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Baltimore officials kept close eye on Occupy

Emails shed light on city's response to protest

January 17, 2012|By Justin Fenton and Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

Chris Lavoie, 30, a participant in the Occupy movement, said in an interview Tuesday that city officials seemed "very strategic" in their approach to the protest, trying to avoid any issues that might result in a viral video and taking time to learn from other cities. "There were weeks and weeks that went by where we were reaching out to the mayor and rec and parks, and we were really left in the dark for long periods of time."

The emails show that Rawlings-Blake's administration kept a close eye on the protesters, observing them through video feeds and photos, monitoring postings on message boards, Twitter and Facebook, and analyzing the actions of Occupy Wall Street affiliates in other cities. Some e-mails were redacted, completely or in part, with the city citing a broad "executive privilege."

Messages were traded with officials in other cities to share strategies, while city staffers appeared to express a mix of frustration and bemusement at the spectacle of the protest and the attention it received.

"Just got a call from [a representative of the Service Employees International Union] asking if there was anything he could do to broker some kind of deal or exchange with the Occupy crowd," chief of staff O'Malley wrote on Nov. 22. "I told him it would be great if he could get them to stop camping out there illegally."

After the local chapter of the AFL-CIO wrote a letter in support of the protesters, O'Doherty noted that the head of the powerful union group benefits from a city contract.

"Isnt ernie [sic] on the payroll," O'Doherty wrote of AFL-CIO president Ernie Grecco. A branch of the AFL-CIO runs a city career center, O'Doherty said in an e-mail.

But officials were also feeling pressure to clear McKeldin Square. Police said on Oct. 26 that they were getting complaints from businesses. "We are getting calls into the office from businesspeople trying to shut down Occupy Baltimore," wrote Steve Sharkey, an assistant to Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. "I'm not sure if it's coordinated or not."

A week after his first e-mail to Parthemos, Rogers drew a juxtaposition between his view of McKeldin Square and the New York park where police had cleared protesters. "Kaliope, every morning I get to watch the city trucks and workers out there cleaning up McKeldin fountain site," he wrote. "Yesterday I was in NYC watching downtown workers once again having lunch in Zuccoti Park …"

On Nov. 19, Andy Freeman, of Swirnow Capital Management Co., who lives in Harborview, wrote: "Can't we do what Mayor Bloomberg did in NY and get rid of the camp? The whole thing is pretty ridiculous."

City officials also notified an executive at Constellation Energy after learning that the protesters were going to march to the energy giant's offices. "Just making sure you are aware of this planned activity," Thomaskutty wrote to Milton R. Branson, Constellation's manager of local affairs, on Oct. 25.

Branson's response was redacted and city officials did not respond to repeated requests to explain the redaction of a private citizen's comments.

Officials said the city didn't incur any extra expenses for work related to the encampment. Lavoie said the protesters were pleased with that: "That's what everyone was hoping for — this wasn't meant to consume municipal resources or take public space away from the public," he said.

Fire officials were asked to visit twice a day to ensure there were no fire hazards, and an inspector with the CitiStat office on at least two occasions was sent to take photographs and forward them to top officials.

"We want to protect and support first amendment rights. But the camping, habitation (especially at night), erection of shelters, tents, encampments, etc… we can't and won't support," Robert Maloney, the city's chief of emergency management, wrote on Nov. 2. "Our message should remain consistent … All agencies should inspect as they see fit, note violations and document."

Homeless outreach workers, meanwhile, made frequent visits and discussed doing "everything we can to connect homeless people there to area shelters and our outreach/case management teams," according to the emails.

Some of the homeless men indicated that they were at the camp because of poor conditions at one facility. "At the very least, we can make sure that people know about the other shelters in the city," wrote Gabby Knighton, a homeless outreach worker, to her colleagues.

Rawlings-Blake's spokespeople were inundated with questions from local reporters as well as national media. Staffers were also watching what was being posted to social media and memos posted to Occupy Baltimore's Google message board.

At one point, her staff assembled a list of people who had sent messages to Rawlings-Blake's Twitter account, saying that some of them had been threatening. They compiled the messages and alerted police, the e-mails show.

Anxiety often ran high among organizers of the protest, who frequently posted on Facebook and Twitter that they feared they would be evicted. City officials knew otherwise.

"They think we are about to arrest them," spokesman Ian Brennan wrote on Nov. 21, forwarding a message posted to the group's Facebook page. When the group claimed police had been at the site placing markings on the ground in preparation for an eviction, O'Malley wrote to Thomaskutty: "Odd."

E-mails released by the city do not detail City Hall discussions over clearing McKeldin Square. Some e-mails were privileged, according to the city's response to the Public Information Act request, and O'Doherty said the city would not share communications that reveal police strategy.

So what finally led the city to clear the square on Dec. 13? On that, the e-mails are silent.





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