Occupy Baltimore: It’s Working

Posted: November 1, 2011 in Uncategorized

It’s business as usual for those who occupy Baltimore and for Occupy Baltimore.  Mayor Stephanie Rawlings’ growing impatience with the protestors who insist on camping out in McKeldin Square may be truly founded upon legal interpretations of the First Amendment right to speech, but it’s hard not to suspect that Occupy Baltimore is simply bad for business.

In a city hitched to the tourism, image is everything.  And except for some unfortunate incidents last summer, the Inner Harbor of Baltimore has always projected an image of order, safety, and relative cleanliness.

But no one can deny that McKedlin Sqaure, which operates as the Inner Harbor foyer, looks a bit untidy with the multi-colored tents, tarps, cardboard, and placards of Occupy Baltimore.  And while Rawlings spoke of allowing free speech “during the day” in McKeldin, her Parks and Recreation Department advanced a proposal that belied the city’s concern about tidiness.

The Parks Department offered its own, uniform colored tents for the protesters to use during the day, replacing the sagging collection of tarps that have sheltered Occupy’s media, food, and medical areas.  Parks also was willing to allow one occupier to stay overnight in a single tent—presumably provided by the city.  Other instructions by the city related to vacating the square for other scheduled events, and limited Occupy’s sprawl to a designated section of the public square.
If camping is not free speech, why is the City even offering a single occupier the opportunity to continue camping in McKeldin?  Presumably, the city’s offer to allow one nightly tent recognizes that the Occupy movement involves occupation, and that the occupation is speech.  The fact that Rawlings is willing to allow a little speech, but not a lot, again points to her concern about Baltimore’s image and its businesses.

There is no denying that the Occupy movement is antithetical to business—particularly the domination of government by an upper class of citizens and entities that appear capable of making even democracy a commodity to be purchased.

Cash strapped local governments like Baltimore sacrifice to the business gods daily, hoping that commerce will boast tax coffers, wages, and property value.  Worse, cities that rely on tourism need to vigilantly monitor and keep up with other tourist cities that compete for conventioneers and visitors.

The fact that Washington, New York, Philadelphia and Boston have their own Occupy sites is irrelevant for convention analysis.  Those are “first tier” convention cities.  Baltimore is second tier—at least according to the Greater Baltimore Committee which is currently pushing a a convention center expansion that would elevate the City’s ranking.

Even more relevant is that a rag tag tent rant against greed and inequality hardly encourages visitors to open up their wallets when they pass through McKeldin to get to the restaurants and stores that ring the Inner Harbor promenade.

Distractions from the real business of the Inner Harbor is, perhaps, is a prime reason the City historically has limited protests and leafleting in the area, which is a public park.  As a veteran of marches and protests to bring visibility to persons who were homeless or employees exploited by Inner Harbor restaurants, I’ve had many opportunities to witness these limitations first hand.  As an attorney, I was hard pressed to explain to protestors why the 1st Amendment right to speech was “different” in the Inner Harbor compared to other City public places. All of us who have labored under these restrictions look forward to the still-undisclosed changes promised by the City as a result of a 2003 lawsuit brought the anti-war protesting “Women in Black.”

But Under Armour didn’t need a lawsuit when it wanted to emblaze its logo on the slopes of the City’s Federal Hill park last year.  The same City Parks department that is now seeking to limit Occupy Baltimore, appeared then to welcome the message that the city houses professional football’s primary supplier of athletic merchandise.  The corporate logo was communication that was consistent with commerce; this political protest is not.

In the 1990s, a group of persons without housing constructed shanties in Henrietta Szold Park on East Baltimore St. near the McKim Center.  They lived for weeks without complaint from the city, and police officers often stopped at the park to drop off blankets and coffee.  Then suddenly, with no warning, the police chased the homeless out of the park in an early morning raid, and city public works employees carted away the shanties and the personal property therein.  As homeless advocates like me attempted to recover the property, we learned why the city’s attitude had changed: a nearby bank had finally lost patience and complained to the city about the shanty town and its impact on customers.  With one business complaint, a social issue became a criminal one.

Last week,  The Economist, become the latest mainstream publication questioning the purpose of the Occupy  movement, opining that the New York City protestors have had little effect on Wall St. financiers and the corporate business interests they represent.

Ironically, the tent flap in Baltimore means Occupy Baltimore already has outdone Occupy Wall St.   If city officials are concerned about a camp-out that looks no worse than its 16,000 abandoned houses or the roughly 4,000 homeless wanderers that mark its landscape, you can be sure it’s getting under the skin of Baltimore businesses.

-peter sabonis 11/1/11

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