was called in Oakland. Olsen elaborated on the event, “I was still in the hospital when Oakland shut down the port and it was just surreal to know that what happened to me was very much an impetus. That was one of the major causes for why they chose to have that strike right then and I was proud to watch them do that.”

Regarding the aftermath of Olsen’s injury by police, he was called an “egomaniac” by former Mayor of Oakland Jean Quan after a city council meeting. “The topic of the meeting was community trust of the police.” Olsen continued, “What I was saying is you can’t expect the community to respect the police if they aren’t even held accountable for what they’ve done; that’s the number one building block, we need to start from there.”

Olsen discussed his own privilege and the contradiction of him talking about police violence given that he is a white male and won a settlement while many people of color are killed and receive no justice: “Here I am, this basically middle class white kid, veteran, who survived a serious police attack, got all of this media attention, won millions of dollars in court and I’m mostly okay.” Olsen explained the importance of speaking out, but also acknowledged the difficulty of speaking about police brutality when people such as Oscar Grant’s mother have lost people to police violence. “I’m the exception to the rule as far as white people being attacked by police.” Olsen stated, “it’s an everyday reality for communities of color and it’s so everyday that it just doesn’t warrant any time on the news; it ought to.” In addition, Olsen commented on the Black Lives Matter movement, explaining his experience with Copwatch workshops in Ferguson and how increased discussions on self-defense are inspiring to see.

Holland and Olsen discussed the Urban Shield training sessions in Alameda County, California where disaster and terrorism response exercises are practiced by first responder agencies. In 2011, countries notorious for their human rights violations, such as Jordan, Bahrain and Israel, had teams participate in Urban Shield training. “Civilian populations are essentially painted as the enemy and that’s reinforced through trainings like Urban Shield.” Olsen continued, “where every training scenario is a homicidal maniac or a terrorist, and that’s all they’re trained on and all they’re exposed to, they’re a product of their training too.” In relation to the connection of protests with Urban Shield, Olsen said, “A couple weeks before I was shot, there was Urban Shield that was in Berkeley; OPD [OaklandPolice Department] participated in it alongside Israeli forces and other forces from the Middle East and they say it’s to address these emergency scenarios, but half their training scenarios are against crowds.”

Olsen, who served two tours in Iraq, also discussed ISIS and the Kurdish resistance in Kobani and Rojava, adding, “They are the lead force fighting ISIS; they haven’t really asked for outside support and they are well organized. Kurdistan has been fighting state forces for years now, especially since our invasion in Iraq. They have carved out their own autonomous region in northern Iraq.” Olsen discussed his experience in Iraq further, “When I was in Iraq, I was over there twice, my first time was in Al Qa’im, which is on the Euphrates river and the Syrian border, way out west, and the second time I was at Haditha Dam which is closer to Baghdad. Al Qa-im was one of the first cities ISIS had influence in … I was hearing about ISIS about 6 months to a year before they were a thing in the media, before most Americans knew what they were. It’s not surprising that they have been able to gain so much support because the Sunni population has been essentially disenfranchised since we installed Nouri al-Maliki as PM [Prime Minister] who is Shiite. They’ve been disenfranchised since then basically; they were having these popular protests and nonviolent protests in Iraq and they were getting continually put down by the government.”

Concerning cultures of resistance, Olsen discussed Biblioteca Popular, “In Oakland, in a mostly Latino neighborhood, there was an abandoned building that for many years was a library, but since the nineties, it was abandoned … basically a few anarchists broke into it and turned it back into a library.” The community named the reimagined building the “Biblioteca Popular Victor Martinez People’s Library.” Olsen went on to explain that the soon after the building was opened, the OPD arrived and deemed the occupation of the building illegal. Despite being shut down by the city, the backyard is still being used as a community garden and a place for gatherings.

Olsen explained that he recently bought some property in Wisconsin, stating, “I’m trying to create a self-sustaining community with a culture of resistance and hopefully with people who have been personally affected by the police or the system.” Regarding tactics and resistance, Olsen said, “I also think a lot of veterans have a lot of skills that we shy away from sharing, these are skills that we are going to need – like how to get around undetected, how to conduct surveillance on a site … similar to what Will Potter is doing, using drones, filming farms … we need to think more like an underground resistance movement.”

The interview concluded with Olsen reflecting on why he joined the military, “My mindset was that I wanted to be a part of something bigger; I wanted to have a larger impact, fight against terrorism, defend our freedom. I bought that line; I was 17 years old.” Olsen explained how the war on terror is an “economic draft” because it entices poor people to join for tuition benefits. “I wanted to have a positive effect; I learned throughout my time in the military that it was pretty much impossible through that institution, and that I was pretty much complicit.” Olsen continued, “I am still guided by the same principles that brought me into the military. The military didn’t change my base instincts, that’s why it’s common that veterans become activists.” Concerning state power, Olsen stated, “We need to remember that they are not an all-powerful enemy; there is this complex on the left that the government is like essentially god: ‘they know everything; they can do anything, unlimited resources,’ but none of that’s true: their resources are limited; they can’t fuck with everybody; they only have so many people, so much money.”