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Joy and Misery in the Valley | Occupied Stories

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Joy and Misery in the Valley

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Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Ryan Rice’s blog.

“I began revolution with 82 men. If I had to do it again, I’d do it with 10 or 15 and absolute faith. It does not matter how small you are if you have faith and plan of action.” —Fidel Castro

Los Angeles, CA–Occupy Los Angeles began with 50 people in Pershing Square. There are now nearly 50,000 “likes” on the Facebook page, yet it was Castro’s scenario that occupied Bertha Herrera’s backyard in Van Nuys in early January. Fifteen people with absolute faith that knew a part of changing the world was to be found in a two-bedroom house in the valley.

Bertha had been a resident of this cozy slice of home for over thirty-one years. She was blindsided by trouble when she was denied her workers’ compensation and found herself with no alternative except a second mortgage. The cold and indifferent bank floored Bertha with an illegal notice to evict after mishandling her payments.

There will be ten million more cases like Bertha’s this year. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, Latinos make up the majority of loans delinquent or in foreclosure in California. When examining completed foreclosures, African-American and Latino rates in Los Angeles County are double those of whites. The report, titled Lost Ground 2011, states, “Minority borrowers were disproportionately targeted for mortgage products that were inherently more difficult to sustain, which has resulted in higher foreclosure and serious delinquency rates in communities of color.”

It is clear that Bertha’s situation is far from unique. City, state, and federal government programs have failed to offer real relief, characteristically choosing giveaways to banks and empty rhetoric. The L.A. City Council extended protections for renters but ignored homeowners. Bertha paid an advocate $1,500 but was left unrepresented in court and handed a default judgment. The state legislature failed to pass SB 1137, which would have prevented this robbery. Had those in Sacramento truly cared about struggling Americans, they certainly would have passed this bill to require servicers to make contact with borrowers before initiating foreclosure action.

This brings us to D.C. and the shortcomings of federal foreclosure protections. A total of $29.9 billion has been set aside from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to go towards the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). Of the 1.2 million California homes foreclosed upon in the last three years, only ten percent have seen that funding and help. What is abundantly obvious is that our elected officials care more about the banks’ bottom lines than homes for their “constituents”. It was with this realization that Bertha Herrera reached out to Occupy Los Angeles for help.

This writing was partially complete when the sheriffs cut the dead bolt and cleared Bertha’s house room by room. I was feeling a child-like euphoria over occupying a foreclosed home. The movement was transitioning from the symbolic to the real. We all agreed that housing was a human right as we sat cross-legged in our respective tents at Occupy LA, funky protest music thumping from the South Steps. Now we were doing something about it beyond raising awareness on the issue and “changing the national dialogue”. If occupying City Hall had been boot camp, this was our first mission.

The Joy was written before the police came with their guns, before the realtor measured for remodeling, and before the carpenters scurried in the darkness to board up the home.

The Joy

It was Day 97 of Occupy Los Angeles and Day 111 for Occupy Wall Street. For Bertha in Van Nuys, this was day one of her occupation. Her nephew watched us make signs, erect tents, and talk into the night as her patio became a microcosm of Solidarity Park. We were experts at occupying by now. Tents materialized out of thin air and were arranged in a community-oriented circle. A smoking zone was designated for a far corner of the yard as cell phones and cameras occupied the charging station. We were livestreaming the action, tweeting for pizza, and grinning.

Sitting on her back porch as crickets chirped, I noticed a marked absence of noise at this special occupation. In the silence, I was struck by the differences and similarities between occupying public space as a statement versus a foreclosed ninety-niner’s home as a measurable act. I knew I was part of a revolution when I was at Solidarity Park. The drums, the mic-checks, the sirens, and the honking horns told me so. But this quiet suburb, in all its normalcy, was also now a focal point to this movement.

