Occupy’s Front Line Moves to the Front Lawn
JP Morgan & Chase Co. CEO Jamie Dimon had an early birthday surprise last Monday: The bank was closed. The disruption happened not because the birthday of Forbes magazine's 41st “most powerful person” in the world had finally been declared a national holiday. It was because hundreds of Occupy Atlanta and Take Back the Land activists used their bodies, furniture, poetry, and more to shut down five bank branches in Atlanta in protest of the eviction of the family of Eloise Pittman, who had been sold a predatory loan with an interest rate of more than 10 percent. The action kicked off a national week of action foreclosures.
Across the country, homeowners, activist organizations, lawyers, and Occupiers are uniting to create a direct-action campaign against foreclosures. Begun as a national campaign on December 6th by Occupy our Homes, the coalition movement has already stopped nearly one hundred evictions and the actions are intensifying. Less than 24 hours after the Chase protests, 7 families across Detroit publicly vowed to fight their own foreclosures, building on a string of successful anti-eviction actions in a city where the extent and effects of foreclosures (about 100,000 in the last five years) has remaining city residents describing the banks as “economic terrorists.”
Thursday, New York City Occupiers moved an entire furniture set onto the sidewalk in front of a downtown Manhattan branch of Bank of America as hundreds protested against the bailed-out bank for foreclosing on hundreds of thousands of families.
“Bank of America is one of the largest perpetrators of robo-signing,” said George Machado, one of the interior designers who helped set up couches, coffee tables, lamps, and a flat-screen TV to block bank entrances. He pointed out that the bank receives millions in taxpayer subsidies even as it steals homes: "So, since they foreclosed on our homes, we figured we’d move in there.”
On Friday, neighbors rallied in Bayview Hunters Point in San Francisco to support Dexter Cato and his children’s reoccupation of their family home. Cato is a former union member who was evicted from his home after he suffered a workplace accident and his wife died in a car crash.
“If the banks refuse to declare a moratorium on foreclosures, we will declare our own until the banks work with families for fair and affordable solutions,” said Grace Martinez with Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.
The anti-foreclosure and right-to-housing movements are among the most consistent in our nation’s history of activism—a constant necessity in a country where private property is a right but a family’s basic shelter, security, and safety is a privilege. Most often led by women and people of color, the block-by-block grassroots movement boasts considerable success: the implementation of rent stabilization and rent control laws in the 1920s and 30s; dozens of state moratoriums on foreclosures during the Great Depression; hundreds of abandoned building takeovers in the 1970s and 80s in New York City alone.
Now, sparked by Occupy and necessitated by millions of foreclosures across the country, momentum has spread to nearly every major city, with recent or ongoing actions in Boston, Tampa, Maui, Detroit, Nashville, Birmingham, New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Delaware, and cities across California. The movement is decentralized and action-based, using a diversity of tactics that include front-lawn tent occupations, bank protests, furniture move-ins, home takeovers, and auction blockades. In New York City, Organizing for Occupation (O4O) and OWS are planning to disrupt every home auction in the city the second week of April by singing in the courtroom, a tactic that has already stopped dozens of homes from being auctioned off this winter.
Some actions are scalable; others, less so. In Birmingham, for example, an extended eviction defense team has been living in tents on a family’s front lawn for more than two months, weathering freezing temperatures and even a tornado (“It came within a hundred feet, and it scared the f**k out of me, pardon my language,” said Allyn Hudson, one of the Occupiers). This type of house-by-house campaign might not be replicable on a mass scale, yet enough can force the government to take otherwise untenable action. In Spain, the hundreds of building takeovers and successful anti-eviction actions by M-15 activists and the Platform of People Affected by Mortgage have won many homeowners dación en pago—signing the home back over to the creditor and canceling the mortgage debt—in Catalonia. Momentum is building to enact the policy in other regions.
As the anti-foreclosure actions build, it’s becoming clear that these victories are not merely one chink in the armor of a historically unjust global economic system. Because of the housing market bubble’s central role in the collapse, foreclosures are the best representation of the hypocrisy of the current system—one in which perpetrators receive trillion-dollar bailouts, while victims are mailed eviction notices.
Successful disruptions of this system, then, become both real neighborhood actions to save families from homelessness, and symbolic messages to Wall Street that the people will no longer tolerate the supremacy of property rights over human rights.