Occupy Wall Street protests spread to Baltimore, other cities

Demonstrators plan to camp out in the Inner Harbor, joining similar rallies in Los Angeles and Washington

October 03, 2011|By Erik Maza and Jill Rosen, The Baltimore Sun

St. John's United Methodist Church, a centuries-old church on St. Paul Street, looked the way it does during its occasional rock concerts. Hundreds of people — some older than 40, some in their 20s — gathered there Sunday not for the music, or a prayer service, but to vent.

"Banks got bailed out," yelled Mike McGuire, one of the organizers of the meeting. "We got sold out," the crowd shouted back.

And just like that, the Occupy Wall Street movement that has brought throngs of young people to the streets of Manhattan arrived in Baltimore, the latest city — Los Angeles and Washington are among the others — to brace for occupations against corporate greed. Starting at noon Tuesday, protesters will stage a demonstration at McKeldin Square in theInner Harbor.

By Monday, more than 800 people had signed up on Facebook to attend the initial rally, with some planning on staying overnight for days.

Much as in New York, the occupiers know what they'll be rallying against, but to what end, they're still not sure. Not yet, anyway.

"Clearly, we don't have a specific set of goals," McGuire said. "The state of affairs is objectionable enough that we're leaving our houses in a serious and concerted way to express our discontent."

Occupy Wall Street was originally conceived three weeks ago as a sit-in smack in the middle of the moneyed streets of Manhattan's financial district, in full view of the dealers, traders and industry bigwigs against whom the protesters are taking aim.

The New York protesters have since moved to nearby Zuccotti Park, where participants have been dressing up in outrageous costumes, doing yoga, chanting and painting signs, looking, at times, more like young people at sleep-away camp.

"We had a drum circle that went on until 4 a.m.," said McGuire, a 38-year-old Baltimore carpenter who camped out on a cardboard box on the first Saturday of the New York protest.

Police arrested more than 700 of the New York protesters this weekend as they spilled onto the Brooklyn Bridge, blocking traffic. By Monday, most had been released.

Baltimore police were monitoring social media and news reports for updates on theInner Harbor protest, said spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. He said it wasn't clear if the protesters needed a permit. Police are only concerned that the protesters stay organized and don't disrupt traffic.

He declined to say how many officers would be deployed to the scene. "We will make sure we have resources in place so that it doesn't become a distraction."

In the weeks since Occupy Wall Street started, copycat movements have sprung up in front of City Hall in Los Angeles, in Boston's financial district and in Chicago, where they've staked out the Federal Reserve Bank.

In Baltimore, Tuesday's demonstration was set up in a matter of days and word about it traveled fast via social media. Last Thursday, discussion on a Google group that sympathized with the protests' values moved to Club Charles in Station North, said Nick Becker, a 30-year-old herbalist who was among the organizers.

"While I was there, I started the Twitter account and a Google group," he said. "Before I left, there were already 20 people following the account on Twitter." Within 24 hours, he had 100 followers.

On Sunday, more than 150 people sat at St. John's on second-hand couches and rusty folding chairs around a circle, where McGuire and three other facilitators paced. They called on people to raise their hands if they had experience with mass cooking, dealing with cops, dispensing of waste and other skills that might be useful in staging a protest. While an agenda was projected on the wall, participants were asked to snap their fingers and wave their hands to signal agreement.

The Washington Monument in Mount Vernon and the headquarters of the Baltimore Development Corporation were suggested as possibilities for staging the protest. But ultimately, the crowd settled on McKeldin Square, a concrete plaza at Pratt and Light Streets, for its visibility.

McGuire said organizers did not believe a permit was needed to gather overnight at the park. Organizers have been taken back by the speed by which the planned protest has gathered followers. By early Monday morning, about 300 people had RSVP'd the protest's event page on Facebook. By late afternoon, it had jumped to over 800, with new ones signing up by the minute.

"It was a group that assembled over the course of three days," McGuire said. "I've been in Baltimore since my birthday 38 years ago and working in social movements since 1989, and this is the first of its kind."

In Baltimore and in New York, academics are seeing small flickers of comparison between the rallies and the revolutionary demonstrations that inflamed the Middle East and North Africa earlier this year, said Jeff Larson, an assistant professor sociology at Towson University who studies social movements.

Both grew by successfully exploiting outlets like Facebook, Twitter and You Tube.

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