The goals of a public occupation are attacked as oftentimes oblique. This critique has incessantly confused me. I simply want all the things dismantled. I want health care for all, an end to war, fair and just fiscal policy, free education, immigrant rights, and an end to foreclosures. By the way, I also want to abolish capitalism and radically redefine how we live and what our values are. How does one pragmatically go about this? The raw truth is that I want to take down every facet of the oppressive power structures… and that’s daunting. How does one raze the structures of subjugation?

As it turns out, we start at Bertha’s two bedroom house in Van Nuys. Among the multitude of issues, the foreclosure scam has risen to the top as a primary weapon of the one percent. Our marches and rallies are uplifting and empowering, but what do they do, really? If we’re lucky, a frightened security guard locks the doors as we wail and scream;

Bank of America!

Bad for America!

I sometimes question just what a march accomplishes, other than hindering business for a few dozen annoyed ninety-niners. It doesn’t stop the robo-signing on the twentieth floor, the derivative deals on the ninth floor, the slashing of thirty thousand jobs on the forty-second floor, or the decadent million-dollar bonuses in the board rooms.

Foreclosures, however, can deliver guerrilla victories and win the ‘hearts and minds’ of America. This fight offers that same inspiring message of defiance and People Power. It gives the same opportunity for pitching tents, communal living, and battle with the Vampire Squid. What foreclosures do so uniquely is cause real economic harm to the banks that manipulate capitalism to seize and control. They have spun a wonderfully clever web of public losses and private gains that is now, finally, being exposed.

Occupying a home in danger of foreclosure has a palpable goal, a digestible morsel of triumph. The protest encampment was filled with dreamers, drunkards, and die-hard policy wonks. So it is with Bertha’s home. But now there is a resolute tightening of the jaw on all these activists. Now we’re seeing a grandmother’s home in danger of being stolen from her and sold to the highest bidder. And we’re seeing this elusive idea of resistance spread to a woman who has instructed her two adorable dogs to treat these unwashed and penniless occupiers as family. We’re witnessing someone stand up and say, “NO!” I feel honored to shrug off my pack and call this house my home, too.

The Misery

“Wow. What the fuck happened today?” I asked to no one in particular as I finished a cigarette on the decrepit back stairwell of the “Occupartment”. It was midnight, and I was at a loss for words. Our collective has a painfully clear view of the skyscrapers and banks that make up the Los Angeles skyline. As I exhaled the smoke, I wondered just how much resistance it was going to take to have those behemoths rendered obsolete and seized by the people.

The day began with a conspicuous locksmith’s truck across the street. Bertha had just made me a cup of coffee and we were tip-toeing around the house as occupiers lay sprawled on the floor, the couch, and the yard in the back. I had just finished talking with public radio about foreclosures, general strikes, and the future of the occupy movement. Bertha and I were both nervous that the police would show up. This action had been hastily thrown together and we had not had a chance to discuss the diversity of tactics open to us.

Did she want us to chain ourselves to the fridge?! Blockade the doors?

Or did she want us to pack up and exit, providing court support and raising neighborhood awareness instead?

Before we could form any kind of plan, sheriffs began banging on the door, threatening arrests to anyone inside. Having no instructions from the distraught homeowner, I decided to just sit and put the onus to act on the police officers. They cracked the door and came in with guns drawn. We met them with defiance and our cameras. Once they saw the tents and the camera-phones, they holstered their weapons with an awkward acknowledgment that made clear they knew about the occupy movement. The sheriffs still cuffed all three of the men in the house, prodding and pushing the women out the door as well as they struggled to regain their alpha status in the home.

I was cuffed and as the deputy walked me into the driveway, I could feel his whole body shaking with adrenaline. We were all oddly calm though, resolved to spend more time in jail for… whatever they felt like smearing us with. As only a protester can, I was absentmindedly comparing the weight and feel of these metal cuffs to the cutting plastic zip-ties I’d previously been detained in. This occupation was over before it really began, and I was talking with another cuffed comrade about the lost opportunity.

I had plans to turn the palm tree in front into a totem pole devoted to social justice!

