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Rawlings-Blake wants to avoid 'violent exchange' with protesters

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday that she hopes to avoid a "violent exchange" with Occupy Baltimore protesters, though she and other city officials declined to say when or if they would forcibly remove the activists.

Tensions mounted at the Occupy Baltimore encampment in the Inner Harbor's McKeldin Square, with protesters fearing imminent arrest, as civil rights advocates and union leaders came to their defense.

The American Civil Liberties Union questioned City Hall's conclusion that overnight camping in the square is illegal, pointing to a long but infrequent history of such protests.

"Although this is rare, it's clear one can engage in camping as a form of political protest," said David Rocah, staff attorney at the local chapter of the ACLU. "It's not a crazy notion."

Meanwhile, city labor leaders, including the heads of the police and fire unions, sent Rawlings-Blake a letter, asking her not to shut down the protests and to act with "restraint."

Police have not arrested protesters since the Occupy Baltimore movement began three weeks ago over economic inequalities and other issues, and Rawlings-Blake said she is seeking to balance the protesters' right to free speech with city laws prohibiting long-term camping in parks.

"If the point is to talk about inequity, to talk about how we can work together to have a more just society or a more equitable Baltimore, it's not about pitching a tent, it's about getting the work done," she said. "Nobody's talking in the middle of the night — they're camping out, and that is what this is about. They're free to protest with signs, with their voices, with music and dance all day long."

The mayor declined to say whether police had been instructed to arrest protesters who insist on continuing to camp out.

She answered questions at an unrelated news conference Wednesday after Occupy Oakland protesters clashed with police in California over the use of a plaza Tuesday night — the latest in a string of conflicts between protesters and law enforcement in various cities.

"I have absolutely no interest in a violent exchange," Rawlings-Blake said.

Meanwhile, the Occupy Baltimore movement has helped inspire yet another protest, this one in Anne Arundel County. Occupy Annapolis is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. Friday, according to organizer Jim Martin.

"I run a small business, and like all small businesses in America, we've been crippled by this economy," said Martin, 63, the owner of Free State Press. "We're spending our life savings trying to keep these businesses afloat. People don't realize the breadth of pain that the characters on Wall Street really did to us. These people did evil things and got away with it."

Martin has obtained a permit for his Annapolis protest.

Members of Occupy Baltimore say the city's Department of Recreation and Parks refused their request to permanently occupy all of the square — a city-designated protest site.

Over the weekend, the city offered to negotiate with the protesters, asking them in a draft document to limit their gatherings to two people overnight and to confine themselves to a smaller area of the square during the day.

In exchange, the city offered to provide 10 tents for the protesters during the day to shield them from the elements and to allow a portable toilet at the square. The city stated that if protesters complied with the rules by Wednesday, they wouldn't be arrested.

But the protesters rejected that deal, and talks stalled.

"We're playing the waiting game," said Casey McKeel, a member of the Occupy Baltimore legal team, which hasn't heard from the city since the weekend. "We haven't received any new documents. It's really hard to predict what will happen."

McKeel said she invited a Recreation and Parks representative to attend Wednesday night's Occupy Baltimore meeting, but she declined.

About 150 people were present for the Wednesday meeting; two uniformed police officers remained in a parked cruiser nearby. A lawyer briefed the group on how to behave if they are arrested, telling them to "be polite."

Protesters said they were bracing for the worst as more groups offered to lend them their support.

"We write to express our firm opinion that nothing be done to close down the site," labor leaders wrote in a letter to Rawlings-Blake. Among those who signed were leaders from the police and fire unions as well as the city teachers' union and the Metro Baltimore Council of the AFL-CIO.

As the protesters anticipated expulsion from McKeldin Square, TV news trucks gathered late Tuesday and Wednesday, and rumors swirled among the protesters that undercover officers were attempting to infiltrate their ranks. But as Tuesday night and another day passed, no uniformed officers or arrests materialized.

"We the people continue to hold the square," Occupy Baltimore wrote on its Twitter account.

City officials say negotiating with the group is difficult because of its lack of structure.

Occupy Baltimore protesters say they're reluctant to appoint an official spokesperson because they believe they all should have equal standing. Even as they set up what they consider to be their own government — complete with a General Assembly, daily meetings that last for hours, and multiple committees with their own meetings and objectives — there is some rancor in the movement about who speaks for what.

Some protesters in McKeldin Square seemed just as agitated over what they deemed a splinter group affiliated with Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse in Mount Vernon as they were with Wall Street and big banks.

Protester Robert Brune, 46, of Columbia, said members of the splinter group, called an affinity group, helped organize the Occupy Baltimore protests but have not continued to camp overnight at McKeldin Square. He said they hold their meetings off-site but make up much of the movement's committee leadership.

"This group appears to have a top-down perspective and lacks any real transparency in their decision-making process," Brune wrote on a blog post on the Occupy Baltimore website.

A member of the Red Emma's collective noted in an email that there are several smaller groups that participate with the Occupy Baltimore movement or that "pop up from time to time."

At a General Assembly meeting Tuesday night, protesters couldn't reach much consensus about how to respond to the city — except to reject the proposal that only two people stay in a tent overnight — and ultimately voted to table most of the issues discussed.

There have been precedents of camping as a legitimate form of protest, the ACLU's Rocah said.

He pointed to the Bonus Army of 1932, which created a tent city in Washington to protest federal policies, and the camping in 1968 as part of the Poor People's Campaign against economic injustice organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Rocah said the city's rules don't completely prohibit camping, just camping without permission. He said it's not clear whether the city could reasonably justify not granting the Occupy Baltimore protesters permission to camp there.

"It's clear the government has a right to set rules on where, when and how protests can occur," Rocah said. "But it's also true that not every rule is one that the courts are prepared to accept. Preserving people's right to protest in the way they wish is one of the tenets of the First Amendment."

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Scharper contributed to this article.

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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