Local activists say Occupy Baltimore still working for change

An Occupy Baltimore offshoot, Greenpants, projects "99%" on the side of the World Trade Center Baltimore on Sunday night.
An Occupy Baltimore offshoot, Greenpants, projects "99%" on the side of the World Trade Center Baltimore on Sunday night. (Photo by Jesse Stiles)

Some are working to change the way development in Baltimore affects low-income residents. Others are using art to comment on social inequalities. Still others are battling home foreclosures in the city or gathering free books to hand out in poor neighborhoods.

There are no longer tents in McKeldin Square, but one year after the Occupy movement stormed the nation's consciousness and placed income inequality at the center of the country's political discourse, members of the Occupy Baltimore chapter said they are still working for change in local communities.

"Without the large numbers, you don't see us. We don't get the media we used to. But we're here, still fighting," said Beth Emmerling, a member of the group. "We miss the encampment and people don't know we're around, and yet in our own way, we continue to be active and effective."

As Occupy groups gathered for events across the nation Monday to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the movement — it began with an Occupy Wall Street protest in New York City on Sept. 17, 2011 — some Baltimore members planned art installations, including a North Baltimore studio show recapping the movement's highlights that will be held later this week after being canceled Monday night because of inclement weather.

The same group, an artists' collective and Occupy Baltimore offshoot called Greenpants, projected "99%" on the side of Baltimore's World Trade Center on Sunday, in a nod to the national movement's philosophy that the financial interests of the country's wealthiest 1 percent have taken priority over the interests of the rest of the population.

"Occupy Baltimore is more or less decentralized now, and there are many groups that are doing different kinds of work," said Olivia Robinson, a member of Greenpants. "But the network itself has gotten stronger. The interest and the passion that was brought to a head through the Occupy movement is not vanished. It's still here. It's deeper, in a way."

But Matthew Crenson, emeritus professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, said the group's fracturing into different offshoots may hurt the movement's long-term viability.

"The more they get absorbed into the sort of existing population of nonprofits, the less visible they become," Crenson said. "Their big impact is when they all come together and sort of declare their presence downtown, and maybe they get dispersed by police or some of them get arrested, but at least they've shown themselves. To the extent that they do other things, they diminish their presence."

Members acknowledge they have received less attention. And when they talk about their continuing efforts, they say, they sometimes get confused looks from people who think Occupy Baltimore was completely disbanded.

Despite fading from the limelight, however, Occupy Baltimore members still gather in McKeldin Square near the Inner Harbor once a week to share information about events. They participate in a larger monthly meeting of city nonprofits. They protested the city's spending tax dollars on the Baltimore Grand Prix last month and remain vocal in online forums about possible actions to take, including bank protests and book drives.

"We want to look to the future. What does Occupy look like?" Emmerling said.

More is planned for Occupy Baltimore's one-year anniversary Oct. 4, Emmerling said. There will likely be a rally in McKeldin Square, where activists first created a tent city last October to join in solidarity with similar encampments going up in cities across the country.

In those early days of the movement, the protesters held "general assembly" meetings to brainstorm ideas for social change, sleeping in tents for weeks on end and sharing resources communally. Members of the city's homeless population became staples at the encampment.

There were a few violent incidents, including one in which a woman was stabbed at the encampment during a dispute over a cat, according to police. And advocates for sexual assault victims at one point criticized protest leaders because of a perception they were encouraging the internal handling of assaults to avoid police involvement.

Downtown businesses voiced concerns about the camps. Others rallied behind the protesters, donating food and other necessities.

Yet unlike in other cities, where clashes between protesters and police led to violence, Occupy Baltimore presented the city with relatively little in the way of physical confrontation, even during a pre-dawn raid of the encampment by police in December. About 40 protesters sleeping in tents were awoken and told to leave, and the movement was officially evicted.

After the eviction, protesters vowed that their message would not fade into history. Individual members said they would pick issues they were most passionate about and continue to look for solutions to the inequalities they saw — in housing, banking, development, law enforcement and the justice system.

"Out of necessity, I think we needed to become more focused," Emmerling said. "We no longer had a communal space where we'd all come together to just think and talk."

Casey McKeel, who was a member of Occupy Baltimore's legal team, has recently focused her efforts on supporting the offshoot group Another BDC is Possible, which has fought to get the Baltimore Development Corp. — the city's quasi-public economic development arm — to become more transparent and offer more public benefits.

"Oftentimes, you see development focused on the Inner Harbor rather than the rest of Baltimore City, and so we're really just trying to talk about alternatives to that sort of development model," McKeel said.

The group wants development in Baltimore to result in jobs that offer dignity and a living wage, McKeel said. "We are really trying to frame the conversation about how we develop here," she said.

This year, Occupy Baltimore members have also challenged the jailing of juvenile offenders, as well as global financial leadership and the foreclosure of city homes.

In January, six members were arrested by Maryland State Police after they allegedly trespassed on the state-owned site of the proposed juvenile detention center in East Baltimore as part of a "Schools Not Jails Occupation."

In May, members set up in Thurmont, outside Frederick, to protest the G8 Summit of world leaders at Camp David.

And this summer, members of the offshoot group Occupy Our Homes Baltimore visited the homes of families facing foreclosure in the city's Park Heights neighborhood in an effort to connect them with lawyers and other organizers working against homelessness.

Members of Occupy Baltimore have popped up at other protests around the city in recent months as well, challenging alleged police brutality and fighting against the closure of recreation centers.

In addition to participating in all these efforts, Emmerling said, Occupy Baltimore members are using the knowledge they have gained in the past year to help other groups.

"We're learning as we go, and we've sure learned a lot in a year about organizing tactics," she said. "The whole activist community was just completely energized by Occupy, and I feel like we've been absorbed into that fabric."

McKeel agreed.

"I think it's a continual process for groups to think about how they can best work parallel, work together to accomplish their goals on a local level," she said. "That's been a really important outcome, and it's really exciting to see how that progresses."