Foreclosed, Reopened

The signs of vacated communities are obtrusive: overgrown lawns, “for lease” signs, real-estate advertisements—or in the strange case of Zuccotti Park, an incessant police presence despite the end of an occupation. When these absences become commonplace, it can seem that the only response left is to pass by without seeing, to ignore, to grow inured to the emptiness. An alternative response was enacted on December 6th as the Occupy movement boldly acted in East New York, the Brooklyn community that has been hit the hardest by home foreclosures.

Houses as points on a map or data-points in a spreadsheet abstract from the glaring, lived fact of foreclosed homes: their inhabitability. Houses satisfy one of the most basic human needs, and there are plenty of New Yorkers who need shelter. So, on December 6th, a diversity of protesters gathered at 702 Vermont Avenue, the final stop on a long and winding march, and introduced a family who lost shelter in the city due to budget cutbacks into what was previously a bank-owned foreclosed home.

While the successful occupation of 702 Vermont Avenue in East New York was the ultimate goal of the action, the action itself was much more than its culmination, and its effects rippled far beyond that address. By explicitly working to include members of the East New York community, the planning and execution of the action introduced many new participants to the larger movement. The action linked together organizers from New York Communities for Change, Vocal New York, Picture the Homeless, as well as students from schools around the city, the direct action group of OWS, city councilmembers, Labor groups, the National Lawyers Guild, and many others. The convergence in East New York drew people who had gathered together hours earlier at designated locations in Staten Island, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan and effectively blended liberals, socialists, anarchists, and others in an action that transcended any individual political identity. In bringing New Yorkers from across the city to East New York, it widened the terrain of occupation by including a community in which the symbolic and practical strengths of occupation could converge. The L train at midday on a weekday had certainly never been more engaging and more alive to the possibilities of shared, transformative action.

Of course, the action itself was much more than the taking of a physical structure, and included both a winding march and sticking to the plan despite police attempts to limit activity. It included outreach to the neighbors that would experience it proceeding through its streets, and who might be willing to share parts of their front yard or stoops as daises. It included the shared production of signs, banners, and the coordination of diverse speakers on the people’s mic who spoke at multiple stops along the way to the final destination. As the march progressed, the action found a way to integrate a protest movement based on the strategy of occupation into a new community, respond to criticisms of a lack of diversity, and develop a new, more material challenge to the banking system it opposes. In so doing it found tremendous support within the community.

People on the street expressed support, families waved from their windows, shop-owners came out to greet the marchers, and passing trucks honked in approval as we progressed to 702 Vermont.

Once there, protesters provided the Glasgow-Carrasquillos family, that is, the new Occupiers, with house-warming presents which included houseplants, a Christmas tree, children’s books, food, and construction materials. Outside, in the street, a festival atmosphere took over despite a hardening rain. There were balloons and decorations, and the energy of the brass band led to an impromptu dance-party on the street. Wooden tents were constructed to hold teach-ins on the real estate industry and a shared food table on one side of the street fed those who needed a break. There was a block-party atmosphere that bound the new residents, the community, and the marchers together in a collective cause. The action was certainly to open a foreclosed, bank-owned home to a family that needed it, but in doing so it accomplished much more. It highlighted the growing problem of foreclosed homes, introduced the Occupy movement to a new community, and built strong ties of solidarity across multiple cleavages. In the end, by helping a family occupy a house, the movement united in a challenging, social, and even joyfully human expression that neither bad weather, police, nor banks could silence.

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