Down on The Corner: The First Trip to Occupy Baltimore

“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.”

That is the statement printed on the back page of the “Occupy!” resource guide, which itself is a nine-page printable zine chronicling the “international occupation movement of 2011.” The guide is found on the OccupyBaltimore website, and the protest itself—located at the corner of Pratt and Light Streets near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor—was where Joe Soriero and I were Tuesday night beginning around 8:30.

I went seeking some semblance of an answer as to why roughly 150 people (by my unofficial count on Tuesday) are protesting. (I won’t speak for Joe, whom I wrangled into this because of his skill with video editing.) OccupyBaltimore’s Facebook page says they’re working to fight social inequality and economic injustice; I’m told that to ask for any sort of end goal is to betray my inability to understand a 21st-century protest, regardless of how many voices out there define this movement as being for one thing while consistently insisting that no definable objectives exist.

I didn’t find that answer. I found various—and sometimes competing—interpretations of an answer, but if I had to give a 30-second elevator pitch on the matter, I wouldn’t be able to. (Granted, I’m probably not supposed to be able to: after all, I’m not down in McKeldin Park every night.) The video clip below compiles some of that information together. It forms the first part of a weekly series Joe and I plan to host here until further notice. (As of Tuesday night, the protestors in McKeldin Park have had roughly $4,000 donated to them, of which $1,500 has been earmarked for food and about $400 has been set aside for weatherproofing their makeshift encampment.) This is just the introduction. Some of the pieces here will be more journalistic, while others will take an academic tone.

What I do have, for now, are some thoughts. These aren’t well developed or comprehensive in the least bit. As I continue to go down every week, I hope to gain a better understanding of not only what is going on in the Inner Harbor, but also how what is going on relates to the U.S. economy as a whole—why now are people suddenly so enraged about the economy, when it has been in a state of relative disarray since 2008?; have people protesting given up any hope of finding work, or is the idea of finding work tacit approval of an economic order they apparently abhor?; why protest corporate America on the streets instead of delivering the message at the polling booths? The video comes first. My thoughts follow.

Video by Joe Soriero

Thought One: If the movement can be summarized as a clash between distinct world orders, it’s identifying Globalization versus Localization as the battle of our time.

To condense the idea of globalization into a simplistic critique—it can be overwhelmingly destabilizing. As national economies become more complex, individuals who don’t have a direct say in the shaping of economic policy can feel like they have no control over the larger (mostly unnoticeable) forces that govern their daily lives. It’s detachment that wasn’t asked for. Asking to be able to make decisions without “politicians or bankers interfering with our lives” is essentially asking to be living in hyper-local cities—all of Baltimore’s food comes from Baltimore, and not from California; all of Baltimore’s energy comes from Baltimore, and not from oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico; and so on.

Insofar as this unsettling feeling of detachment is connected to any broader complaint regarding the state of the nation’s economy, protestors have reasonable, genuine, not unfounded qualms. (Take a look at Henry Blodget’s charts on Business Insider. He does far more justice to this than I ever could in a few pithy lines.) Moreover, in a nation where unemploymentreal unemployment, which includes those who are underemployed and those who have stopped looking for work—is trending toward 20 percent, people feel devalued. It’s an employer’s market, so to speak. For those with college degrees, your prospects look good (September’s unemployment rate was just 4.2 percent). But for others with no degree, or those who are older or have been unemployed for a long period of time, the outlook is bleak.

But to rail against globalization without any finesse or nuance is to ignore how specialization and consolidation have made products cheaper and standard of living better. Again, turn to Henry Blodget on Business Insider, whose line-by-line commentary on the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, while snarky, is spot on. Which brings me to my second thought…

Thought Two: Some of these protestor demands are solved with greater voter turnout, not with more people sleeping on concrete.

Since the protests began, I have seen cardboard signs making a variety of demands. Some of these demands—repeal the Patriot Act; end the Federal Reserve; no more bailouts for banks—are items linked directly to those we elect to our local, state, and national legislatures. The government implemented the Patriot Act and the Federal Reserve and the bank bailouts. Not corporate America. So why aren’t people marching on D.C.? Or, better yet, turning out to vote? In 2008, youth voter turnout rose to 51 percent. But read the fine print. That was in the presidential elections. In the 2010 mid-term elections—two years since the housing bubble burst and the subsequent economic downturn—just 24 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted. Which takes us to…

Thought Three: Good intentions do not always a good policy make. (Or, monetarily subsidizing ideas can actually create perverse incentives that engineer an undesirable end result.)

It’s time for this country to ask itself some uncomfortable questions. The first one we can tackle relates directly to the housing crisis of the past few years: can everybody in this country afford a home? If not, do we need to make it so that everybody in this country can afford a home? (We’re not talking about shelter, which we could all debate at length; we’re talking about a house with a mortgage.) This is not meant to absolve Wall Street and banks from dealing in mortgage-backed securities, effectively turning local banks into investment banking firms and pushing them to deviate from their role of advising to one of selling. But—and this relates back to Thought Two—if we don’t want the government picking winners and losers (i.e. we have to bail out banks that are “too big to fail”), then we need to have a conversation about what we think, precisely, the government is supposed to do for the people. (To all you libertarian-types out there: Yes, I know it’s called the Constitution.) Which means that, whether this movement is about that or not, specific ideas and solutions need to be discussed, since tearing down something without building something in its place probably isn’t the best option.

Thought Four: There are elements of the Occupy movement I can’t give any credence to, and that’s because of circular logic.

Douglas Rushkoff, if he were reading any of this blog, would tell me that I don’t get it. In an article for CNN, he says:

“Occupy Wall Street is meant more as a way of life that spreads through contagion, creates as many questions as it answers, aims to force a reconsideration of the way the nation does business and offers hope to those of us who previously felt alone in our belief that the current economic system is broken.”

And, from what I observed Tuesday night, he’s quite right. But there are individual arguments within the Occupy movement that don’t seem to make much sense. For starters, the idea of bringing together small communities of people to have conversations about what works for individual communities—and then taking that information to create a system that works for everyone. Doesn’t that run counter to any idea of having isolated conversations to come up with specific, community-based solutions? (And doesn’t that directly contradict the reason for some of this protesting—arguing against a purported cabal of corporate big-wigs who have decided upon the rules and imposed them upon everybody?)

Moreover—and since I’m a recent college graduate, this is something that made me scratch my head—students discussing the injustice of expensive student loans ought to take a step back, for a moment. If you’re a college undergraduate or graduate student protesting at these rallies, those loans you took out to attend school are now doing you no good: As you cut classes to protest the fact that you have to take out loans, you’re criticizing the very thing now financing your ability to cut classes and protest the fact that you have to take out loans. As one of my friends put it, “They’re protesting the people who are financing their protest for financing their protest.” While the movement itself isn’t as jejune as one-sentence zingers—Hey! Funny you’re protesting corporations while using your iPhones and MacBooks to tweet a revolution and stream it to your Facebook!—circular arguments devalue what could be integral parts of this movement’s aims (like searching for a way to come up with a more affordable system of higher education).

Thought Five: Real change comes from speaking to people with whom you disagree the most.