Homegrown protest

'Those that think the Occupy movement is over haven't been paying very close attention.'

If you ask most people about the Occupy Wall Street movement, they'll probably think back to 2011 when thousands of people filled parks and plazas around the country to protest America's vast economic disparities, and tell you it's over. Occupy was based around the idea of using civil disobedience — occupying public space, as the movement's name suggests — to raise awareness of issues of inequality. The park protests were fueled in part by anger at the financial crisis and the Big Bank bailouts that followed. The effects of that crisis were being felt in millions of households around the country in the form of foreclosures, student debt, and unemployment. So when the encampments were dismantled, often using excessive police force, many in the movement started exploring how to use those same nonviolent tactics to affect change in communities around the country. Dozens of Occupy offshoots were formed, tackling everything from housing, medical debt, education, and even disaster relief. Those that think the Occupy movement is over haven't been paying very close attention.

One of the most successful offshoots is Occupy Our Homes. Since 2007, 11 million homes have been lost to foreclosure, wiping out trillions of dollars of wealth, devastating communities, and leaving millions more homeowners underwater on their mortgages. The banks who caused the financial crisis have only gotten bigger, and frequently refuse to work with homeowners to provide loan modifications, using fraudulent documents to foreclose on them, and wielding their power and influence in Washington, D.C., to lobby against any meaningful reforms or regulations meant to stop these practices or help keep families in their homes. With few options available, homeowners across the country started teaming up with activists, using nonviolence to stop their foreclosures, carrying out protests at bank branches, and mobilizing neighbors to confront eviction crews. This strategy has worked in many cases, with lenders agreeing to provide loan modifications, principal reduction, or, in some cases, even canceling the mortgage completely and giving a family's home back free and clear.

But as is often the case with acts of nonviolent resistance, some homeowners have been met with violent repression on the part of law enforcement. Chris Frazer, a DeKalb County homeowner who started working with Occupy Our Homes Atlanta in 2011 after asserting her home was wrongfully foreclosed on, was evicted at 3 a.m. by more than 40 armed sheriff's deputies, leaving her, her 83-year-old grandmother, and her 3-year-old grandson on the curb in the middle of the night with nowhere to go.

Five years since the start of the financial crisis, the failure of those in power to take action has emboldened more and more people to stand up. After Attorney General Eric Holder testified in a senate hearing this spring that some financial institutions were too big to face criminal prosecution, homeowners and supporters from around the country traveled to the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., to demand otherwise. During a weeklong series of actions, homeowners marched to and set up camp at the DOJ, refusing to leave until Holder responded to their demands. Instead of the attorney general, however, the protestors were greeted by Department of Homeland Security officers armed with pepper-rock guns and Tasers. They tased several participants, including Carmen Pittman, a young woman from Atlanta who had fought to save her grandmother's Old Fourth Ward home from foreclosure.

Despite the threat of violence, the participants, many of them elderly or participating in their first protest, stood their ground. Twenty-seven homeowners were arrested and taken to jail, where they refused to give law enforcement their names, and instead provided those of bank executives who they insisted should be the ones arrested in their places. For two days, D.C. jails were booked with multiple people claiming to be Jamie Dimon, Brian Moynihan, John Stumpf, and Richard Davis, the CEOs of JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and U.S. Bancorp, respectively. Seven more women were arrested in another action for peacefully blocking the entrance to Covington & Burling, a white-collar defense firm where Holder was once a partner, and whose clients include Bank of America and Wells Fargo. The women — all of them homeowners fighting foreclosure, and all but one of them grandmothers — were protesting the "revolving door" between Wall Street and Washington.

As the crisis of inequality continues in our country, more and more people are taking brave risks and using nonviolence to fight for justice. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "Nonviolence holds that the universe is on the side of justice and that right will eventually prevail."

Shabnam Bashiri has been working with Occupy Our Homes Atlanta since May 2012.

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