Baltimore may be a shrinking city but is 36 people enough to “occupy” it?
That’s about as big as the crowd at McKeldin Square got this afternoon for the first few hours of “Occupy Baltimore,” the local version of “Occupy Wall Street” that organizers hope will call attention to the malaise afflicting the nation’s economy and body politic.
“This is the outpost, the home base, we’re not going anywhere,” said Cullen Nawalkowsky, who is on the media committee of the group organizing Occupy Baltimore. He said people will be flowing in and out all day but declined to make any predictions about how many would sleep overnight in the spot.
The numbers were a surprise considering the groundswell of online support for the action.
There was a tip jar on the plaza, sleeping bags and a donation center which included a sign asking for blankets, pillows, ponchos, toothbrushes, toothpaste, feminine care, baby wipes and warm clothes. A helicopter circled the area around noon but seemed to leave after that. Police command center vehicles were parked here and there in the city (behind the Maryland Science Center, across the street from police headquarters on Fayette St.) well away from the protest itself.
Asked to characterize the visible police presence so far – a cluster of four or five uniformed officers standing on the perimeter – Nawalkowsky came up with “bemused.”
The protesters, meanwhile, were anything but bemused, as they held up signs to Pratt Street traffic or looked up from sign-painting projects to answer questions from the media.
Can’t make ends meet
“They’re bailing out banks and giving tax breaks to the rich and they’re making the rest of America, 99 percent of us, impoverished,” said Jared Gary, a cook at an Inner Harbor restaurant who said his workplace is a good illustration of the problems of the working poor.
In the eight years he’s been working Baltimore restaurant jobs, Gary said, he’s seen the customers slow down to a trickle – which means fewer tips and untenable incomes for workers.
“Even 30 hours a week is not enough,” he said. “For servers making $3.15, $3.20-an-hour, they just can’t make ends meet.”
But company higher-ups and shareholders are buffered from the economic downturn, he said: “they can make as much as they want as long as they keep their overhead low.”
For Lani Miller, whose sign read “a conservative is just a liberal who hasn’t gotten sick yet,” the high cost of health care was her top issue.
After a skull fracture in her 20s, Miller said, she had a lot of medical issues, including epilepsy. As a self-employed jewelry artist, she has to pay for her own health care “and it costs more than my mortgage.”
“It doesn’t seem like there’s much help for small businesses that are truly-small businesses,” she added.
“I do believe all the anger in America is starting to boil over,” Miller said, adding that conservatives and tea party people are reacting to the same problems nut coming up with the wrong solutions.
“They want less government. I want more efficient government, more helpful government, cleansed of the influence of special interests,” she said. “I want government to work for regular people and not big corporations.”
For Sharon Black, of the All People’s Congress, spelling out the problems comes easy. “It’s all the foreclosures, the way the banks have got al the money tied up, the terrible joblessness – 50 percent of the black youth in this city are unemployed – and yet we can spend trillions on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Black said she and her son planned to stay the night at McKeldin Square in a tent, with an air mattress, as she did in Wisconsin for the public workers’ protests in February.
“I just hope the young people tonight are quiet,” she said. “In Wisconsin they made a lot of noise at night with those drums.”