It started in the unlikeliest of places: the sheriff’s office. First in Cook County, Illinois where Sheriff Thomas Dart requested an attorney review all eviction orders to protect tenants who had continued to pay rent in buildings seized by banks. It moved to Butler County, Ohio where Sheriff Richard Jones ordered deputies to refrain from evicting people with no place left to go. Next, Wayne County, Michigan. Sheriff Warren Evans suspended all evictions beginning February 2, until the federal government implements a plan to help homeowners facing foreclosure.
A new wave of civil disobedience has emerged in the wake of the foreclosure crisis as law enforcement and community organizers search for justice for communities abandoned in the wake of billion dollar bailouts. Community organizers Acorn recently announced its Home Defenders campaign, one of many grass-roots responses to what many see as a racially and economically biased response to our financial collapse. The Home Defenders campaign aims to train volunteers first in communities hit hardest by foreclosures such as Oakland, California and Houston, Texas to keep homeowners in their homes.
At its essence Home Defenders is a squatting campaign. Tactics will include forming human walls on sidewalks in front of targeted properties, to attaching people to property and quite simply refusing to leave the premises. Networks alert homeowners when a foreclosure action is scheduled or when deputies are on their way. Volunteers face arrest, but that is little compared to homelessness. While law enforcement officers have not specifically endorsed the campaign, they have publicly stated their sympathy for the cause.
It’s a campaign that has found growing support inside Washington. From the House floor, Representative Marcy Kaptur instructed her constituents facing eviction to stay put. Disgusted with the inability of financial institutions to account for the billions of dollars of bailout funds received so far, Representative Kaptur argued that if Wall Street did not have to account for its debts, then neither did Main Street.
What is emerging from these early efforts at resisting ongoing foreclosure is a discussion of the racial impact the crisis has on our communities. In as far back as 1999, the much-maligned Acorn warned of predatory lending practices targeted at African-American, Latino, and low-income communities that are now the object of Congressional derision. Despite the fact that many of these borrowers qualified for prime loans, lenders targeted them for more risky (and hence more profitable to lenders) subprime loans. In 2002 the group issued a report detailing the reach of these subprime-lending practices and warned of the ghettoization of communities should the housing market drop.
These unequal lending practices have the effect of concentrating poverty in already segregated neighborhoods, and thus exacerbating the foreclosure cycle. For homeowners struggling to hold onto their homes in these neighborhoods they face plummeting real estate values due to blocks of vacant properties. Drug dealers and prostitutes reclaim streets once thriving with home ownership. In the face of this reality those lenders that engineered this crisis walked away with billions of taxpayer dollars only to refuse to work with troubled homeowners. Law enforcement, homeowners, and community organizers have started to send a clear but simple message. Enough is enough.
It appears as though Congress is starting to hear, as President Obama gets set to announce new initiatives aimed at breaching the foreclosure crisis by working with troubled homeowners. But ask these law enforcement members, Acorn volunteers or homeowners, and this is not simply about saving troubled homeowners. It is about rescuing entire communities preyed upon by Wall Street. It’s about the deeper conversation of racial segregation in this country and the means in which it survives. For now though, resistance is the goal and civil disobedience the means. As with every great civil rights movement, this one started on the streets, the churches, and in neighborhoods across the country. We see an emerging, unified response and call to action. Let’s hope those in Washington are really listening.