Scott Olsen, The “Occupy” Movement and The Protest Dilemma

The critics of the various Occupy Wall Street demonstrations are hustling to defuse the backlash from an incident that took place this week in Oakland, where a confrontation between police and Occupy Oakland protesters not only led to many arrests, but also a severely injured protestor. Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen is hospitalized with a fractured skull as a result of being hit by a projectile directed by police, probably a tear gas canister.

In the age of YouTube, the various images of Olsen’s injury were quickly exploited by protest organizers, as should be expected and is entirely fair. All demonstrations and protests are ultimately about public relations: if the protesters manage to be viewed more sympathetically than the group they are protesting against, then they attract sympathy and support. They win. If the protesters become unsympathetic, then they lose. All intense demonstrations eventually become a game of chicken between demonstrators and the government’s law enforcement force, be it police or National Guard. The demonstrators refuse to clear out of an area where they do not have a right to be, either because of the lack of a permit, or because they are disrupting the public peace, safety and welfare. They will try to provoke police without appearing so violent, unruly or scary that they lose public support. The police (or National Guard) have a job to do—they also have their own physical safety to protect—and yet they have to avoid making martyrs out of the demonstrators by appearing too militaristic, and also to make sure that their efforts don’t evoke images of police state oppression.

Despite the superior fire power of the police and that fact that they have the law on their side, this game always favors the demonstrators. The public and media instinctively regard any exercise of police power as excessive, whether it is or not: this is why felons can now disobey a police command to stop without getting shot. “These are kids, for God’s sake! (though often they are not) These aren’t criminals! (though technically they are). They mean no harm! (but often they do).”

But it mainly favors the demonstrators because they want to get handled roughly, clubbed, hurt, or abused—not too seriously, just enough to turn the public against the police, who are stand-ins for whatever is being protested against, even though they are usually neutral referees, juts trying to keep order. The demonstrators  usually get their wish, too. The police are  subjected to epithets, insults, rocks and thrown bottles (as in Oakland.) The demonstrators often outnumber the police by a lot. There are usually some green recruits who have never been under similar pressure, and it only takes one who cracks to create a martyr, a cause, and a rallying cry. The Boston Massacre. Kent State. Selma. The many, many, non-lethal clashes, as I saw on my own college campus in 1968 that produced photographs of bloodied young women, or films of helmeted police clubbing kneeling demonstrators.

Scott Olsen was the perfect casualty for Occupy Oakland, so he is now ripe for debunking. The Right is pointing out that he may be a veteran, but he is also the Founder of Well, so what? He had his head fractured because a trooper lost his cool and broke protocol. The fact that Olsen may not be G.I. Joe doesn’t mean that his injury is more justifiable.

Still, the ethics of these confrontations are complex. Remember “Casey the Punisher”-–the big, fat kid who was being hit and teased by a pint-sized bully and finally snapped, picking up the kid and slamming him to the ground? The police in these situations are lot like him. The demonstrators will literally not stop until someone snaps, or at least until there is an ugly confrontation.

Why do we still fall for this tactic, and have such sympathy for  demonstrators when they push and push until someone is hurt? This is a key part of their strategy, and we should know it by now. We are Americans, however, and we will always tend to favor the underdog and little guy, even when he’s acting like a jerk, and always be uncomfortable siding with the power-wielders. That is still, I think, a good thing. Yes, the method of Occupy Oakland is right out of Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals,” but it has also been used on behalf of important and virtuous causes, from labor to civil rights to American independence. It is classic utilitarianism….when the cause is just.

Since I still don’t know what Occupy Oakland or any of its brethren really want, the tactic fails the test of utilitarianism in this instance. Thus it was unethical to put the police in the classic demonstration bind, and the demonstrators, and Olsen himself, are substantially culpable for his injury, because they provoked it, and wanted to provoke it. Nobody should have added sympathy or support for the Occupy movement, whatever it is, as a result, any more than anyone had much sympathy for the mean kid that Casey body-slammed.

And the police officer who shot the canister into the crowd? Don’t sympathize with him, either. He is a trained professional, and he’s not allowed to get frightened, angry or violent. Find him, arrest him, and put him on trial.

Unfortunately, John Adams isn’t around to defend him.

[Much thanks to Jeff Hibbert for the video and the suggestion.]

7 thoughts on “Scott Olsen, The “Occupy” Movement and The Protest Dilemma

  1. Still, the military instructs it’s troops to use the minimum amount of force to neutralize the threat in these situations. The protesters are supposedly not armed. The “sympathy” card has been played for hundreds of years. I have a feeling you don’t want to know why they are protesting. How do you know that Scott Olsen wanted to get hurt as you have accused? Yes, I don’t doubt that some of the protesters intend to instigate some sort of physical reaction. However, we shouldn’t overgeneralize. The demographics are huge.

    • What? Nobody knows what they are protesting. “We want things to be different ” doesn’t count; neither does “we want your money.” Don’t tell me I don’t want to know. I’ve read more of these people’s hackneyed blather than most—it you have to work this hard to learn a protest’s specific proposals, it’s not MY fault.

      You ignored the post—I said that the police are trained, but the inevitability is that eventually something breaks down…and that IS the objective.

      The protesters were throwing projectiles, and a mob IS armed…with people. “Don’t generalize about a mob” is a hilarious, and silly, thing to say. What does demographics have to do with anything? And what are “huge” demographics?

  2. My original email about this topic really wasn’t concerned about the motives or ethics of the protesters. I just saw someone dispassionately tossing a grenade at people trying to help someone else.

    I think the best thing for the police to demonstrate here is that such behavior isn’t acceptable, and that whoever did that will be terminated and charged with the appropriate crime. Allowing someone like that to evade justice just makes them look like the militaristic jackboot thugs the protesters envision them as in the first place.

  3. I am surprised nobody from OWS claimed that the bankers hired secret agents to infiltrate the peaceful protest and attack the police officers to provoke a violent response.

  4. I think the police and National Guard should let the “occupiers” in various cities just sit there, sleep in their own shit, and let them finally get bored with the whole thing.. (It worked in the ’60s….).

    Keep the police and National Guard away, until the other citizens of the specific city rise up and demand that the occupiers be moved. Frankly, following the Saul Alinsky model, the ONLY reason to have this kind of demonstration is make enough trouble that one — it only takes one — law enforcement officer loses it. Then they’ve accomplished their objective. When will “civilized’ citizens get involved? It’s up to them. They can put this down if they want to. Unfortunately, this is what they call in foreign affairs a “zero sum” game.

  5. This is what we want.

    The Occupy Movement, both in this country and around the world, believe this IS an “important and virtuous” cause.

    I participated yesterday in the Occupy Las Cruces protest. Based on the auto traffic, the response breaks down thusly – 60 percent unresponsive, 30 percent supportive (honking, thumbs up, etc.), 10 percent hostile (thumbs down, fuck finger, yelling incomprehensible messages). I predict the positive response will grow as we march into November.

    The Las Cruces police have been very nice to us. We enjoy a good relationship.

    For the record, Jack, I go along with your assessment of protester tactics, except I think that applies, for the most part, to major cities. What I take exception to in your post is your declaration that we do not embrace an “important and virtuous cause.”

    As always, history will tell.

    (If you’d like to sit in on a recent general assembly meeting I attended, go here –

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