(Photo: Eric Wagner / Flickr)
As one of the more promising offshoots of the Occupy movement, Occupy Our Homes - the grassroots effort to prevent evictions and foreclosures - has continued to organize throughout the winter. With millions of Americans underwater on their home loans or otherwise facing distress about their mortgages, the issue has the power to give the Occupy movement's concerns concrete resonance for millions of people.
At the same time, organizers must make difficult strategic decisions about how to best take on the foreclosure crisis and how to scale up activism in order to make a national impact.
In the first installment of this two-part series, I spoke with Steve Meacham, organizing coordinator at City Life/Vida Urbana in Boston, about how grassroots anti-eviction and anti-foreclosure efforts are gaining steam in New England.
For this installment, I spoke with a West Coast activist who is both a leader in anti-foreclosure activism in Los Angeles and a participant in national coalitions organizing around this issue. Amy Schur is executive director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE). ACCE is one of the most prominent post-ACORN community organizations in the country that is fighting state-level budget cuts and defending homeowners at risk of foreclosure.
Since ACCE's organizing around housing issues pre-dates the Occupy movement, I started by asking Schur how the influx of new energy since Occupy's inception last fall has affected her group's work.
"At this point, we are seeing more and more people who are willing to take very courageous steps in order to fight to save their homes," said Schur. "But they're also motivated, in great part, by a desire to just stand up to the banks and say to them individually and collectively: 'We're not going to let you get away with this without a fight.'"
Schur told the story of Rose Gudiel, a homeowner whose struggle to keep her home became the subject of several Occupy-supported protests.
"I think Rose has really helped to inspire a lot of people," Schur said. "She found ACCE, and we started working with her. She had lost her house; it was foreclosed on. ACCE helped her understand her options, and she decided she was interested in taking a bold step. Prior to Occupy, in August and September, Rose, accompanied by supporters from ACCE, had done actions at the bank carrying out the foreclosure. We stormed their lobby and pitched a tent, demanding that they rescind her foreclosure. Later, just as Occupy was getting started, we worked with her on a defense of her home. There were tents in her yard, people staying over 24/7. We got a lot of other groups involved. It became a big coalition effort."
Fortunately enough, Gudiel's home defense coincided with the launch of Occupy LA. Moreover, Schur explained, "It also coincided with a larger week of action we had planned. We had several protests during that week that highlighted Rose's fight, as well as our broader, statewide demands on the banks. In one action, we accompanied her to the Bel Air home of the chairman of One West Bank. It was a beautiful action, walking up the winding hill of a super-wealthy neighborhood. It was a pilgrimage up the hill to his house."
The attention proved an embarrassment for the bank, and progress on Gudiel's case soon followed. "The bottom line is that it was a tremendous victory," said Schur. "They rescinded the foreclosure, they rescinded her eviction, she got a good modification, and she and her family stayed in their home."
Schur sees a great cross-pollination between Occupy and ACCE's ongoing work. "The critical week of Rose's fight was also the first week of Occupy," she explained. "Rose spoke at general assemblies several times during that week. Occupy folks came out to her house, and they joined our actions that week, including a big march through downtown LA. We had over a thousand people there. Ten people got arrested inside Bank of America. The rest of the crowd was outside, watching and cheering. Rose announced that she had just gotten the call from Fannie Mae that morning saying they wanted to talk. They were ready to offer her a modification. It was a really momentous culmination for the week of action. And I think Occupy LA got a lot of inspiration from Rose's fight. They were able to be a part of that victory during the time when they were just getting going."
I asked Schur about the national Occupy Our Homes effort and the coalition-building that has gone into making it happen.
"After that victory happened, we said, look, we've really got to let a thousand Roses bloom," said Schur. "We reached out to New York Communities for Change. They had also been working a lot with Occupy. We decided to put together a national conference call with Occupy activists and some of the community groups that have worked with foreclosure victims for years. So, we did a first call of people interested in expanding these home occupations and home defenses. Together, we talked about whether we wanted to do more of this and whether we wanted to pick a date when we try to grow it."
The coalition decided on December 6 as a national day of action. Ultimately, activists in 25 cities responded by holding protests and direct actions. In the process, Occupy Our Homes established a web site. However, Schur notes, the group "is not staffed, and it is very organic in so many ways."
Knowing that such a loose structure can present challenges, I asked Schur how they handle decisionmaking and accountability in the group.
"I was a little worried because national, 'inside-the-Beltway' progressives were jumping in, and I didn't know what they thought their role was going to be in all this. But I think it's actually worked out fine. It really is loose-knit. We agreed early on that - at least at the time we launched it - we were not going to have national demands; local efforts could determine if and whether they had demands. It is not an organization. It is a collaboration that allows us to collectivize energy at times and push it out nationally. It allows us to learn what's working in one place and what's not working in other places. I think its main purpose is very broad, but we are encouraging struggling homeowners across the country to stand up and to join with groups that are willing to help them defend their homes."
Returning to the local scene, Schur described how the ACCE's Home Defenders League first developed.
"Originally [in 2009] our organization identified the foreclosure crisis as a top issue to work on, both in terms of policy and helping our members in their immediate fights," she said. More and more people became interested, and the Home Defenders League formed."
"It has been really interesting to see how this constituency has changed over the last few years in terms of its mindset. It used to be that people felt they got themselves into their own mess [with their mortgages]. To a large degree, they would blame themselves. That meant they were hesitant to come forward. They didn't think of this as an issue you could fight collectively around."
"That has really shifted, for a lot of reasons," Schur continued. "We have a narrative now: 'Big banks crashed the economy. They got bailed out. They keep paying themselves bonuses. But what have they done for Main Street?' People have become much more comfortable thinking of it that way, instead of just blaming themselves. The right wing had done a pretty effective job of getting people to blame government unions, immigrants or poor people [for our economic problems], as opposed to those who are really to blame. But, at this point, there is a tremendous awareness of the culpability of Wall Street banks."
"So many people have gotten the runaround from different agencies. They come to our meetings now and say, 'Look I don't care if you can save my home or not, I just want to fight the banks. These bankers should go to jail.' They're ready to focus their anger where it belongs."
"I think the challenge has been that people haven't had a vision of what you can do about it," said Schur. "What can we win? How can we go after them and have it improve people's everyday lives? That's been the thing we've needed to break through on. People are starting to turn their anger towards the appropriate culprits. We need to communicate how people can fight those culprits, and fight them effectively."
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