A Spark in Baltimore

The Occupy Wall Street movement has set fire (metaphorically) to Manhattan, the central hub of the financial institutions responsible for the 2008 economic meltdown and its vicious aftermath. Four days after the “Battle of Brooklyn Bridge” when 700 people were arrested en masse by the NYPD, “an estimated 15,000 protesters brought Lower Manhattan to a standstill” on Wednesday, the Guardian (UK) reported. Across the country, others are striking matches, with hopes of engulfing the poles of corporate dominance in flames. 

In Baltimore, a spark has been lit. After several “general assembly” meetings held at 2640, the participatory body decided to occupy McKeldin Square, a concrete slab at the corner of the city's monument to economic inequality, the Inner Harbor. 

When I arrived at the encampment Tuesday evening, I quickly learned that at this point Occupy Baltimore is less concerned with preaching and more focused on exploration, discovery, and building. Up to 250 citizens, most under the age of 30, were participating in another general assembly meeting where they were figuring out their collective needs, purpose, and aspirations and deciding how to meet them. 

In this way, the movement is different from more accustomed modes of activism, where groups and organizations formulate specific demands, packaged in tidy sound bites, before taking to the streets and internet. Unsurprisingly, the local press has reflexively criticized Occupy Baltimore for its “amorphous” agenda, while overlooking the most attractive aspect of the action for many participants: its democratic and participatory character. 

Miguel S., a former Hopkins student and ten year Baltimore resident with no political affiliations, was attracted to the idea of reviving what he considers a lost tradition in American society, “democracy by process of community.” 

In response to criticisms about lack of specific goals, Mike McGuire, a thirty-nine year old unemployed carpenter from Baltimore, said “The message is in what we're doing . . . . We're practicing popular democracy in the public square and people get it.” 

Public support for the occupants was evident. Cars and trucks beeped their horns in support, as many passer-by stopped to ask questions and take pictures of the signs displayed around the encampment, some of which read “We are the 99%,” “We the People, Not the Corporate State,” and “Did you vote for your local CEO?” 

The messages on the signs and the decision-making process themselves reflect well the indignation driving the action and its local appeal. As McGuire explained to me, taking over the square symbolizes citizens “reclaiming our power after the rich have over-reached in their hoarding of wealth and power.” 

Another participant was quoted saying, “They say we don't know what we want, but here we are making our decisions without bankers . . . [or] politicians intervening in our lives. This is what we want.” 

The corporate domination of economic and political life in U.S. society is of course nothing new. What most Americans correctly perceive as a truism – that money dominates U.S. political institutions – has long been supported by scholarship, such as Thomas Ferguson's “investment theory of politics” that was detailed in his seminal study, Golden Rule

The assault on political democracy has gained ground in recent years. Corporate elites were handed a gift in 2010 when the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission broke with long-standing legal precedent and removed the meager restrictions on corporate financing of elections, further solidifying political servitude on the basis of wealth and power as opposed to popular will. 

A natural consequence of money-dominated politics is a principle of national policy that is all too familiar: profits of economic activity are privatized, whereas the risks and costs are socialized. 

Case in point: The financial institutions responsible for the 2008 economic crisis received massive tax-payer bailouts with few strings attached, while citizens have been subject to the harsh realities of market forces, such as the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, the same financial institutions, which have made record profits since 2008, have rallied their political servants to protect their low tax rates and dismantle regulations. One tactic has been to distract public attention from the underlying causes of unemployment through scapegoating, for instance, blaming public employees and their unions for the nations' economic woes. 

In de-industrialized zones like Baltimore, this vicious cycle has had the most punishing effects. Out of all jurisdictions in Maryland, Baltimore city has the highest unemployment rate. Last month, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that about one in four Baltimore residents is living in poverty, a one-year increase of over 20 percent. These conditions are consequences of a city in crisis before the crisis. 

Commenting on the poverty rate, Susan J. Roll, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, told the Baltimore Sun, “The poor are everywhere. They're not just people living in shelters. They're the person who poured your coffee. … They're cleaning your office when you're not there.” 

This situation has the potential to ignite. And if Occupy Baltimore can connect with the suffering masses in Baltimore, draw them into their participatory experiment, and together transform their suffering and indignation into collective action, this city will catch fire, too. 

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