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Protesters gather at 'Occupy Baltimore' event

Some are out of work. Some can't afford to visit a doctor. Others are sick of corporate greed. Most blame financial institutions for the tumbling economy. They think the rich are trampling on the poor and middle class and getting away with it.

They're fed up, and they're willing to camp out in downtown Baltimore to voice their complaints.

Protesters staging Baltimore's version of Occupy Wall Street converged on the Inner Harbor on Tuesday, bringing an array of grievances but one common theme — corporate America and government have bankrupted the country and their pocketbooks.

At 10 p.m., up to 125 people gathered at McKeldin Square, far from the hundreds who had signed up on Facebook, far from the numbers seen in New York, where the movement started and where police have arrested scores over the past several days. The protests there have turned confrontational.

Earlier in the day, up to 50 people gathered. The protesters, many holding hand-painted signs, said that if nothing else, the outdoor sit-in — which organizers hope will draw hundreds more over the next few days — gives people a chance to vent.

"This finally let me let out the anger I've been feeling all these years," said Lani Miller, a 53-year-old Charles Village resident who quit her job selling houses and started making custom jewelry in her rowhouse.

"I pay more in health care than I do for my mortgage," Miller said. "That's not right."

The protest, copying others that have sprouted up around the country from Boston to Los Angeles, got off to a trickle shortly after noon and slowly grew in size, but not intensity. People made signs and occasionally chanted, "They got found out, we got sold out."

By evening, a man strummed a guitar and sang, Bob Dylan-like, "They took my house; they took my dog; they left me in the fog."

Baltimore police kept a discreet presence, with at most three commanders in white shirts casually monitoring the group from across the plaza.

A police helicopter sometimes flew overhead but rarely hovered for more than a few moments.

There were plenty of officers around — three dozen walked along the harbor promenade at one point and others were riding on motorcycles. But most officers did not come into McKeldin Square, at Light and Pratt Streets.

The group's size exceeded the number allowed to gather there without a permit, 25, but police did not take any action. No arrests were made and no confrontations occurred. The commanders even took a moment to pose for a picture with two tourists from Kosovo.

On Tuesday evening, protest leader David Zimmerman approached Police Maj. Anthony Brown, head of the tactical unit, and asked whether it was legal to erect tents and tables for computers and scanners. The major expressed concern and Officer Thomas H. Lovett III told Zimmerman he would probably need a permit, which the group did not obtain.

Zimmerman said the protesters planned to meet Tuesday night to discuss plans, and had broken into committees.

It was unclear in the early evening whether police would let people stay overnight or put up tents. "We're going to play it by ear," Brown said. By nightfall, as pizza was delivered to protesters, sleeping bags were unfurled and at least one hammock was erected, officers seemed prepared to let demonstrators sleep on the plaza, provided they weren't disruptive.

Many protesters said they simply wanted to voice their concerns, even if those concerns were not easy to define. "It's too much to list," said Mercedes Thomsen, who brought her 2-year-old son, Jackson, to the protest.

Jackson, with curly blond hair, jetted about the plaza wearing a white T-shirt that read, "You want me to fix this mess?!"

Thomsen, who lives in Roland Park, said she was moved by an author she heard speak at the Enoch Pratt Free Library who said mothers with children can make the most noise. "I'm not screaming," she joked, "but I'm here."

That summed up the feelings of many.

"We just want to show a sense of solidarity, to unite to show everyone what is happening on Wall Street," said Kory Shaja, who is 27 and came wearing a black dress that went from his chin to his knees, his hair tinted turquoise. "Baltimore has pressing needs."

Frustration was a unifying theme.

Josh Perry, 22, said he had to move back in with his parents to avoid having to live on the streets. He said he's held a variety of jobs, from retail to painting tanks at a defense contractor, but has been unable to find a job in the past eight months.

He's two credits shy of completing his junior year of college — he's been in and out of four schools — and would like to graduate and have a career in theater set design.

"Not finding a job is preventing me from doing that," said Perry, who came to the protest because, he explained, "for the first time in my life I have to take a government handout. I need food stamps. I just want to work and be able to take care of myself."

Miller, the Charles Village jewelry maker, described herself as the entrepreneurial small business owner that she hears all the politicians talking about helping. She quit her job as a real estate agent a year ago, saying she couldn't stomach being part of the very establishment she said helped ruin the economy.

"I hated that job," Miller said. "I was tired of telling people that for 11 percent interest they would get to improve their life. …. It was disgusting."

But running her own business is not easy. She works out of her home with her husband and sells to museum shops and on the Internet. "I need a bookkeeper. I need a web designer," Miller said. "But I can't afford that. I have to do it myself."

She stood at McKeldin Square on Tuesday afternoon, holding a sign imploring "Medicare for all." Miller summed up the protest: "It's time that we stood up and said enough. I want my country back."

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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