Baltimore officials kept close eye on Occupy

Brian C. Rogers, chairman of the Baltimore-based money management giant T. Rowe Price, works in the corporate office high-rise towering over an Inner Harbor park. And for weeks, the company overlooked a group of protesters beating drums, pitching tents and demanding justice for the 99 percent of Americans who aren't among the country's highest earners.

By mid-November, Rogers — whose $7 million annual income places him solidly in the top 1 percent — was apparently fed up.

"Is it legal to live/camp in a city park? There's a difference between freedom of speech and what I see every day!" Rogers wrote to Deputy Mayor Kaliope Parthemos before dawn one morning.

"We agree," wrote Parthemos, who oversees economic development. "Its what citys [sic] are struggling with all over the country with this movement (as you know)."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her administration have hewed close to talking points when publicly discussing the McKeldin Square protesters and have provided little insight into their strategy in handling the group. But City Hall emails show officials closely monitored the movement — here and elsewhere — and were barraged by correspondence from both supporters of the Occupy Baltimore movement and those who wanted the encampment cleared out.

Local and state officials have struggled with a response to the group's demonstrations. In the latest confrontation, Maryland State Police arrested six people Monday as they protested a planned juvenile jail in East Baltimore. That swift response, which came as protesters began to build an encampment on a fenced-off lot, was a marked contrast to the long occupation of the Inner Harbor park last year.

Police swept through the Inner Harbor encampment in the chilly pre-dawn hours of Dec. 13, evicting about two dozen people, but did not arrest anyone. Baltimore avoided the violent clashes between police and protesters that occurred in cities such as Oakland, Calif., and officials extended assistance to homeless members of the encampment.

Rogers was among a handful of business executives who lobbied for the protesters' eviction during their stay at the harbor, according to the emails — which span the period from Sept. 28 to Dec. 2 and were obtained through a Public Information Act request. Rogers declined through an aide to comment for this article.

Others, including union heads, religious groups and even some downtown business leaders, urged officials to be tolerant of the group. E-mails of support for the movement came from law students, college professors, and a Quaker organization. "Baltimore NEEDS this movement more than most cities," one Towson student wrote.

Gerard Gaeng, a partner at the law firm of Rosenberg, Martin and Greenberg, said in an Oct. 26 message that the protesters "bother no one and disrupt nothing. I have been proud that Baltimore has treated them well up til now, but am very disturbed at the threatened actions against the protesters."

Ultimately, officials cleared the group from the park shortly before the installation of an oversized menorah as part of the city's Hanukkah celebration.

For weeks, officials had fretted about how to handle the event — a parade of cars decorated with menorahs that culminates in a McKeldin Square ceremony.

"It was a great event for the Mayor (Mayor gets into a bucket truck and lights the giant menorah)," spokesman Ryan O'Doherty wrote to chief of staff Peter O'Malley on Oct. 27 about the previous year's celebration. "This is another potential issue related to the Occupy protests that will need to be resolved, preferably in a way that has no impact on this important cultural event."

In late November, an employee with the Department of Recreation and Parks, which has jurisdiction over McKeldin Square, noted that she had been advised not to mention the Hanukkah celebration to the protesters.

"I know at our last meeting, we were instructed not to make contact with Occupy about the upcoming Menorah event and that [the Office of Emergency Management] was going to work with police to clear the square," Fran Spero wrote to Deputy Mayor Christopher Thomaskutty on Nov. 30. "Is this still our plan of operation or do you want me to try to move the menorah lighting to West Shore Park?"

O'Doherty said in an interview that no single event prompted the eviction, but that city officials were trying to work to extend services to the homeless people who had begun living at the encampment. "When there was an appropriate amount of outreach done, we enforced the law," he said.

As the protest wore on, Rawlings-Blake said she supported the protesters' right to free speech, but that camping was prohibited in city parks. She consistently warned that the camp would be disbanded "at a time of our choosing."

Chris Lavoie, 30, a participant in the Occupy movement, said in an interview Tuesday that city officials seemed "very strategic" in their approach to the protest, trying to avoid any issues that might result in a viral video and taking time to learn from other cities. "There were weeks and weeks that went by where we were reaching out to the mayor and rec and parks, and we were really left in the dark for long periods of time."

