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Occupy Our Homes: From the Streets to Foreclosed Homes, OWS Finds a New Frontier

As occupiers prepare to take over foreclosed homes, an exciting new phase of action on behalf of the 99 percent begins.
 
 
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An eviction team carries out a family's belongings during a foreclosure eviction in Adams County, Colorado. In angry exchanges before a Senate investigative committee, the storied Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs was accused of fueling a crisis that forced thousands of Americans from their homes and continues to ravage the US economy.
Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images/File - John Moore

 
 
 
 

Today, Occupy Wall Street and Occupy movements around the country will "go out of the streets and into the homes" of the 99 percent to draw attention to the economic, social, and racial injustice of the foreclosure crisis.

Through vacant home reoccupations, eviction resistance actions, and foreclosure auction disruptions from Brooklyn to Atlanta to Minneapolis and beyond, activists will highlight the families and individuals who live with the threat of eviction ever looming or those who have already lost their homes but are barred from ones that sit empty, owned by banks.

"We want people to pick sides — are you going to side with a bank sitting on an empty house when there's record family homelessness in NYC? Or will you side with a homeless family that is really desperate for a better environment for their kids to grow up in?" says VOCAL-NY organizer Sean Barry, one of many activists involved in the New York City action, which will begin at 1 p.m. at the intersection of Pennsylvania and Livonia in East New York, Brooklyn.

Indeed, the optics are perfect for OWS: not only will the actions highlight the plight of America's families, but they will also point to the indifference and callousness of the 1 percent — the bankers and financiers who speculated on subprime mortgages, turned the other way knowing that many mortgages were being signed — or robosigned — to individuals who could never pay.

Last week, Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times interviewed one such bankerwho is now wracked with regret about the racist, predatory lending policies of his former employer, Chase:

One memory particularly troubles Theckston. He says that some account executives earned a commission seven times higher from subprime loans, rather than prime mortgages. So they looked for less savvy borrowers — those with less education, without previous mortgage experience, or without fluent English — and nudged them toward subprime loans. 

These less-savvy borrowers were disproportionately blacks and Latinos, he said, and they ended up paying a higher rate so that they were more likely to lose their homes. Senior executives seemed aware of this racial mismatch, he recalled, and frantically tried to cover it up.

It should be noted that this kind of eviction resistance action being planned today is not unique to OWS — and that in some ways, it was a logical growth point for the new movement's energy. For years local groups like Take Back the Land, Viva Urbana, and many more have been doing this in local communities. In New York, Picture the Homeless has been training other activists in eviction-resistance tactics, Barry says.

And the fusion between these movements and Occupy is very much in full swing: in cities like Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Rochester, local Occupy movements have already joined forces with these grassroots groups to stave off, delay, or avoid evictions, as AlterNet recently reported. In San Francisco, occupiers joined with local activists to prevent the eviction of a 75-year-old woman. In Atlanta, the woman protected was 103. In Harlem, occupiers refused to leave a building's boiler room until the indifferent landlord had the broken heater fixed.

Just this summer, in New York, the aptly named grassroots group "Organizing for Occupation" delayed the eviction of a woman in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Their meetings have now been flooded by Occupy Wall Street activists who want to help. (Video below)

The movement has global roots as well, as Roar magazine notes:

The action is partly inspired by the 15-M movement in Spain, which — through the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, or the platform of those affected by their mortgage — has stopped hundreds of evictions in Spain and has occupied numerous large vacant buildings and offered them to people who had been kicked out of their homes by their banks. 

Not only does Occupy Wall Street's mission of exposing the gap between the 1 percent and the 99 percent dovetail and overlap with the foreclosure crisis, but its methods of reclaiming space are obvious matches for the burgeoning eviction resistant movement as well.

In fact, for many occupiers, the exploitative nature of the foreclosure crisis, the fact that families are losing their homes while the bankers who engineered this fateful bubble get bonuses--these were the reasons they joined in September.

And this means that occupying homes is one of the most pertinent and personal ways the message of their movement can be expressed.

"About two years ago my family in Northern New Jersey almost lost their home due to a foreclosure — and so I joined the [OWS} movement in late September in part because of this issue, foreclosures," Yesenia Barragan, a Columbia student and member of the OWS press team who has been helping to coordinate the day of action, tells me. "I'm really excited about this action, because it literally hits so close to home," she says.

She calls Occupy Our Homes the new frontier for the movement and particularly is thrilled by the way the local community organizers from Organize for Occupy, VOCAL-NY, and more have brought their experience and knowledge, and fused it with the "energy" coming from Occupy Wall Street — and the activists' willingness to use direct action — all in service of "getting folks back in their homes."

