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We Win When We Live Here: How Occupiers Are Standing Up Against Foreclosures and Evictions

Across the country, homeowners, activist organizations, lawyers, unions and Occupiers are uniting to create a direct-action campaign against foreclosures.

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“When you look at most of the quantum leaps forward for this country for progressive movements — whether it was child labor laws, women’s rights, emancipation, civil rights — you can see that all of these injustices were legal at one point,” said Anthony Newby, an activist with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change in Minneapolis. “Can we create new narratives? That’s been our goal from the beginning: to reframe the way that we’re thinking about this issue.”

To foster this cultural shift, some are focusing on building neighborhood eviction-blockade teams to institute an on-the-ground people’s moratorium on foreclosure. Others are organizing rent and mortgage strikes to show that missed payments are not a personal family’s shortcoming but an act of community resistance. Still more are using home takeovers to demonstrate that — in a country with 24 empty houses for every homeless person — our nation has the resources and wealth to make housing truly a human right.

Over the long term, this movement does not simply demand that the banks and the government address the systemic injustice that they oversee; it demands that we re-imagine our relationship to housing and to each other. What the housing crisis has taught us is that we’ve all been complicit in upholding a false and failed national narrative that property rights are more important than the needs of people. Our challenge, then, is not only to build a new economic system, but to imagine a new national narrative, a new social contract.

On the first spring day in Detroit, J.B. gave a tour of his kingdom on Goldengate Street.

“Just look at this floor!” he exclaimed, gesturing at cream-colored tiling mostly obscured by trash and piles of plaster. A 20-year-old man with facial tattoos and a fist-shaped comb rising from his short afro, J.B. sounded more like a real estate agent than what he is: an artist who has lived on his own since he was 12. Now, he’s working with other Occupiers to take over bank-owned houses. “Wait till you see the bathrooms,” he continued. “Matching his and hers sinks. A rose marble tub. I would never have left this house. It makes me so mad.”

The homes in this neighborhood were so thoroughly gutted by strippers after the banks forced out the residents that the whole area is slated for demolition, threatening the precarious stability of all the surrounding homes and families. This block embodies anti-foreclosure activist Bartosz Kumor’s observation that “Detroit is a place where policy is insufficient, where we need people taking over neighborhoods and providing for themselves.”

J.B. has already installed wood-burning stoves, water collection systems, drywall, and new plumbing in many of the seven homes his team has occupied. One is already filled with books, paintings and an artists’ studio where J.B. plans to host free classes; another is to be a martial arts dojo. They want to bring all the houses up to code so that the overcrowded homeless shelter nearby can move people in when the team migrates to the next block. It’s an ad hoc project: In one of the houses, the walls have both knives embedded in the plaster and sharpie-scribbled diagrams for solar-panel roofing.

Like Bertha Garrett, J.B. and his team are fighting for the city piece by piece, using their bodies to preserve a neighborhood that the banks seized for cash, stripped of life and then left to die.

“We don’t own none of these houses,” J.B. said honestly. “But if we stay in them, keep working on them, we can save them.” He leaned off the balcony on one of the houses and staring at his handiwork: half a dozen homes already filled with the clutter, knick-knacks, love and memories that make a four-walled structure one’s own.

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