Occupy Baltimore: time for Phase II

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at The Baltimore Sun.

Although some of the Occupy Baltimore protesters are expressing disappointment and anger at their early morning rousting from their McKeldin Square encampment, both they and the Baltimore Police Department deserve congratulations for peacefully handling the kind of encounter that has led to violence and destruction in other cities. It would not have served the interests of either the police or the protesters to have a confrontation in which dozens of activists — and the homeless and others who had been welcomed in the encampment — were hauled off to jail. Baltimore managed to clear its encampment with no arrests and no injuries, in stark contrast to the experience in New York and Oakland, Calif. — and even places like Philadelphia and Los Angeles, where the evictions were relatively smooth. It speaks well of the relationship the Baltimore police had forged with the protesters and will only serve to help Baltimore's Occupiers to broaden their movement.

Baltimore didn't have problems with its Occupiers on the scale that other cities did, perhaps because the encampment in the Inner Harbor was relatively small — just 40 or so people by the time of the raid, with only a fraction of those from a core group of dedicated protesters. Nonetheless, it was becoming increasingly clear that the leaderless, everybody-welcome ethos of the camp was becoming counter-productive. A woman was recently stabbed there, oddly enough, in a dispute about a cat. And organizers acknowledged that the difficulties posed by the wide variety of people attracted to the camp, and their wide motivations for being there, had taken away from the mission of drawing attention to the problems posed by the nation's growing income inequality. A core group of protesters had already been meeting to discuss alternative governance structures to maintain a focus on the issues that drew them to the camp in the first place, and the eviction should only facilitate that process.

Many Americans are sympathetic to the issues the Occupy protesters have raised but are perplexed by their methods. The notion that the concentration of wealth in this country has gotten so extreme that it is counter-productive to overall economic health and the viability of the American dream, and the feeling that corporate special interests have too much sway in our political system, are widespread. But relatively few see the solution to those problems to be camping out in public squares, forming human microphones and coming to decisions by wiggling fingers in the air. The system may be broken, but nothing in the Occupy encampments appeared to present a concrete solution.

On the contrary, the longer the encampments went on, and the more spectacular their clashes with police when cities finally sought to clear them, the less likely they were to broaden the movement's appeal. Because of the peaceful way Baltimore's encampment ended, protesters here may have a better chance than most to make a successful transition into a more mainstream political movement. Many Occupiers may find the idea of becoming a mainstream political movement to be an anathema, but it is the way change is accomplished in this country.

Elections are coming next year, and all-time-record percentages of Americans say they want to throw all the bums out of Congress. But that won't happen unless viable candidates stand up to provide an alternative, and unless a grass-roots movement of the public provides them the support to get elected and holds them accountable once they're in office. The Occupy movement has the chance to be a force in 2012 just as the tea party movement was in 2010. It is time, as one of the Occupy Baltimore protesters said on his way out of McKeldin Square this morning, for Phase II.