Occupy Baltimore makes up a movement as it goes along
Published: October 12, 2011
Occupy Baltimore kicks off its occupation around noon on Tuesday, Oct. 4., as a few dozen people arrive at McKeldin Square next to the Inner Harbor, some with small hand-held signs, a few with paintbrushes and bed sheets, to stake out space for the revolution.
Melissa Rowell sits on the edge of the fountain smoking a cigarette. She says she’s here in solidarity with the protesters. She also says she has a friend on the New York City police force who “spent the night in central booking” after arresting some people at the New York protest. Another friend works on Wall Street and had accompanied Rowell on a trip to New Orleans the week prior to celebrate their 40th birthdays, Rowell says. “She made a comment that the protesters are dirty hippies, and I guess some of them are,” Rowell, who has a sign that says why isn’t wall street in jail, adds. “So we don’t talk about it.”
Rowell says she’s here on her lunch break from a job at Johns Hopkins. She has to take a cab back to work soon, but “might come back here with my son.”
The Occupy movement got rolling in New York on Sept. 17 with an inchoate and broad coalition of people attempting to “Occupy Wall Street” in order to push back against the rampant capitalism that many feel is overwhelming/undermining American politics and American society itself. Calls for the end of corporate personhood, the repeal of the Patriot Act, and a laundry list of other causes animate that crowd, though the demonstration of cruelty and alleged trickery by New York City police officers against the first wave of protesters (documented on video and uploaded to YouTube, like so much of the Occupy movement so far) seems to have had the greatest effect on recruitment efforts.
The Occupy Together web site (occupytogether.org) went up with calls to coordinate “occupations” around the country, claiming meet-ups in 1,294 cities as of Oct. 11. “People recognized that not everyone could go to New York,” says Cullen Nawalkowsky, a founding member of the collective that operates Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse, “and that there were local concerns not being addressed by the national movement.”
The Baltimore offshoot started on Saturday, Oct. 2, with calls to Nawalkowsky, who helped arrange the first public meeting at the Red Emma’s collective’s 2640 Space on St. Paul Street. The Sunday and Monday evening organizational meetings were attended by between 150 and 200 people, who debated the wheres and whens of the protest (Will it be in front of Wells Fargo? The Washington Monument?) as well as key logistics.
The call for tents went out over the Facebook page and Google group. It was unclear on Tuesday afternoon if any actual campers were going to pitch them. Baltimore Police spokesperson Detective Jeremy Silbert, watching over the scene at McKeldin Square Oct. 4, said police were on patrol as usual, with no special plans for the demonstrators. “We want to make sure this group is safe,” he says.
Silbert said that his understanding of the law was that as many as 25 people could gather on the brick-paved triangle in front of the fountain and demonstrate without need of a permit. He allowed that, subtracting media personnel, about 25 actual occupiers were present. (This reporter guesses it was close to double that.)
“No one’s really sure” if camping can happen, says Ryan Mitchell, a student at Baltimore City Community College who says he plans to transfer to Morgan State next year to study architecture. “I was in New York this weekend, and we had all kinds of crazy restrictions.” Among those, he says, was a directive that demonstrators could not wear masks.
Asked what the goals might be, Mitchell says he’s not sure. “I think it’s interesting that there aren’t any coalescles yet,” he says, defining that term as a “fully formed list of demands.” Ending corporate personhood might be one; mandating labor representatives on corporate boards, as is standard practice in Germany, might be another.
Asked whether people will be camping here, Nawalkowsky says the question came up at the meeting. “We believe it was legal,” he says, but “ultimately the question is whether they will enforce it, which is a political concern, not a legal one. A cop can arrest you for walking on the sidewalk and say you’re obstructing traffic.” He says he was busted last summer after trying to snap a photo of a man being arrested in Hampden and spent 16 hours in Central Booking.
Nawalkowsky stands over a cardboard box containing bleach, rubber gloves, and paper towels. That and a case of bottled water are serving as the medical kit in the occupation’s early hours. He laments with a laugh that the only people here with premade signs and leaflets seem to be the LaRouchies.
Jeremy Batterson, leafleting a dozen feet away, is one of them. He’s got a big sign that says bring back glass steagall, the Depression-era law that separated deposit-taking banks from investment banks and insurance companies. Prominently near the bottom of the sign is the name Lyndon LaRouche.
