Occupy Wall Street’s commitment to nonviolence

    I’ve noted before that Occupy Wall Street has had trouble coming to consensus on a statement of nonviolence (as opposed to, say, the October 2011 movement in DC, which publicized one at the outset). This was an issue both in the planning process and in the early days of the occupation. In my essay on the notion of “diversity of tactics” for Occupy Wall Street, I wrote:

    Since the early stages of the movement, it is true, those taking part have been in a deadlock on the question of making a commitment to nonviolence. At a planning meeting in Tompkins Square Park prior to September 17, I recall one young man in dark sunglasses saying, knowingly, “There is a danger of fetishizing nonviolence to the point that it becomes a dogma.” In response, a woman added a “point of information,” despite being in contradiction to what Gandhi or King might say: “Nonviolence just means not initiating violence.” The question of nonviolence was ultimately tabled that night and thereafter. “This discussion is a complete waste of time,” someone concluded.

    However, this is long overdue for an update. Every major statement so far issued by the General Assembly at Occupy Wall Street’s Liberty Plaza has included a definitive nod toward a commitment to nonviolence.

    Here’s a quick rundown of each document now available in the Resources section of the New York City General Assembly’s website:

    • Principles of Solidarity (September 23). The initial statement of the values that the occupation stands for includes, in its preamble: “Today, we proudly remain in Liberty Square constituting ourselves as autonomous political beings engaged in non-violent civil disobedience and building solidarity based on mutual respect, acceptance, and love.”
    • Declaration of the Occupation of New York City (September 29). This call for “the people of the world” “to assert your power” twice borrows the language of the First Amendment to describe the act of occupation; of Occupy Wall Street itself the Declaration says, “We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right,” and to “the people of the world” it enjoins, “Exercise your right to peaceably assemble.”
    • Good Neighbor Policy (October 13). In response to complaints from the community surrounding occupied Liberty Plaza, the General Assembly promulgated some basic values and guidelines for how occupiers should behave among those who live and work around them. This includes “zero tolerance for violence or verbal abuse towards anyone” and “zero tolerance for abuse of personal or public property.”
    • Statement of Autonomy (November 1). In order to preempt co-option of the movement, the General Assembly passed this statement making clear that Occupy Wall Street “is not a business, a political party, an advertising campaign or a brand.” Once again, though, in affirming what the movement is, nonviolence (and First Amendment language) is at the heart of it: “We welcome all, who, in good faith, petition for a redress of grievances through non-violence,” says the Statement. “We provide a forum for peaceful assembly of individuals to engage in participatory as opposed to partisan debate and democracy.”

    As I see it, the upshot is clear: Occupy Wall Street has made a firm and consistent commitment to nonviolence. The question remains, of course, what those participating understand nonviolence to actually mean. As new challenges arise, that will be an ongoing discussion.



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