The Next Frontier for Occupy: Protesters Take Over Vacant Homes, Rally to Protect Those Facing Eviction and Foreclosure
On Tuesday occupiers all over the country took part in a day of action to do what politicians and the courts have repeatedly failed to: hold banks accountable for creating the housing crisis and then making it massively worse by rushing through millions of shady and illegal foreclosures.
In at least 20 cities, occupiers rallied with homeowners facing foreclosure or eviction, interrupted housing auctions, protested at banks, and took over vacant, unused properties to move homeless families in.
"The day of action marks a national kick-off for a new frontier for the occupy movement: the liberation of vacant bank-owned homes for those in need. The banks got bailed out, but our families are getting kicked out," read a statement from occupiers and other groups involved in the New York action, including Organizing for Occupation and New York Communities for Change (NYCC). Other organizations such as Picture the Homeless and Take Back the Land also took part.
New York Occupiers gathered at an intersection in East Brooklyn, New York, a poverty-stricken, predominantly African-American area with a foreclosure rate five times the state average, occupiers repeatedly said. A crowd of about 100 swelled to roughly 600 as the march set off on a tour of foreclosed homes in the neighborhood, trooping past shuttered store fronts, empty lots, and deteriorating houses.
Pat Boone, former president of New York's ACORN, who's lived in East Brooklyn for 35 years, says she was devastated to see it start to resemble its dilapidated 1980s state, as empty, foreclosed homes fall apart around her. "The empty houses make the streets more dangerous. Businesses are closing," she said. "People feel like there's no support. What we want to do is stand with them, let them know they don't have to give in to the banks' illegal foreclosures."
As the crowd wound through the streets and sidewalks, many neighborhood residents signaled that they stood with the marchers as well. A middle-aged black woman who had not previously heard of Occupy said she joined the march when it passed her house, said occupiers could come hang out at her home any time, and promised to feed them noodles. At one stop, in front of a yellow house with boarded-up windows, councilman Charles Barron told the marchers to turn and look behind them. Across the street at Thomas Jefferson High School, students at the windows waved, cheered, and shouted along as occupiers chanted, "We are the 99%!"
"Today we're showing that we're not backing away. Bloomberg, we're doing what you should be doing," declared a speaker through mic-check at one falling-apart vacant house. Marchers crisscrossed the door with yellow police tape that read "Occupy" and fastened a large yellow banner to the front, marking the house as "Occupied Real Estate."
At the second to last house, several people on the verge of losing their homes shared their stories. (And one woman invited JP Morgan Chase's CEO, Jamie Dimon, on a tour of the foreclosed homes in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Harlem.)
A slight man in a black hoodie stood shyly on the steps of the house, about to try out his first open mic, occupiers said. His story amplified by the hundreds of people echoing his words, Quincy said he owed $47,500, after getting his "deed stolen." (Later, I talked with him, and he said that he'd sold the deed to a man who turned out to be a fraud.)
He was getting evicted that day. "Thank you. I hope you guys can help," he concluded. "Let's stand together and fight together."
"We're not going to let this young man lose his home!" A group of occupiers split off from the block party at the end of the main action to join Quincy in his home.
An older woman talked about learning about her son's death in Iraq following a four-year tour there. She said she bought her home in 1997, but her monthly payments doubled from $1,500 to $3,000, and she fell behind despite the fact that she worked two jobs, as she had her whole life. "Now they're trying to take my home away, " she said. "How many families are like me?" before launching into the chant, "Don't give up! Don't give up!"
With that, the march set off to the final destination: a small split level that shared walls with the house next door. Instead of sitting empty, starting that night it would house Alfredo Carrasquillo, Tasha Robinson, and their two kids. The house, owned by Bank of America, had been vacant for three years, said OWS in a statement.
Occupiers had already been decorating: bunches of balloons sprung from the yard, the front of the house was papered with giant yellow signs declaring, "Foreclose on banks, not people!" A black-and-white photo of the family graced the front.
Council member Barron knocked on the door, and the family came out. "As an official representative of East New York, we welcome you to the neighborhood!" over cheers from the crowd. That message was underscored by the delivery of a Christmas tree, as well as the housewarming presents — plants, chairs — brought by marchers.
"I want you to know this is just the beginning," said Carrasquillo, as his kids waved from the porch. Tasha Robinson, who appeared afterward, just said, "Thank you, everybody ... I'm shy. I just want to say I love you all."
Then the block party got rolling, courtesy of a marching band, while a cleaning crew of occupiers hurried inside to fix it up for the family before their first night there.
Other cities that saw actions include Atlanta, where protesters disrupted a house auction. In Los Angeles, occupiers and members of the community massed at the home of Ana Casas Wilson and her family of five to stop their eviction by Wells Fargo, reported Bloomberg News.
Minneapolis occupiers defended the home of Vietnam veteran Bobby Hull, who'd lived there since 1968. Minneapolis was one of the first occupations to focus on foreclosures, setting up camp in the home of Monique White to protect her from what she thought was an impending eviction.
What he learned from defending White's property, says organizer Anthony Newby, is that the media occupiers draw make banks think twice about rushing through evictions. The CEO of US Bank, Newby points out, has tried to present himself as the "Golden Boy" of Wall Street and US Bank as clean of the mortgage mess. "We'll hold his feet to the fire on that. If that's your public position, what are you willing to do for these struggling homeowners?"
Monique White has not heard anything from US Bank, which she says is good news, certainly better news than an eviction notice.
"It's an "aha!" moment," says Newby of the movement's shift to occupying homes. "It makes perfect sense. We have so much pent-up rage, and this is a way to direct it in a really pointed, smart, calculated way that can effect some real bank reform. I think it's incredible that it's becoming a national movement."
Matt Browner Hamlin, who helped organize the New York action and runs the website of Occupy Our Homes, says camping at homes has two giant advantages: it can shift the national conversation to affect long-term change and help actual people now. "Nonviolent, direct action has the power to inspire people, captivate attention. This is just another way we're trying to change the conversation about what's going on and help individual families."