Baltimore officials kept close eye on Occupy
Emails shed light on city's response to protest
The Occupy Baltimore movement set up shop in McKeldin Square across from the Inner Harbor for most of the fall. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / October 25, 2011)
By mid-November, Rogers — whose $7 million annual income places him solidly in the top 1 percent — was apparently fed up.
"Is it legal to live/camp in a city park? There's a difference between freedom of speech and what I see every day!" Rogers wrote to Deputy Mayor Kaliope Parthemos before dawn one morning.
"We agree," wrote Parthemos, who oversees economic development. "Its what citys [sic] are struggling with all over the country with this movement (as you know)."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her administration have hewed close to talking points when publicly discussing the McKeldin Square protesters and have provided little insight into their strategy in handling the group. But City Hall emails show officials closely monitored the movement — here and elsewhere — and were barraged by correspondence from both supporters of the Occupy Baltimore movement and those who wanted the encampment cleared out.
Local and state officials have struggled with a response to the group's demonstrations. In the latest confrontation, Maryland State Police arrested six people Monday as they protested a planned juvenile jail in East Baltimore. That swift response, which came as protesters began to build an encampment on a fenced-off lot, was a marked contrast to the long occupation of the Inner Harbor park last year.
Police swept through the Inner Harbor encampment in the chilly pre-dawn hours of Dec. 13, evicting about two dozen people, but did not arrest anyone. Baltimore avoided the violent clashes between police and protesters that occurred in cities such as Oakland, Calif., and officials extended assistance to homeless members of the encampment.
Rogers was among a handful of business executives who lobbied for the protesters' eviction during their stay at the harbor, according to the emails — which span the period from Sept. 28 to Dec. 2 and were obtained through a Public Information Act request. Rogers declined through an aide to comment for this article.
Others, including union heads, religious groups and even some downtown business leaders, urged officials to be tolerant of the group. E-mails of support for the movement came from law students, college professors, and a Quaker organization. "Baltimore NEEDS this movement more than most cities," one Towson student wrote.
Gerard Gaeng, a partner at the law firm of Rosenberg, Martin and Greenberg, said in an Oct. 26 message that the protesters "bother no one and disrupt nothing. I have been proud that Baltimore has treated them well up til now, but am very disturbed at the threatened actions against the protesters."
Ultimately, officials cleared the group from the park shortly before the installation of an oversized menorah as part of the city's Hanukkah celebration.
For weeks, officials had fretted about how to handle the event — a parade of cars decorated with menorahs that culminates in a McKeldin Square ceremony.
"It was a great event for the Mayor (Mayor gets into a bucket truck and lights the giant menorah)," spokesman Ryan O'Doherty wrote to chief of staff Peter O'Malley on Oct. 27 about the previous year's celebration. "This is another potential issue related to the Occupy protests that will need to be resolved, preferably in a way that has no impact on this important cultural event."
In late November, an employee with the Department of Recreation and Parks, which has jurisdiction over McKeldin Square, noted that she had been advised not to mention the Hanukkah celebration to the protesters.
"I know at our last meeting, we were instructed not to make contact with Occupy about the upcoming Menorah event and that [the Office of Emergency Management] was going to work with police to clear the square," Fran Spero wrote to Deputy Mayor Christopher Thomaskutty on Nov. 30. "Is this still our plan of operation or do you want me to try to move the menorah lighting to West Shore Park?"
O'Doherty said in an interview that no single event prompted the eviction, but that city officials were trying to work to extend services to the homeless people who had begun living at the encampment. "When there was an appropriate amount of outreach done, we enforced the law," he said.
As the protest wore on, Rawlings-Blake said she supported the protesters' right to free speech, but that camping was prohibited in city parks. She consistently warned that the camp would be disbanded "at a time of our choosing."
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."