Occupy Wall Street Protesters Rally Around Injured Iraq Vet

Last Updated Oct 28, 2011 11:09 AM EDT

"Gentlemen, let's get the thing straight, once and for all. The policeman isn't there to create disorder; the policeman is there to preserve disorder." So Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley famously (and uproariously) said in August, 1968, after police roughed up demonstrators during the Democratic National Convention. As people taking part in the Occupy Wall Street protests are learning, nothing much has changed.

Iraqi war veteran Scott Olsen sustained a life-threatening injury Tuesday during an Occupy Oakland demonstration after reportedly being hit by either a tear gas canister or a rubber bullet fired by police. The 24-year-old Olsen, a former U.S. Marine said to have survived two tours in Iraq, was taken to a local hospital with a fractured skull. In response, anti-Wall Street protesters marched through Oakland streets last night.

The escalating violence appears to be part of a broader crackdown by officials in several cities around the nation where Occupy demonstrations are taking place. Reports the NYT:

Here in Oakland, in a scene reminiscent of the antiwar protests of the 1960s, the police filled downtown streets with tear gas late Tuesday to stop throngs of protesters from re-entering a City Hall plaza that had been cleared of their encampment earlier in the day....
In Atlanta, Mayor Kasim Reed ordered the police to arrest more than 50 protesters early Wednesday and remove their tents from a downtown park after deciding that the situation had become unsafe, despite originally issuing executive orders to let them camp there overnight.
Officials in Baltimore, Providence, R.I., and several other cities are also taking steps to stifle protest. As this video shows, tension between police and protesters also remains high in New York, site of the first OWS "occupation":

Footage of cops macing, punching and otherwise manhandling seemingly peaceful protesters is, of course, an excellent recruitment vehicle for OWS. Olsen is already a providing a rallying cry for the movement, including fellow Marines. Protesters in New York also gathered in front of city hall to express support for their compatriots in Oakland.

It's easy to see why. Without demonizing police officers, who have a tough job, the sort of tactics used against the protesters seem totally out of proportion with the scale and nature of the protests. Was it necessary for Oakland police to fire tear gas at the people who rushed to Olsen's aid after he collapsed? Clearly not. At least no more than it was for an NYPD officer to pepper-spray a young woman who posed no threat to anyone.

The greater threat is to the reputation of police officials, along with the political leaders who sanction the use of excessive force. That explains why at least some law enforcement agencies asked Google (GOOG) to remove videos of police brutality and voicing criticism of police officers from YouTube. The company refused.

More important, OWS won't be quelled by riot gear and tactical shotguns. Frightened, perhaps. Who wants a truncheon to the head? But in the U.S., police intimidation has never been a match for righteous public anger. And while it wasn't entirely true when the Chicago protesters in 1968 shouted that the "whole world is watching," with social media today the whole world really is watching.

As previous periods of social ferment in this country show, it takes a lot for the governed to withdraw moral consent from government. But killing a Marine might do it.

Thumbnail courtesy of OccupyOakland; interior image by Flickr user Oakland Local

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    Alain Sherter covers business and economic affairs for CBSNews.com.