Occupy Wall Street on Your Street
Occupy Wall Street activists march during a tour of foreclosed homes in the East New York neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York, Tuesday, December 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
As Occupy encampments across the country come under attack and are raided or threatened by local authorities, everyone is asking what’s going to happen now that protesters have been forcibly expelled from public space. On December 6, we saw a preview of what many believe is the movement’s next phase: occupying the home front.
Occupy Our Homes was a national day of action designed to underscore the connection between Wall Street and Main Street by focusing on the central role banks played in the housing crisis—a crisis experts say is anything but over. Around 6 million homes have been seized since 2007, and over the next four years an estimated 8 million more are predicted go into foreclosure. Meanwhile, evidence abounds that mortgage fraud was and remains endemic—from the revelations of a whistleblower at Countrywide that forgery and manipulation of information and documents was “systemic” at her organization (which merged with Bank of America) to a recent FBI report that shows that schemes targeting troubled borrowers are on the rise.
December 6 was the result of weeks of careful planning and alliance building, a sign in itself that the Occupy movement is evolving in exciting ways. In Chicago, a homeless woman and her baby moved into a foreclosed home with the blessing of the previous owner and the help of more than forty supporters; in Atlanta, protesters made an appearance at foreclosure auctions in three counties; in Denver, activists collected garbage from abandoned properties and delivered it to the mayor; in Oakland, a mother of three reclaimed the townhouse she lost after becoming unemployed while another group held a barbeque at a property owned by Fannie Mae. Over twenty cities hosted protests, all told.
In New York, Occupy activists worked with community organizations and other allies to host a foreclosure tour and coordinate the “liberation” and re-occupation of a vacant bank-owned property in a Brooklyn neighborhood where the foreclosure rate is estimated to be five times the state average.
Around 11 am, three hours before the tour was set to start, I made my way to Atlantic Terminal Plaza in Brooklyn to join up with a group planning to use the subway as a storytelling and outreach platform. As we waited for a critical mass of people to arrive before heading into the station, a young security guard came over and said a few words to the protesters. A middle-aged passerby wasted no time rallying to occupiers’ defense. “Don’t mess with them, son!” he shouted, hardly breaking his stride. “They’re fighting for you!”
After the guard left we were invited to share personal tales through the people’s mic. Organizers asked if anyone had lost a home to foreclosure—no one spoke up. They asked if anyone had a family member effected by foreclosure and, again, were met with silence. “How many of you are gentrifiers?” someone asked, inspiring nervous laughter. With the ice broken, people began to talk about why they had come out. One of the first speakers said he was only 17 years old but already anxious about his future. Others complained of greedy landlords, of being forced out of the neighborhoods they had grown up in and of real estate development schemes designed only with the 1 percent in mind. “This movement isn’t just about homeowners,” said a woman with a small child. “It’s about all of us.”
By the time we got off the 3 train at Pennsylvania Avenue an hour or so later, our numbers had grown considerably, and we were more diverse than I expected. At Pennsylvania and Livonia perhaps 500 people—many with a poster in one hand and an umbrella in the other—began the foreclosure tour, marching through the residential streets. Empty bank-owned properties were in abundance; many were derelict, windows broken or boarded over and trash heaped out front. Activists had roped them off with yellow tape printed with the word “occupy.” The procession paused at these decaying home to hear testimony from community organizers, clergy, elected officials and people facing eviction. As we made our way from house to house on the foreclosure tour, local residents waved from their porches and gave us the thumbs up. Someone handed out homemade brownies in Styrofoam containers.
As we paused on a corner I asked the woman standing next to me what brought her to the protest. Doreen Peoples told me she had been handed a flyer on the street and decided to come out because she could relate to the cause. Her mother, who is 77 years old and disabled, a former employee of the Board of Education who lives in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, is in trouble with the bank after refinancing and getting an adjustable-rate mortgage. The house she’s lived in for over forty years—the house Doreen grew up in—is about to be foreclosed upon, which means yet another building will sit empty and another sick elderly lady will have nowhere to live. “What’s happening here is excellent,” Peoples told me after recounting her troubles. “It gives me hope.”
Around 3:30 pm we reached our final destination, a small house at 702 Vermont Street. The new residents, a family of four, were already inside, along with a veritable army of activists coordinating the action and repairing the building to make it habitable. Outside the Reverend Patricia Malcolm and OWS organizer Nelini Stamp said a few words before introducing the young family who had moved in. Tasha Glasgow, the mother, was almost too shy to speak, but managed to express her sincere thanks to everyone assembled. Alfredo Carrasquillo, the father of her two children, including a 9-year old daughter who is severely autistic, held back emotion as he addressed the crowd, making sure to thank the NYPD who dotted the sidewalks and could be seen on the roofs of nearby buildings. “I’m just hoping they don’t wake me up in my bed at 2 am,” he joked.
