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New York Activists Blockade Foreclosure Auctions to Stop Banks Selling Homes

In each of the five boroughs of New York City, each week, there's a foreclosure auction. And this week, community activists turned up to try and stop it.

“The place of justice is a hallowed place.”

That's on the wall of the courtroom, room 224 in the Kings County Supreme Court House, Brooklyn, where each Thursday, foreclosed homes are sold at auction. In fact, in each of the five boroughs of New York City, each week, there's a foreclosure auction. There's no fanfare and little drama most of the time; it's a clubby atmosphere, a bunch of people who seem to know each other making small talk, passing papers back and forth with descriptions of the homes up for sale.

It's not an official court proceeding, so when the auctioneer comes in he doesn't sit in the judge's chair to read out the rules for the auction (which include the necessity for winning bidders to have 10 percent of their bid available right away in cash or as a cashier's check, which sheds a new light on some of the backpacks and briefcases in the room).

But as he begins to announce the first property up for sale (33 Vanderbilt Avenue), he's interrupted by singing, multiple voices around the room joining together.

Listen Auctioneer/All the people here
Are asking you to hold all the sales right now
We're going to survive but we don't know how

Listen to your souls/You can't buy these homes
You're speculating on people's pain
With all due respect you should be ashamed.



Highlighting Injustice

“To me that is the foreclosure crisis,” Karen Gargamelli, a foreclosure defense lawyer with Common Law NYC, said after the singers had been escorted out in handcuffs. “That image of the auctioneer who keeps going over the outcry of people. Everyone's frustrated, and yet it keeps going, over the sound of people saying no, of people asking for help.”

Gargamelli is part of Organizing for Occupation, a group that came together in 2011 (before the beginning of Occupy Wall Street, it should be noted, though the court officers and others assume they're one and the same) to try and come up with direct action solutions to the crisis that had been playing out for four years, across New York and across the country. In addition to blockading the foreclosure auctions, they were the force behind the move, in December, of a homeless family into a vacant home in Brooklyn's East New York neighborhood. 

Nationwide, there have been approximately  3.6 million [PDF] completed foreclosures since 2008; in the previous year, a full 5 percent of the homes in New York with a mortgage were in some stage of the foreclosure process. Groups like Organizing for Occupation have stepped up in the absence of any real solutions by politicians and weak settlements from attorneys general to try to fight foreclosures home by home and draw attention to the suffering that often takes place just out of sight. 

Lianna Schwartz-Orbach, one of the organizers of Thursday's action, got her start with the group because of the East New York occupation. “I saw the video which everyone has cried to and I was really moved,” she told AlterNet, and so she went to an Organizing for Occupation training and joined the second foreclosure auction blockade in Brooklyn in January. That was the only one she'd taken part in, but she and Gina Eichenbaum-Pikser took it upon themselves to organize this action, which she describes as “General maintenance, to keep them on their toes.”

Gargamelli cited developments like that—people who'd been arrested once before taking the step of organizing their own action—as one of the measures of the success of these blockades. “We started as a group of nine people,” she said, “And there have now been more than 150 people who took arrests.”