No Public Access

I wanted to write something about Occupy Baltimore, located in McKeldin Square, about two blocks from the Hilton, where I have been attending the ASA conference. I walked through McKeldin Square, notebook in hand, trying to watch, see, catch a vibe. A man seated on the sidewalk watched me walk in, walk by, walk around. His gaze left an impress—marking me, perhaps through my attire, as one of the countless tourist-cum-conference attendees who swirl around the inner harbor. I write under the sign of this “impress,” naming my desire to write as a symptom of something: a failure of recognition—I could not meet his eyes; an acknowledgment of complicity—I’m not staying at the Hilton, but the discount conference rate is $200 a night; a divide that is too convenient to call race because to name it as class renders matters difficult.

Unlike the density of Occupy DC as it joined labor activists to dedicate the MLK memorial, Occupy Baltimore is smaller, feels more dispersed, and is being mocked by the Baltimore Sun. It feels more threatened, more endangered. I could not stay much beyond the moment of impress, but wanted to bookmark at least one symbolic way we might understand “occupying” and “occupation.”

To reach McKeldin Square from the Convention Center or the Hilton, one must pass under the shadow of a massive building with a PNC logo, One East Pratt Street. One East Pratt Street houses KPMG Baltimore, and this from their website:

KPMG LLP, the U.S. audit, tax and advisory services firm, operates from 87 offices with more than 23,000 employees and partners throughout the U.S. Our purpose is to turn knowledge into value for the benefit of our clients, our people, and the capital markets.

What catches my eye as I walk past One East Pratt Street, crossing the street to get to McKeldin Square, is a sign:

No
Public
Access
No
Public
Restrooms

This is the first sign I see, posted on the windows facing the street, before I notice the name of the building or the particular offices housed in that section of the building: KPMG. The sign is repeated, visible, in other words, as one walks toward and away from McKeldin Square. Repetition, as my students tell me, is emphasis.

The signs are ordinary enough and probably existed before Occupy Baltimore took up residence. However, the presence of Occupy Baltimore has made the signs newly visible: one quickly realizes the distinction between KPMG’s “clients” and “our people” and “capital markets” and the “public.” Indeed, the “public,” the needy, bodily public, defined as people who want “access” and “restrooms” are positioned as antagonists against “our people” in KPMG’s vision of the world.

It’s early in the morning at McKeldin Square, not many people around, certainly not as many as will be here later in the afternoon.

A chess game has been set up—or had been set up. It’s now in checkmate—black takes white. Two empty chairs face each other, awaiting the next game. I am struck by what it means to play chess in public. More, I’m struck by these empty chairs gathered around a table to play a game. Tables can be vexed spaces, as Sara Ahmed argues, but they are also sites of possibility. Scenes of invitation.

It is far too easy and probably naïve to imagine that the juxtaposition of the “No Public Access” sign and the game table awaiting players suggests something profound about conceptions of space and publicness, about modes of occupying the world and creating space for others to occupy the world. But I want to risk the naiveté of such an interpretation: to mark the symbolic struggle at stake in Occupy Baltimore. This juxtaposition offers a powerful metaphor for imagining differently held conceptions of space and social responsibility and belonging.

The almost paranoid repetition of “No Public” by KPMG alerts us to the palpable ways the 99% occupy the world, understood as publics that are not part of “our people.” The open KPMG tab on my browser reads, “Cutting through Complexity.” Occupy Baltimore reminds us of the violence of this cutting—the slicing through and slicing up of the foreclosed public to create “our people.” Occupy Baltimore invites us to re-imagine and re-inhabit the complexity of being part of publics with unlimited access.

3 thoughts on “No Public Access

  1. All I can think of is how these “No Public Restrooms” signs are almost always in English only. Coming from Portland where lots of signage is also in Spanish and at times Russian and Vietnamese, it is intriguing to me that even here (as there in Baltimore) all you need to convey refusal of admittance is English. There is no loss in translation when the sign is telling you you can’t go in. I wonder what that says.

    (Here I think of my father who says that English is the language of bureaucratic cruelty. That if we all spoke Kiswahili as the language of business in Kenya, we’d be a little less corrupt, a little less willing to yank the world from right under the poor. I doubt it, but it’s a nice thought).

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