With that, a house warming/block party commenced. Though it was cold and wet spirits were high. Some danced in the street, others offered gifts for the family, including plants and toys, and a cleaning crew went to work in the house. Hot food was served, and a branch of the people’s library, made up of four crates of books, appeared outside, protected by a clear plastic tarp. A small group of protesters broke off to go to the house of a young man who, only a few blocks away, was facing foreclosure that afternoon. Occupy organizers had been canvassing the area for days and knew they had full support of the neighborhood, many of whom came out to join the festivities or had signs in their windows.
As dusk began to fall, and the rain refused to let up, the outside crowd began to thin. A rotating team of people would be staying at the house round the clock, an organizer told me, making improvements and guarding against eviction. They had a text loop and a phone tree to mobilize the community should the police decide to show up. I headed home, but before going to bed I checked the livestream. There was Alfredo standing on his new porch reflecting on the day’s events. “This is the deal. We did this today because we want to not only make sure that we can gain a stable home for our kids to grow up in but also to acknowledge all the other families that have been kicked out, that have been foreclosed on, and forced into shelters,” he said. He paused, momentarily dreamy. “It was beautiful to look out the window and see all those people supporting us.”
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Though Americans are fed up with income inequality and generally disgusted by the bad behavior of big banks, the task Occupy Wall Street has chosen isn’t exactly an easy one. Even though public sentiment on economic issues may align with the movement, organizing against something as abstract as finance capital is a challenge. How do you launch a campaign against something that is everywhere and nowhere? For those who don’t live near Lower Manhattan, it’s not obvious what the proper protest target should be.
This is why focusing on the mortgage crisis—which a recent study suggests is only half over—is a brilliant next step. “To occupy a house owned by Bank of America is to occupy Wall Street,” said Ryan Acuff, who has been working with Take Back The Land in Rochester, NY doing these kinds of actions since Sept 2010. “We are literally occupying Wall Street in our own communities.” The reclamation of foreclosed homes and defense of individuals facing unfair eviction helps make arcane economic issues like deregulation and securitization, local and personal.
Occupy is certainly not the first group to engage in these sorts of actions, which can even be traced back to the squatters movement of the late ’70s and ’80s (in fact, some of the pioneers of that movement are deeply involved in the recent upsurge of this kind of activism). But Occupy has the power to bring public attention to this kind of civil disobedience, which has so far gone mostly under the radar. Indeed, the overwhelming positive response to yesterday’s actions in the mainstream media proves this is the case.
As George Packer recently observed in The New Yorker, “There’s no powerful D.C. lobby supporting Americans in Foreclosure, no mass movement of underwater mortgagees.” With foreclosure filings showing no sign of slowing down, the people must become their own lobby through direct action. The victories can be swift and tangible. In Rochester, Catherine Lennon returned to the house she was evicted from and has been living there since Mother’s Day. So far court proceedings have ruled in her favor. The banks, it seems, are softer targets than one might expect because so many cases are rife with legal irregularities and outright fraud: it’s not uncommon for customers to be mislead, crucial paperwork lost and documents robo-signed. While banks often refuse to negotiate with individuals, taking advantage of those who are intimidated or can’t afford legal counsel, they often change their tune when threatened with serious scrutiny. Once a bunch of people show up on a lawn to form a blockade and have a press conference, once intransigent institutions are suddenly willing to compromise. In Rochester, one bank called off an eviction when they got wind of plans for direct action.
For many activists working as part of and in solidarity with Occupy, the reclamation of foreclosed homes isn’t just about Wall Street malfeasance—it’s about housing as a human right. Acuff estimates that there are around 3,000 empty homes in Rochester and 500–1,000 homeless people on any given night. “There’s no real housing crisis,” Acuff explained. “When you have three times more housing than homeless people, it’s not a housing crisis, it’s a political crisis. Something’s happening systemically to have all these empty houses and people sitting outside on the street.”
Tasha Glasgow agrees. Yesterday morning, before she moved her family into the Vermont Street house, I spoke to her by phone. She was feeling happy, but also a bit anxious. “I’m doing it because basically I’m homeless at the moment and I really don’t have a place to go,” she explained. Glasgow has been in and out of shelters since her daughter was born; her last hope, a housing voucher through the Advantage program, was dashed by Mayor Bloomberg’s last round of budget cuts. Like so many others, she’s a victim of austerity measures, more collateral damage from the mortgage crisis. “There are a lot of homeless people in the world and hopefully people see this and see that something needs to be done and people will change the world.” She laughed at her own grandiosity but didn’t take it back. “I’m no Martin Luther King, but I’m something. I’ve had this experience. There are so many vacant apartments in the world and they just belong to the banks. People could live in them.”