The emails show that Rawlings-Blake's administration kept a close eye on the protesters, observing them through video feeds and photos, monitoring postings on message boards, Twitter and Facebook, and analyzing the actions of Occupy Wall Street affiliates in other cities. Some e-mails were redacted, completely or in part, with the city citing a broad "executive privilege."

Messages were traded with officials in other cities to share strategies, while city staffers appeared to express a mix of frustration and bemusement at the spectacle of the protest and the attention it received.

"Just got a call from [a representative of the Service Employees International Union] asking if there was anything he could do to broker some kind of deal or exchange with the Occupy crowd," chief of staff O'Malley wrote on Nov. 22. "I told him it would be great if he could get them to stop camping out there illegally."

After the local chapter of the AFL-CIO wrote a letter in support of the protesters, O'Doherty noted that the head of the powerful union group benefits from a city contract.

"Isnt ernie [sic] on the payroll," O'Doherty wrote of AFL-CIO president Ernie Grecco. A branch of the AFL-CIO runs a city career center, O'Doherty said in an e-mail.

But officials were also feeling pressure to clear McKeldin Square. Police said on Oct. 26 that they were getting complaints from businesses. "We are getting calls into the office from businesspeople trying to shut down Occupy Baltimore," wrote Steve Sharkey, an assistant to Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. "I'm not sure if it's coordinated or not."

A week after his first e-mail to Parthemos, Rogers drew a juxtaposition between his view of McKeldin Square and the New York park where police had cleared protesters. "Kaliope, every morning I get to watch the city trucks and workers out there cleaning up McKeldin fountain site," he wrote. "Yesterday I was in NYC watching downtown workers once again having lunch in Zuccoti Park …"

On Nov. 19, Andy Freeman, of Swirnow Capital Management Co., who lives in Harborview, wrote: "Can't we do what Mayor Bloomberg did in NY and get rid of the camp? The whole thing is pretty ridiculous."

City officials also notified an executive at Constellation Energy after learning that the protesters were going to march to the energy giant's offices. "Just making sure you are aware of this planned activity," Thomaskutty wrote to Milton R. Branson, Constellation's manager of local affairs, on Oct. 25.

Branson's response was redacted and city officials did not respond to repeated requests to explain the redaction of a private citizen's comments.

Officials said the city didn't incur any extra expenses for work related to the encampment. Lavoie said the protesters were pleased with that: "That's what everyone was hoping for — this wasn't meant to consume municipal resources or take public space away from the public," he said.

Fire officials were asked to visit twice a day to ensure there were no fire hazards, and an inspector with the CitiStat office on at least two occasions was sent to take photographs and forward them to top officials.

"We want to protect and support first amendment rights. But the camping, habitation (especially at night), erection of shelters, tents, encampments, etc… we can't and won't support," Robert Maloney, the city's chief of emergency management, wrote on Nov. 2. "Our message should remain consistent … All agencies should inspect as they see fit, note violations and document."

Homeless outreach workers, meanwhile, made frequent visits and discussed doing "everything we can to connect homeless people there to area shelters and our outreach/case management teams," according to the emails.

Some of the homeless men indicated that they were at the camp because of poor conditions at one facility. "At the very least, we can make sure that people know about the other shelters in the city," wrote Gabby Knighton, a homeless outreach worker, to her colleagues.

Rawlings-Blake's spokespeople were inundated with questions from local reporters as well as national media. Staffers were also watching what was being posted to social media and memos posted to Occupy Baltimore's Google message board.

At one point, her staff assembled a list of people who had sent messages to Rawlings-Blake's Twitter account, saying that some of them had been threatening. They compiled the messages and alerted police, the e-mails show.

Anxiety often ran high among organizers of the protest, who frequently posted on Facebook and Twitter that they feared they would be evicted. City officials knew otherwise.

"They think we are about to arrest them," spokesman Ian Brennan wrote on Nov. 21, forwarding a message posted to the group's Facebook page. When the group claimed police had been at the site placing markings on the ground in preparation for an eviction, O'Malley wrote to Thomaskutty: "Odd."

E-mails released by the city do not detail City Hall discussions over clearing McKeldin Square. Some e-mails were privileged, according to the city's response to the Public Information Act request, and O'Doherty said the city would not share communications that reveal police strategy.

So what finally led the city to clear the square on Dec. 13? On that, the e-mails are silent.