The city has once again denied Occupy Baltimore's request for a permit that would formally sanction the 24/7 campsite the group has erected on McKeldin Square in the Inner Harbor. The protesters had wanted to have up to 300 people stay there until April. This development, for the protesters, is not such a bad thing.
The encampments here and elsewhere have gotten the public's attention, but they are also easy fodder for lampooning. For that matter, all the time and effort spent maintaining a campsite (and fighting for the right to stay there) could better be directed elsewhere. The enemy here is a radically skewed distribution of wealth and the dominance of moneyed special interests in our political system — not the Baltimore City Department of Parks and Recreation. The less time the protesters spend worrying about the literal “occupation” and the more they spend developing policy goals and strategies for achieving them, the better.
Moreover, the city is maintaining a respect for the protesters' First Amendment rights. Parks and Rec's response to the protesters' request indicates that they can use the square from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. daily and can have up to 150 people there, provided other groups have not already reserved the space. Plenty of protesting can be done in that time.
A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has suggested that, at some point, the city will clear the square. Fortunately, Baltimore has not experienced the violence and other problems that led to earlier evictions of Occupy protesters in Oakland, New York and elsewhere, so there has been no rush.
But the official line — that the city will remove the protesters at a time of its choosing — is a bit ominous. Some transparency is in order here. Officials in Los Angeles gave plenty of notice for their plan to clear the Occupy protest there, and they were able to conduct the operation without the tear gas, pepper spray and batons that police used in other cities. Philadelphia had similar success in clearing protesters there — the city gave plenty of notice, and only one protester was injured when a police horse stepped on her foot. If Baltimore does decide to clear its protest, it would do well to learn from those two cities.
Baltimore officials may worry that providing notice to the protesters will swell their ranks — a phenomenon that has occurred elsewhere — and make the square more difficult and dangerous to clear. There is that risk. However, catching the protesters unwaware will only increase tensions and make the mayor and police department, rather than the excesses of the financial sector, into the enemy. In the long run, it would cause more problems than it would solve.
But it would be better for all involved if it didn't come to that. Baltimore's Occupy protesters have an opportunity to do something their counterparts elsewhere have not managed, and that is to leave on their own terms. Some protesters may consider it a badge of honor to resist police and go to jail for the cause, but that’s unlikely to impress much of the non-occupying portion of the 99 percent. Better to leave with a plan for the next phase of their movement. That would accomplish much more than waiting around to get arrested.