Baltimore woke up to the news that police in riot gear shut down Occupy Baltimore shortly after 3 a.m. today, rousting 35 to 40 people from tents in what appears to have been a largely peaceful end to the group’s 10-week protest.
“It happened at about 3:20. I poked my head out of my tent and there they were – police with riot face masks and shields and batons in their hands. It was something!” said Mike Gibb, standing at the corner of Pratt and Light streets with four or five others in front of the encampment, which was still cordoned-off by police.
“People were saying, ‘Get the f___ out, police are here!’ The cops said, ‘Get out of the tents.’ They gave us 20 minutes.”
“The police were respectful,” said Gibb, who said he’d been living at McKeldin Square for about 10 days. “This was probably the best of any Occupy evictions there’s been.”
Asked why he had been participating in the Occupy protest, he said “because I wanted to witness history being made.” He said he was impressed with the group’s consensus-form of governing itself “as an alternative to a broken democratic system.”
As he spoke, city workers could be seen inside the metal barricades, tossing the remains of the group’s “occupation” – mattresses, plastic tubs, a wheelchair, large water jugs, sleeping bags, a metal cot – into four or five green municipal trash trucks. (Police on-site said it was being taken to “Cherry Hill,” meaning the Western Sanitation Yard, at 700 Reedbird St.)
Leaning up against a light pole was the large slate chalkboard, where organizers had routinely posted procedural messages about food, security and committee meetings. “All you need is love,” someone had written there in the chalk dust.
The Time of Her Choosing
McKeldin Square, a non-descript expanse of fountains and brick pavers near the Inner Harbor that most Baltimore residents couldn’t have identified 10 weeks ago – was being returned to its previous anonymity.
The site of Baltimore’s version of the Occupy Wall Street movement, McKeldin became a small tent-city peopled by protesters, homeless people and others. Waving signs decrying crony capitalism and other ills, they generated a city-wide discussion of economic inequality and often joined other Baltimore-centric causes, supporting low-wage workers at the Harbor or city schools advocates at public protests.
Their nightly “general assembly meetings” that sometimes attracted hundreds.
As much as it was praised, the protest was also scorned and criticized, even by some sympathizers, for what some said was a lack of clear goals. A fight in which a woman was stabbed and allegations that a woman was sexually assaulted signaled also cast a shadow over the protest.
From Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the Occupiers got a stern but vague warning that camping at that spot was illegal and the Square would be cleared “at a time of our choosing.”
The time she chose and the manner of the clearing appear to have been highly successful, measured against cities like New York, Oakland and San Francisco, where the protesters were evicted forcefully, with mass arrests. Police and protesters in Baltimore both said no one was arrested during this morning’s raid.
At a groundbreaking ceremony this morning in Fells Point, Rawlings-Blake defended the police raid, saying, “We took a look at other parts of the country and we believe we had the right approach.”
The mayor said the eviction was not about Occupy’s message – “the message resonates with me and across the country,” she told reporters – but was a matter of keeping city property free of illegal overnight campers.
Calling McKeldin Square “a beautiful park,” she said: “We need to respect that park.”
“Past Tents” but is it Past Tense?
That’s not to say the Baltimore protesters left happily or even quietly.
“All my stuff is gone, they didn’t have to do that,” said Derrick Marshall, who said his backpack with clothes and medicine was taken.
A group of people remained to protest.
“Put away the riot gear, we don’t see a riot here,” a few stayed behind to chant, according to an account by the Baltimore Sun’s police reporters, apparently the only media at the scene during the raid.
So does the dispersal of the camping protesters mean the end of their protest? No, said Damien Nichols, who said he had spent weeks sleeping at the square but was not there last night.
He agreed that there have been fewer people sleeping there lately and that the group recently stopped holding nightly general assemblies.
“Yes, but the idea that it was winding down is true in perception only,” Nichols said. “There has been a great deal of activity online and in peoples’ living rooms. We are focusing on problems in the city and going into the community. There’s a lot more from us to come.”
– Simon Pollock contributed to this post.