When police came to Norwell Street in Dorchester, Massachusetts, to arrest the housing activists who were occupying a foreclosed home on June 9, 2014, one of the officers took City Life/Vida Urbana member, Ricardo, aside. “How can you justify breaking the locks on this home and trespassing here?” he asked. “What if the neighborhood kids had seen you?”
It’s not just the neighborhood kids who might have seen this “crime” taking place. Ricardo brought his own small children to the occupation on the Sunday before. I know. I made them sandwiches from the cold cuts I had brought for lunch, and I sat with them on the front porch while they ate. Others showed up with a kitchen table, more food, and some easy chairs. The night before, Paul and Renee Adamson slept on an inflated mattress upstairs – happy to have a place to call home after being evicted from their own home several months before.
Meanwhile, a small group gathered in the living room, greeting visitors and passing the noon hour sipping coffee. It all sounds so normal and homey. Yet the moment was actually much more than that. It was well-organized, much planned direct confrontation against a political-economic system that makes it “illegal” to put a homeless family in an unoccupied home “owned” by a publicly financed mortgage giant, Fannie Mae, which had “legally” put a family on the street and left the home to sit empty or to be snapped up by investors who could then flip it for profit. (For more information about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, see reports from the national housing justice coalition, Homes for All.)
If there was a crime being committed on Norwell Street, that was it — the systematic theft of wealth from those who have not very much to those who have an obscene share of it.
The policeman doing the arrests on June 9th on Norwell Street didn’t see it that way. To him, trespassing looked like the crime. But City Life activists – as well as all those all over the country who have been organizing for housing justice – know who the real criminals are. In other words, they can break it down for the police officer, and it would go something like this:
- We created the value in this neighborhood. We built the community, fought for the school system, organized for public transit, lobbied the government to clean up what was dumped in empty lots, and stood up to the drug dealers on the corner. In a very real sense, we are not trespassers here because these are our homes, our streets, our communities. Dear police officer, we hope the neighborhood kids see us – proudly claiming what we have built.
- Fannie Mae, which technically owns the house on Norwell Street, is a mostly taxpayer-funded mortgage company. When “we the people” bailed them out in 2008 with $180 billion, the FHFA (Federal Housing Finance Agency) was created to oversee Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. They agreed to pay 0.4% of their profits towards the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, but they have illegally withheld over $578 million from the fund and in fact are being sued by Right to the City. Families are homeless while mortgage giants enjoy soaring profits and withhold funds for affordable housing. Is this not theft? Dear police officer, if we sit back and do nothing, and the children noticed, what sort of example would we be setting?
- Fannie Mae could sell the house to a non-profit that is ready to buy it, put it in a land trust, and keep the price down for future renters. But Fannie would rather sell it to a developer who can renovate it and “flip” it for a quick profit. That’s not considered a crime in this context. On the contrary, it is the system working as it should. But why isn’t it a crime? In our families, we teach kids to share. We don’t teach them to grab as much as they can as quickly as they can and hoard it. Yet, we live in an economic system that does exactly that on a regular basis – leaving millions homeless and impoverished while a very few hoard ridiculous levels of wealth. Dear police officer, would you want us to look like hypocrites in front of our children?
When you join a grassroots, social justice organization, you start developing an analysis that includes the roots of systemic inequality and injustice in the U.S. I am a member of City Life/Vida Urbana, so this is what I see happen at every Tuesday night meeting where, as a participant, you learn:
1) You’re not alone. Millions of people have been forced out of their homes due to the bank-created economic crisis and due to the very workings of the for-profit real estate industry. Standing in solidarity with others and taking collective action against banks and/or big landlords is the most effective way to keep our homes and communities intact.
2) It’s not your fault that you are homeless or on the verge of homelessness. The for-profit banking and real estate system have as their mandate to make rich people richer. Their mandate is not to make sure people have homes. To you, a home is where you raise your family, where you lay your head at night, where you feel safe. But for the developers and the corporate landlords, a house is nothing more than a profit-delivery system. They are driven not just to make a profit, but to make an ever-increasing profit, so they will fight for regulations and policies that institutionalize and support their ability to make more and more money. The human cost of their actions to you and your family does not make it on to their ledger sheets.
3) Leave your shame at the door. How does such a dastardly economic system – one that promotes profit over people’s needs – last on this planet for more than one minute? Well, they seem to have convinced us that this is the only way an economy can work. They tell you that making profit is the engine that keeps everything going. They tell you that you can do well in this system if you try hard enough. And if you don’t do well, it is due to personal failure. You may see evidence to the contrary. For example, drawing from your own experience, you know you tried very hard to get that first loan to buy a home, perhaps working two jobs in order to qualify. You made payments on time every month for 25 years, but then refinanced when you needed extra money for repairs or large medical bills or college tuition. The predatory, sub-prime loan you got was not something you could afford but the bank sold it to you anyway, knowing that the more they sold, the more profit they earned – at least in the short term. The whole Ponzi scheme was headed towards catastrophe, and they knew that too, but that didn’t bother them. They are “too big to fail.” They would get bailed out by taxpayer money. City Life helps you see who should really feel ashamed in this equation. And it’s not you.
4) Get your voice back. It’s not enough, however, to be able to identify the culprits in the whole get-rich-on-the-backs-of-others scheme, aka our economic system. You need to be able to stand up against it in a way that brings relief to people in need at the same time that you contribute to building an ever-enlarging movement of people who also understand who the culprit is and who can join you in targeting the banks, the real estate companies, the corporate landlords, and the congressional policies that operate to channel wealth and resources into the hands of the 1 percent.
At City Life (and at any organization that promotes solidarity and works to build a base of people engaged in the struggle for social justice) people get their voices back. This is Step 1 of building a movement that could actually address the immediate crisis as well as the roots of the crisis.
Thousands of grassroots organizations across the country are creating the space for people to get their voices back and, most importantly, to use those voices to contradict the status quo justifications for systemic theft. Whether it’s about housing, immigration, workers’ rights, or even the basic human right to water, people are learning how to explain what’s wrong.
That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that in the USA, we don’t yet have a way to get to Step 2, which is to unite this growing group so that we can more effectively challenge this systemic theft. We can’t ask our non-profits – like City Life and the other grassroots organizations – to figure out Step 2. They are on the front lines of the struggle – occupying homes, fighting to raise the minimum wage, and keeping the water running, etc., not to mention welcoming people who are new to the struggle and equipping people with the analysis they need to stay in the fight. No, the next step needs to be determined by people from these struggles but working outside the non-profits that currently “house” those struggles. There are some good efforts in this direction, and that will be the subject of my next commentary.
Cynthia Peters is the editor of The Change Agent. She is a longtime activist and a member of City Life/Vida Urbana, and she serves on the board of a youth justice organization called The City School and the alumni board of Social Thought and Political Economy at UMASS/Amherst. She lives in Boston and writes for ZNet and Telsur.