Occupy Wall St. Nonviolence: Is Oakland the Exception or the Future? (+Video)

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Many in Occupy Wall St., including the movement's earliest members, are imploring activists to embrace nonviolence as a core principle. But in Oakland there's talk of a 'diversity of tactics.'

As Occupy groups in Washington and Oakland generate contrasting images of Dream tents on the one coast and flag burning on the other, it's becoming clear that the four month-old protest movement is facing its Hamlet moment: to be or not to be nonviolent.

This is the question groups throughout the now global movement have been tackling urgently - and, increasingly - formally.

But despite pleas from many, including the movement's earliest members, there is no unity on this thorny, even decisive, issue.

"Occupy's strength has been that as a movement dedicated to nonviolent direct action it claimed to follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr.," says Catherine Wilson, a political science professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia, via email.

Broadcast footage of violent clashes between demonstrators and law enforcement officers undermines this goal, she says, adding that while the actions of Occupy Oakland only represent one group, they do signal the difficulty of keeping a variety of Occupy's factions on the same nonviolent page.

"If violent encounters spread," notes Professor Wilson, "this will call into question the whole model of peaceful reform that Occupy seeks to implement." Increased violence by Occupy supporters, she adds, "would only serve to delegitimize the movement as a whole."

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Members of Occupy Washington DC - the earliest such group, formed a month prior to the Adbusters campaign in July that launched the larger Occupy movement - adopted formal principles of nonviolent action from its inception.

Taking its cue from the Albert Einstein Institution, a Boston organization devoted to disseminating formal principles of nonviolent social change, the DC Occupyers created a formal pledge of 11 principles.

"People had to sign the pledge in order to join the encampment," says Kevin Zeese, a lawyer and one of the group's earliest members. These tenets are not icing on the cake of activism he says, "they are critical."

Without strict adherence to the formal practice of nonviolent response, even to the most aggressive kinds of provocation up to and including rifle fire, Mr. Zeese says, "this movement would have achieved nothing."

He points to key moments in the Occupy movement's short history, such as pepper spray incidents in lower Manhattan and UC Davis. …