Problems and Possibilities at Occupy Baltimore

Problems and Possibilities at Occupy Baltimore

Plaque at McKeldin Square Park, former base of Occupy Baltimore. Photo By: Clayton Conn
Plaque at McKeldin Square Park, former base of Occupy Baltimore. Photo By: Clayton Conn

Everyone who passed through McKeldin Square between October 4th and December 12th of 2011, saw a cluster of tables and tents. They saw Occupy Baltimore. Within that, some of them saw a homeless camp. Yet, others saw history in the making. Some stayed because they were interested or curious; some had nowhere else to go. And, finally, others believed firmly and fervently that the time had come for revolution.

CHANGING REALITY

“I was there when thunder rolled in the streets of Baltimore,” Timothy B. A. McClary, Sr., tells me, his voice heavy, “In 1968, I was five years old. I saw the Black Panthers come through and ask us if we owned our store. We said yes. They draped a black shroud across our door and said, ‘Stay open’.”

Yet, his family’s store, like the rest of the thriving neighborhood McClary remembers from his youth, is long gone. Now, like at least 4,000 other inhabitants of Baltimore City, he is experiencing homelessness. He does not dwell on the years that led him there. Instead, McClary rails against and organizes to end that which has caused the economic downfall of his hometown.

McKeldin Square’s 24-hour encampment was shut down by the police a few months ago. However, McClary and other committed activists are quick to affirm that this is only the beginning.

McClary adds, “I’ve been occupying Baltimore all of my life.”

BUILDING COMMUNITY AS PROTEST

McClary arrived at McKeldin Square in late October, about two weeks after the global Occupy Wall Street protests1 had taken root in Baltimore.

At its inception, Occupy Baltimore had a dedicated, if temporary, workforce. Two days after the first planning meeting, almost a dozen committees had mobilized to provide food, medical care, media, security, and more. General Assemblies (GAs) were formed, in line with the larger Occupy movement, as a space for activists to come together, in meeting-style format, for important decisions and conversations. They were held every night at 8pm. For the first week, nightly attendance surpassed 200. The tenuous alliance between radical and refomist activism was immediately tested, as we spent almost every night debating whether or not to apply for a permit.2

While some have characterized the protesters as your typical dirty hippies, godless anarchists, etc., others have lauded the Occupy movement for its mass appeal. The “We are the 99%” meme has become the unofficial slogan, implying that almost all Americans have a united bone to pick with the financial elite.

However, this meme overlooks the separate identities within “the 99%.” The systemic oppression that plagues our society was regularly replicated in microcosm at McKeldin Square. Women, queers, people of color, and other marginalized individuals were often subject to bigotry, and/or seemingly had their concerns routinely dismissed by the (white, male) group at large. An early attempt at sexual harassment prevention training was shouted down during the General Assembly, derided as a “personal issue.” Reports of rape within the encampment were largely dismissed as a right-wing conspiracy. Violators of the behavioral code were kicked-out of Occupy Baltimore—but usually on a purely symbolic level—as they usually remained in the square to offend another day.

| EDITOR’S NOTE: Indyreader would like to acknowledge the incredible seriousness of the rape accusation. The report of rape at the Occupy Baltimore camp, as well as the incidents that surrounded them, expose a number of issues that deserve critical examination. In Corey Reidy’s upcoming online series “Occupy Baltimore: Looking Backward, Walking Forward” (p. 14), she will analyze this issue both from the stance that many felt that OB’s reactions silenced women and their historic and ongoing struggle against protectors and perpetrators of sexual violence. It also didn’t center around an ethic of care and/or expose systemic epidemics such as rape. Instead, OB reacted from a place of fear from the character assassination attempts by opponents (such as Fox News). Also, the series will delve into the importance of examining how US ideological institutions, like the mainstream media, manufacture stories about the realities we sometimes face under domination, such as rape, as tool to continue to control us. Reidy will examine why it was so hard for Occupy Baltimore, and many movement struggles, to balance both the ethic of caring for a potential survivor and working to expose systems that lead to sexual violence, as well as analyzing how patriarchy and other dominating forces use stories of the violences they create in order to attack us and our struggles. |

Many people saw this, and returned nonetheless. Rebecca Schleider, 30, was an active member of the now-defunct Anti-Oppression Committee, which held workshops about rape culture, homophobic slurs, and internal oppression in social movements. “Human rights and issues of equality are the most important issues,” she asserts. “If you don’t take care of them, all you’re going to end up with is a change in management.”

