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Occupy Baltimore seeks new goals after eviction

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Downtown businesses — and even some Occupy Baltimore activists themselves — breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday that city officials cleared the encampment that the group had set up near the Inner Harbor as part of a national protest against income disparity.

"I think guests thought it was an eyesore," said Gail Smith-Howard, general manager of the nearby Hyatt Regency Hotel. "I think the city did the right thing."

The protesters vowed to find new ways to channel their message, with some saying that after 10 weeks of occupation, the tent city had started to outlive its usefulness. "You don't need to be at McKeldin Square," said Cullen Nawalkowsky, 35. "You don't keep hammering on a tactic when a tactic is producing diminishing returns. The physical occupation is just one part of the broader movement."

In a largely non-confrontational pre-dawn raid, police roused the roughly 40 people sleeping in tents on the triangular park on Pratt between Light and Calvert Streets and gave them 20 minutes to leave. City officials said 23 people accepted rides to homeless shelters, and crews moved the tents and other belongings to the Western Sanitation Yard near Cherry Hill.

Occupiers spent the rest of the day trying to re-group, holding several meetings to discuss their next steps, buying supplies for new signs and retrieving their belongings from the sanitation yard, where officials said they would be kept for a week.

There, Occupy members found their tents, chairs, coolers, books, folding tables, plastic tubs of signs and pieces of luggage in a storage building, out of the elements and away from items being dropped off at the yard for dumping. While some members complained they should have been notified sooner that their stuff was going to be removed, Jeff Brunell, 28, said that "by and large, it was handled with unexpected courtesy."

Like others, Brunell expressed optimism that the group would move on from the removal to a new and still undefined phase. "Everybody's looking forward to figuring out how to be engaged by the victories that we may have had so far and remain dynamic and effective as a force of social change," the Charles Village resident said. "Obviously there is a feeling of sadness. But I don't think anyone is considering this The End. An end, but not The End."

Meanwhile, some downtown interests said they were glad to see the ramshackle tents, table and tarps removed from the city's prime tourist attraction — especially because the raid didn't turn violent as it has in other cities, with police pepper-spraying and even shooting protesters.

"Both the city and the protesters should be commended on the way this was resolved," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, which represents businesses and residents in the city's central core. "It was a peaceful termination of the campsite."

Fowler was careful to avoid criticizing the group's role as part of a cause that has gained traction nationwide, highlighting the growing gap between the wealthiest 1 percent and the remaining 99 percent.

"I do think many in the downtown community were sympathetic to their message but questioned their tactics," Fowler said. "The campers were peaceful and accommodating, but the city could not allow neglect of its own park rules. McKeldin Plaza is meant for everyone to enjoy, and now we can get back to that."

The encampment, in a generally safe part of town and with a steady supply of donated food, had become as much a place for the homeless to gather as for activists to highlight the country's economic inequities.

With some of those homeless accepting rides to city shelters after the Tuesday morning raid, one nonprofit is hoping they'll continue to take advantage of such assistance.

"I applaud the city's approach, that they were not moved with no other place to stay," said Kevin Lindamood, executive director of Health Care for the Homeless, a nonprofit that had offered its assistance to those staying at McKeldin Square.

Area businesses had not publicly condemned the encampment in their midst, although they had noted that the ragtag gathering wasn't, as Fowler put it, "an attractive beacon for downtown Baltimore." But representatives of some businesses said they didn't believe they had lost customers because of the group.

"It really didn't impact our business at all, either positively or negatively," said Christopher Schardt, general manager of Harborplace & The Gallery, noting that the square is "basically a little island" in the middle of three heavily trafficked streets.

Still, with the Inner Harbor aglow in holiday lights, the Santa house open to the wishing business and the traditional New Year's Eve fireworks celebration on the horizon, Schardt said the city made the right decision at the right time.

"I think the timing was appropriate," he said.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Tuesday that the encampment was shut down "in a respectful way" with no one injured or arrested in the process.

"It certainly wasn't going to go on forever, and we decided it was time," she said after a ground-breaking ceremony for a housing development in Fells Point. "This is not about the [Occupy movement's] message… The message resonates with me. It resonates with people across the country."

Still, the encampment encountered several problems, including disagreements among leaders and issues of crime.

In late October, a woman alleged that $1,800 was stolen from her. In November, advocates for sexual assault victims had criticized protesters for distributing pamphlets that requested anyone attacked immediately contact the group's "security committee" and seemed to discourage involving law enforcement. And earlier this month, a 23-year-old woman was charged with stabbing another woman during an argument about a cat.

Rawlings-Blake's administration had previously tried to negotiate with the group, asking, for example, that it limit overnight campers to two members, and ultimately turned off the electricity to the square. For weeks, the mayor said she would clear the park, but at a time of her own choosing.

That came shortly at 3:18 a.m. Tuesday, in a carefully choreographed police operation. Police cruisers began blocking off streets around the square. Dozens of officers in riot gear fanned out and formed a perimeter as a helicopter buzzed overhead.

"It's four in the morning," protested Derrick Marshall, 34, who left behind a backpack with books and medicine. "They could've done this at 4 in the afternoon. It's cold. … Everything I own is back there."

Marshall was among those who gathered later in the morning on the steps of the Transamerica building to begin plotting their next moves. They voted to spend $30 from their arts and culture fund to buy supplies to make new signs and to meet again on the plaza outside City Hall.

While some at least initially wanted to try to re-take McKeldin Square, citing its symbolic role in the local movement, others argued for moving the group in a new direction.

"I think we can survive and get stronger. The whole movement isn't about the space," said Anne Marie Rush, 31. "I see this as being very positive for us."

Group members aired differences of opinion, taking turns talking, listening and wiggling their fingers in the now accepted signal of agreement among the Occupy groups that have emerged in various cities. Some in the Baltimore group wanted to focus attention to opposing a new youth detention center, for example, while others raised issues ranging from homelessness to the closing of post offices.

Roughly 100 people assembled again later, at 8 p.m., on the plaza outside City Hall to hear first-hand stories of the nighttime raid and reflect on the movement's goals.

Even if the protesters don't return to McKeldin Square, it won't be totally empty for long. As they re-grouped, two rabbis from the Lubavitch movement were already at the square to look it over in advance of erecting a 35-foot menorah there in honor of Hannukah.

As they did last year, the organizers from the Lubavitch movement arranged with the city to have a parade that culminates with the menorah being lit on Dec. 20 to mark the first day of Hanukkah. The rabbis, though, said they did not request the site be cleared for their event.

"There's plenty of room here," Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan said.

His colleague, Rabbi Levi Druck, said representatives of the Occupy group had contacted him previously to make sure they didn't impede the Jewish celebration. "We told them we didn't plan to use the area they were in," Druck said, noting that the protesters had generally camped near the square's fountain while the menorah would be erected closer to the street.

Occupy members largely vowed to look forward not backward, with several saying they had already chosen to stop spending the night on the square anyway. But, they added, they hadn't abandoned the cause, merely its original location.

"We're all over the place. We do occupy Baltimore, in a non-ironic way," said Damien Nichols, 29. "We are the 99 percent. We work the jobs. We already occupy this town. This is our town. This is our city. We take great pride in Baltimore. Expect to see plenty more of us."

Sun reporters Justin Fenton, Ed Gunts, Peter Hermann, Steve Kilar and Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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