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Occupy Goes Home

Nick Pinto

A cold, persistent rain fell on East New York last Tuesday as a crowd of hundreds snaked its way through the Brooklyn neighborhood, filled the street, and filed past blocks scabbed with vacant, boarded buildings.

By design, the front of the procession was dominated by local residents and community activists. But the bulk of the crowd was made up of people who had probably never been so far out on the 3 line before: displaced residents of Zuccotti Park marching under the banner of Occupy Wall Street.

The marchers made frequent stops outside vacant foreclosed homes and marked them with black-and-yellow-striped tape that read "Occupy." At one stop, a young man named Quincy stood on a stoop and told the crowd he was slated for eviction that very day. City Councilmember Charles Barron, speaking for the crowd, said, "We are not going to let this young man lose his home today." Quincy wept.

The final destination of the march was a secret to all but a few until the crowd turned up Vermont Avenue, where balloons and banners outside number 702 heralded a housewarming party.

The previous resident of 702 Vermont had been forced out three years earlier when his Countrywide Financial mortgage went into foreclosure after just a year. The small two-story house has stood vacant ever since, a dumping ground for construction debris and a source of concern for neighbors who feared it might turn into a drug den.

For the past month, Occupy Wall Street activists and their allies had been vetting foreclosed homes throughout the city as possible sites for a new kind of occupation. They settled on 702 Vermont for its easy access and the neighborhood's eagerness to see the home occupied. They broke into the building three days before the housewarming party and began preparing it for its new residents.

When Occupy Wall Street put the word out that they were looking for homeless families to take over "de-foreclosed homes," Alfredo Carrasquillo, homeless himself and a community organizer with VOCAL-NY, volunteered. He would take up residence in the house while the necessary repairs were completed. Then, his two young children and their mother, Tasha Glasgow, also homeless after exhausting the city's dwindling assistance programs, would move in.

A rotating cast of Occupy Wall Street volunteers has been staying on site to support the new residents in case the police try to kick them out. Hundreds more are ready to rush to their defense when notified by Twitter or text alert.

The action in East New York was mirrored by dozens of similar events across the country last Tuesday, and activists promise more home occupations to come. Together, the Occupy Our Homes actions represent the movement's first major shift in strategy since police evicted occupations in many cities from their encampments in public parks last month.

This new strategy presents a much tighter fit between tactics and message than was seen in OWS 1.0. When Occupy Wall Street was in Zuccotti Park, the media seized on the drum circles and sleeping-bag lifestyle to paint a picture of aimlessness and chaos—Woodstock tipping over into Altamont. But the occupied homes present a much clearer narrative: previously homeless families and young children, put into homes that the bankers' broken system had left vacant and rotting for years.

"The foreclosure crisis is where the rubber hits the road with the financial sector and the real economy, the 1 percent and the 99 percent," says Mike Konczal, a finance-reform expert at the Roosevelt Institute who attended the East New York occupation. "If you really want to challenge the banks' power and the way they're stripping wealth out of communities, leaving wreckage behind, foreclosures are a key point to go to."

The robo-signing and chronic mortgage fraud that has characterized the banks' conduct during the foreclosure crisis are fertile ground for Occupy Wall Street, not least of all because the Obama administration's eagerness to sweep the scandal under the rug with a quick settlement speaks to exactly the poisonous alliance between Wall Street and Washington that the movement decries.

There was some indication last week that the banks were rattled by this new tactic. A former subsidiary of Countrywide Financial, now owned by Bank of America, sent an e-mail warning field agents about the home occupations and asking them to check the bank's foreclosed properties to "ensure they are secured."

That e-mail was heralded by Occupy Wall Street supporters as evidence that the new campaign has banks quaking in their boots. But it's not clear that awareness of Occupy Our Homes has triggered an all-hands-on-deck response from the captains of finance. Late last week, a spokesperson for the American Bankers Association said she had never heard of last Tuesday's actions and had to have them explained to her.

Whether or not the bankers are paying attention, Occupy Wall Street is hoping this new campaign will resonate with a wider audience than the movement has been able to reach so far. A survey last spring found that nearly one-third of Americans personally knew a distressed homeowner, and with all indications showing the foreclosure epidemic rolling on for the foreseeable future, Occupy Wall Street is betting that home occupation is a form of civil disobedience the 99 percent can get behind.

"I'm just like everyone else," Glasgow said, speaking in her new home last week. "All I want is for me and my kids to be safe."

npinto@villagevoice.com


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