“He’s been against this all along,” Batterson says of the perpetual presidential candidate, convicted tax cheat, and self-proclaimed inventor of the Strategic Defense Initiative. He hands out not one but three leaflets. They are full of references to “the bankrupt British imperial financial system,” a “fixed exchange rate credit system,” and “the original United States Hamiltonian credit system.”
A guy named Jerry, with a cross of orange tape on his back, walks over to Nawalkowsky, who tries to get him to take over guardianship of the box of medical supplies, but Jerry wanders off.
Jerry is a professional juggler, 69 years old, with three children and four grandchildren living in Baltimore. He’s one of the main drivers behind the B-Note movement, an effort to circulate an “alternative currency” among local businesses, mostly in Hampden. “We have $16,000 in circulation,” Jerry, who asked his last name not be published, says. “Buy local. It’s all about sustainability.”
The Occupy Baltimore group is not only a local manifestation of what appears to be a national movement, it appears to be an experiment in participatory democracy, which stands in contrast to the corporatist virtual democracy that has operated the United States for several generations. Direct democracy is a messy business, with as many contradictions as the pseudo kind. The difference, for now at least, is in the participants’ awareness of those contradictions and willingness to try to resolve them in good spirit.
The group holds a nightly general assembly to air ideas and grievances and organize the basic systems and provisions to make the occupation itself endure. It is like a society in microcosm.
Excerpts from the Oct. 4 General Assembly minutes:
our symbol is a tent.
we have blankets, sleeping bags, cardboard, and warm clothing.
midnight to sunrise: quiet hours
everyone is staying together, towards the middle and the fountain.
NO TENTS (that’s what the cops said)
we are in much better shape that we were in yesterday!
24/7 hotline staffed by legal team: 410-205-2850
looking for volunteers
new facilitators! doing a great job!
dinner was awesome!
good media during the day, but where’s the media when things are really going on?
need more volunteers, only three folks involved!
taking snack donations!
keep kids area smoke free zone.
please check in if you are staying the night with a kid.
have a big obvious red cross flag to put up
have lots of supplies collected,
herbal first aid kit,
and emotional support available.
our symbol is a cross
recommended list of points (for assembly’s consideration):
-do not give out other people’s personal info without permission
-don’t discuss action plans with media
-before taking pictures or recording, ask for consent
-be aware of where you are leaving your personal items
-don’t accept things (art supplies? )from people you don’t know (some dissent on this last one)
draft of diversity of tactics resolution:
-stay united in public, work out disputes internally, don’t throw people under the bus
took in at least $100, now have $640, plus free gift cards!
no procees yet for doling out funds
consensed: reimburse $137 for the porta potty!
proposal floated: give gift cards to the homeless
(postponed until discussion at end)
there is a spreadsheet documenting where all the money is going on the google group
* PURPOSE AND GOALS
FROM THE FLOOR: purpose and goals should be decided by the GA
the committee agrees :)
committee is only proposing to facilitate people expressing their thoughts
we have a big banner here to write on, as well as online discussion about this
two waste sites here currently, trash picked up by city, we have a recycling trip to sisson scheduled for tonight, nothing beyond that, looking for better ideas
should start thinking about long term solution
keep your impact mininal, keep the space clean!
FROM THE FLOOR: don’t drop cigarette butts everywhere
FROM THE FLOOR: someone with car willing to transport
SPACE AND COMFORT:
is there a plan for a rain?
-need more tarps to huddle under
there are a ton of tarps at 2640, come to comfort to help get these down here
Standing near the police on Oct. 4, Wendy Rambo Shuford, a retired nurse and National Guard member, says she canceled a Tuesday afternoon medical appointment to come to the square. “I think it’s important for people to be here and ask for accountability from the corporations that are screwing up the country,” she says. “I lost $10,000 in my retirement account this summer without doing anything, and I was lucky to have it to lose.”
Rambo Shuford says she used to contribute to Democratic candidates regularly but lately she throws their mailings in the trash. Recently she wrote a response on one from former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and sent it back.
A young woman sits alone on the edge of the fountain, taking in the scene. “I don’t have much to say,” she avers to one of the reporters, but later claims she was in Washington, D.C., yesterday and that demonstrators there “shut down the Bank of America.
“I’m waiting to see if this is organized,” the woman says.
Fern Shen of the Baltimore Brew news site walks up, and is soon joined by former Baltimore Sun reporter Rafael Alvarez, who often contributes to the Brew but is here today strictly as a citizen. “My father is here,” Alvarez says. “He’s a lifetime union member.”
