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News Maryland Baltimore City

Security an issue at Occupy Baltimore

The Occupy Baltimore protest is now entrenched at the Inner Harbor, but its members are questioning whether they can sustain the movement amid a dwindling number of core leaders and allegations of crime and drug use.

Reports that a woman was sexually assaulted in a tent, deemed unfounded by city police, have nevertheless put public safety at the forefront, with some organizers complaining that homeless people have overrun the tent city at McKeldin Square.

"We're getting addicts and drunks down here, and it's a ratio that's hard to deal with, given the number [of activists] we have," said David Kellam, a member of the Occupy Baltimore media team. "There's about 10 or so people who are working their butts off to hold it together with duct tape."

The comments came after a heated meeting Monday night in which protesters voiced concerns about safety and tried to come up with ways to keep their camp secure without involving outside authorities. 

Kellam said he planned to vote to continue camping out in the square, but acknowledged that others in the movement feel differently. He said the activists plan to erect some large tents on Wednesday, which he believes will give their movement a more legitimate appearance, and rally more supporters who can help with the workload.

Thus far, city police have taken a hands-off approach, even after the Department of Recreation and Parks declined to issue a permit for overnight camping and declared the after-dark gathering illegal.

Police say they prefer to respond to individual complaints and avoid patrolling the tent city. Sensitive to potential volatility, city police sent two top commanders, including the head of the criminal investigation division, to McKeldin Square to lead the inquiry into the sexual assault allegation.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Tuesday that police should investigate reports of crime and that protesters "don't seem to have that same concern about public safety. … When I hear some protesters discouraging reporting crimes or participating in illegal activities, that concerns me."

But the mayor would not say whether she's moving closer to ordering protesters evicted. "It is an every-day situation, and as we learn more information, we'll respond and react to that," she said.

Baltimore police said they received a complaint Monday morning that a theft had occurred late Friday or early Saturday at the protest site.

The police report says a 22-year-old woman accepted a man's offer to stay overnight in his tent and that she awoke to find $1,800 missing from an envelope in her purse. Police said she did not allege a sexual assault, but reported that her buttocks had scratches and bruises.

The woman was examined at Mercy Hospital as a precaution, and police said that "the facts and evidence do not suggest that a sex offense occurred." The report says the man and woman slept on opposite sides of the black, A-frame tent, with a small divider between them.

Detectives questioned the man, whom they described as uncooperative, but did not file charges, noting that the tent flaps were open and the tent was accessible to anyone passing by. The woman went on Fox-45 TV on Monday alleging that she had been raped and that nobody at Occupy Baltimore would help her.

Advocates for sexual assault victims had criticized Occupy Baltimore last month for distributing pamphlets that requested anyone attacked immediately contact the group's "security committee" and seemed to discourage involving law enforcement. The group has since revised the guidelines to say they support police investigations.

At Monday night's "general assembly" meeting, speakers openly questioned whether the encampment has become lawless, and some said they had witnessed drug deals and assaults. The protesters said they wanted to be accommodating to outsiders, and even invited the homeless to camp with them, but are now facing issues of mental health and drug use that, in some cases, they don't feel equipped to handle. 

Cullen Nawalkowsky, a member of the group's media team, urged the general assembly to rethink the "sustainability of this whole project." He cautioned the group that if they assumed a "custodial relationship," they could be held responsible for what happens there.

Part of Monday's assembly meeting was posted on the protest group's website. In the video, one woman complained that the group's "security team" destroyed property, acted like thugs and that city authorities were needed to keep order. Another woman said she witnessed a $200 drug deal, and that dealing with crime and similar issues "is sucking the air out of this group."

Athena Tsakos, a member of Occupy Baltimore's "outreach" team," said the protesters are struggling with how to address outsiders who bring crime to the protest. Of particular concern, in Baltimore and in other cities across the country, has been the increased numbers of homeless people who have taken refuge in the protest camps.

"There's a reality that we are in the middle of the city," she said in an interview on Tuesday. "We're trying to create a small micro-space of safety within a larger area that is not safe. How feasible is this?"

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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