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“The Chief of Police Stepped On Me and Then He Charged Me With Rioting”: Activists Face Jail Time for Defending Homes

Fifteen Occupy Homes Minnesota organizers face up to two years in jail for peacefully linking arms outside a house when the police came to enforce a foreclosure.
 
 
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Police Chief Dolan steps on protesters on his way into the Cruz home. (Peter Leeman)
Photo Credit: Peter Leeman

 

The police came at four in the morning with a battering ram to the Cruz home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. And that was only one of the five eviction attempts required to finally claim the home for the banks.

“After we had been peacefully occupying this house for over a month without any incidents, then they come in with a battering ram and blame us for disturbing the peace,” said Nick Espinosa, one of the organizers with Occupy Homes Minnesota, which has taken the lead in saving local families from being put out on the street.

The battering ram was just adding insult to injury—the Cruz family was being evicted through no fault of their own, because PNC bank had made a mistake in processing their payments. The Occupy Homes crew moved into the house to try and defend it while the sheriff's department came once and then twice to evict.

“We had people who were locking down to concrete barrels and other devices to prevent them from evicting the house and we were mobilizing people to come and defend the house,” Espinosa said. Over the course of the five eviction attempts there were 26 arrests. The last time Espinosa was arrested along with 14 others and charged with rioting in the third degree, defined as “Violence or the threat of violence to people or property when more than three are gathered.”

They face up to two years in prison. Espinosa noted, “There are 15 people now facing riot charges who were arrested doing nonviolent civil disobedience, basically sitting down and linking arms on the front steps of a house.”

“The chief of police was there the night I was arrested. Four other officers stepped over us as we were sitting in front of the door,” he continued. “He stepped directly on top of us, on our shoulders and necks, to come into the house.” The previous day police had grabbed protesters by the neck to move them out of the way, and women activists complained of feeling sexually assaulted, having been groped by the police. “Somebody's hand went up one of my friends' shirts,” Espinosa said. One of the Cruzes' neighbors was arrested while standing on the sidewalk outside her house holding up a sign in support of Occupy Homes.

The battle to save the Cruz home is just one of many being fought by organizers around the country to stop the epidemic of foreclosures, many rooted in fraud or bank error – foreclosures that continue to shake the economy four years after the housing bubble burst. No high-level bankers, of course, have been charged with any crime for the systemic fraud and misconduct that led to the economy's near collapse; but peaceful community activists standing up for their neighbors face serious jail time.

“The city has the option to use their discretion about how they react to situations like this,” Espinosa said. “There are plenty of other crimes that they could be pursuing. They don't have to come and respond to that issue of people being in this house, that's technically trespassing.”

Evicted by Bank Error

“We had made the sheriffs very aware of the situation and said don't get involved in this, just let it be, we're working out a solution,” Espinosa explained.

PNC Bank, the mortgage lender, failed to process an online payment made by the Cruz family—and then demanded two months' worth to make up for it. The family couldn't come up with the money, and the bank moved to foreclose.

“We began working with a local nonprofit that was supposed to be working out a loan modification,” Alejandra Cruz explained in a blog post that accompanied a Change.org petition to save her family's home. The bank told the family they would work on a solution, but the family was served with an eviction notice anyway.

 
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