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10 Million Americans Have Had Their Homes Taken Away by the Banks -- Often at the Point of a Gun

Against all odds, and continued predatory Wall Street behavior, community activists are working to reclaim devastated neighborhoods.

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However, African American neighborhoods were targeted more aggressively than others for the sort of predatory loans that led to mass evictions after the economic meltdown of 2007-2008. At the height of the rapacious lending boom,  nearly 50% of all loans given to African American families were deemed “subprime.”  The New York Times  described these contracts as “a financial time-bomb.”

Over the last year and a half, I traveled through many of these neighborhoods, reporting on the grassroots movements of resistance to foreclosure and displacement that have been springing up in the wake of the explosion. These community efforts have proven creative, inspiring, and often effective -- but in too many cities and towns, the landscape that forms the backdrop to such a movement of hope is one of almost overwhelming destruction. Lots filled with “Cheap Bank-Owned!” trailers line highways. Cities hire contractors dubbed “Blackwater Bailiffs” to keep pace with the dizzying eviction rate.

In recent years, the foreclosure crisis has been turning many African American communities into conflict zones, torn between a market hell-bent on commodifying life itself and communities organizing to protect their neighborhoods. The more I ventured into such areas, the more I came to realize that the clash of values going on isn’t just theoretical or metaphorical.

“Internal displacement causes conflict,” explained J.R. Fleming, the chairman of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign. “And there’s no other country in the world that would force so much internal displacement and pretend that it’s something else.”

Evictions at Gunpoint 

It was three in the morning when at least a dozen police cruisers  pulled up to the single-story, green-shuttered house in the African American Atlanta suburb where Christine Frazer and her family lived. The precise number of sheriffs and deputies who arrived is disputed; the local radio station reported 25, while Frazer recalled seeing between 40 and 50.

A locksmith drilled off the home’s locks and dozens of officers burst into the house with flashlights and handguns.

“Who’s in the house?” they shouted. Aside from Frazer, a widow with a vocal devotion to the Man Above, there were three other residents: her 85-year-old mother, her adult daughter, and her four-year-old grandson. Things began to happen fast. Animal control rounded up the pets. Officers told the women to get dressed. Could she take a shower? Frazer asked. Imagine there’s a fire in your house, the officer replied.

“They came to my home like I was a drug dealer,” she  told reporters later. Over the next seven hours, the officers hauled out the entire contents of her home and cordoned off the street to prevent friends from helping her retrieve her things.

“I have no idea where some of my jewelry is, stuff I bought when I was 30 years old,” said Frazer. “I am sixty-three. They just threw everything everywhere, helter-skelter on the front lawn in the dark.”

The eviction-turned-raid sparked controversy across Atlanta when it occurred in the spring of 2012, in part because Frazer had a motion pending in federal court that should have stayed the eviction, and in part because she was an active participant of Occupy Homes Atlanta. But this type of militarized reaction is often the outcome when communities -- especially those of color -- organize to resist eviction.

When Nicole Shelton attempted to move back into her repossessed home in a picket-fence subdivision in North Carolina, the Raleigh police department  sent in more than a dozen police officers and an eight-person SWAT team. Officers were equipped with M5 submachine guns. A helicopter roared overhead. In Boston, one organizer with the community group City Life/Vida Urbana remembers the police acting so aggressively at an eviction blockade in a Haitian neighborhood that the grandmother of the family  had a heart attack right in the driveway.