Occupy Minnesota fights the banks
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."
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.
Before any papers were signed, Occupy held a block-party celebration. At that party, six more homeowners facing eviction felt empowered to speak out and pledge to stay in their homes. They included John Vinje, a veteran and security guard from Bloomington, a union laborer named Frank Clark, and a north Minneapolis church and civic leader named Ruby Brown. Bobby Hull's fight and victory had planted a seed, and the Occupy Homes movement was growing.
"These individual cases were inspiring people to stand up," says Espinosa, "and hopefully build a mass movement across the country of people doing this."
Among the new crop of homeowners empowered to speak out that night at Hull's house was Espinosa's own mother, Colleen McKee Espinosa, a nurse and single mom who had received a sheriff's sale notice from Citibank informing her that she could lose her north Minneapolis home in June.
"Seeing these homeowners going through the same thing, that's when my mentality shifted where it was more, maybe the banks should be ashamed rather than the people that they're taking advantage of," McKee Espinosa says. "I decided that I'm not leaving my home until we get a good-faith negotiation. I'm fighting to send the message to other people not to give up, because if you're isolated you can't fight these people. The banks had better watch out because people are catching on to their game and a lot of people are going to fight back now."
Following Hull's victory, Occupy went to bat for McKee Espinosa and five homeowners battling Bank of America to keep their houses. No more than a day before the sheriff's sale, McKee Espinosa receive a deal from Citibank to stay in her home.
Meanwhile, Occupy unveiled a video campaign supporting the "Minnesota five." Within 48 hours, a "customer relationship manager" from Bank of America's social-media department called union worker Frank Clark and his wife, Kristina Darrington, who were struggling to keep their home in the northern suburb of Coon Rapids, and offered to help fix their loan.
It appeared that Bank of America, conscious of losing the public-relations war, had created the social-media team — what the bank calls its "customer-related escalation group."
"It wasn't an attorney, it wasn't a loss mitigation specialist, it wasn't a collection agent, it wasn't a mortgage broker, it wasn't even an executive — it was a social-media liaison," says Occupy organizer Anthony Newby. "They're paying very close attention to this public narrative. What they haven't figured out is how to combat it, how to effectively neutralize what's becoming an outcry of public opinion around the country."
Clark and Darrington kept their home thanks to Occupy's public campaign, as did two other members of the "Minnesota five" — north Minneapolis resident Ruby Brown and St. Paul attorney Paul Lelii.
By the end of February, Bank of America had given Hull a loan modification. But Monique White's forecast wasn't improving at all, as US Bank — the original servicer of the loan — refused to budge, instead deflecting responsibility to lender Freddie Mac, which currently owned the mortgage.
Occupy Homes mounted sporadic protests at US Bank offices throughout Minneapolis, which occasionally led to arrests. Then an eviction notice from Hennepin County arrived in White's mailbox, informing her that she could be evicted by March 2.
Into the breach stepped the National Lawyers Guild, which represented White pro bono and won four consecutive cases in housing court to stall an eviction. Her defense team hoped to move the case out of housing court and into district court, where White would get a jury trial.
"We want the facts to be decided by Monique's peers," says Lawyers Guild attorney Rachel Lang. "Not necessarily by people who are in a privileged situation and who have a very different cultural background, and a very different amount of power."
Meanwhile, back in north Minneapolis, nervous Occupy activists were certain that a police raid was imminent if a deal wasn't worked out in court, and they prepared to physically protect White's house — and face certain arrest.
"The amount of energy that Freddie Mac and US Bank were putting into this eviction for a house that literally was worth about $35,000, according to our own comparative market analysis that our realtor did," begins Newby. "The amount of money that they must have spent to pursue this eviction was certainly tens of thousands of dollars, and my guess is that it far exceeded the actual value of the home. They would expend any amount of resources to get this person out of this house so that Occupy Homes couldn't claim victory in what had become at that point a national and an international case."
Neither the jury trial nor the police raid ever materialized. Instead, with the help of Occupy and Minnesotans United for a Fair Economy, White purchased a tiny share in US Bank and snuck into the shareholders meeting on April 17 to confront CEO Richard Davis, who ultimately helped her with a loan modification after US Bank claimed for months that only Freddie Mac could do that.
Occupy Homes took on a new and greater challenge in late April when it began defending the Cruz house in south Minneapolis.
The face of this campaign was the children of the family, Alejandra and David Cruz, who were campaigning for the Dream Act, which would grant immunity from deportation for the children of undocumented immigrants and make them eligible to attend college in the United States.
"My parents had to work so hard for this house that it's unjust for the bank to just take it away," cried Alejandra Cruz. "My parents brought us here really young, and we've always learned how to fight against injustice ever since we came to this country."
Occupy defended the Cruz house for three weeks with an elaborate network of activists locked to concrete barriers at both the front and back doors, and a rapid-response text-message system so the home defenders could mass there quickly once the police arrived.
The Hennepin County sheriff's raid came on May 23, 25 days after the Cruz home defense began. About 100 activists quickly arrived and held the house.
Two days later, at 4 a.m., sheriff's deputies launched a second surprise raid, using jackhammers and electric saws to remove protestors from the balcony and the roof, kicking in the front door, and arresting five protestors. Fifty activists arrived as reinforcements and again held the house.
