On Tuesday Oct. 25 at Occupy Oakland, police officers shot tear gas and flash grenades into crowds of unarmed though agitated protesters, seriously injuring United States Marine and Iraq veteran Scott Olsen. It is not an innovative or controversial claim that this column makes: The violent actions of the Oakland Police Department were completely unacceptable.
While Olsen has become a symbol for the entire Occupy movement, it is imperative to remember that while his status as a war veteran certainly makes the actions by police that much more symbolically abhorrent, his status as a living, breathing human being makes them plainly unacceptable.
If you haven't seen the video of the violence which caused his injuries, search for Occupy Oakland on YouTube. You'll see a police officer launch a flash grenade into a peaceful, unarmed crowd of protesters who have rushed to the fallen Olsen in order to help him after he had been brutally injured by a police projectile that fractured his skull.
Regardless of your political beliefs or your feelings about the Occupy movement, this act cannot in any way be excused. In fact, it cannot be viewed as anything but morally reprehensible. Not because Olsen was an Iraq War Veteran, not because of anything the Constitution says about free speech or assembly, not because of the OPD's history of police brutality, but because Olsen was a human being and because the people rushing toward him had no discernable motive besides helping a fallen fellow human being. At the most fundamental level, the level of moral intuition buried far underneath political ideology, throwing that particular flash grenade was nothing but wrong.
To those who say that protestors were warned as some kind of retort supposedly defending the legitimacy of the OPD's actions: Are you kidding me? So if anything, the violent actions were premeditated, then? That blows up any of the in-the-moment reactions against protester violence accounts also floating around. So premeditated violence is OK if the victims are alerted beforehand? I'll grant that this is a delicate, nuanced situation because of the sheer numbers involved in the Occupy Oakland protests, but that general moral principle should strike you as at least odd.
Another interesting defense of the OPD in response to the specific case of Olsen's injury: "What was that [particular] cop thinking?" When one or a small group of protesters does something stupid, it is taken to be representative of the entire Occupy movement, but when one or a small number of police officers does something stupid, it's a case of a few bad apples. That logic doesn't make much sense to me. Even so, I don't think that one could claim that it was only a few bad police officers who were using these methodologies anyway, since the pervasive presence of tear gas in the air of Oakland on Oct. 25 seems to indicate that there was violence seen on a widespread scale against basically peaceful protestors. Nothing controversial: That's not OK.
Any defense of these actions of police brutality needs to cease. Protestors must be unreasonably careful to not give police officers any illusion of an excuse to continue such actions and police officers need to remember who they are employed to protect and serve.
And a dose of common-sense moral intuition wouldn't hurt, either.