The pair turn their attention to the young woman, and Alvarez asks to read the slogan on her shirt.
“It’s not a protest shirt,” the woman says, and as Alvarez reaches toward her she grabs his arm.
The shirt says: touch me and you die. i’m only here to dance.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ announced a co-located rally for janitorial workers starting at 4 p.m. on Oct. 5. At the appointed time a crowd of 50 to 100 blue- and-yellow-shirted union people are boogieing down to a DJ who’s pumping funk and R&B through a loudspeaker aimed generally at the Occupy-ers, who are arrayed across the lower part of the square.
The SEIU organized Baltimore cleaning workers in 2001, part of a multistate strategy running from Washington, D.C., to Connecticut that took up most of the 1990s. “This was part of a national Justice for Janitors campaign that was established after janitors in Los Angeles, who were struggling to have a voice on the job, earn decent wages and benefits, were beaten by police during a peaceful demonstration on June 15, 1990,” says Julie Karant, the local’s spokesperson, in an e-mail. “The incident generated such intense public outrage that it resulted in L.A. janitors being recognized in a union.”
For years, unions, mainstream liberals, and progressives have tried to get their voices heard, only to be drowned out and shouted down by the better-organized forces of the right. Now, as the comparatively disorganized, radically open Occupy movement takes hold, traditional liberals are sidling up, seemingly not ready to lead or follow.
Near and in the fountain there is a “queer encampment,” in front of which sits Jose Rosero, munching popcorn and minding another DJ rig he says belongs to his roommate. “We don’t want to compete with them,” he says, nodding toward the union people.
Rosero moved to the Mount Vernon neighborhood from Baltimore County this spring. He’s a student and graphic designer who works part time at a local movie theater. Co-workers there have pledged the spare popcorn to the cause, Rosero says. “They would only throw it away anyway,” he adds.
Rosero says he and his roomie first dropped by at 3 a.m. that morning, finding an array of people in sleeping bags near where he’s now sitting. A cop car idled nearby, he says, and a couple of occupiers were up. Rosero and his roommate returned this afternoon, he says, schlepping the amplifier, mixing board, and laptops downtown on the Charm City Circulator. “We kept hearing about it on Facebook,” he says of the occupation. “I feel like if more people participated it would send a stronger message.”
Rosero says his friends got interested in the occupation, “which is what brought me out here. They have homework. I just sent a message—you can do homework here. They’re mostly MICA people. They could paint some nice stuff here.”
The union people start up a chant: “One Union!” and the District Chair, Jaime Contreras, takes the makeshift stage. As he explained earlier, the union’s contract—about 1,000 janitors who work in the office buildings downtown, another 12,000 in the D.C. region—runs out on Oct. 15. Full time workers start at $11.40 per hour, while part-timers, who work four hours per night, start at $10.90. Full-timers get health insurance, part-timers get only a prescription card, which helps them buy generic drugs if they can find a doctor to write a prescription. The building owners contract with several private cleaning companies, which have suggested that the union members get no raises, as times are tough. “Do you think the owners of these buildings are struggling more than our members?” Contreras booms into the sound system.
“NO!” the crowd, now numbering 200, chants back.
An array of union leaders and members speak. Union organizer and 32BJ Vice President Valarie Long says, “I think we should give a shout-out to Occupy Baltimore. We’re the working people who make this engine run. It should be about you. It should be about my son, who is 28 years old, has a college education, and doesn’t have a job!”
The union movement is slowly warming up to the occupiers. In New York the Transit Workers Union came in support by Sept. 29, and both teachers’ unions, the Transport Workers Union Local 100, and others have come forward since. By last week, The New York Times—whose earliest stories seemed to mock Occupy Wall Street—had taken notice, running a major news story on the union support.
“‘The labor movement needs to tap into the energy and learn from them,’ Mr. [Stuart] Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union,” told a Times reporter.
By Oct. 6 Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman gave his seal of approval: “What can we say about the protests? First things first: The protesters’ indictment of Wall Street as a destructive force, economically and politically, is completely right,” he wrote in his New York Times column.
Forging a political coalition from a mass of anger and utopian hopes is a tricky business.
Overheard on the live video feed from Occupy Baltimore’s first night out:
“Queen Elizabeth controlin’ all y’all’s money over there . . .”
