Mayor calls Occupy Baltimore eviction 'respectful'

The eviction of Occupy Baltimore protesters from a park near the Inner Harbor was carried out "in a respectful way," Baltimore's mayor said this morning, adding that she was pleased there were no injuries or arrests.

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

But some involved with the protest said they were disappointed the city had used police clad in riot gear to move the group from McKeldin Square during the early morning hours.

Iris Kirsch, 30, who said she was an English teacher in Baltimore schools, was holding up a hand-made sign to Pratt Street traffic that read: RIOT COPS? REALLY?

Asked whether the eviction was handled respectfully, she said, "The words were polite, but the 70s riot gear belied the politeness."

Leo Zimmerman added, "I'm kind of irritated but I'm not that surprised, given the pattern we have seen in other cities. I had hoped Baltimore would be different because this city is dispossessed from the national system, from the bottom to the top. … It's a bummer that they did things this way, with the riot police."

Protesters planned to meet outside City Hall later today to discuss their next steps. And several members of the Occupy movement said that leaving McKeldin Square could be a positive step.

"You don't keep hammering on a tactic when that tactic is producing diminishing returns," said Cullen Nawalkowsky. "The physical occupation is just one part of the broader movement."

During the eviction, about 40 people grabbed their belongings and left the encampment, surrounded by police wearing shields and carrying nightsticks who stayed on the periphery. Those who were homeless were given the option of climbing into city buses to be taken to a shelter.

The eviction, long alluded to by city officials, brought the 10-week protest to an end. For the most part, protesters seemed disappointed to be leaving but said police had been respectful.

"I'm very impressed by the level of civility that's been shown. There's mutual respect on both sides," said Mike Gibb, 21. "It's nothing like Oakland, nothing like Los Angeles."

Others said the eviction was abrupt and unnecessary. "It's 4 in the morning," said 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."

City officials had reiterated that they would "take action at a time of our choosing" when asked of their plans for the protest. That time came at 3:18 a.m., when marked police cruisers began blocking off a radius around McKeldin Square, blocking trucks and other cars from leaving via Light Street.

Next, dozens of officers in riot gear fanned out and formed a perimeter. A helicopter buzzed overhead. A man in the encampment began yelling "Mic check!", presumably to awaken the others, who were told by police that they had 20 minutes to gather belongings. After they were cleared, tents were dismantled and garbage trucks moved in.

Officials said they had cleared the scene before 7 a.m., in time for the morning rush hour.

Police and city officials gave no advance warning to media or the protesters, but The Baltimore Sun was able to observe the eviction as it unfolded.

"The City of Baltimore is committed to protecting individuals' right to protest," the mayor said in a statement released to coincide with the eviction. "However, our public parks and green-spaces should not be treated as permanent campgrounds and camping is prohibited. Individuals are free to peaceably assemble and demonstrate within the currently established guidelines."

Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, said the eviction was "very civil on both sides." "It speaks to the long standing relationship we have had with the people of Occupy Baltimore," he said.

Mayoral spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said 23 people took advantage of city vans and went to homeless shelters. "It was uneventful," O'Doherty said of the eviction.

O'Doherty would not say whether Baltimore copied how other cities handled the protesters.

He said city officials are pleased that many of the homeless protesters took advantage of the bus rides to the shelter, calling homelessness "one of the biggest challenges of the city."

Belongings collected will be taken to the Western Sanitation Yard, 700 Reedbird St. in Cherry Hill, he said.

While some of the protesters moved on — to destinations unknown to them — 20 stayed and chanted slogans like, "Put away the riot gear, we don't see a riot here." A gaunt cat climbed on one of the men as they discussed where to go.

Among those unsure of their next move was Angel Wilder, 31, who said she has been unemployed for years because of a disability and since August has been homeless. She trekked to Baltimore from St. Petersburg, Fla., with a friend. Her first night in Baltimore was spent at a Greyhound bus station, before someone mentioned that the Occupy encampment — in its second day at that point — might be an option.

"People said, 'It's so dangerous in Baltimore, people get shot, you should check out this place,'" said Wilder, who was wearing a pink knit hat.

There, she said, she fostered relationships with others down on their luck. She received food, blankets, a tent and a mattress — all donated items.

She said she awoke this morning to the sound of a police radio crackling. She grabbed what she could — several pieces of luggage — but feared she may have left behind a bag containing her identification and pictures of her three children.

"[Police] told me they would take care of the garbage," she said. "That's not garbage. Those are my worldly possessions."

