Occupy Baltimore protest continues after a week

Ben Pfeffer traded his Charles Village apartment for a sleeping bag across the street from the Inner Harbor.

He gave up a roof over his head to join a protest without specific goals or a clear end date. He's not even sure what would constitute a successful outcome for Occupy Baltimore, which sprang from similar protests that have swept New York and other major cities.

But after a week living in McKeldin Square, Pfeffer feels part of a forming community, one centered on the basic sense that America has lost its way.

"I've been generally discontented with the structure I've been living under for my entire life," said the 22-year-old, who graduated from Towson University with an anthropology degree in the spring. "Here, we're discussing how to help each other outside of the existing structure."

That's a trickier proposition than it sounds. The protesters, who range in number from 100 to 200 a day, are not unified by a single cause. Few had met one another before last week, when they began sleeping side by side in the square. Every night, they hold a democratic meeting, trying to hash out exactly why they're there. It's hard to know whether the protest is working when the protesters haven't agreed on its objectives.

"There are a lot of fits and starts," said Jessica Lewis, a self-described anarchist who works on the media team for Occupy Baltimore. "This is a big, diverse group, but I think a lot of the power of the Occupy movement is that despite all the individual pursuits, we're united in our sense of disempowerment and angst."

The protest's most inspiring moments, she said, arise from the messy discussions about how the leaderless group should define itself.

Baltimore police and neighboring business owners agree that the protesters have acted peacefully and caused little nuisance. None has been arrested, a police spokesman said. "Not much to comment on," said Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

On Monday afternoon, the signs outnumbered the protesters. "Capitalism Cannot Be Reformed," one read. "Seriously, What Would Jesus Do?" inquired another. Then there was the depiction of a pig, with dollar signs for pupils and a fat cigar hanging from its snout.

About 30 people milled in the square — a few strumming guitars, others flashing signs at passing motorists, some homeless and looking for lunch. Pfeffer bemoaned the street festival vibe.

"That's not what we're about," he said, pacing the square shirtless in a pair of green gym shorts with a cell phone clipped to the waistband. "This is not a festival in the park."

Marina Roberson, 49, said the scene reminded her of a 1960s protest. "It is like a blast from the past," she said from her perch behind a first aid desk, where she was assisting as her contribution to the cause. "I love the spirit of the young people. We're going to need to help each other, because it's not coming from the government."

Jimmy Young, a homeless resident of downtown, said he has spent the last four nights with protesters because "the bottom line is I appreciate what they're doing."

"I hope something comes out of it," he said, reclining on a grassy ridge overlooking the square. "People are losing their jobs and losing their homes, and the government doesn't want to do anything about it."

The protest began a week ago, with a crowd of more than 100 expressing anger at corporate America and solidarity with protesters in Manhattan, where the grass-roots effort began before spinning off to Los Angeles, Boston, Washington and other cities.

Since then the Baltimore organizers have carried off everything from a drum rally to an S&M pageant depicting the cruelties of the military industrial complex.

They have divided into topical committees and discussed various issues at nightly "General Assembly" meetings. Despite all that, their goals remain nebulous.

"Individuals protesting bring their own specific goals and concerns, and the group plans to highlight the diversity of issues inspiring those who are occupying," reads a draft mission statement on the group's website. "A plan to create a clear articulation of goals and demands are underway."

A canvas stands on one side of the square with the words "Agenda add topics" emblazoned across the top in red paint. People have posted note cards underneath. "End racist housing discrimination," reads one. "I suggest establishing a supplies committee," reads another.

Online notes from Saturday's evening assembly show that the group discussed organizing a sit-in at City Hall, decriminalizing drugs and increasing the minimum wage. But protesters also admonished themselves for producing too much trash at the site and urged greater re-use of dishes. A "supplies needed" list called for packing tape, hummus, cotton swabs, deodorant and "anything that will turn bread into a sandwich."

Such mundane preoccupations aside, the Baltimore protest has drawn positive notices from observers of the wider Occupy movement.

A Boston Phoenix blogger, who has toured various Occupy protests for the alternative weekly, said that the Baltimore edition was "impressive in both its energy and organization." The blogger also touted the protest's waste management, noting that Baltimore's outraged had not only rented a portable toilet but had cleaned it regularly.

Cate Conmy was less impressed. The New Yorker was in Baltimore on Monday for a conference of museum workers and strolled through McKeldin at lunchtime. "Honestly, it's a little rag tag right now," she said.

She surveyed the signs spread across the square. "I like that everyone at least left their ideas out," she said of the slogan collage.

Conmy said she and her co-workers have discussed the merits of the Occupy protests around the country. "I don't think the lack of cohesive arguments is a point against it," she said. "I think there's a basic feeling that something is wrong."

Neighboring workers said they have hardly noticed the protesters.

"If not for the fact you just told me it's going on, I wouldn't have known it," said Danny Morales, manager of the M&S Grill at Harborplace. "They've been very well behaved. I haven't even heard them doing any kind of chants."

"Nobody has paid too much attention to it," said Katie Scollan, store manager of the Urban Outfitters shop across the street from the rally. "They've kind of stayed over there. As long as they don't do anything to harm our business, by all means they should stay where they want."

Pfeffer knows that some onlookers are confused and skeptical about a protest with no clear mission.

He started as a skeptic of the Wall Street protests. "It was partly that I didn't understand it," he said. "I wasn't really clear what their goals were."

But he was intrigued by a gathering of Baltimoreans who share his distaste for the political climate. A new force is taking shape, he said, even if he can't quite describe it.

"I'm not there," Pfeffer said of the protest on Wall Street. "I'm in Baltimore, and it's important that something is happening here."