Today in New York, protesters will meet at a train station at the economically ravaged, largely minority neighborhood of East New York, where they will take a neighborhood tour of foreclosed and vacant bank-owned homes — perhaps, it's hinted, potential sites for future occupations. Then they will have a "housewarming and block party" for a family in need, culminating in as yet unknown direct action to bring that family home, complete with a fixup team to help them do so.

This is a family, says Barry, "which has experienced long-term homelessness, been a victim of Bloomberg's budget cuts, and are excited about the opportunity for a better life." The plan, he notes, is to ask that the house be signed over to a community land trust, which will keep rents low and pass the house on to other needy families should this one move on.

Beyond the compelling optics and the help activists are offering this single family, the movement sees tomorrow's varied actions as a change for building bridges within this community. "It's also about getting young people and residents to get hooked up with community organizations to prevent foreclosures," says Barragan.

To that end, OWS activists have been spending the week walking around the East New York neighborhood and flyering, talking to residents about the upcoming action. "They're really excited — this community — they're going to come up for the block party and housewarming," Barragan says. "A lot of them were thanking the door-to-door canvassing occupiers, and that's also because a lot of them are one paycheck away from potentially being foreclosed on."

This day of action will only be the spark plug for what organizers hope is a coordinated but spontaneous national campaign, offering a blueprint for communities to do similar eviction resistance around the country or to coordinate between already-active movements.

In New York itself, "OWS and Organizing for Occupation have already identified other bank-owned vacant properties. The intention is to fill those with families," says Barry of VOCAL-NY. But beyond the five boroughs, this is the beginning of a nationwide effort to replicate this action and literally occupy everywhere. "One of our messages is that there's more empty homes that banks are sitting on than there are homeless families," he says.

Again, there are three ways for residents to participate in these kinds of actions: first, using nonviolent direct action to prevent impending evictions; second, using those tactics for moving families back into their own empty houses post-eviction; or third, fixing up and occupying vacant houses for homeless families.

What's going to happen is "satellite mini-occupy sites around the country so heroic battles can be fought and won on the local level, but can also connect to a much bigger theme," says Stephen Lerner, a veteran organizer with SEIU who has been helping to plan Occupy Our Homes. Beyond the individual efforts, Lerner notes that there's a policy proposal floating around that's connected to these actions, too: the idea of "principal reduction" — or in layman's terms, reconfiguring mortgages to be commensurate with the noninflated, actual value of a property (rather than the inflated "bubble" price). 

"This is about how to make Wall Street pay, not in terms of retribution but in terms of actually fixing the economy," he says. "It's not enough to say we should stop individuals from losing homes, but we also must fix the housing bubble: these unfair, illegal, cheating mortgages which are terrible for economy and terrible for people."

The specific goals and targets of these occupations, the issues they highlight, and the solutions proposed, as well as the interfacing with the communities hardest hit by the recession and the policies of the 1 percent, are incredible rejoinders to the mainstream critiques of OWS – its alleged purposelessness, its failure to interface with communities of color and on the margins.

"The foreclosure crisis is really the rot at the center of our economy. This is a predominantly black and Latino neighborhood is at the very forefront of the foreclosure crisis, which had highest number of foreclosure filings in New York last year," says Barry of East New York, the site of today's action. "And the foreclosure crisis is arguably the largest theft of black wealth since slavery."
 
And while the occupiers young and old have learned about eviction-resistance activism from their partners in the communities, the communities have been emboldened, too.
 
"This action takes the spirit, energy, and excitement of Occupy and connects it with communities that have been most devastated by economic crisis," says Lerner. "Occupy and their willingness to be arrested has almost mainstreamed this idea: we've occupied public space — now we need to occupy private space that's been stolen by banks."
 
Within activist communities, the boldness of OWS has "forced people to drop the self-censorship and embarrassment about being audacious," says Barry.
 
This plan has brought out admiration and praise from those who have watched Occupy Wall Street evolve. Last week, Rachel Maddow discussed the historical context of this new phase of the movement — eviction resistance actions were common during the Great Depression — and the solidarity of its principles: "If you're coming for her, you're coming for us." Police crackdowns have "forced this movement into a new evolution," says Maddow. There's "a concerted effort to move it into the neighborhoods where you can really see it ... this is the real deal."
 
Watch her segment below, and the stirring video for Occupy Our Homes below that.
 

 

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Occupy Our Homes from Housing is a Human Right on Vimeo.

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check, and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Jezebel.com and on the websites of The Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at sarahmseltzer.com.