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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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The Shield and the Sword

Small groups of community organizers are shouldering the Herculean task of protecting such neighborhoods abandoned by the federal government.

“Look, if you want to take our home, it’s an act of war,” explains Losier, so his group’s response is, metaphorically, “the sword and the shield.” It’s a strategy he learned from the Boston anti-foreclosure group City Life/Vida Urbana. The shield represents the exceedingly modest legal protection afforded to people under a judicial system that assigns more rights to the banks than them -- and allows  no-guilt settlements for the powerful caught flagrantly breaking the law. (In the case of foreclosure crimes, see for example the  $335 million Bank of America discrimination settlement in 2011, the  $26 billion robo-signing settlement in 2012, and the  $8.5 billion settlement over wrongful foreclosures in 2013.)

The sword represents actions -- from petitions to eviction blockades -- aimed at stopping evictions and repairing neighborhoods. And yes, there is a life-size, fabricated sword-and-shield set at the City Life office in Boston.  First-time attendees of the group’s weekly meetings must hoist the sword over their heads and assert that they are willing to fight for their homes. “Then we will fight with you!” the rest of the group cheers.

Across the country, communities of color deploy these two strategies, and a third that could be called “the paintbrush”: creative tactics aimed at building something new amid the devastation. In Detroit and Philadelphia, neighborhoods are seeding community gardens in hundreds of vacant lots. In Boston, one set of community activists cleaned up their block and dumped the trash -- gathered from the front lawn of a foreclosed Bank of America-owned home -- on the doorstep of the regional bank president’s brownstone.

In Minnesota and California, grassroots political organizing pressured state legislatures to adopt the nation’s first two homeowner bills of rights. A Barclays  report later complained that “servicers have become significantly more cautious when carrying out foreclosure sales” as a result of the legislation. In Chicago, home liberation groups are rehabbing and occupying vacant properties, while anti-violence groups are intervening in the conflicts caused by poverty and mass displacement.

Both of the foreclosed Chicago houses that Thomas Turner and Erica Johnson described as being filled with feces, used condoms, and drugs are now clean, painted, and occupied. Turner even stenciled small purple birds on the walls of the one he worked on. But the continued scale of the crisis -- forgotten by a media more interested in  rising home values than eviction notices -- requires more than community rehab and tepid financial regulation. It demands that we question, and reimagine, a system of property ownership that has prevented large segments of the population from making real decisions about the communities in which they live.  And in case you’re thinking that this is a problem only for Black America, think again. As the  New York Times warnedin April, “The alchemists of Wall Street are at it again… reviving the same types of investments that many thought were gone for good.”

The question is whether, this time around, we’ll see their potion for what it is: poison that threatens to turn each of us, as W.E.B. Dubois wrote, into “an outcast and a stranger in my own house.”


Laura Gottesdiener is a journalist, social justice activist, and author of A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home,published this month by Zuccotti Park Press. She is an associate editor for Waging Nonviolence, and she has written for Rolling StoneMs. magazine, theArizona Republic, AlterNet, and other publications. This is her firstTomDispatch piece.  She lived and worked in the People’s Kitchen during the occupation of Zuccotti Park.