She said she complied with the police orders. "I stand for what Occupy stands for, but, jail sucks," she said with a faint smile.

Before leaving the encampment, Marcus Clary, 21, briefly lingered, holding up a sign with a John F. Kennedy quotation: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."

"Is this private property, too?" Clary said after walking across the street through metal barricades that funneled protesters to the corner of Pratt and Light streets. "How can these people go to sleep at night? They're violating our First Amendment rights."

Crowds ranging in size from about 20 to more than 150 people have gathered in the park — a paved brick area near the corner of Pratt and Light streets — since Oct. 4 to show solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement and draw attention to wealth disparities, among other issues. They also joined in several city-focused protests, and gained the support of local unions.

The relatively small number of protesters Tuesday morning was reflective of dwindling physical support in recent weeks. A noticeable number of tents vanished as colder temperatures set in and, according to the group's message board, they recently failed to hold a nightly meeting — referred to as "general assemblies" — for the first time since the effort began. Marshall said the leaderless movement had "a lot of fair weather supporters."

Damien Nichols, 29, had been involved in Occupy Baltimore since the beginning, but over time thought it would be more productive for him to do work off-site instead of camping out at McKeldin Square. He came back to the site at 6 a.m. to join the people he knew had been spending time there. "A lot of our most dedicated members stopped sleeping here," he said.

"We're not done, not by a long shot," Nichols said. "It's not a great tragedy that we lost this space."

Officials initially attempted to strike a bargain with the protesters, offering free tents if the group would agree to have only two people remain at the site overnight. The group declined the offer. City officials later cut off electricity to the park.

In late November, the city denied a second request by Occupy Baltimore to obtain a permit that would allow up to 300 protesters to stay through April. Performances would have included "reggae and other bands on an ad hoc basis" and "street dramas, plays, movies on an ad hoc basis," according to the document.

The encampment attracted activists, as well as homeless residents and others not necessarily affiliated with their goals. It encountered several problems, including disagreements and disenchantment among core leaders, and issues of crime.

"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," David Kellam, who a member of the Occupy Baltimore media team, said in November. "There's about 10 or so people who are working their butts off to hold it together with duct tape."

In later October, a 22-year-old woman alleged that she accepted a man's offer to stay in his tent and had $1,800 cash stolen from her. She later told a television station that she had been raped, which police deemed to be unfounded.

Then, around midnight on Dec. 3, two women who Occupy organizers said were affiliated with a group of ravers who refer to themselves as "The Underground" got into an argument about a cat that had been neglected. A 23-year-old woman was charged with stabbing another woman during the argument.

"We have attracted a wide array of different parts of Baltimore, and different people who feel they have been disenfranchised," organizer Annemarie Rush said at the time. "That also includes all of the problems that come with Baltimore and society in general."

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 guidelines have since revised to say that police investigations are supported.

Still, organizers forged on. At a meeting on Sunday, according to minutes posted on the Occupy website, they moved to form a "general assembly" for regular campers, "granting autonomous authority regarding camp specific decisions."

"GA concluded better accountability and restructuring needed to occur. It was decided this week be used to research alternate structures, allow for more discussion at GA, and Saturday Dec. 17 be the day we come together to share ideas," read a recent update.

The continuing threat of eviction loomed large, prompting several false alarms.

Marshall said he had been at Occupy Baltimore nearly since the beginning but got kicked out a few days ago when he was accused of assaulting someone over a plate of food. He said he was arrested and jailed on an assault charge, and just got out Monday night. "I came down here from jail only to find that a lot more people were going to jail," Marshall said, adding that he left when the police came because, "I don't want to go back."

Eric Lee, 35, said police officers told him that the tents and personal items left behind would be gathered and put in one place for retrieval, either at or near City Hall. But he and others didn't believe it as they saw a line of green trash trucks near the Harbor.

"They came in the middle of the night," Lee said. "They could have thrown us out in the middle of the day."

With Lee was a woman who gave her name as Dice MacKenzie, 20, who had a small cat she took out. But she left behind her inhaler and said police wouldn't let her go back for it. She said she is six months pregnant.

"The police say we'll be able to get our stuff back but look at the dump trucks," MacKenzie said. "The police are lying. They're going to throw everything away. It's 4 in the morning. Where are we going to go? We got kicked out of a public place."

All of the protesters interviewed vowed that the Occupy movement in Baltimore was only ending "phase one." "This is the end of phase one and the beginning of phase two," Clary promised.

Sun reporters Edward Gunts, Alison Knezevich and Jean Marbella contributed to this report.