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Activists took up song to protest a “public” foreclosure auction in Brooklyn Supreme Court this afternoon. Many of those gathered (from FUREE, Housing Is a Human Right, Organizing for Occupation, and a new group called Occupied Real Estate) had taken part in another singing act of protest last October to temporarily halt foreclosure proceedings and bring attention to the fact that every week, week after week, foreclosure auctions take place which leave families homeless when members of the “public” successfully buy the homes.
But this time was rather different. Far more people participated, with the courtroom being filled with about 60 people initially, according to Michael Premo of Housing is a Human Right; we personally saw over 20 people arrested, and organizers say approximately 35 were taken into custody.
And, since after court resumed and everyone but people the guards thought were buyers were barred from the courtroom (including members of the press), it couldn’t really be called a “public” auction at all.
When we arrived at 3:00 PM, the singing already started. As the Voice was going through the metal detector in the lobby of Brooklyn Supreme Court, we could hear “Listen Auctioneer,” a protest song composed for the October action, being sung in harmony and drifting down the marble hallway. State police sprinted down towards the music, as if they were running to put out a fire.
The first person we saw being led away in plastic cuffs was Rachel Falcone of Housing Is a Human Right (and our former colleague at StoryCorps). We also recognized lawyers Karen Gargamelli and Jay Kim of the legal firm Common Law. All three women — like all the people led away — kept singing the auctioneer sung as they were taken into custody.
The scene outside Room 224 of the courthouse was one of controlled chaos. According to Premo, when the singing started, people were ordered to leave the courtroom. Those who stayed did so knowing they would be arrested.
But the hallway was plenty full of protestors still singing, who were driving the police crazy; strangely, though they yelled (and even begged) a couple of times for them to please stop singing, they didn’t threaten to arrest them for that.
What they did threaten them for was not staying on one side of a nebulous, invisible line in the middle of the hallway, and for using any media (recording devices, phones, video cameras) in the hallway, even though signs on the wall clearly said such machines were barred from the courtroom but didn’t seem to be from the rest of the building.
We were threatened by this fellow at the end of the below video, who said if we kept recording us he was going to have handcuffs slapped on us
We suspect that he wasn’t a law enforcement at all, but someone far more powerful — a potential buyer, who just didn’t want to be on camera or interviewed.
Judging from what happened from this moment on, it would appear that the courts are indeed occupied…but not by singers at all. They have been occupied by potential buyers. They are the only ones allowed into the court, and the court functions on their whims.
Once all the activists were arrested, the “public” courtroom re-opened, by the police would only let certain people inside. They would not let anyone who was singing back into the courtroom, even if they stopped; and they wouldn’t let this reporter or any other member of the media inside for the first time. They only let people in who they believed had the money to buy a foreclosed property, which made for a very strange dynamic, considering it’s a public hearing (and by law a foreclosure auction must be open to the public for anyone to make a bid, as one housing expert explained to us).
We were not let inside at all. At first, we were accused of being a protestor, and told that we’d been thrown out already. We patiently explained we were neither a protestor, nor had we been in the room at all; we also explained that we’d handed off our phone to someone to hold and had no electronic equipment. We were non-threatening, non-confrontational, and had nothing for the court to fear (other than reporting on what they were doing, perhaps). Therefore, we should be let inside to report.
The officer asked for our press pass; we presented our Voice ID, business card, and government issued New York State driver’s license. He scoffed and said we had to have an NYPD press pass. This is patently untrue; the NYPD press pass is only necessary to cross police and fire lines and have no jurisdiction in a state court or anywhere else. Our driver’s license and Voice ID have been sufficient for entry into City Hall, the galleries of the New York State and United States Senate; and
have been accepted by the Secret Service in order to sit with the White House Press Corp in order to have close proximity to the President of the United States. No court in the city has ever asked us for an NYPD press pass before, a useless tool we eschew that leaves reporters powerless.
Regardless, it was a public court session; any member of the public, or press, should be allowed in. But these cops’ orders were clearly only to let in potential buyers of properties. These men (they appeared to be all men) were trying to get the auction going again and seemed quite fearful that it might get cancelled before they could make a purchase.
The court clearly belonged to these men.
We kept arguing with cops until we found one who at least pretended to engage our umbrage at being kept out of reporting on the public proceedings of a public court. He took his concerns to Major Luz Bryan of the New York State Courts. He said he had to get permission from her. Then, the court session abruptly ended, and all the prospective buyers came out and retrieved their phones and left.
When she finally came out, we had a hard time believing that Major Bryan was the one in charge. She is a woman who looks so unhealthy, you wouldn’t imagine she could walk to the subway without trouble, let alone be the commander of a courthouse. (And perhaps she’s not in control of her courthouse; as one protester claimed, the state courts are under strict budget restrictions and cannot afford overtime. Perhaps Major Bryan would be on the chopping block if she didn’t shut that shit down fast and had to pay any of her officers overtime.)
Major Bryan had no good reason as to why she wouldn’t let us in. First, she said I’d been warned to be quiet when I was in courtroom (which I was never in); then she said we didn’t have an NYPD press pass; finally she told us to take it up with her supervisor, Chief Jewel Williams, and to file a complaint if we didn’t like it. She refused to answer any questions and cleared the hallway.
When we left the court building, the protest organizers were taking a head count of how many had been arrested. They were quickly shooed off the public stairs and from being too close to the public entrance.
We snuck back inside and asked a guard at the information booth if any sales had taken place during the brief time the auction was back in session.
“I don’t know,” he said, annoyed. “We couldn’t be inside. We were too busy trying to take care of all the trouble everyone was making,” he said derisively.
“If you’d let me inside to the public court, I could have reported, found out for myself if any sales took place, and not bothered you” we responded before leaving.