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Occupy Wall Street protests spread to Baltimore, other cities

St. John's United Methodist Church, a centuries-old church on St. Paul Street, looked the way it does during its occasional rock concerts. Hundreds of people — some older than 40, some in their 20s — gathered there Sunday not for the music, or a prayer service, but to vent.

"Banks got bailed out," yelled Mike McGuire, one of the organizers of the meeting. "We got sold out," the crowd shouted back.

And just like that, the Occupy Wall Street movement that has brought throngs of young people to the streets of Manhattan arrived in Baltimore, the latest city — Los Angeles and Washington are among the others — to brace for occupations against corporate greed. Starting at noon Tuesday, protesters will stage a demonstration at McKeldin Square in theInner Harbor.

By Monday, more than 800 people had signed up on Facebook to attend the initial rally, with some planning on staying overnight for days.

Much as in New York, the occupiers know what they'll be rallying against, but to what end, they're still not sure. Not yet, anyway.

"Clearly, we don't have a specific set of goals," McGuire said. "The state of affairs is objectionable enough that we're leaving our houses in a serious and concerted way to express our discontent."

Occupy Wall Street was originally conceived three weeks ago as a sit-in smack in the middle of the moneyed streets of Manhattan's financial district, in full view of the dealers, traders and industry bigwigs against whom the protesters are taking aim.

The New York protesters have since moved to nearby Zuccotti Park, where participants have been dressing up in outrageous costumes, doing yoga, chanting and painting signs, looking, at times, more like young people at sleep-away camp.

"We had a drum circle that went on until 4 a.m.," said McGuire, a 38-year-old Baltimore carpenter who camped out on a cardboard box on the first Saturday of the New York protest.

Police arrested more than 700 of the New York protesters this weekend as they spilled onto the Brooklyn Bridge, blocking traffic. By Monday, most had been released.

Baltimore police were monitoring social media and news reports for updates on theInner Harbor protest, said spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. He said it wasn't clear if the protesters needed a permit. Police are only concerned that the protesters stay organized and don't disrupt traffic.

He declined to say how many officers would be deployed to the scene. "We will make sure we have resources in place so that it doesn't become a distraction."

In the weeks since Occupy Wall Street started, copycat movements have sprung up in front of City Hall in Los Angeles, in Boston's financial district and in Chicago, where they've staked out the Federal Reserve Bank.

In Baltimore, Tuesday's demonstration was set up in a matter of days and word about it traveled fast via social media. Last Thursday, discussion on a Google group that sympathized with the protests' values moved to Club Charles in Station North, said Nick Becker, a 30-year-old herbalist who was among the organizers.

"While I was there, I started the Twitter account and a Google group," he said. "Before I left, there were already 20 people following the account on Twitter." Within 24 hours, he had 100 followers.

On Sunday, more than 150 people sat at St. John's on second-hand couches and rusty folding chairs around a circle, where McGuire and three other facilitators paced. They called on people to raise their hands if they had experience with mass cooking, dealing with cops, dispensing of waste and other skills that might be useful in staging a protest. While an agenda was projected on the wall, participants were asked to snap their fingers and wave their hands to signal agreement.

The Washington Monument in Mount Vernon and the headquarters of the Baltimore Development Corporation were suggested as possibilities for staging the protest. But ultimately, the crowd settled on McKeldin Square, a concrete plaza at Pratt and Light Streets, for its visibility.

McGuire said organizers did not believe a permit was needed to gather overnight at the park. Organizers have been taken back by the speed by which the planned protest has gathered followers. By early Monday morning, about 300 people had RSVP'd the protest's event page on Facebook. By late afternoon, it had jumped to over 800, with new ones signing up by the minute.

"It was a group that assembled over the course of three days," McGuire said. "I've been in Baltimore since my birthday 38 years ago and working in social movements since 1989, and this is the first of its kind."

In Baltimore and in New York, academics are seeing small flickers of comparison between the rallies and the revolutionary demonstrations that inflamed the Middle East and North Africa earlier this year, said Jeff Larson, an assistant professor sociology at Towson University who studies social movements.

Both grew by successfully exploiting outlets like Facebook, Twitter and You Tube.

Young people — including some of his students — who've made the trip to New York, camping out and maybe even getting arrested, have returned to Baltimore, energized and spreading the gospel.

He's not surprised that it's money, or social disparity, that's behind the Occupy protests.

"These are the kinds of issues that young people have been talking about for generations and generations," Larson said. "Perhaps it should be no surprise in an economic recession, young people just entering workforce and trying to build careers are finding it's affecting them. They're concerned about their future."

It's unclear whether the Occupiers will have an effect on political discourse, though. Even as the protesters are preparing for the logistical aspects of the sit-in, they still haven't clearly spelled out what they expect will come out of their protests.

For McGuire, a veteran of several protests at World Trade Organization summits, it's more important to take advantage of a moment that has attracted a critical mass even if they don't know where it could take them.

One immediate effect of the Occupy protests, he said, has been the highly public platform it's given discontented young people to voice their views.

Erin Barry-Dutro, a 25-year-old who was at the meeting Sunday, said each protester will come Tuesday with different goals in mind.

"The end goal might be to just get out there and express their frustration that they don't have jobs or health insurance or they don't have a place to live," she said.

As hundreds have signed up for the Tuesday protest, others expressed their allegiance to the cause but begged off, citing responsibilities.

One young woman posted on the Occupy Baltimore Facebook, with a frownie face: "I have to work." Someone else had a conference call.

Another sympathizer worried that without a permit, officials would have an excuse to bust up the gathering.

An anonymous page organizer replied, "This is a public space. So, YES! We have a permit! It's called the constitution."

Barry-Dutro won't be going to the protest because she's got a full time job as a bookseller. And "I'm recovering from a cold," she said. She's signed up to help the protesters with logistics.

Organizers said it's impossible to say how many people the initial occupation will draw Tuesday or over the course of several days. Personal responsibilities may keep some people off until the weekend. They're looking at New York as a model.

"The New York people didn't show up expecting to sleep out. Nobody had a really good sense of where this was going," McGuire said. "It was pretty unplanned."

His only plan on Tuesday is to bring a sleeping bag, some cardboard, and a sheet of plastic to cover himself, just in case it rains.

erik.maza@baltsun.com

jrosen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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