Although she admits that McKeldin Square was not a safe space.3 Schleider could not resist being part of “a critical moment in our country.” She came to Occupy Baltimore after witnessing the day of protest in New York City, that temporarily stayed Occupy Wall Street’s eviction. “Seeing people reclaim public space in such a defiant way was very important to me.” She continues, “At Occupy Baltimore, groups met each other and shared resources that they wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s kind of like having a commune, except everyone’s included.”

“I was drawn in by the potential for a coalition that could transcend entrenched divisions and my own sense of hopelessness,” recounts Jeff Brunell.

The 28-year-old Charles Village resident was new to activism when he spent the first few weeks of October sleeping in McKeldin Square. “I’m privileged to have found Occupy relatively accessible.”

Since our first planning meeting, Occupy Baltimore has utilized the consensus model of decision-making. The philosophy behind consensus is non-hierarchical “direct democracy,” or, anarchy (depending on whom you ask). In consensus, the goal is to arrive at decisions that all concerned parties within a group collectively agree upon. The process is commonly long and arduous, with necessary compromises often made. The intention is that every voice will be heard, and that the end result will be long-lasting, based upon this democratic system of inclusion. However, the system of hand signals and stack-taking, which are involved in many forms of modern day consensus decision-making, can be alienating to first-time participants. And it often takes a while to get everyone’s voices heard.

“We sit down, complain, and strategize about strategizing about strategizing,” McClary said of the General Assemblies. “We soon find ourselves out of time, looking back and having done virtually nothing.”

GETTING DOWN TO (BIG) BUSINESS

As a post-industrial city, commonly described as “apocalyptic” in its decay, Baltimore is a shining example of our failing economic system.

“I watched as Baltimore got looted all over,” McClary tells me with furious intensity. “There used to be a thriving, intense beat at the heart of this city. It’s now slowed to an almost nonexistent pulse—except for the Harbor.”

The degradation of the City’s steel industry, highlighted by the recent closing of the Sparrow’s Point Mill,4 has given way to a questionable replacement industry: tourism. Hospitality work comprises a relatively large percentage of jobs in Baltimore, with the Inner Harbor and Harbor East as the longtime focuses for taxpayer-funded development. Not only does the influx of corporatism go hand-in-hand with human rights abuses, but it also comes at the expense of the neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore that are losing their schools, firehouses, post offices, and recreation centers—to the promise of another luxury hotel on the waterfront.

While nationwide solidarity campaigns pitted Baltimore occupiers against corporate giants, like Bank of America and Wells Fargo, others chose more local targets. Another BDC is Possible is one of those locally-focused groups. They arose originally from Occupy Baltimore participants. They have since spread to encompass a large variety of activists concerned about the state of development within the city. Another BDC aims to critique the Baltimore Development
Corporation (BDC), hold it accountable for its decisions and actions, as well as offer alternate routes. Defi ned by the organizers, "The Baltimore Development Corporation is a ‘quasi-public’ entity set up by the City of Baltimore to facilitate economic development.”5

Another BDC is one way that activists are attempting to tackle Baltimore’s economic disparities. Though the path ahead looks far from easy. Another BDC participant John Duda states:

I think there are two steps , one is that: we need to do the work of bringing communities together to seriously talk about this ; we have an opening. We need to make sure that all communities can come together and really talk about what they want and put together . . . a really, really comprehensive set of well-researched/well-argued demands and suggestions and proposals. We also need to educate ourselves about how these things work—what the current mechanisms are, what the current structures are. And they’re complicated. . . But also talking about alternatives; talking about some of the ways you can do development diff erently. Whether that’s through letting neighborhoods drive development processes. You let a neighborhood decide what it wants and then you give them the tools and the technical assistance they need . . .Or you can think about things like worker cooperatives. If you want to build jobs, what kind of jobs are you going to build? You can develop jobs that will actually provide living wages, provide healthcare, provide ownership stakes in companionship, hence democracy at the workplace level. Same with land trusts; if you’re going to do community development, how do make sure that land stays affordable? If you’re going to do development how do you forestall gentrifi cation? . . . we should put a little democracy back in. And we should put democracy that is a new kind pf democracy, that’s real democracy. And hopefully that will lead to greater things in the future.6

Activist groups like Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), the United Workers, and others, have been organizing around these issues for years. But many participants believe that the attention commanded by the Occupy Baltimore name is what it will take to really mobilize the city. “We have achieved our primary goal of bringing awareness,” McClary continues. “As we move forward, we’ve already accomplished the mission.