“You look up who invented the internet, they don’t know. You look up who invented the television, they don’t know . . .”
“IBM scientists, they got that alien medicine . . .”
As with the larger society, as long as the informed people of good will outnumber and out-organize the ignorant, the violent, and the selfish, the community can endure. A physical and organization infrastructure for the Baltimore occupation is developing alongside the ideological aspects. The physical ingredients for such a community (food, shelter, a viable waste-disposal solution) can only work in an atmosphere where the rules are made fair by consensus and enforced by nonviolent pressure.
Self-organization becomes challenging when ideas differ about fundamental values. Some in the group have advocated for a cop-free zone in the square, saying that some of the protestors (on probation or in the country illegally) would feel unsafe if police were invited in. A smaller contingent has advocated confrontations with police, and some of those people became enraged on Saturday night, Oct. 8, when police answered a call about a disorderly person.
Beth Emmerling says she was drawn to the occupation by personal circumstance. With two master’s degrees, she describes herself as “partially employed” and unable to find a full-time job. She came to McKeldin Square on Tuesday, returning every day except Friday. On Saturday she was helping ladle soup to the occupants when, she says, a drunken man staggered up and nearly knocked the soup over. A nearby protestor called police, and, about 10 minutes later, four bike cops arrived and tried to interview the man, who by then had repaired to a mattress at the edge of the gathering.
“I didn’t perceive them as threatening,” Emmerling says. “But a very large contingent that really hates the cops” went after the officers.
Emmerling says the leader of this group, whom she says she knows as “Michael,” had led a workshop earlier in the day about how to resist the police. “It was how to get away from them, how to hurt them,” Emmerling says.
When the police showed up, about 25 protestors confronted them verbally “and they were violating, I thought, the cops’ space,” Emmerling says. One of the officers told the group that they—the police—had been called, and Emmerling “yelled out. I’m sure the police could have taken care of themselves. But once trouble starts, it stays. . . . I yell, ‘He’s telling the truth.’ Pretty much in a heartbeat they turn on me.”
Emmerling says she felt menaced as the group—mostly men in their teens and 20s—surrounded her soup table, shouting “fuck you” and wagging their fingers in her face. The cops stood by, a move Emmerling says she understands, since wading into the crowd would have needlessly escalated the confrontation.
At the General Assembly that night, Emmerling says, Michael announced to the assembled group of 200 or so that he was a member of security, and that the man who had called police had apologized to him for his transgression and so the matter was closed. Beth cut in front of others waiting their turn at the microphone to correct the record.
“I said it’s not alright to be violent to a member of your own group,” Emmerling says. “So much of the group is so well intentioned. But this is not a safe space.” She says she does not intend to return.
In an e-mail to City Paper, Cullen Nawalkowsky says the group takes the issues Emmerling raised seriously. “Following Beth raising her concerns this weekend, a working-group was formed to address precisely these kinds of issues,” he writes. “I appreciate Beth’s willingness to speak out and to remain engaged, to help us grow and learn, to share her perspective, and hopefully to continue to build this movement and make it better.”
As everywhere, a sense of humor helps. From Occupy Baltimore’s Google Group (Oct. 6):
waffle maker: the revolution will be catered the kitchen crew is willing to make the following offer: someone give us an electric waffle maker and we will feed you waffles. 2 waffle makers and we feed you waffles twice as fast. in solidarity
And there is an understanding that, for the movement to build, it has to appeal beyond the core group at the corner of Pratt and Light streets. Eric Hatch (a former City Paper contributor) offered the observation on the Google group that more people holding the group’s banners on the corner on weekday afternoons elicits better responses from passers-by, and that some of the negative comments directed at the occupiers had to do with the perceived messiness of the site. “The insight I have there is that while the occupied area looks beautiful to sympathetic eyes, it alone may look ugly, threatening, or confusing to the average passerby. However, when reinforced with signage bearing a clear anti-corporate, anti-greed message that 99% of the population can relate to, the appearance of the whole occupation becomes beautiful and meaningful to far more eyes. In short: let’s have a clear and steady presence on the street during all peak traffic hours, and be aware of public perception as we do so.”
Kate Khatib, one of the founding members of the collective that operates Red Emma’s, passed on another sentiment she says she heard from a friend: “They say we don’t know what we want, but here we are making our decisions without bankers or politicians intervening in our lives. This is what we want.”
Along with waffles, one hopes, the revolution will have freedom.
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.