The Occupy movement used a narrative of we the people struggling against them the elite: 99% against 1%. This story began with the people coming to occupy Wall Street, the headquarters of the wealthy. Some demanded reform, calling on Washington to slow down New York’s unchecked financial activities. Others wanted to change the capitalist system itself. For them, occupying Wall Street highlighted a disastrous relationship between money and power. For many in both groups, it seemed that bankers had eclipsed politicians as public enemy number one.
Occupy Baltimore began with a similar narrative. About two hundred people, inspired by the Wall Street occupiers, arranged on short notice to meet in a church and create a plan. Since organizing had taken place through the internet, the great majority were computer literate. Most were young and college-educated. Many were relatively new to Baltimore city. These people—I among them—felt that they intuitively understood the reasons to reproduce the “Occupy” movement in Baltimore. We were so confident in our shared purpose that we decided to discuss where to occupy before we considered why. We charged through the meeting, not questioning the majority vote system that allowed us to move so quickly.
A few days later we had established “Occupy Baltimore” in McKeldin plaza, on the corner of Pratt & Light Streets in downtown Baltimore. The location was perfect. To the north, menacing skyscrapers with bank logos. To the east, the Inner Harbor: a tourist attraction that screams classism through its contrast with the rest of the city. Behind us, a boxy concrete structure served as a flexible backdrop. Although we had trouble listing our “goals”, we did craft a statement of purpose:
STATEMENT OF PURPOSE, 10/22/2011:
Through the transformation of this public space Occupy Baltimore is expressing solidarity with other Occupy Movements throughout the nation and the world who are forcing attention to the issues of political and economic injustice.
Our purpose is to open for all people a lasting, transparent, and honest Democracy organized in a consensus model. Our goals will be defined by that consensus of our General Assembly. We offer to the people what corporate privilege and political complacency in our nation has taken from them.
Now “We” had occupied a space dominated by the forces of evil, and we were ready to make a stand for Truth, Justice, and the People. We would offer what the corporations had taken away. But we soon found that we didn’t know who “We” were, let alone what we wanted to accomplish. Our struggle against injustice soon became complicated by a struggle over our own identity.
A little solidarity
What does it mean to protest Wall Street in the sort of city that would sue Wall Street for manipulating the London Interbank Offered Rate1 (LIBOR)?
Where the mayor is not particularly a beloved populist, but also probably not a member of the one percent?
On Wall Street, the police were aligned clearly with the interests of the banks and could be appropriately hated as part of a system of local and global oppression. People recognized that the police were economically ‘part of the 99%’, but everyone knew whose team they were on.
On Pratt Street, thing were a little different. First of all, the police weren’t handing out beatings or arrests. After recent legal controversies, McKeldin plaza has been designated a ‘free speech zone’, where protest is supposedly protected. The greatest police involvement in Occupy Baltimore came when residents of the camp called 911 themselves2.
Baltimore’s police force has a unique history, which includes at least one serious experiment in working class solidarity3.
Those who expected automatic friction with police were surprised when Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge #3, joined with other labor unions to endorse Occupy Baltimore in an open letter to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake4.
Some cops gave us the thumbs-up every now and then.
When the chips were down, the police did follow instructions to evict the camp. They arrived at 3:30AM dressed in riot gear and made sure that no people were left in the “free speech zone.” The legal status of the space and potential solidarity from the police lost out to orders—from local business executives as well as from a nationally coordinated action5.
These police were not willing to risk full-scale disobedience. Neither were we: no one stuck around to get arrested. Perhaps a crucial moment was delayed that night. Unfortunately, it is telling and undeniable that Baltimore Police continue to support and perpetrate systemic violence against the city’s Black population, with a number of police killings in 2012 attracting media attention and direct responses from local activists6.
“Ten minutes for race stuff”
I spoke to Francine, the dynamo behind our Anti-Oppression Committee, about some of the major fractures within Occupy Baltimore. Francine is a 41-year-old Black lesbian feminist woman who was excited to discover, in October, that Baltimore had created its own Occupy space. When she arrived operations were in full swing, and she did a lot of listening and thinking before jumping in. She connected with the Safer Spaces working group, which formed amidst concerns that women were being sexually harassed on site. The more she listened and observed the camp, the more she “heard folks saying ‘we are the 99%’ but doing a hell of a lot of marginalizing of the 99% within this structure.”
The “sexual harassment” question came to an impasse at several general assemblies. Not because the group could not agree how to address the problem, but because the group could not agree to address the problem at all. “I feel like, again, what I witnessed was what always happens: that the dominant voices, the dominant opinions in the group, around trying to make Occupy work, made decisions about what they felt were the important issues. And women’s issues and safety issues of women were not deemed important. And women had to fight, as always, to be heard about their valid anger and concern.” Although the group officially used a consensus process, the wishes of many members were not respected. The “sexual harassment issue” was dropped and the GA moved on, alienating many people who wanted to participate in the movement.7
Francine saw that people were working on issues of inequality within the group, but increasingly found these efforts ineffective and even misguided:
I’m just going to be honest about what I saw. I saw this flier for a race and gender equity rally, something like that, with no agenda on it. And I’m thinking to myself: ‘Why would I want to go to that? What does that mean? There’s no compelling reason for me to even look at this piece of paper, it says nothing to me.’ I was also at a general assembly meeting around that same time where a young white women, at the announcements portion, said, well, we want to have ten minutes to talk about… I think it was… ‘race stuff’…yeah… and I was like, ‘ten minutes?’
