Click photo to enlarge
Moxie makes a banner for the upcoming Global Transaction Day as people walk around the communal area where there is a garden, a craft tent, the kitchen, coffee bar, library and supply ten at the Occupy Oakland encampment in Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland, Calif. on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011. On November 5th there is a movement to encourage everyone to withdraw their money from large financial institutions as a symbolic action and put it in credit unions or their pockets. (Laura A. Oda/Staff)

OAKLAND -- Tension had been building for days in the Occupy Oakland camp before it erupted into violence Monday and Tuesday. When it finally did, Don Hughes, a substitute teacher and full-time tent resident of the camp, found himself amid a full-blown melee.

The next thing Hughes knew he was in a headlock, then he was being punched, and then he was on the ground as a large man began to choke him.

"This is a revolution, and we want it to be open to everybody," said Hughes early Wednesday morning, "but this guy crossed too many lines."

As dawn came Wednesday, the protest's 10th day, an almost overwhelming sense of urgency was developing around the need to resolve internal security issues that have bedeviled residents and passers-by alike. The tent city that has sprung up on the steps of Oakland City Hall has attracted a diverse range of people, many with competing ideologies and world views. Homeless people, ex-convicts, at least one registered sex offender, students, unemployed hotel workers, anarchists and reform-minded activists freely mingle together in what amounts to a democracy free-for-all.

Sometimes, everyone appears to be on the same page. But the skein of civility has been frequently shattered as bullies, the mentally ill, drunks, thugs and anarchists have threatened the safety and well-being of the camp's more peaceful residents. Occupy Oakland has grown out of demonstrations that began in a New York City park a month ago as a protest against what occupiers see as corporate greed.

Organizers have stressed the need for consensus in the camp's decision-making process. But as the demands for individual safety and security have grown, the movement's priorities have begun to bump up against people's concerns for their own well-being and that of their friends and, in some cases, their children.

One Oakland police officer, who asked to remain anonymous for reasons of police protocol, described the scene in tent city as akin to a scene from "Lord of the Flies." And, indeed, the on-the-fly rule-making can often veer into an oppressive, anarchic mood.

Journalists are routinely shooed away and told off by angry residents. One Oakland police supervisor said that the participants first appeared to him as "freethinking activists" but have since devolved into something more sinister. He said it was "interesting for a group that claims to be against current civilization and rules to set up a far more oppressive society than our own."

Many camp residents, however, have celebrated their growing ability to deal with serious conflict on their own terms, and without the help of police or county medical staff members. They say internal conflict resolution is necessary if the larger aims of the Occupy movement are to mean anything. "If we're going to be concerned about injustices on a large scale, we have to be concerned about injustices on a small scale, too," said Hughes, a slight and bespectacled 30-something who does "freelance security" around the camp.

The tumult around security centered on the man who throttled Hughes on Monday morning. His name remains unknown, but camp followers described him as a large man with an intimidating physical presence and a penchant for harassing residents verbally and physically. He worked in the camp kitchen and made regular appearances at meetings and gatherings.

On Monday morning, tensions came to a head when the man attacked a woman who was staying in the camp. That's when Hughes intervened. A large group of people immediately surrounded the two, and pulled them apart.

A restive calm resumed until about 3 a.m. the next morning when the man, who was upset that one of his co-workers in the kitchen had received two pieces of chicken instead of the allotted one, went on the rampage again. He knocked over several tables, then picked up a fork and brandished it threateningly against three women.

That's when people started discussing other options. Should they call the police? Should they subdue the man on their own? Opinions were divided. "We do everything by consensus in here, and consensus is a difficult process," Hughes said. "But eventually people talked and came to an agreement that we were going to kick him out."

About 3:30 Tuesday afternoon, a group of roughly 50 people gathered by the man's tent and told him he had to leave. Some were speaking calmly. Others weren't. It was then that the man pulled out a large kitchen knife and threatened the whole group. One woman calmly walked up to him and talked him down. She took away the knife.

But that wasn't the end of it. The man kept yelling. He nearly attacked Hughes again. Then he took a piece of tape and placed it across his own mouth. He left, but later that night he returned. He went to several tents, including the collective food tent, and started throwing things around. It was only when someone picked up a piece of wood and cracked him across the head that the ordeal ended.

But the experience of self-governing and sanctioning violent, unstable members of their own community proved deeply unsettling to many occupiers.

"We are supposed to be nonviolent," said David Elmore, 60, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, ex-convict and homeless parolee. Elmore, who witnessed the man's violent outbursts, said that the person who hit him in the head wasn't a resident of the camp. "In some ways, it's good that he wasn't one of us," Elmore said. "But we're supposed to be able to resolve our own issues."

As discussions about security priorities dragged on into the wee hours Tuesday night, speakers and listeners on the City Hall steps voiced concerns about what the incident said about the movement. "At some point, we have to recognize that we can't control everything," said Boomer Frank, a 24-year-old tent resident and ad hoc camp organizer. "I'm anti-authoritarian, but we need to acknowledge that some things are out of our control."

Another woman lamented that the camp was allowing children to roam around freely and sleep in tents at a political protest in which police could make a sudden and possibly violent entrance. "I'm thinking about the kids here," she pleaded.

On top of the drama with Hughes and his assailant, several other incidents have pushed well-meaning radicals to the margins. "I didn't realize the strong anarchist contingent or I wouldn't have got involved in the first place," said Russ Tilleman, a 52-year-old retired engineer and Oakland activist who was briefly in charge of media relations before he quit the movement altogether. "Some people at Occupy Oakland are very dedicated activists, and I am hoping they can make some major changes and move forward successfully."

Contact Scott Johnson at 510-208-6429. Follow him at Twitter.com/scott_c_johnson and Twitter.com/oaklandeffect.