MOVING FORWARD

Rather than leaving it to the General Assembly to decide what moving forward entails, affinity groups have started taking action under the auspices of the movement.Occupy Our Homes Baltimore (OOH) has moved quickly on one of the city’s most turbulent issues: housing. Baltimore has over 40,000 abandoned properties compared to around 4,000 people experiencing homelessness at the last census. As companies like Wells Fargo continue to practice predatory lending and illegal foreclosure, both of those numbers are rising.

Inspired by the OOH movement in New York and other radical housing rights groups like Take Back the Land,7 Occupy Our Homes Baltimore has already been organizing eviction defenses and is rumored to be developing new strategies.

Other affinity groups have also been mobilizing around the City’s plans to close or privatize thirty recreation centers and build a $104 million youth jail. They are conscious that these issues primarily affect the black community, which has been thus far underrepresented in the movement.This past January brought a five-day pop-up occupation entitled Schools Not Jails, that was organized by activists from Occupy Baltimore and The Baltimore Algebra Project.8 The action primarily served both to protest the city’s plans to build the $104 million youth jail and to further reclaim the designated space. The “pop-up” action garnered incredible media attention largely due to creative tactics employed by the activists and undoubtedly by the city’s use of excessive police force as a response to the demonstration(s).9

“Before Occupy Baltimore, activists and concerned citizens, parents, churches, all had individual struggles they were fi ghting on a daily basis.” says Ben Pfeff er, 22, who has helped organize community meetings about the rec center closures, “Now, we have the opportunity to mobilize these potent community forces into a city-wide umbrella of vocal participants. Issues that have plagued this city for years, alongside more recent injustices, are ripe for redress by a critical mass of citizens.”

THE LONG-RUN?

Occupy Baltimore is still less than half a year old. In that time, it has created many new activists and transformed many seasoned ones. Although many participants are skeptical of the movement’s capacity for organization and structure, no one denies that it is full of potential.

“It’s a toddler,” quips Brunell.

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1 Occupy Wall Street (OWS) officially began on September 17th, 2011. Within weeks it became an international movement. While the Occupy movement has employed a variety of tactics, the onset of the movement focused on occupying public (or in some cases private) space in order to carve out micro-societies that have demanded an end to the perpetual and perverse economic injustices that super capitalism creates.

2 Occupy Baltimore applied for a permit twice. The request was denied both times.

3 Safe(r) space refers to both a physical location that aims to create a hostility-free, harassment-free, and rejection-free environment for those who have diverse realities/identities, as well as a non-physical location that allows commonly oppressed individuals to build community and form strength via strategies of resistance and collaboration.

4 According to a March 2nd, 2012, Baltimore Sun article, by Steve KIlar, after a re-opening of the month-long closed Sparrows Point Mill this past January. The Mill is once again set to close at the end of March 2012 - with potential plans to reopen in the Fall. Around 100 workers are expected to be laid-off from the closing, with more anticipated in the temporary closure.

5 Indyreader Talks To: Another BDC Is Possible, “Occupy the Economy” Baltimore Indypendent Reader Issue 16; Spring 2012.

6 Indyreader interview with John Duda at the Public Meeting with the BDC, on November 7th, 2011.

7 Take Back the Land is a Miami, FL based organization committed to preventing evictions, as well as rehousing homeless folks into foreclosed homes. They have been fighting and organizing since 2006.

8 “The Baltimore Algebra Project (BAP) is a fully youth-run non-profi t organization that tackles math illiteracy and seeks to empower youth within the city school system. We also focus on building coalitions with youth across the country that are involved in the same struggle as us. But our priority is here, in our community and our home.” (www.baltimorealgebraproject.org)

9 For more on this issue, please read this issue’s piece by activist Casey Mckeel entitled “Refl ections on Occupy Baltimore and the Fight Against the Youth Jail.” As a post-industrial city, commonly described as "apocalyptic” in its decay, Baltimore is a shining example of our failing economic system.