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The Nose

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Posted 9/26/2001

It's been two weeks since Sept. 11, and little by little the terrorist attacks' toll on Baltimore is making itself known in the most mundane ways. The UPS driver who makes deliveries to City Paper tells us that a seniors apartment building in Mount Vernon is not taking deliveries for "security reasons." And after delivering a couple of packages from the United Arab Emirates to a man named "Mohammad" at an address where Arab tenants frequently come and go, the driver tells us, he himself felt a little uneasy. His supervisor has punted responsibility for package safety to the U.S. Customs Service, but still, he says, the uncertainty nagged at him.

But it's not just fear of bombs and folks with foreign names raising eyebrows about town; amid the growing tide of general suspicion, one of Baltimore's boldest activist groups is rethinking how to do business. The local office of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, aka ACORN--a group known for storming office buildings and corporate executives' well-coifed lawns with placard-waving people done wrong--is trying to figure out how to shake folks out of their comfort zones and preach social justice sans its trademark "militant" tactics.

"There's no question that we nonviolent activists--whether it's ACORN or unions or other community groups--we're now going to have to be superconscious about security," local ACORN organizer Mitchell Klein says. "You don't want to freak people out because they're nervous about [other people] bringing bombs into a building or something."

ACORN, together with the Baltimore-based Coalition Against Global Exploitation (CAGE), had planned to occupy the lobby of the downtown offices of CitiFinancial on Sept. 21 to protest public funding of a garage for the financial-services behemoth, which the activists link to predatory-lending practices that target poor and working-class Baltimoreans (The Nose, Aug. 29). But in the wake of the World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks, the protest was scrapped. Instead, ACORN and CAGE staged a "citizen's lobby day" at City Hall to talk up its allegations against CitiFinancial and talk down the garage plan.

"We're still going on with our work, we're just being conscious," Klein says. "We're not in the business of scaring people physically, we're in the business of pointing out injustices. But you don't have to be an activist to be conscious of that right now. I mean, the UPS guy is conscious about that. You walk into a building with a big box . . ."

Klein reckons ACORN will eventually return to its old ways, but at the moment, he says, cooperative, subdued actions are more appropriate. Not everyone is following the same cautious tack, though. The same day the community group lobbied City Council members on predatory lending, representatives from three unions staged a sit-in at the downtown Wyndham Hotel in support of hotel workers' right to unionize. During the dinner rush at Shula's Steak house, they occupied tables and ordered nothing but coffee, juice, and milk to "pick [the hotel's] pocket of their dinner revenue," says one organizer with the Office of Professional Employees International Union Local 2. The organizer says union officials considered tabling the action in the wake of the terrorist attacks but decided they needed to keep the momentum of their 15-month campaign against the hotel rolling.

Klein, meanwhile, maintains it's a new day for activism, and not just out of concern for security. Groups like ACORN were already having to work harder to capture the attention of a jaded public; now, he says, "people are all talking about [terrorism]. I think it will diminish local issues, and in some ways it will drive local issues." And with the country girding for war, government, even locally, has "solidified power," Klein adds--and criticism of it is widely viewed as a distraction, if not out-and-out disloyalty. Therein may lie local activists' biggest challenge of all.

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