Occupy Homes celebrates new victories with party and conference
Monique White rallies the crowd of supporters at her house on Wednesday night.
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On Wednesday night, while about 150 people were in Monique White's yard, listening to Brother Ali perform, White's neighbors were peering curiously over their fence. The family had just moved in about a month ago, and the crowd next door was the first they were hearing about White's struggle against foreclosure and her alliance with Occupy Homes. "So they helped save her house?," one of the new neighbors asked, trying to puzzle out what the party was for.
In June, after three years of uncertainty and a seven-month vigil with Occupy, White's bank agreed to modify her mortgage, allowing her to stay in her home of nine years. In the past two weeks, Occupy Homes MN has won three more home loan modifications, bringing their total number of victories up to six, including White's. And this week, the group hosted a national conference with 48 housing justice activists to discuss the next phase of the movement.
So White decided to again open up her north Minneapolis house to Occupy Homes, this time not to fight, but to celebrate. Yesterday, White and organizers set up a stage, sound tent, potluck and produce stand in her yard, and her family and friends -- plus local and national Occupy participants, fellow homeowners, and a handful of music fans there for performances -- turned out for the festivities. Along with Brother Ali, Sol Ras, I Self Devine, Toki Wright, and Jayanthi took turns on stage.
Brother Ali performs at Monique White's celebration party.
This being an Occupy occasion, party-goers got a dose of the political. Between sets, organizers climbed on stage and asked the crowd how they were going to vote on the marriage amendment and voter I.D. laws. One, Becky Dernbach, read an excerpt from her Dr. Seuss-style children's book, about two "bumbling villains," Freddie and Fannie, who gamble away the savings of the residents of Homesville.
At the back of White's yard, past the stage but before the port-a-potty, was a healthy garden, packed with zucchini, squash, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, cucumbers, green beans, and other produce. Back in April, when the future of her property was still uncertain, White decided to plant the garden as a symbol of her commitment to her home.
Last night, she re-affirmed that commitment, as Occupy Homes helped her plant another addition, this time a plum tree.
"I'm kind of overwhelmed," White says. "I expected a lot of people, but I didn't know how huge of a turnout it would be. What it reminds me of is the first day that Occupy came to Occupy my home, just because of the energy and all of the people that are supportive of me."
White fell behind on her mortgage payments after a car accident in 2007, and in 2010, the non-profit she had been working for shut down, and she lost her job. After what she describes as a frustrating back-and-forth with U.S. Bank, including lost paperwork and miscommunication about her loan workout applications, her house went into foreclosure in early 2011.
By October of that year, following conversations with several local community action and housing justice groups, she went to Peavey Plaza one Sunday night and told the protestors her story. "I got emotional about it," she says now, "and then I agreed to have them come in and occupy my home."
For the next seven months, about 20 to 25 protestors moved in with her, and another 20 camped in her yard, even as they protested and petitioned U.S. Bank to negotiate. On Wednesday night, White still had two tents pitched behind her house, "kind of as a reminder," she says.
I Self Devine performs in White's yard.
Occupy Homes MN describes White as the first person in the country to reach out to the Occupy movement and ask for help in her fight against foreclosure. "Her doing that was a domino effect, and let people see that this wasn't something to be embarrassed about, and that it wasn't an individual problem," says Nick Espinosa, a leading activist with Occupy Homes MN. "What started out at Monique's house nine months ago is now a national movement."
Now that White's home is secure, she's still involved with Occupy, and says she supports other homeowners as much as she can. She currently holds two jobs, one at a local liquor store and one in construction. A sign hangs on her back door, "When injustice becomes law, rebellion becomes duty."
While White's been settling back into her house, Occupy Homes MN has been ramping up its efforts. In the past two weeks, three of the homeowners involved in direct campaigns with the group got news that their banks would re-modify their loans. These three recent "victories" double the group's success stories. Occupy Homes has full campaigns with five other homeowners, and contact with about 50, Espinosa says.
In the spirit of continuing momentum, Jillia Pessenda, a core organizer of Occupy Homes MN, described the party as "a celebration of the work that's been done and also a call to action." And while there were several people at White's house last night who expressed the vague goals Occupy has been derided for -- one man told me he was "fighting for the end of capitalism" -- most of the group had more clear-cut motivations. "Housing is a human right," one man, currently trying to keep his home, said on stage.
For two days at the beginning of this week, a group of national Occupy Homes participants gathered in Minneapolis to discuss just that -- what their goals are and how to move forward. Last night, several of the activists in town for the conference joined the party at White's house, and expressed how invested they were in her fight. "We've all known about Monique," said Jessica Lewis, a housing justice activist from Baltimore. "We've been following her story, we've been signing petitions."
Meanwhile, as the crowd in White's yard kept celebrating and rallying, her new neighbors were still watching the party. "That's good they helped her," one of them said. "She's a good neighbor."
Occupy Homes activist Nick Espinosa helps save his mom's Mpls home from foreclosure
Occupy MN: Protesters occupy veteran Bobby Hull's foreclosed home [VIDEO]
"OccuPirates" arrested at Occupy Homes protest at US Bank [VIDEO]
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