“The Occupy movement is truly inspiring, but when will it have some real objectives and targets?” That is the question that ran through a good number of activist circles last fall as the Occupy Wall Street movement gathered steam and garnered headlines worldwide. In this post a young activist we have long admired, Destry Sibley, writes about how the sentiments of the Occupy movement can be converted into something real and concrete – helping families in western Massachusetts take on the Bank of America to keep their homes. The housing rights movement in Springfield began long before protesters descended onto Zucotti Park and it is a good example of how to move from generally aimed protest to serious, strategic and concrete action. Read on!
Jim Shultz – Executive Director
People facing foreclosure and eviction in Springfield, Mass. come together to shut down Bank of America
On November 21, 2011 a group of people facing foreclosure and eviction from their homes, alongside their allies and supporters, shut down a Bank of America branch in Springfield, Massachusetts. More than 400 people gathered from across the state to march, rally and protest, while 15 of us occupied the bank, forcing it to close for the day.
This action didn’t happen in a vacuum, and it wasn’t a product of the Occupy Wall Street movement alone. It was one tactic in an ongoing local campaign to fight the Big Banks’ abuses. In 2010, a group of community organizations, organizers and attorneys formed the Springfield No One Leaves/Nadie Se Mude Coalition. We dedicated ourselves to supporting former homeowners and tenants to stay in their homes by fighting the Wall Street banks in the courts and on the streets. Families facing foreclosure and eviction soon organized into the Springfield Bank Tenant Association. Together they decided to set aside their fear, stand together, and fight Goliath.
Inspired by the eviction-defense campaigns of City Life/Vida Urbana, we began to organize around two demands:
- For underwater homeowners – that’s homeowners with mortgage debt greater than their house’s value – we demand that banks reduce their principal to reflect their house’s current market value. (Principal is the remaining unpaid amount of a mortgage, excluding the interest). During the housing bubble, banks deliberately and artificially inflated home prices. They forced homeowners into bad mortgages with adjustable-rate interests. When the bubble burst, they begged for – and won – a $700 billion bailout of taxpayer money. Since then, they have systematically refused to modify loans, even when homeowners could afford to pay for the real value of their houses. Over and over, we have watched banks foreclose on middle-class families with solid incomes. More experts are agreeing that principal reduction has been one of the best things that banks could do to jump-start the economy – the whole economy, not just the housing market – and yet instead they choose to push families out the door.
- We demand that banks stop evicting families after foreclosure without just cause. In Massachusetts, tenants have the right to continue living in their building after it has been foreclosed. Banks have to prove just cause in order to evict them. We want the same rights and protection for former homeowners. When banks evict families, they uproot social, economic and community systems. Houses become abandoned, which leads to crime. Neighborhoods become blighted, which leads to lower home values and, in turn, lower City tax revenues. And, most tragically, families become homeless, which leads to vicious cycles of poverty. In contrast, when families stay in their homes – even as tenants after foreclosure – they continue to invest in their houses, properties, neighborhoods and communities. And so we demand that the banks let families live in their homes and pay rent as tenants, or sell back their houses to them at the current market value.
For months we protested foreclosure auctions. We made our demands and called attention to the banks’ abuses. They often repeatedly postponed foreclosures, hoping to avoid bad press. In the courts our team of lawyers dragged out legal battles, making eviction proceedings time-consuming and costly for the banks. At City Hall, we successfully organized for an ordinance to force banks to mediate in person with homeowners before foreclosure.
The Bank Tenants’ Association grew, forming a powerful base of middle- and working-class families and people of color. As momentum built in Springfield and other cities across New England, we ramped up state-wide actions. We protested Bank of America in Boston in March and September of 2011 – the latter as Occupy Wall Street was erupting – and each time our numbers grew. Wanting to draw attention to our own city – which was already notorious for blight, and which logged the highest number of foreclosures in the state – we planned a state-wide protest against Bank of America in Springfield.
Bank of America was the clear target. It would have been sufficient that it was one of the worst perpetrators of the financial crisis. But it had also been the most egregious in foreclosing on, evicting, and abusing residents of Springfield. Every week we saw the bank use lies, misinformation, and fear mongering to manipulate residents into prematurely leaving their homes. Every day we passed by decrepit and neglected houses, boarded up and graffiti-covered, under Bank of America’s control. And we watched Bank of America spearhead a lawsuit against the City of Springfield for passing our homeowner-protection ordinance.
We knew that corporations like Bank of America would only pay attention when we affected their bottom line, so our goal was to shut down the bank for business. We would have to do this repeatedly to be effective, but this action was already part of our ongoing anti-foreclosure, anti-eviction campaign, and it was a start. There was no better moment, either: by that time, Occupy protests had spread across the country, and we capitalized on their momentum.
On November 21st, 400 protesters marched up Springfield’s Main Street in opposition to Bank of America, while 15 of us nonviolently occupied the bank. Holding a sit-in in its lobby and ATM, and blocking its entrance, we unfurled a banner stating our demands. Each group read a statement, declaring “We are nonviolently occupying Bank of America…,” and explaining our reasons for doing so. The protest continued as we were arrested, put in a paddy wagon, and taken to jail.
We successfully closed Bank of America, not just while occupying it, but for the rest of the day. (After we were arrested, the bank posted signs that it was “closed for service and repairs”). The protest was covered by Democracy Now! , Reuters, the Chicago Tribune, the Raw Story, and a host of local radio, newspaper and television outlets.
Since then, the fifty states’ Attorneys General have reached a deal with Bank of America, Ally Financial, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo over their shady mortgage practices and foreclosure mishandlings. They will pay $5 billion in a settlement and will reduce principal on underwater loans by $17 billion. While this deal is hardly the far-reaching measure we need to restore the housing market, it is the first time that principal reduction – one of our demands – has entered the national conversation in a serious way.
Further, this past week the New York Times published a story about the benefits of letting families stay in their homes after foreclosure – another of our demands, and another first for national news.
Our Next Targets
However, Ed DeMarco, acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency and regulator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, has refused to consider principal reduction as a strategy for underwater mortgages – even though Fannie and Freddie are 98% publicly-owned and own or guarantee over half of the mortgages in the country. (DeMarco also refused to include Fannie or Freddie in the Attorneys General settlement negotiations). Moving forward, we’ll pressure Fannie and Freddie into fulfilling thepromises that they have already made – to work with homeowners, to reduce principal, and to modify loans.
Here in Springfield, our campaign continues to evolve. We keep protesting foreclosure auctions and defending against evictions. If a bank tries to throw out one of our families, we’ll be there to block them. And we’re thinking of creative ways to build our power by responding to the twin ills of homelessness and blight. The November 21st protest was a successful example of resistance to Wall Street banks, but it is powerful only as one action in a larger, ongoing movement for widespread change.
A friend reminded me recently that organizers started the Montgomery Bus Boycott almost ten years before the passage of Civil Rights legislation. I’m inspired by their vision, and excited to see where we can take this movement.
About the author: Destry Maria Sibley is a community organizer in the North End of Springfield, Massachusetts and serves on the steering committee of Springfield No One Leaves. She is an alumna of the School for International Training in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where she hopes to return soon.
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