Downtown businesses — and even some Occupy Baltimore activists themselves — breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday that city officials cleared the encampment that the group had set up near the Inner Harbor as part of a national protest against income disparity.
"I think guests thought it was an eyesore," said Gail Smith-Howard, general manager of the nearby Hyatt Regency Hotel. "I think the city did the right thing."
The protesters vowed to find new ways to channel their message, with some saying that after 10 weeks of occupation, the tent city had started to outlive its usefulness. "You don't need to be at McKeldin Square," said Cullen Nawalkowsky, 35. "You don't keep hammering on a tactic when a tactic is producing diminishing returns. The physical occupation is just one part of the broader movement."
In a largely non-confrontational pre-dawn raid, police roused the roughly 40 people sleeping in tents on the triangular park on Pratt between Light and Calvert Streets and gave them 20 minutes to leave. City officials said 23 people accepted rides to homeless shelters, and crews moved the tents and other belongings to the Western Sanitation Yard near Cherry Hill.
Occupiers spent the rest of the day trying to re-group, holding several meetings to discuss their next steps, buying supplies for new signs and retrieving their belongings from the sanitation yard, where officials said they would be kept for a week.
There, Occupy members found their tents, chairs, coolers, books, folding tables, plastic tubs of signs and pieces of luggage in a storage building, out of the elements and away from items being dropped off at the yard for dumping. While some members complained they should have been notified sooner that their stuff was going to be removed, Jeff Brunell, 28, said that "by and large, it was handled with unexpected courtesy."
Like others, Brunell expressed optimism that the group would move on from the removal to a new and still undefined phase. "Everybody's looking forward to figuring out how to be engaged by the victories that we may have had so far and remain dynamic and effective as a force of social change," the Charles Village resident said. "Obviously there is a feeling of sadness. But I don't think anyone is considering this The End. An end, but not The End."
Meanwhile, some downtown interests said they were glad to see the ramshackle tents, table and tarps removed from the city's prime tourist attraction — especially because the raid didn't turn violent as it has in other cities, with police pepper-spraying and even shooting protesters.
"Both the city and the protesters should be commended on the way this was resolved," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, which represents businesses and residents in the city's central core. "It was a peaceful termination of the campsite."
Fowler was careful to avoid criticizing the group's role as part of a cause that has gained traction nationwide, highlighting the growing gap between the wealthiest 1 percent and the remaining 99 percent.
"I do think many in the downtown community were sympathetic to their message but questioned their tactics," Fowler said. "The campers were peaceful and accommodating, but the city could not allow neglect of its own park rules. McKeldin Plaza is meant for everyone to enjoy, and now we can get back to that."
The encampment, in a generally safe part of town and with a steady supply of donated food, had become as much a place for the homeless to gather as for activists to highlight the country's economic inequities.
With some of those homeless accepting rides to city shelters after the Tuesday morning raid, one nonprofit is hoping they'll continue to take advantage of such assistance.
"I applaud the city's approach, that they were not moved with no other place to stay," said Kevin Lindamood, executive director of Health Care for the Homeless, a nonprofit that had offered its assistance to those staying at McKeldin Square.
Area businesses had not publicly condemned the encampment in their midst, although they had noted that the ragtag gathering wasn't, as Fowler put it, "an attractive beacon for downtown Baltimore." But representatives of some businesses said they didn't believe they had lost customers because of the group.
"It really didn't impact our business at all, either positively or negatively," said Christopher Schardt, general manager of Harborplace & The Gallery, noting that the square is "basically a little island" in the middle of three heavily trafficked streets.
Still, with the Inner Harbor aglow in holiday lights, the Santa house open to the wishing business and the traditional New Year's Eve fireworks celebration on the horizon, Schardt said the city made the right decision at the right time.
"I think the timing was appropriate," he said.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Tuesday that the encampment was shut down "in a respectful way" with no one injured or arrested in the process.