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Video: Tensions rise at ‘Occupy Oakland’ protests

msnbc.com news services
updated 10/28/2011 1:02:41 AM ET 2011-10-28T05:02:41

The Iraq War veteran injured during a clash between police and anti-Wall Street protesters this week wasn't taking part in the demonstrations out of economic need.

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Scott Olsen, 24, makes a good living as a network engineer and has a nice apartment overlooking San Francisco Bay. And yet, his friends say, he felt so strongly about economic inequality in the United States that he fought for overseas that he slept at a protest camp after work.

"He felt you shouldn't wait until something is affecting you to get out and do something about it," said friend and roommate Keith Shannon, who served with Olsen in Iraq.

It was that feeling that drew him to Oakland on Tuesday night, when the clashes broke out and Olsen's skull was fractured. Fellow veterans said Olsen was struck in the head by a projectile fired by police, although the exact object and who might have been responsible for the injury have not been definitively established.

Rallying cry
Now, even as officials investigate exactly where the projectile came from, Olsen has become a rallying cry for the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators across the nation, with Twitter users and protest websites declaring, "We are all Scott Olsen."

In Las Vegas, a few dozen protesters held a vigil for him. A handful of police officers attended, and protesters invited them back for a potluck dinner Thursday night.

"We renewed our vow of nonviolence," organizer Sebring Frehner said.

Another round of vigils were organized for Thursday night, including one in Oakland.

Oakland organizers said they would stage a general strike over what a spokeswoman called the "brutal and vicious" treatment of protesters, including the former Marine.

Elsewhere across the United States, officials took steps to close some of the protest camps that have sprung up in opposition to growing economic inequality.

In Nashville, Tenn., officials imposed a curfew, saying conditions at a camp at the state Capitol were worsening. In Providence, R.I., officials told protesters they were violating multiple city laws by camping overnight at a park.

The group Iraq Veterans Against the War blamed police for Olsen's injury. Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan said officials will investigate whether officers used excessive force. He did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.

Police have said they responded with tear gas and bean bag rounds only when protesters began throwing bottles and other items at them.

Story: Oakland protesters hold late-night march after vet injured

Dramatic improvement
Olsen's condition improved Thursday, with doctors transferring him from the emergency room to an intensive care unit and upgrading his condition to fair.

Dr. Alden Harken, chief surgeon at Alameda County Medical Center, said Olsen was still unable to speak but had improved dramatically since he was hospitalized unconscious with a fractured skull and bruised brain that caused seizures.

By Thursday afternoon, Harken said, Olsen was interacting with his parents, who flew in from Wisconsin in the morning, doing math equations and otherwise showing signs of "high-level cognitive functioning." The doctor said he may require surgery, but that's unlikely.

"He's got a relatively small area of injury and he's got his youth going for him. So both of those are very favorable," Harken said.

Olsen smiled when Mayor Jean Quan stopped by to visit and expressed surprise at all the attention his injury has generated, hospital spokesman Vintage Foster said. The mayor apologized and promised an investigation, according to Foster.

His uncle in Wisconsin told The Associated Press that Olsen's mother was trying to understand what had happened.

"This is obviously a heartbreaker to her," George Nygaard said. "I don't think she understands why he was doing this."

'Like a war zone'
On Tuesday night, Olsen had planned to be at the San Francisco protest, but he changed course after his veterans' group decided to support protesters in Oakland after police cleared an encampment outside City Hall.

Image: Scott Olsen injured by a tear gas canister
Kimihiro Hoshino  /  AFP - Getty Images
The Occupy Oakland protesters carry away Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen after he was hit by a tear gas canister shot by the police projectile on Tuesday in California.

"I think it was a last-minute thing," Shannon said.

Joshua Shepherd, 27, a Navy veteran who was standing nearby when Olsen got struck, said he didn't know what hit him. "It was like a war zone," he said.

A video posted on YouTube showed Olsen being carried by other protesters through the tear gas, his face bloodied. People shout at him: "What's your name? What's your name?" Olsen just stares back.

Shepherd said it's a cruel irony that Olsen is fighting an injury in the country that he fought to protect.

People at OPSWAT, the San Francisco security software company where Olsen works, were devastated after learning of his injuries. They described him as a humble, quiet man.

Olsen had been helping to develop security applications for U.S. defense agencies, building on expertise gained while on active duty in Iraq, said Jeff Garon, the company's director of marketing.

Olsen was awarded seven medals while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, which he left as a lance corporal in November 2009 after serving for four years. One of them was the Navy-Marine Corps Achievement Medal.

Olsen moved to the Bay Area in July, and quickly found friends in the veterans against the war group.

His tours of duty in Iraq made him more serious, Shannon said.

"He wasn't active in politics before he went in the military, but he became active once he was out ... the experience in the military definitely shaped him," Shannon said.

'Shut the city down'
Occupy Oakland organizers said their strike, scheduled for next Wednesday, was intended to shut down the city. 

"We mean nobody goes to work, nobody goes to school, we shut the city down," organizer Cat Brooks said. "The only thing they seem to care about is money and they don't understand that it's our money they need. We don't need them, they need us."

Spokeswomen for the city of Oakland and Quan could not be reached for comment.

Brooks said a general strike was a "natural progression" following a crackdown by the city of Oakland early on Tuesday morning in which protesters were evicted from a plaza near city hall and 85 people were arrested.

Protesters sought to retake that plaza on Tuesday night and were repeatedly driven back by police using stun grenades and tear gas. It was during one of those clashes that protesters say Olsen was struck in the head by a tear gas canister fired by police.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Data: Occupy Wall Street

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