City Hall declares Occupy Baltimore's camping illegal

City officials declared Tuesday that overnight camping is illegal at the downtown plaza where protesters with the Occupy Baltimore movement have been staying in tents for three weeks.

The decision frustrated many of the protesters, but city officials did not say whether the group would be cleared from McKeldin Square, at the intersection of Pratt and Light streets.

A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said officials would enforce "individual acts of illegal behavior on a case-by-case basis."

"City government is committed to protecting the free speech rights of Baltimore's citizens, and that is why any citizen is free to peacefully demonstrate at McKeldin Plaza in accordance with established guidelines," the spokesman, Ryan O'Doherty, said in a statement. "McKeldin Plaza, however, is not a campground, and overnight camping is prohibited."

McKeldin Square, where dozens of activists have gathered this month to protest economic inequality and other issues, was abuzz Tuesday as protesters discussed a draft memo from City Hall that indicated to them that they would either have to limit the size of gatherings or clear out by Wednesday.

"They're trying to force a confrontation," said protester Robert Brune, 46, of Columbia. "Other cities have bent their rules to accommodate the movement. Baltimore should do the same. They're not giving this movement a fair understanding."

The activists said the city's Department of Recreation and Parks refused their request to permanently occupy all of the square — a city-designated protest site.

According to a memo from the agency, officials asked the protesters to limit their gatherings to two people overnight and to stay confined 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.

Protesters said those demands are so burdensome they could destroy the movement. The activists also said the city wanted them to appoint a spokesperson to act as a leader for the group — a move they say is counter to their core egalitarian values.

The city made the proposal in a letter labeled "draft," which protesters were circulating Tuesday.

"If these rules are followed, the Occupy group will not be arrested," the memo states.

Recreation and Parks spokeswoman Gwendolyn Chambers, whose organization handles permits, initially said she would provide a statement regarding her agency's negotiations with the activists, but then did not do so. City police referred questions to Chambers.

David Kellam, 30, a Charles Village resident who was manning the Occupy Baltimore media desk in the square, called the city's memo "clever." He said it was designed to diminish the group's impact.

"To have only two people here overnight is quite frankly unreasonable," he said.

Both he and Brune agreed with a message posted at 3 a.m. on the group's website that said the protesters wish to take up "as much of the square as possible" in order to grow an "organic infrastructure of democratic representation, arts culture and safe space."

News of the city's demands spread quickly on the Internet. On the group's Facebook page, posters wrote messages calling for an increased presence at McKeldin Square to protest the city's actions.

"SWAMP the mayor's office with calls and emails to stop the eviction," wrote one poster.

"SOS! #OccupyBaltimore facing possible eviction in 24 hrs. This is a rallying call for massive showing of support on Tuesday!" wrote another.

Brandie Cross, a biochemistry graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University, took the message to heart. She stood in the middle of the square Tuesday waving an upside-down American flag with corporate logos replacing the stars, which she calls the "corporate distress flag." She said she told her boss she wouldn't be in for 24 hours, until the movement's issues with the city were resolved.

"It puts people in danger," Cross, 32, said of limiting the size of the crowd overnight.

"Two people isn't much of an occupation," said her friend, Elise Heroux, 19, of Rosedale.

By Tuesday afternoon, a second message had come out from the group's email account, stating that Wednesday is a deadline for the protesters to respond to the city and that "no specific date for termination" of the protest had been set.

About 150 protesters attended Occupy Baltimore's meeting Tuesday at 8 p.m. During the meeting, which lasted several hours, the protesters discussed plans to communicate with Recreation and Parks on Wednesday.

Protests in other cities have included both peaceful interactions with the police and violent confrontations. In Manhattan, protesters clashed with police — one widely viewed video showed police pepper-spraying protesters, and a photo appeared to show an activist striking an officer with his forearm. In Denver, police cleared activists from a park next to the state Capitol, moving them farther away. And in Oakland Tuesday, riot police arrested 75 protesters.

Thus far, there have been no arrests or forcible removals in Baltimore. On Tuesday, activists offered differing opinions on whether they would go along with an order forcing them to move.

As she set up signs Tuesday that say "Stop Banks' Robbery" and "You know things are bad when white suburbanites come out," Athena Tsakos, 30, a teacher from Pigtown, said the Occupy Baltimore movement has had no problems with local police and she expects it to stay that way.

"We're fighting the banks, not the police," she said. "The police are working-class people just like us."

But Asher Strauss, 23, who lives near Penn Station, said the city's ultimatum would push homeless people out of the square. Activists might have to stand up to officers, if forced, he said.

"They're trying to box us in," he said of the city. "You don't know who's homeless or not. We're all here.

"It doesn't matter if you're homeless. Everybody is facing the consequences of the system. We're going to take a stand."

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