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The Occupy Homes Movement One Year After

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
26th December 2012


Excerpted from Laura Gottesdiener:

“On December 6, the one-year anniversary of the Occupy Homes movement, Meusa and Wheeler were only two among thousands of people who gathered for coordinated direct actions focused on the human right to housing. Building on a year filled with eviction blockades, house takeovers, bank protest and singing auction blockades, the anniversary of Occupy Homes demonstrated that the groups were still committed to risking arrest to keep people sheltered. Yet, even more significantly, the day’s events demonstrated a crystallization of the movement’s central message: that decent and dignified housing should be a human right in the United States.

In Woodland, Calif., Alma Ponce and supportive community members from various Occupy groups rallied inside and outside Ponce’s home, which was scheduled for eviction on December 6. In Minneapolis, John Vinje, a veteran who had been evicted from his family’s home by U.S. Bank and Freddie Mac earlier this year, worked with Occupy Homes MN to take over a bank-owned home on the south side of the city. In St. Louis, a handful of housing advocates temporarily occupied a Wells Fargo branch and began auctioning off the contents of the bank — including the Christmas tree, paintings and computers, chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho! Corporate greed has got to go!” Other actions occurred in Detroit, Chicago, Denver, Mendham, N.J., and cities across California.

The actions appear to be snowballing. In Atlanta, Occupy our Homes took over a second house on December 8. In Minneapolis, the group opened up another house on December 23 in an action led by Carrie Martinez, who refused to celebrate Christmas with her partner and 12-year-old son in the car where they’d been living since their eviction in October.

Like the first Occupy Homes day of action on December 6, 2011, the events demonstrated a high level of coordination and communication among housing groups in various cities — this time drawing on the language and tactics that had been successful throughout the past year.

As the small crowd marched to Meusa and Wheeler’s new home, for instance, people chanted, “Empty houses and houseless people — match them up!” This was a refrain that echoes the rallying cry commonly used by J.R. Fleming, chairman of Chicago’s Anti-Eviction Campaign. (His wording is to match “homeless people with peopleless houses.”) Later, after much of the fanfare had died down, Johla and Dillon began planting flowers and vegetables in the front yard, an action that is reminiscent of when Monique White, a mother in Minneapolis, planted a massive garden in the weeks before her scheduled eviction to demonstrate that she was not leaving. (U.S. Bank caved and canceled the foreclosure.)

Similarly, in Woodland, activists covered Alma Ponce’s lawn with tents — an allusion to the fall 2011 occupations that has also been used in eviction blockades in Alabama and Georgia over the last year. Ponce’s home had been the site of successful eviction blockades in May and, given the heavy activist presence on December 6, the sheriff refused to show up. — One important shift evident on the anniversary is that Occupy Homes groups have started rallying more and more behind a rights-based framework to explain why they are pursuing direct action.

“Housing is a human right, not for the banks to hold hostage,” Michelene Meusa said a few days after the action, when, at M&T Bank’s request, the Atlanta Police Department arrested her and three others for criminal trespassing. When she refused to leave, she made an explicit comparison between her civil disobedience and the actions of the civil rights movement.

The shift towards a human-rights framing of the housing movement and away from following the Occupy movement’s focus on economic unfairness — i.e., “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out” — is significant. The human rights framework is often more powerful in movements led by people of color, drawing strength, as Meusa did, from the civil rights era and cutting through the class divisions that plague housing in a way that movements focused only on mortgage loan modifications cannot.

“People get explosively excited about organizing to protect their rights,” said Anthony Newby, one of the organizers with Occupy Homes MN. A year ago, Newby and the Minneapolis campaign were more focused on organizing for principal reductions and holding banks accountable while setting aside more confrontational actions like outright home liberations for a later date. Yet, as John Vinje’s home liberation in south Minneapolis on December 6 showed, the group had transformed over the course of the year into one that is willing to challenge the logic of class-based housing discrimination: a logic that denies that access to decent housing is, in fact, a right to be protected rather than a privilege to be bought — on credit, of course.

With the continued onslaught of foreclosures across the United States, the question remains: How much will these movements have to scale up to make structural changes, rather than just individual changes?

Housing organizing during the Great Depression provides some instructive parallels. The economic devastation since 2008 has been quite similar to what the nation experienced throughout that period. In 1933, for example, banks foreclosed on an average of 1,000 homes every day. In 2010, the rate of displacement was comparable: The average number of foreclosures was more than 2,500 homes a day, and the population has increased two-and-a-half fold.

The scale of housing organizing during the early 1930s, however, dwarfs what we have seen so far today. Crowds of hundreds, and sometimes even thousands of people, mobilized to stop evictions in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Gary, Youngstown, Toledo and other urban centers, mostly under the direction of the Communist Party. As in much of current housing organizing, women were often on the front lines. Masses of these women filled the streets as others climbed to the roofs and poured buckets of water on the police below. Women beat back the police officers’ horses by sticking them with long hat pins or pouring marbles into the streets. If the police were successful in moving the family’s furniture out to the curb, the crowd simply broke down the door and moved the family’s belongings back inside after the police had left. “There were times that landlords were saying, ‘You can’t evict anymore in the Bronx. These people control the streets,’” says Mark Naison, a professor at Fordham University and one of the nation’s leading researchers about housing organizing during the Depression.

The Occupy Homes network and aligned housing movements still have light-years to go — a reality that many organizers acknowledge. Yet the conditions have changed since 1930s, suggesting that what we need are not massive federal construction and lending programs, but rather a shift in the way housing rights are perceived and enacted in the U.S. Rather than coping with the scarcity of the 1930s, the United States now confronts vast, unprecedented wealth and gaping economic inequality — a condition that is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that there are upwards of a dozen empty and unused houses for every homeless person in the nation.

With more than enough wealth and roofs to provide safe and dignified homes for the country’s population, the challenge today is to demonstrate that this situation of desperate need coexisting with wasted excess is not one we need to accept. Doing so requires the protests of people like Reneka Wheeler, Michelene Meusa, John Vinje, Alma Ponce and Carrie Martinez who are willing to defy the law — on camera and unafraid. And it will take these actions happening again and again. As John Vinje in Minneapolis explained, “If the police come and decide that they’re going to kick us out, we’ll make our stand up to the point where if we have no option but to retreat, we’ll just go and find another one. And take it over. And hopefully we’ll wear them down to the point that they’ll quit trying to come and kick us out.”

This resilience is just what the Occupy Homes network showed on December 23, with the city’s second home takeover led by Carrie Martinez. And, while questions of strategy and ability to scale remain, Martinez reminds us that the purpose is always to enact the human right to housing — one family at a time.”

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