Working through an online forum, Francine transformed the Safer Spaces group into the Anti-Oppression Committee, which held autonomous meetings at McKeldin on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Anti-Oppression Committee launched a number of workshops and created guidelines for facilitation friendly to people with disabilities. Francine’s workshop, “Missing Voices in the Occupy Movement”, was well attended. The problem, she says, was that attendees were all people from outside the camp who were interested in anti-oppression. Regulars at the camp and in the general assemblies still seemed to be ignoring issues that, in her view, had to be addressed before the movement could consider challenging inequality on a larger scale.
For Francine, “the straw that broke the camel’s back was around accommodation, accessibility for people with disabilities. Folks that were from this bad-ass, kick-ass social justice organization called ADAPT—it’s been around for decades—were part of both the committee and the general assemblies.”8
ADAPT was a model for what Occupy could become: “Here’s an organization that’s been going for decades, literally in the streets blocking buses that aren’t accommodating to their wheelchairs—So if I can’t get on that bus and go somewhere, you’re not going anywhere at all—And getting arrested!” Yet Occupy Baltimore treated ambassadors from ADAPT like they were invisible. Soon after McKeldin plaza was evacuated, a General Assembly was held in an inaccessible church. Francine split from the organization.
“We are not a homeless shelter”
Perhaps the greatest identity crisis facing Occupy Baltimore involved people without homes: mostly Black people, living on the streets of Baltimore, who gravitated towards the Occupy camp in McKeldin. “The homeless” quickly became a large part of the camp, creating a major challenge to the group identity that had coalesced over email. Indeed, the digital divide became so pronounced so quickly that there seemed to be two versions of Occupy Baltimore. One was the chaotic—sometimes wonderful, sometimes dangerous, always fascinating—reality on the bricks near Pratt Street; the other was an online forum filled with some of Baltimore’s most brilliant and caring people. These groups operated independently, except when they met during General Assembly to annoy and confuse each other.
Francine has the story: I’d say it was 15 or 20, Black and White, women and men—more men—we sat down and had this open-ended conversation, which was going really well, just talking—until one white man, who was an overnight activist, said that thing, that thing: “we are not a homeless shelter.” To his right, to his left, sitting as close as we are, were folks who were homeless. And Black. And White. And homeless. One Black man who was homeless stood up and started having issues with very loud, angry, objections, in his face, about this. So they’re standing up now. I also stood up, in between the two of them—don’t know what I was thinking!—and I said to the White man: “you cannot say that again. You cannot say that. ‘We are not a homeless shelter’… there is this tent, and there are people staying in it, and it’s a shelter. We are doing this.”
The exclusion of homeless people from human society is painful enough when it is performed continually, day in, day out, in the center of every American society. When it is done during the forum of a group organized to resist the excesses of capitalism—the irony is heartbreaking.
But Occupy did contain the seeds of transformation. A young occupier named Marcus said: “I’d wake up in the middle of the night and see a bunch of homeless people taking our shit. But then I thought—who is them and who is us? How do you define who needs what? Who’s homeless, who’s for the movement, and who’s just here?”9
These questions really did provoke people to question their assumptions about homeless people, and to honestly explore new visions for how we might all live together. While there were many conflicts like the one Francine experienced, there were also many beautiful moments of learning and sharing.
Facing privilege and contradiction
After the eviction, the departure of Francine, and the end of the Anti-Oppression Committee, “Occupy Baltimore” went digital once again. The General Assembly was held at different locations across town. Even web users had trouble following along. Gradually enthusiasm for these meetings dwindled.
Francine says she’s not surprised by what happened at the camp. Indeed, she criticizes utopian delusions of a perfect campsite, fully egalitarian on the inside and needing only to bring down those big banks on the outside. This attitude actually stalled the difficult dialogues and encounters necessary for social transformation. Instead, she says, we can see Occupy as a beautiful but contradictory manifestation of humanity in America, year 2011.
If the folks involved in what it was were not capable of making it better, there’s nothing that can be done. It just was what it was. If we were to start it up again and try to do it, there might be some shifts. But I know, because this is human nature—well, it’s not human nature. That’s a lie, I misspoke. That is privilege. Unless you do this work on yourself, your privilege seeks to preserve itself.
We live in a society that is violent and cruel on many levels. This violence happens everyday even and especially when it feels like nothing is happening. Occupy sought to provoke and destabilize the existing economic order, and it may have done so. But even as it fails, falls apart, starts fights with itself—it succeeds in provoking and destabilizing those comfortable barriers that separate us from each other. The worst way for us to respond is to pretend, in the name of some massive fictitious left-wing coalition, that these barriers do not exist.
Who “We” Are, 2012
On September 11, 2012, a four-person General Assembly approved, by consensus, the following revised statement of purpose:
Through the transformation of public spaces, Occupy Baltimore is expressing solidarity with other Occupy Movements throughout the nation and the world who are forcing attention to the issues of economic, political and social injustice.
Our purpose is to open for all people a lasting, transparent, and honest democracy organized in a consensus model. Our goals will be defined by that consensus of our General Assembly. We want back what corporate privilege and political complacency in our nation has taken from us.
Leo stayed at Occupy Baltimore from open (October 4) to close (December 13), sleeping in a lovely shelter constructed by a homeless man. He has also been active with the group since eviction. He is proud of helping to prepare food, MC-ing a “people’s soapbox” before general assemblies, and marching with Ethiopian demonstrators at the G8.
more in-depth and perhaps optimistic look at homelessness at Occupy Baltimore. “Will Occupy take hold of the transformative side of homelessness? Will the movement acknowledge that people do become homeless, and will even if the economy improves? Will allies with houses recognize not only the humanity of the homeless, but also the unique potential of this community? The movement is open to everyone—that’s one of its most basic principles. The Occupy movement will need to come to a consensus on how it will relate to and, ideally, include the homeless population in their efforts. With the dedication of our energy and our spirit to the goal of transformation, we can achieve a new way of living together.” [↩]