Occupy Baltimore: an open-ended conclusion

Now entering its third week, Occupy Baltimore has settled into its appropriated digs at the Inner Harbor, taking regular deliveries of pizzas and camping out overnight for what its website calls an Indefinitely Long Peaceful Demonstration.

Emphasis on "indefinitely."

The protesters, part of what has become a global movement to highlight income disparity, aren't saying — and probably don't even know — exactly how long they'll remain on McKeldin Square, the triangular plaza at Light and Pratt streets. And city officials aren't saying when they'll reclaim what is a park and, normally, not a place where a group of people can set up camp.

"I think that's the big question: What's the goal, where's the end?" said Athena Tsakos, 30, one of the protesters. "I think this will evolve."

By nature, the Occupy movement, which began on Wall Street in New York a month ago and spread across the country and abroad, is a fluid one, raising the issue of the financial sector's culpability in the recession and seeing where it goes from there. Without declared leaders or an agreed-upon set of demands, there is no one to declare that goals have been achieved and everyone should go home.

Baltimore officials are monitoring the group but opting for a mostly hands-off approach to avoid a confrontation like those that have occurred in other cities, drawing more attention and support to the protests. The city hasn't asked the group to clear the square of its tents, tarps and tables, at least for now.

"That's not to say we will not do that in the future," said Ryan O'Doherty, spokesman for Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake. "If we do take such measures, it will be at the time we think is appropriate."

O'Doherty said the city is responding to specific complaints, such as concerns about trash or pedestrian traffic being blocked, rather than the protest as a whole. Officials wanted to make sure, for example, that protesters would "share space" with the recent Baltimore Marathon, he said, and everything ran smoothly.

"There's no broad policy toward the protest movement to interfere with it in any way," he said. "We're trying to have a constructive dialogue with the protesters so things are dealt with respectfully."

McKeldin Square is a designated "protest zone," where groups of fewer than 25 can demonstrate without a permit. Depending on the time and day, Occupy Baltimore has exceeded that number, and submitted a permit application to the Department of Recreation and Parks last week. Department spokeswoman Gwendolyn Burrell Chambers said the application is being reviewed, but she did not have an estimate on when a decision would be made.

Chambers said the group sought a permit for 25 to 300 people who wanted to demonstrate their solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, but did not specify how long the protest would last.

Police say there have been no arrests related to the demonstration, and several Occupy Baltimore protesters said they don't feel harassed by those patrolling the area.

"The police have been supportive," said Tsakos, an unemployed teacher. "They're working people like us."

How long the protesters will remain, particularly given the approach of colder weather, and how long the city will maintain its tolerant approach to their tent city, remains to be seen.

"There are concerns about the way it looks," said Kirby Fowler, head of the Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit organization that promotes the city's core. He added that those who live and work downtown acknowledge the group's right to protest — if not necessarily to set up living quarters on a public square.

"McKeldin Plaza has been associated with demonstrations, and I think people have accepted that," Fowler said. "Whether they should be setting up campsites, though, it's city property.

"It's been very peaceful and there haven't been any complaints. But I don't know if people's tolerance will eventually die out."

This week, the Occupy Baltimore protesters drew passersby who stopped to ask about the movement or offer donations. But there were also those who walked by without giving a second glance to the incongruously ramshackle settlement, with its piles of signs and jumble of tents, makeshift shelters and tables with information, water, food and donated clothes.

The group dines communally at 6 p.m. — a Baltimore pizzeria has been particularly generous, one protester said — and meets at 8 p.m. to discuss policies and whatever else comes up. Signs lay out rules — no drugs, drinking or violence — and there are receptacles for trash, recyclables and cigarette butts.

"That we can have this sense of community — that we can have this great healthy community — it restores your faith in humanity," said Steve Dolnack, 24, of Philadelphia.

Dolnack said he felt he was in a dead-end job at a convenience store, the only work he was able to find after graduating from college last year, and decided three months ago to quit and travel. He said he flew to Seattle and hitchhiked back East, and ended up in Baltimore, thinking he'd stay a couple of days. More than a week later, he was still here, although he planned to head up to the Wall Street protest and eventually home to Philadelphia.

"For me this is mainly about getting as much info out there and getting people aware of the gap between the 1 percent and the 99 percent," he said.

Dolnack doesn't have a solution for the problem, but he said the Occupy movement is at least providing an opportunity for people to discuss it.

"It's just about creating a space where dialogue can happen" and on its own timetable, he said.

Asked about the protest's duration, Dolnack said, "I don't think there's a single answer to that. I don't know when that will happen. I feel it's an evolutionary process that will happen."

Among the visitors to the site this week was Jason Loviglio, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He was impressed by the movement's growth and what appeared to be a sincere effort to discuss the nation's problems across partisan lines.

Where it all will lead, and when, is impossible to say, he said.

"I don't think we can predict the power this is going to have," Loviglio said. "It's just beginning to kindle."