Occupy Minnesota fights the banks

Organization builds a tight-knit national community while preventing foreclosures

Occupy Minnesota fights the banks
Peter Leeman
Bobby Hull's house in south Minneapolis became an oasis for him, nine siblings, and members of his community

On April 17 of this year — Tax Day — a modern David vs. Goliath struggle unfolded at a US Bank annual shareholders meeting at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Monique White, a black single mother who works two jobs, took an audience microphone and confronted the bank's CEO, Richard Davis, during a routine shareholder question-and-answer session.

"I'm not asking for a handout," said White, who lives in north Minneapolis, Minnesota's most impoverished neighborhood. "I'm just asking you to meet me halfway and renegotiate my loan to make it affordable for me at the income that I'm making right now, or stretch my mortgage out longer."

Monique White
Peter Leeman
Monique White
Bobby Hull
Peter Leeman
Bobby Hull

Why wouldn't the bank work with White to renegotiate the mortgage on her foreclosed home? After all, the federal government bailed out US Bank and others at the height of the financial crisis, but no one helped struggling homeowners who had lost their jobs and failed to keep up with their payments. And home values in north Minneapolis had dropped to a fraction of their original market price — the house across the street from White's sold for just $9,000. How would it benefit US Bank to evict Monique White and leave another home vacant in a blighted neighborhood?

The CEO's response, in front of hundreds of shareholders, was curt and unwavering. But after White pressed him, Davis offered to meet personally with her. White and two organizers with Minnesotans for a Fair Economy then confronted Davis with their knowledge that he had helped a personal employee avoid foreclosure. Davis appeared stunned.

"That expression on his face when we threw that out there," White recalls, "was like, 'How in the hell do these people know this information?'"

Davis promised that his chief credit officer, Bill Parker, would look into White's foreclosure case. Within weeks, she received a loan modification and kept her house.

It was a victory not just for White, but for the upstart Occupy Homes movement, which had begun defending her dwelling last November as the group looked for a way to make its mark on the nationwide Occupy Wall Street protest movement.

"When you have somebody who literally if you fail they're going to lose their home and potentially be homeless, that really brings it home and makes it urgent," says Occupy organizer Nick Espinosa, a St. Olaf graduate and seasoned Twin Cities activist who was part of the group that began camping out on Hennepin County Government Plaza on October 7, three weeks after the Occupy Wall Street movement started in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park.

But Occupy Minnesota quickly found itself locked in a cumbersome fight with police over the right to set up tents in the plaza. By early November, activists saw the writing on the wall, and made a strategic shift to focus on embattled homeowners facing foreclosure. This would enable Occupy to help people with concrete needs, as well as provide a place to stay when the Minnesota winter arrived.

"When you're on the plaza, it's a big tent and you're fighting for anything and everything, and fighting big systems that are embodied by these huge buildings all around you," explains Espinosa. "Zooming in to one individual really humanized it and touched people on a personal level."

On the evening of December 6 — a day shy of the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor — former Marine and Vietnam veteran Bobby Hull braved the bitter cold along with dozens of Occupy Homes activists, standing outside as MSNBC's Ed Schultz broadcast a live show from his front lawn in south Minneapolis.

Hull's house had been in his family since his mother purchased it in 1968, and it had become an oasis for his nine siblings. But Bobby Hull fell behind on payments to Bank of America when a string of health problems caught up with him during the recession. The bank had repurchased the house at a sheriff's sale for under $84,000, and Hull faced the threat of eviction from his childhood home as early as February.

"People are ashamed about the predicament that we're in," says Hull. "Nobody wants to admit that they're going through a foreclosure. Nobody wants to say that they're a deadbeat. I had to come to grips that I'm not a deadbeat. This is something that has been done to the entire nation."

Occupy's decision to expand its home-defense footprint from White's house in north Minneapolis to help a veteran on the South Side instantly made the movement racially and geographically diverse. The expansion followed an ill-fated attempt in late November to defend Hungarian immigrant and University of Minnesota adjunct professor Sara Kaiser's house, which led to immediate police raids and arrests.

Hull's booming voice and passionate cries for homeowner and veteran rights — and the popular pot of spicy cajun gumbo that he made for Occupy activists camped out there — made him a natural poster boy. Allies, including faith leaders from Jewish Community Action and Shiloh Temple in north Minneapolis, rallied behind Hull.

In February, Bank of America called Hull and told the veteran that it would renegotiate his mortgage and he could likely keep his home, as long as he remained tight-lipped about the financial terms.

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