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Brother Ali on Occupy Homes and the foreclosure crisis

Note: Brother Ali is a Minneapolis rapper signed to Rhymesayers Entertainment and is one of our 20 Best Minnesota Musicians. His latest album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, will be released in August. Here are portions of an interview discussing the Occupy Homes movement, which Ali will speak about at Macalester College Tuesday and at Mankato State University on Wednesday.

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Brother Ali: I moved around a lot as a kid, and never lived in a place much longer than a year or two. When I moved to Minneapolis, my mom said "We're not going to move anymore." That's when I was 14. So North Minneapolis is the closest thing I know to being home, where people have known me for a long time in my life. Growing up there, we were told the best thing you can do for your community is get your finances together and own your home. That was going to be the big way that we we were going to better our situation, and better our community. If someone bought a house, it was celebrated. It was a way to turn things around and make a better reality for ourselves.
Tonight's meeting is about the Occupy Homes movement, which is something that started in the Twin Cities. Homeowner Monique White was in foreclosure. She is the first person in her family to own a home. She raised her kids there, and she has a grandchild who spends a lot of time at that house. It's in North Minneapolis.

She lost one of her two jobs -- it was working with at-risk youth, another community service. She missed two payments on her house, and then she got two part-time jobs. When she resumed payments, they informed her that it was too late, and she was in foreclosure. US Bank had owned the mortgage, and they sold it back to Freddie Mac, and Freddie Mac was evicting her. Between her and Anthony Newby, and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, he was working really hard on the foreclosure situation. They put their heads together and did all of the programs that you're supposed to do to no avail.

Monique White, center, and her family.
Monique White, center, and her family.

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As a last-minute sense of desperation, they went to Occupy Minnesota and Monique asked the volunteers there if they would help her, and if they would occupy her house. So they did. For a few months, a wide variety of people came and stayed at the house and vowed that they weren't going to let the police take it.

That bought some time. The powers that be are learning that the people are having this kind of democratic reawakening. Things are so bad, that people who used to feel privileged and part of the bubble are now saying that the only way to maintain any kind of dignity is to get this sense of community stronger. The people rallying around her bought enough time so that eventually the district attorney got involved in her case, and asked the court not to evict yet so that they would have time to investigate and see if there was fraud on behalf of the bank and Freddie Mac.

 

On the south side of town, there's a Vietnam veteran named Bobby Hull who was in a similar situation. He made mortgage payments faithfully for something like 25 years. He got injured as a veteran. He refinanced his home because he was having difficulty several years ago. Because of the sneaky, predatory practices there, his payments ended up going up so much that he couldn't make them anymore. The Occupy people came in, got around him, and US Bank ended up doing the right thing and they renegotiated.

Bobby Hull is pictured on the far left.
Bobby Hull is pictured on the far left.

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The thing about this that is so special to me and near to my heart is that these are people who have done the right thing. These are very carefully chosen cases that really make the point, and really highlight the severe nature that banks are taking homes from people. We can say, "Yeah, they signed the contract, and it's in the fine print." But the reality is, in order for us to own homes, we have to work with these institutions. Anybody who has bought a home knows that there's so much. You're literally signing stuff for an hour. Homeowners are literally at the mercy of the banks. These are people who have paid for all of these years. They're not bums. It's not that they didn't want to work. It's not that they're trying to get their house for free.

These are people who have done everything that they're supposed to do. They've fallen on hard times because of the economy we're in, and are asking the banks to work with them in good faith to negotiate ways so that they can pay off their mortgages and stay in their homes. The people are at the mercy of the banks until they all come together.

My feeling is that Minnesota is known as a progressive state. Our mayor is known as a progressive mayor. I've done some work with RT Rybak before, and I think he's done some really cool things. But I think there's an opportunity for him as a mayor, for our city council, for our state legislature, and for the heads of these banks to be leaders on a national crisis. This is something that's happening across the boards in all communities. This is their chance to take the lead and say "We're going to figure out a way to solve this problem." Outline it and commit to new approaches for the banks to work with homeowners.

 

One of the things that the Occupy Homes movement is asking for is a two-year moratorium on foreclosures to give people a two-year window to get their stuff together. A lot of times when you get evicted, from the time you realize you're in foreclosure to the time you need to be out of your house is something in the area of two months. Anybody knows that's not a lot of time. Especially when you haven't been in the rental market searching for apartments.

When you buy a house, you think to yourself, "I might die in this house, I might retire here, watch my family grow." You're thinking it's a long-term thing. To ask somebody to just be gone in two months, especially when they're already in bad circumstances, is really cruel. The banks are not losing money on this entire endeavor. They're making money -- several times throughout the course of these interactions. They make money buying mortgages that a lot of them are federally insured, and especially receiving payments the first several years that you own your house. In a 30-year mortgage, the first seven years, the majority of what you're paying is interest. Very little of what you're paying is actual principle. By the time you're at the end of a 30-year mortgage, you've paid for your house at least twice. It's not a situation where banks are going to be in trouble. 

In our local community, the same way we were encouraged to buy our own homes as a security thing, when houses on every single block in Minneapolis are dealing with foreclosures. There's empty and vacant home, there are people who are entrepreneurs who are trying to take advantage of this whole crisis by buying and flipping properties, excessive amounts of rental properties, where people are not buying these homes that are foreclosed on, the majority of them aren't sold to people to people who are going to raise their family there. They're sold to people who are trying to replace their job or supplement their own income. It's a security issue in our community.

A protester at the first day of Minnesota occupation in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street last October.
A protester at the first day of Minnesota occupation in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street last October.
Photo by Rebecca McDonald

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There's a lot of criticism of the Occupy movement, but what it does is it creates a space and an opportunity for people to start talking about collective work. How to combine our resources and our voices together. Big corporations and banks spend millions lobbying politicians, but the people don't have that. We see the Occupy movement say "We're going to take this park, and this is going to be designated as a place for the summer where people can come and talk about how to raise their voices." That's what that's about. It's not about people sleeping in sleeping bags and all this stuff. That's the way that big interests are categorizing it. That's a starting place, that's a meeting place. It's community space that's used to strategize, combine voices, share ideas, and help each other.

This is a moment when people are actually starting to affect the public discourse. Now, 99 percent and one percent are being spoken about. Poverty and corporate greed are being spoken about. There's a worldwide movement that's there. We're going to have our say.

For more information on Brother Ali's speech at Mankato State tonight, click here.

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