Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Occupy Our Homes

Occupy Our Homes is the latest incarnation of the Occupy movement in America and, I have to say, it's pretty inspirational to behold. The target of their action is the fact that "not only do we have thousands of people without homes, we have thousands of homes without people." So, to remedy that, they are helping to give the victims of foreclosure a roof over their heads.

An article in Mother Jones relays the story of how they do this;
Image from here
Last Thursday in New York City, a soft-spoken man with a thick beard, whom I'll call Paul, casually approached a brick apartment building and broke off a padlock with a bolt cutter. A spotter called to say a squad car was on its way, but Paul didn't feel his phone vibrate; he was too busy jamming a crowbar in the door. "Fortunately, the cop car just drove up the street and turned," he recalls a few days later as he and his wife wait at a subway stop to meet up with members of his cleanup crew. He'd installed his own lock on the door, which led to a vacant unit where the crew hoped to install a family of squatters.

Paul has asked me not to publish the names of his crew, the location of the building, or too much detail about the single mother who wants to squat there with her two children. The family was evicted from its apartment two weeks ago after a city-subsidized housing program ran out of money. "The reason I am doing this," Paul told me, "is that there are people who are really hurting."

After three guys in work clothes showed up with brooms and a shovel, we headed through graffiti-sprayed streets to the building. Everyone would need to be as discreet as possible; a neighboring unit was still occupied by a legal tenant. "The idea is to go in very quickly and confidently, like we are supposed to be there," Paul tells the group, one of several crews connected to a new 200-member squatting organization known as Organizing for Occupation (O4O).

Today, O4O teams up with Occupy Wall Street and others to launch a campaign called Occupy Our Homes, a public showdown against the big banks and housing authorities. They intend to disrupt foreclosure auctions, unveil secret squats, and announce further plans to defend foreclosed-upon homeowners from eviction in some 20 American cities, as you can see on our map.

Squatting has apparently been on the rise, driven by persistent unemployment, an ongoing foreclosure crisis, and the success of Occupy Wall Street. Reliable stats are hard to come by, since most squatters fly under the radar, but Max Rameau of the national squatting support group Take Back the Land says the number of organizations pursuing the tactic has taken off—from about 15 in July to around 75 in recent weeks. Many of the newcomers are local Occupy groups.

Occupy Our Homes has roots in the early 1970s, when declining working-class incomes and a lack of bank financing for low-rent properties left thousands of New York City buildings abandoned. Hundreds of former tenants squatted in vacant buildings on Manhattan's Upper West Side, East Harlem, Chelsea, Chinatown, the Lower East Side, and the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. "We were taking as many as we could," recalls Frank Morales, a 64-year-old Episcopal priest and longtime squatter. "But in terms of the left, the housing organizations wouldn't touch us with a 10-foot pole."

Through the 1980s, Morales helped renovate some 30 squats on the Lower East Side. He lived for two years in an abandoned building with no electricity and half a roof. Using pulleys, his team eventually hoisted up new roof beams. For power, they tapped into the base of a street lamp, burying the cable under the sidewalk and taking just enough electricity to power a single light bulb in each unit.

In another building, where the city had ripped out a six-story flight of stairs, he got on the air at a local radio station and recruited a work crew to rebuild the whole thing. "It was like a barn-raising; it was incredible," Morales remembers. Most of the squats were eventually evicted, but in 2002 New York City granted Morales and other residents of 11 squatted buildings legal deeds to their homes.

In 2009, with the national foreclosure crisis worsening, Morales decided the time was ripe for another squatting movement. This past spring, well before the birth of Occupy Wall Street, he helped found Organizing for Occupation, choosing the "occupation" name because it cut though all the abstractions about affordable housing to make clear that "this is a squatter organization."

In July, O4O held a national conference that attracted like-minded squatter and anti-eviction groups from around the nation, setting in motion a collaboration that led to today's activities. "Our goal is to create a community of people who are directly invested in housing each other and defending each other," Morales says. "The policy changes will come. That's not my department. Mutual housing, land trusts, whatever the hell you want to call it—you are not going to get in the door until we start taking shit."
That last point is certainly one that anarchists can agree with. The government doesn't change its policy out of benevolence or concern for the citizenry, but because they are forced to by direct action. In the realms of housing and foreclosure, that means not only squatting and taking over the unoccupied space but also being able to defend that space and resist eviction.

Thus far Occupy Our Homes is an extremely positive initiative. Even without the explicitly anarchist slogan that property is theft, it is clearly putting that idea into practice.

Today was the National Day of Action to Stop and Reverse Foreclosures. Across twenty five cities, the organisation "join[ed] with homeowners and people fighting for a place to live." This has involved not only reclaiming and cleaning up homes for people to live in, but forcing foreclosure auctions to shut down and issuing demand letters to banks.

At this point in the movement, it is too early to tell how far it will go. However, considering the scale of the problem it does look as though there is plenty more that can be done so that the campaign keeps on rolling. It is also likely to have more immediate success both because the actions are dealing with the urgent issue of families not having homes and because there appears to be a recognition that this is not a protest but direct action, success boiling down to the ability to either circumvent or disrupt the system as required.

If there is anything similar in Britain, it is the recent increase in eviction resistance - including actions in Hackney to drive off Bailiffs and picketing MPs who support evictions. Unlike in America, this is unconnected to the Occupy movement, but of course this is a largely irrelevant point if the actions are effective and can grow.

All power and solidarity must go to those taking part in the squats, helping people set up homes or targeting those foreclosing on people. As the recession and the class struggle rage on, more and more people will find themselves in a situation where their home is under threat. When that happens, it will be the solidarity of the local community and the ability to resist bailiffs that determine whether or not they are chucked onto the street. Long may the rebellion continue.