We Win When We Live Here: How Occupiers Are Standing Up Against Foreclosures and Evictions
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A truck pulling an enormous construction dumpster came rumbling down Pierson Street in northwest Detroit on January 31. It was a cold Michigan morning, and the whole street was slick with ice. The 20 activists standing on Bertha and William Garrett’s front lawn had been there for over an hour. One Teamster had been waiting since 4:30 a.m. because he was afraid the dumpster would come early; as a driver he knew that his co-workers often worked before the rest of the world woke.
Suddenly, a car screeched to a stop in the middle of the street between the house and the dumpster. A young man ran down the road and jumped onto the driver’s side of the truck, shouting for him to turn around. An older man with Parkinson’s planted himself in front of the bumper and shook his fist. The coalition of neighbors and activists — including People before Banks, Occupy Detroit, Moratorium NOW!, Jobs for Justice and the Local 600 United Auto Workers — all knew that by city ordinance an eviction must occur within 48 hours of the dumpster arriving in front of a foreclosed home, that without a dumpster there would be no eviction. Blocked and confused, the driver left.
That afternoon, 65-year-old Bertha Garrett lay down on the floor in front of the office of the Bank of New York Mellon Trust Company, and refused to leave until the bank agreed to negotiate her eviction. The next day, the Garretts’ lawyer received a call from Mellon Trust’s lawyers asking the family “to call off the dogs.” Less than a month later, Bertha Garrett signed papers to buy back her home for $12,000.
Across the country, homeowners, activist organizations, lawyers, unions and Occupiers are uniting to create a direct-action campaign against foreclosures. In Minneapolis, a former Marine erected an anti-foreclosure fence around his block to win a loan modification. In Nashville, a 78-year-old civil rights activist stopped Chase’s eviction by occupying her home with neighborhood support. In San Diego and L.A., 24-hour front-lawn occupations saved two families’ homes. In Rochester, New York, nearly 1,000 people protested outside Wells Fargo, winning a family an indefinite stay and prompting the bank to fire their foreclosure law firm. In Atlanta, front-lawn occupations have stopped the eviction of two homes, a homeless shelter and a historic church. In New York City, Occupiers stopped home auctions by singing in the courtroom and moved furniture into a Bank of America branch, arguing that the taxpayers’ $230 billion (and counting) bailout bought Americans not only the right to resist eviction, but the right to live inside the bank itself.
As preexisting anti-foreclosure organizations and Occupy merge, the campaign is spreading to nearly every major city, with front-lawn occupations, eviction defense teams or auction blockades currently underway in Boston, Tampa, Maui, Detroit, Nashville, Birmingham, New York City, Washington D.C., Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Delaware and cities across California.
These successful anti-foreclosure actions are not merely one crack in the armor of a historically unjust global economic system. Because the housing market bubble was responsible for the collapse, foreclosures powerfully represent the hypocrisy of the current system, in which the orchestrators of the bubble receive trillion-dollar bailouts, and the victims of its burst receive eviction notices. It’s no wonder that the most recognizable symbol of Occupy — the tent — is a form of shelter. In this era, housing is the personal made political. Homes are both the symbolic and real site of Wall Street’s injustice, as well as an opportunity for collective intervention.
Detroit is arguably the best example of how individual foreclosures create systemic injustice. The city’s infrastructure was built for two million people; today, just over 700,000 remain. Full square miles on the east side are fully abandoned except for the occasional deer or fox. Even in populated neighborhoods, charred houses with twisted metal roofs are remnants of recent Devil’s Nights when residents torched hundreds of abandoned homes. In a country whose national identity has expansion and unchecked growth at its center, Detroit’s depopulation has been such a curious challenge that urban planners have proposed reforesting — literally planting trees — in the middle of city blocks.