Occupy responded by holding an impromptu and spirited demonstration in front of Minneapolis City Hall, with the Cruz family's damaged front door used as a dramatic backdrop. Since Minneapolis police resources were now involved, demonstrators called upon Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak to stop doing the bank's bidding. The demonstration then moved to the basement of City Hall, where Alejandra and David Cruz pounded on the door of Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek's empty office.
Joining the Cruz rally at City Hall was Minneapolis City Council member, and Occupy supporter, Gary Schiff.
"We know what caused the economic crisis in this country," he proclaimed. "It was banks that were unregulated and were allowed to take advantage of low-income people who dreamed of a home. Don't let the breaking of this door break your resolve to fight back."
The following week, Hennepin County sheriffs and the Minneapolis Police Department collectively launched a third raid on the Cruz home, and this time they secured the house and boarded up doors and windows to prevent Occupy from reentering. Deputies once again used a jackhammer to break an activist out of a cement barrel, and made three arrests.
"We're advising [Freddie Mac] that we're done here," Police Chief Tom Dolan told reporters outside the Cruz house. "I think there's a responsibility on [Freddie Mac] to take care of securing their property. The police department doesn't want to be involved in these actions, but legally when we get a call from an owner on a trespass, we have to respond."
That afternoon, the mayor's office issued a statement, confirming that the police had secured the foreclosed home, but that "at the direction of Mayor Rybak, Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal reached out to Freddie Mac to say that the city is not in the foreclosure business. 'The city plays a limited role to protect public safety. The property is the responsibility of its owner,' said Segal. In this case, the city has fulfilled its legal obligation to secure the property."
The very next day, Occupy Homes opened the boarded-up front and back doors and temporarily recaptured the house, only to be raided that night by Minneapolis police for a fourth time. While activists sat down and linked arms on the front steps of the home, police officers, including Chief Dolan, trampled over them to enter the house. Fourteen protestors were arrested, including Nick Espinosa, who was reportedly thrown on his back and dragged through the front door. Espinosa and several other Occupy Homes activists faced riot charges from the incident. Espinosa's were later dropped, but the others still face charges.
"This is where the banks, and Freddie Mac, and the city of Minneapolis decided to draw a line," says Espinosa, "and they put all their resources into making sure that this family could not get back into their home."
Despite police intimidation against Occupy Homes, the movement succeeded in putting Rybak between a rock and a hard place, forcing him to call Freddie Mac and try, unsuccessfully, to convince the lender to negotiate a new mortgage with the Cruz family.
That an undocumented immigrant family and a ragtag group of activists could force the mayor of a major American city — and a rising star within the national Democratic Party — to call Freddie Mac was a testament to the burgeoning power of Occupy.
Mayor Rybak freely admitted that Freddie Mac appeared to be the obstacle to keeping the Cruz family in their home.
"We as cities can't be expected to be the lightning rod for tough foreclosure practices that often are not responding to folks," the mayor told TheUpTake.org. "The current situation with lenders isn't working. It's putting cities in positions where we're spending huge amounts on police resources. That challenge is with Freddie, so that's where I've put my energy, and frankly, I'm disappointed in their response."
Occupy and its allies, including Schiff, openly questioned why Hennepin County sheriffs and Minneapolis police would spend tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars to do the lender's bidding.
"This is costing money — money that could be used for roads and schools, especially after we're told repeatedly that there is no money for public services," said Occupy's Newby. "If that's the case, why are we using public funds to arrest peaceful protestors? In the Cruz case, it cost over $40,000 in public money to pay police overtime and fees to carry out these evictions."
With PNC Bank unwilling to budge, Alejandra and David Cruz traveled to the bank's corporate offices in Pittsburgh as part of a nationwide Occupy Homes day of action, but were unable to secure a deal.
Meanwhile, in south Minneapolis, 13 demonstrators, including hip-hop artist Brother Ali, voluntarily crossed a police line in solidarity with the Cruz family's struggle and were arrested.
In mid-October the Cruz house was put on the market, and Occupy returned to hold a series of candlelight vigils. PNC Bank had shown a willingness to negotiate, but Freddie Mac refused to budge.
Occupy has begun to realize that the bigger impediment to compromise isn't the banks but the national lenders Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.
Edward DeMarco, who directs the Federal Housing Finance Agency, declared that he wouldn't allow Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to participate in a White House program that provides principal reduction for troubled homeowners. In response, liberal groups and Democratic politicians have called for President Barack Obama to fire him.
With a new target in mind, Occupy activists traveled to Freddie Mac's headquarters in Washington, D.C., in late September along with more than 100 homeowners from around the country who face eviction at the hands of Freddie Mac. The Minnesota delegation included Anthony Newby, Sara Kaiser (who lost her south Minneapolis home a year ago), Bloomington veteran John Vinje, and Bobby Hull, who refused to stop agitating even though he won his house in February.
"One of the most exciting things about this movement is that it's not only the people who are facing eviction, it's people who have won their house, and are still fighting for others," explained Newby. "Bobby Hull was as excited as anybody to go to D.C. and deliver a direct message."
The trip to the nation's capital was bigger than the fight for John Vinje or Sara Kaiser's house, or to get Edward DeMarco's attention. With a presidential election now just weeks away, this was a deliberate bid by the Occupy movement to thrust the issue of home foreclosures onto the national stage.
"We need to make housing an issue in this election, because right now it's not," says Nick Espinosa. "Both Democrats and Republicans have essentially the same housing policy, and both parties are in danger of alienating [the public] if they continue to serve the banks and not the people."
Jacob Wheeler has covered the Occupy Homes movement for the past year for TheUpTake.org.
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