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Occupy Homes: Will Taking the Fight to Foreclosed Houses Unleash More Police Violence?

Some worry that camping on private property may invite more extreme police attacks.
 
 
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A couple of days after the Occupy Portland encampment was busted up by police, 15 occupiers took over a vacant, foreclosed home owned by Bank of America. "We have occupied a bank-owned house in the northeast suitable to house 30 to 40 people (and encourage others to do the same)" they wrote on a flyer left at the house. 

Bank of America, the Portland police department and the homeowners of nearby condos were not pleased by the occupiers' experiment in egalitarian living and on Friday, police battered down the door, kicking the occupiers out and throwing two in jail, the Oregonian reported.

Other cities also haven't taken it well when occupiers set up camp on private property. Two weeks ago, police armed with assault rifles stormed into an abandoned car dealership in Chapel Hill, North Carolina to arrest protesters who'd taken over the vacant property. "We had breaking and entering of private property downtown. The government has to respond, " the mayor said in a press conference the next day, unapologetic about the use of military firearms to subdue a handful of unarmed protestors. 

Occupy Homes

After a coordinated national crackdown that dispersed occupations from the public parks and plazas of Portland, Denver, Oakland and New York, occupiers have floated the idea to camp on private space, confronting banks and mortgage servicers at ground zero of their disastrous policies: the foreclosed home. 

One tactic is to occupy the home of a family facing eviction, in the hopes that media attention will encourage the bank to rethink whether the homeowners have exhausted their options after all. Another, more radical action is to take over a vacant property, co-opting it for use by a family that's already homeless (or by occupiers).

There's a clear difference between the two tactics, but both confront big banks and mortgage servicers' virtually unchecked exploitation of struggling homeowners, through such shady, or outright illegal practices as pushing foreclosures based on shoddy or falsified paperwork; robosigning; kicking people out of their homes when they are eligible to refinance; starting foreclosure proceedings after just one late payment; and capping it all off by letting foreclosed homes sit vacant and fall apart. 

Occupations around the country are already holding actions to aid homeowners threatened with foreclosure, using their bodies -- and the TV news vans Occupy actions attract -- to pressure banks into negotiations. 

Rose Guidel fell just two weeks behind on her payments after a family member who was helping out financially was shot and killed. Despite being served with an eviction notice in September, she's still in her home, thanks in part to a series of protests that grew larger as members of Occupy LA joined in. 

After getting kicked out of Woodruff Park, Occupy Atlanta relocated to the lawn of a police officer who thought his family would be evicted within days. The family ended up leaving the house following threats by the local sheriff that they could be arrested for being accessories to trespassing, the occupiers claimed.

In Ohio, a single mother expecting eviction papers contacted Occupy Cleveland through Twitter, prompting the group to set up tents and stage a sit-in at her house. The action earned her a 30-day extension, which she tells the Cleveland Plain Dealer helped her secure a rental for herself and her two kids.

Right now, members of Occupy Minneapolis live on the lawn and in the home of Monique White, a mother of two who lost her job when her nonprofit employer was hit with budget cuts. When her part-time job at a liquor store couldn't cover her payments, US Bank moved to foreclose, even though White says she was eligible for a program helping laid-off homeowners stave off foreclosure.

"They gave me the runaround," White told AlterNet, claiming the bank often lost her paperwork. 

"You want to put somebody out of their home after nine years during the holidays? I don't have anywhere to go," White said. "I'm tied to the community, not willing to give up my home. It's not right."

White, who expected to be served with eviction papers already, says she's heard nothing from US Bank since the occupiers moved in. "In this case, no news is good news," she said, certain that the media attention brought by the action has made the bank more amenable to looking into options besides foreclosure. 

According to Nick Espinosa, who has been involved in the action with Occupy MN, US Bank PR people have gotten in touch with protestors to ask what their demands are. Espinosa encourages other occupations to reach out to families getting kicked out of their homes.

"It's an incredibly important tactic that connects Wall Street to Main Street, engaging communities that may not yet have found Occupy movements to be relevant to them." He continues, "It's connecting communities of color, and those most affected to economic power -- helping forge a resistance to the banks exploiting them." 

He also says the Occupy MN protesters are willing to face off with police to keep people in their homes. "I think at this point it's up to US bank if they want to push it in that direction. There are people prepared to defend it and get arrested, but hope it doesn't come to that."

Twitter user thexclass, who administers "Occupy Homes" on Twitter and helps homeowners in trouble connect to occupations in their areas, explains the thinking behind occupying homes. "The battle will be fought exactly where it should. The illegally foreclosed home is ground zero of this crisis, right?" thxclass tells AlterNet. "There is clear right/wrong in the fight against eviction without due process ... All we're seeking is due process for those about to lose their homes. I think that's the heart of OWS."

'Liberating Property'

While thexclass is focused on illuminating foreclosure abuses and helping families that are about to be evicted, other groups are expanding their actions to include taking over vacant properties and refurbishing them to move people in. 

Organizing for Occupation (O4O), a group started in the Spring that helped forestall the eviction of an 82-year-old New York woman this August, has plans to start occupying empty properties. (Although the group is separate from OWS, there's growing overlap between the two -- many members have taken part in OWS,  while many occupiers are eager to join in their actions, according to Karen Gargemelli, a member of the organization's media team.)

Gargamelli says the group's "intake" team is already reviewing homeless applicants to place in vacant properties.

"There's more vacant spaces than people in the shelter system in New York." says Gargamelli. "Why are we shoving people in these dangerous, unhealthy shelters, when we can put them into apartments?"

If occupying vacant, private property runs afoul of the law, it only shows how wrong those laws are. "The foreclosure crisis showed there are no rules or regulations when it comes to what landlords and banks can do," Gargamelli says. "We're living in a state of chaos."

Their efforts dovetail with other groups like Viva Urbana in Boston and Take Back the Land, whose philosophy can basically be summed up as: People without homes need homes more than banks need homes.

Take Back the Land lists the following principles at the root of its philosophy: "1) housing is a human right; 2) local community control of land and housing; 3) leadership by impacted communities, particularly low income women of color; 4) direct action oriented campaigns." 

Max Rameau, who helped found the group, tells AlterNet it's the banks that are occupying homes, while groups like TBL "liberate them for use by human beings." The group brings lots of bodies to its actions, says Rameau, so "police have difficult decisions to make. What are they willing to do on camera?"

Protesters affiliated with the group take over a piece of property, refurbish it and move a family in. Their efforts are usually met with support by neighbors, says Rameau. Or they'll rally protesters to come to the aid of someone about to get kicked out of their home, forming human chains to keep out the sheriff's deputies charged with carrying out the eviction. 

The group has been successful in getting speedy foreclosures and evictions a second look. They help elderly people who may have been preyed upon by the big banks, raising hell on their lawns until the media show up. If enough media attention lands on the case, a local politician will occasionally get involved and personally oversee negotiations between residents and banks. 

Rameau says that although the actions often lead to arrests, police are generally mindful of the optics of manhandling octogenarians in the age of cell phone cameras. However, he believes that if the tactics of "occupying" property continue to grow, in part thanks to actions taken by the Occupy movement, we'd likely see more extreme efforts by law enforcement to shut them down.

"We expect as we take back land, and it grows in number and size, and the impact on banks becomes bigger ... the finance industry to push the government to crack down." The government, he argues, is likely to oblige. "We are fully expecting a crackdown to come."

Tana Ganeva is AlterNet's managing editor. Follow her on Twitter or email her at tana@alternet.org.
 
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