The Occupy movement’s strategic turn to occupy and defend homes facing imminent foreclosure is an immensely significant escalation of its protest. It directly challenges the banks’ practice of extracting tribute from society through mortgage debt.
The timing of this move is important. The state has evicted occupiers from public spaces with massive force, and has made it impossible to sustain the protests that defied the corporate-controlled political system at the same time that protesters spotlighted social problems we all face. Having captured and inspired the political imagination of the public, the Occupy movement can retain their support as the occupiers resist the state-backed evictions of people from their homes.
Foreclosures and evictions punish anyone who cannot pay their debt with homelessness. That’s why they take the form of dumping a whole family’s possessions on the sidewalk: the whole process is a form of ritual humiliation and depersonalization intended as a warning to others to keep on paying mortgages they can’t afford. The banks don’t want the property itself, which in many cases is left to rot: there are enough empty buildings in the U.S. today to house all the homeless people in America.
Occupy Wall Street said on its website: “Today, Americans stood up and said, ‘We have a right to shelter. No one can take that right from us.’ … a callous bank that split ownership of our homes into hundreds of parts, redistributing them across the world under false ratings does not own our homes. … Across the nation occupiers along with community groups shut down foreclosure auctions and reclaimed homes for families displaced by the global economic crisis. Two homes in Atlanta were re-occupied. In Oakland, foreclosure auctions were disrupted at the county courthouse – more than a dozen homes were saved.”
As BagNews commented on a photo of “Occupy” yellow caution tape draped around a foreclosed home: “How smart, simple and confident it is for the movement to not only occupy the foreclosed home but to co-opt officialdom’s own institutional ritual for keeping the public at bay. I think the creativity and the audacity goes further than that, though. Occupy is not just ‘crossing the line’ and appropriating the boundaries of a political and economic structure that has left American’s very access to shelter in limbo, the movement dares to occupy caution tape itself. Even if the smell of pepper spray will soon be wafting down the block, it’s quite a lucid and audacious assertion of the people’s authority.”
A writer from Salon.com spent Tuesday’s day of action in East New York on the Occupy Your Homes march. “It was one of the smoother Occupy events I’ve attended, likely because of the guiding hand of experienced organizers with the community, religious and labor-affiliated groups that helped put the day together. The crowd progressed in an orderly way from vacant property to vacant property in East New York, with stops at each one to hear stories from people who have gone through foreclosures. … the march ended at a vacant home that had already been occupied by a homeless family with two children, who are 5 and 9 and were on hand for the day’s festivities.”
The New York Times reported: “In Oakland, Calif., a journalist named Davey D. reported on Twitter: ‘Just coming from Alameda courthouse steps, where Occupy folk shut down the sale of foreclosed houses. It was a beautiful thing. … What they did was surrounded the auctioneers w/ noise makers and started shouting “Shame on You.” … Cats could not do bizness. … One of the auctioneers was damn near in tears, said he hopes people hold the banks accountable. This was the only job he could find after a year’.”
The technical illegality of the home occupations needs to be weighed against the real illegality of foreclosure practices of banks and mortgage companies. Naked Capitalism last week carried a guest post by Michael Olenick explaining how his analysis of a representative sample of foreclosures in Florida reveals how the laws covering evictions are being repeatedly broken by lenders through notary fraud or robosigning, “Banks are using faceless robos in rural California, Louisiana, and Nebraska to rob the people of Palm Beach County of the protection of the law and in many cases, their homes.”
Given this context, Obama’s Kansas speech appears considerably less radical. The New York Times gave the speech its official editorial approval: “After months of Republican candidates offering a cascade of bad ideas about the economy, President Obama’s speech in Osawatomie, Kan., Tuesday came as a relief. He made it clear that he was finally prepared to contest the election on the issues of income inequality and the obligation of both government and the private sector to enlarge the nation’s shrinking middle class. … The president repeated his calls for the rich to pay higher taxes, for financial institutions to be more closely regulated and for education to become a national mission.”
But, as Matt Miller pointed out in WaPo,”Think about the challenges Obama laid out in Kansas. Pervasive economic insecurity. The erosion of upward mobility. Lagging schools. All in the context of a fast-changing global economy. It’s clear this new world demands bold, creative responses. But that’s not what Obama is offering. If this is what the president calls ‘the defining issue of our time,’ and ‘a make or break moment for the middle class,’ what is he summoning us to march for? A modest payroll tax cut for a year? And a return (pretty please) to Clinton-era tax rates?”
Obama’s attempt to coopt the Occupy movement’s moral message in his speech was made in order to construct a rhetoric which made him appear opposed to financial fraud but didn’t commit him to taking action against any of his Wall Street backers. As Yves Smith, who has been following the whitewashing of illegal banking practices, pointed out: “Obama is using the Rooseveltian imagery to claim he will pass legislation to get tough on Big Finance miscreants. That posture, is of course meant to underscore the idea that you just can’t get the perps with the present, weak set of laws. … No, [the administration] has plenty of tools, starting with Sarbanes Oxley. … Sarbox required that top executives (which means at least the CEO and CFO) certify the adequacy of internal controls, and for a big financial firm, that has to include risk controls and position valuation. The fact that the Administration didn’t attempt to go after, for instance, AIG on Sarbox is inexcusable.”
However, Attorneys-General in a number of states are determined not to let the banks off the hook. “Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto … has targeted Lender Processing Services and is going after more mid level employees. Her effort has the potential to bust open bad conduct across all major servicers. LPS has among other things, allegedly engaged in escrow abuses and charging other impermissible fees, as well as foreclosure related abuses. LPS maintains that everything it did was with the full knowledge and approval of its clients, meaning the big [mortgage] servicers.”
The videos, testimonies, and images of the Main Street solidarity between the Occupy Movement and ordinary Americans from a plurality of racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds will undoubtedly transform the political dialogue further. The struggle against evictions is set to become the flashpoint for major upheavals within the financial system and the state, but the people are asserting their power without shame or fear.