(Reuters) - Doctors in Oakland, California, struggled on Wednesday to save the life of an Iraq war veteran who became a rallying cry for the Occupy Wall Street movement after he was badly wounded in clashes between protesters and police.
Scott Olsen, 24, a former U.S. Marine who served two tours of duty in Iraq, was struck in the head by a tear gas canister fired on Tuesday by police trying to prevent protesters from reclaiming a public square, protest organizers said.
Police had forcibly cleared Frank Ogawa Plaza, which had served as a base for two weeks of protests in Oakland against economic inequality, in a predawn sweep of the area earlier that same day, arresting 85 protesters at a makeshift encampment there.
A spokesman for Highland General Hospital in Oakland confirmed Olsen was listed in critical condition from injuries sustained in the protest but could not say how he was hurt.
Oakland police have acknowledged officers fired tear gas and so-called “bean-bag” projectiles to disperse demonstrators on Tuesday night but declined to discuss how Olsen may have been hurt except to say the matter was under investigation.
Olsen is believed to be the most seriously injured person yet in confrontations between police and activists protesting against a financial system they believe benefits mostly corporations and the wealthy since anti-Wall Street protests began last month in New York.
News of his injury ignited a furor among supporters of the protests. Activists in Oakland and elsewhere took to Twitter and other social media urging demonstrators back into the streets en masse.
Olsen, originally from Onalaska, Wisconsin, had been camping overnight with the Occupy San Francisco protest before joining the Oakland movement, said his friend, Adele Carpenter, who spoke to Reuters by phone from the hospital waiting room.
“The irony is not lost on anyone here that this is someone who survived two tours in Iraq and is now seriously injured by the Oakland police force,” said Carpenter, 29.
She said Olsen had been active in several anti-war veterans groups and had ventured across the bay to Oakland in a gesture of solidarity after learning of protesters’ difficulties in that city.
Keith Shannon, 24, who said he served with Olsen in Iraq, told Reuters his friend suffered a 2-inch skull fracture and brain swelling and had been sedated and placed on a respirator in the hospital’s emergency room trauma center while neurosurgeons decided whether to operate.
Shannon and Carpenter both said Olsen had been conscious when he first arrived at the hospital at about 11 p.m. on Tuesday.
A hospital spokesman said on Wednesday night that Olsen remained listed in critical condition and would soon be moved to an intensive care unit.
“Scott is quiet until you get to know him. He’s always smiling a lot, and is sharp-witted,” Shannon said, describing his friend and roommate as someone who had “always been interested in politics.”
“Even though he has a good job, and Wall Street technically hasn’t affected him, he’s trying to help other people,” Shannon said. He added that he and Olsen both now work as systems administrators at a software firm and are roommates in Daly City, south of San Francisco.
Olsen served two tours in Iraq from 2006 to 2010 with the 3rd battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, Shannon said, adding that he and Olsen deployed together and were assigned to a tactical communications unit.
During his first tour, Olsen was sent to the Iraqi town of Al-Qa’im, a community along the Euphrates river. His second deployment was in Haditha, a town where a group of U.S. Marines were accused of unlawfully killing 24 civilians in 2005.
Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston