Occupy Baltimore, but for how long?

Our view: Both the city and the protesters need to be willing to make reasonable compromises to balance public order and free speech

October 25, 2011

In Oakland, Calif., police swept into a public plaza being used by "Occupy" protesters early this morning and made dozens of arrests to break up two encampments near city hall. The mayor, Jean Quan, said the action was necessary because of ongoing vandalism, unsanitary conditions and problems in maintaining the safety of the protesters and others who passed through.

In Atlanta, Mayor Kasim Reed has announced plans to revoke an executive order allowing the demonstration to continue in a downtown park. Mr. Reed says the "nature of the relationship" between the city and protesters changed when they teamed up with promoters of a two-day hip-hop concert without plans for security or other logistics. Though the event went off without an incident, the city reportedly spent $100,000 on security.

In Baltimore, though, there have been no reports of clashes between the city and the protesters, nor any evidence that the encampment and demonstration on McKeldin Plaza near the Harborplace pavilions is disturbing anyone. City officials here have worked collaboratively with the protesters, but that hasn't prevented some tension from developing over exactly how long that relationship can last.

The protesters requested a permit from the city Department of Recreation and Parks to legally occupy the plaza, in its entirety and indefinitely. The department sought to engage the group in conversation about a set of conditions for the protest. Among the ideas the city suggested was to limit the protest to part of the park and restrict the overnight encampment to one tent with two people. Although those conditions were in a document labeled as a draft, they led to a somewhat hysterical response from the protesters: an entry posted on their website at 3:05 a.m., headlined in all caps, "CITY SETS DEADLINE FOR OCCUPY BALTIMORE DISPERSAL." In the light of day, they acknowledged that this was not the case.

A statement on the Occupy Baltimore website notes the unusual nature of what the protesters are doing — they have been on the plaza since Oct. 4 and have no intention of going anywhere — and that it doesn't fall within the usual bounds of the city's permitting process. The nature of the demonstration is no doubt somewhat unnerving to city officials. Because it lacks leaders or a defined agenda, there's no way to know how long it could go on; will the tents disappear as soon as winter comes, or, left alone, will they become a permanent fixture of the downtown landscape?

Baltimore doesn't allow camping on McKeldin Plaza, but this is a peaceful political protest, protected under the First Amendment, so the city faces a high bar to justify placing restrictions on it. It needs to make its case based on its interest in maintaining order and public safety, or to afford others free use of the space.

Fortunately, Baltimore appears to be using that rubric, and not a knee-jerk desire to regulate the protest, as the basis for its response. The city has set no deadlines and instead appears willing to engage in a dialogue about the best way to balance its legitimate concerns with the protesters' right to peaceful assembly. Rather than setting arbitrary limits, it should focus discussions on restrictions to prevent fire hazards, sanitation problems and other consequences of an extended protest, and to ensure that the encampment doesn't prevent others from using the square. Negotiations before the Baltimore Marathon — which ran right through the protest without incident — would serve as a good model.

Likewise, the protesters need to be willing to engage in good-faith dialogue about some limits on their desire to "create a vibrant, safe space that takes up as much of the square as possible so that they can continue to grow an organic infrastructure of democratic representation, arts [and] culture." The protesters have been treated with nothing but respect by the city, and they need to respond in kind. A good start would be a formal repudiation of a memo that circulated around the protest in its early days that effectively discouraged any victims of sexual assault at the demonstration from contacting the police. Not only was that a dangerous message for victims of sexual assault (not that there had been any evidence of it at the demonstration), but it fostered a broader us-vs.-them mentality about the Baltimore police that is in no way justified by the way protesters have been treated.

It's hard to know what may come of Occupy Baltimore, which, like its sibling protests in other cities, lacks clear goals or leadership. But it has avoided some of the problems that have dogged Occupy protests elsewhere — there have, for example, been no arrests associated with the Baltimore demonstration. People around the world are watching the Occupy protests with some skepticism about their maturity as a political movement. This negotiation with the city provides a small opportunity to counter that impression and set a positive example.

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