New York Activists Blockade Foreclosure Auctions to Stop Banks Selling Homes

“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.”

The activists stand up and sing to interrupt the auctions as an act of symbolic civil disobedience, but also as direct action, to physically disrupt the process and, by taking up time, prevent the sale of as many homes as possible. On Thursday, there were originally supposed to be 14 homes on the block; three were actually auctioned off. “We disrupted the process in a real way,” Gargamelli noted. Because the organizers had successfully kept their plans a secret, the court wasn't prepared for them; when court officers recognized some of them, they moved through the courtroom, making everyone in the room go back outside and surrender their cell phones to an officer. The auction, which was supposed to start at 2:30, wound up getting underway just before 3:00, and the courtroom had to close at 4:30. Because several court officers were required to escort out those arrested, the organizers presumed that the process was cut short because they didn't have enough security.

Nine people were escorted out, singing, in handcuffs with the expectation of a ticket for a violation. Thus far, all of the Brooklyn auction blockades (this was the tenth action citywide taken by Organizing for Occupation-affiliated groups) have resulted in violations for those arrested except for one misdemeanor charge. “We're not angry, we're not resisting arrest,” Eichenbaum-Pikser explained at the training before the action. Instead, she said, they sing to bring something beautiful into that space. “We're highlighting the ugliness and violence and injustice that happens in those courtrooms.”

They kept singing as they were led through the courthouse, switching as they faded from earshot of the auctioneer to a verse of the song that addressed their arresting officers instead.

A Message to Homeowners

With the crisis showing no signs of stopping, direct action often seems like last hope for homeowners. But do actions like these really stand a chance of solving the larger problem?

“It's a message to homeowners that people care, a message to the court,” Gargamelli said. “It's a message to the investors that they're doing something morally wrong, even if they refer to it as business.” (And at least some of the message seems to be getting to them—as we stood outside the courtroom after the arrests, one investor walked by and started humming the melody to “Listen Auctioneer.” Others greeted the start of the song with a sort of grudging humor --“There they go,” one muttered.)

Carlos Rivera, a Bronx homeowner who is facing foreclosure himself, is evidence that the message works. “I found out I'm not alone,” he said. He came to Brooklyn Thursday to take part in the action and was arrested in support of strangers—he explained that he balances looking for a job since losing his, fighting his own battle, and taking part in activism. “Bridges must be formed between people on all these issues,” he said, citing the work of the new Home Defenders League, a national movement advocating for the interests of homeowners who are underwater, facing foreclosure, or have lost their homes, as an example.

As Organizing for Occupation moves forward, Schwartz-Orbach explained, they're taking steps to coordinate with families facing foreclosure, so they can attempt to shut down specific auctions and support specific homeowners who are in danger of losing their homes. It's work that's grounded in the community, in a sense of solidarity between homeowners like Rivera, volunteers like Schwartz-Orbach, and professionals like Gargamelli, who'd been at the courthouse just that morning representing a client, and noted that she's perfectly happy to take arrests and risk her law license in support of homeowners.

“I had been involved in various activist groups, but this is the first time that I really felt like I could commit 100% [to getting arrested] and I think that's just because of the feeling of O for O,” Schwartz-Orbach said. “We are in the right. Nobody could think we're in the wrong in this situation.”


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