I couldn’t wait to meet the neighbors and hold block party teach-ins as we radicalized the street!

I was ready to set up Occupy Lemonade Stands and neighborhood day care and, and, and…!

But then I saw Bertha. She was being forcibly removed from her home. A bank with zero claim to the house was ordering the police to evict this grandmother of five. They gamed the system to seize yet another property. Disgustingly, a Coldwell Banker real estate agent was on hand to take measurements for remodeling. This was really happening. Our bold new front in the Class War was being squashed. Bertha was now without a home.

The sheriffs eventually calmed themselves down and released us, allowing us to get our occupy gear as we gathered, groggy and tense on the front lawn. We comforted Bertha and held an impromptu assembly to decide what to do. The nearest Coldwell Banker branch was just a short ride away, so it was settled that picketing the real estate company’s role in selling stolen homes would be a solid action in response to the eviction.

The action was a success, with a police presence symbolically guarding the bank, drivers honking and waving, and occupiers marching with a tent and signage. We got some of our spirit back, shouting chants at the employees and the police. It was a kind of therapy for the failure at Bertha’s, a medicine to restore our indignation. The valley hadn’t seen much occupy action so far, and it was a welcome boost to see the bank manager flustered and worried by our presence.

We reconvened at Bertha’s home, where occupiers had helped her draft a letter that they were now distributing throughout the neighborhood. The letter was a cry for help that acknowledged the occupy movement had answered her plea. Behind each door was a friendly face, supportive of Bertha and of the foreclosure work occupiers were doing. It turned out I would not have to wait long to find other foreclosed homes to occupy. Six – SIX – in the neighborhood were facing foreclosure in the near future.

As the sun set, we vowed that the day was not yet over. A political debate was going on, so about half of us went to fill out comment cards to demand what each candidate was going to do about the foreclosure crisis. I stayed behind and witnessed one of the saddest moments to date of this movement. Under the cover of darkness, eight LAPD officers showed up to “keep the peace” as a construction crew came in to board up the house. Bertha’s nephew pleaded in Spanish to the workers, asking them in their native tongue if they had a grandmother, if they had a heart. We stared in disbelief as the front door’s Christmas wreath and “Jesus Loves You” sign were covered by plywood.

Thankfully, Bertha had not stayed around to witness the travesty. But as I stood there, I was granted a healthy dose of perspective. Here I was, traumatized and enraged that we had been evicted from Solidarity Park after a mere sixty days. The Fascist Fence continues to separate me from the public space I used to live in and love. It makes me cringe in anger that the thugs dared to lock up our home. I tear up every so often when I look beyond the fence at that hollow expanse.

This movement is so much bigger than a park. We must desperately defend Bertha and the millions of families that see that same thing happen to their homes! We all knew Occupy LA was a fleeting and temporary beauty, sure to be shut down by the elites and the pigs they order around. However, this is a home of thirty-one years. It isn’t a provocative display of the First Amendment, its a place to be warm, to hang pictures on the fridge, and place inspirational quotes by the coat rack.

To see the home boarded up meant the property values of every house on the street instantly fell by the thousands. To see those plywood sheets nailed across her windows was proof that the corporations and the puppets they control do not give a shit about us. Another American was joining the ranks of the wretched refuse and capitalism marched on. I was miserable. We were all miserable over the blatant pillaging the morally bankrupt oligarchy is doing to the 99%.

Everything For Everyone, And Nothing For Ourselves

The spirited occupiers in Solidarity Park roundly rejected a facade of city support in late 2011. In a series of closed-door ‘negotiations’, City Hall and the Mayor awkwardly offered a small building space, too few beds for the houseless, and an undetermined corner of farming land somewhere (eventually). Instead, we audaciously crafted a response that we felt best supported the ninety-niners in Los Angeles. We didn’t need to be placated with 100 beds when Angelenos need 18,000. It is in this vein that the occupy movement will take the power from the oligarchs.

The above Zapatista slogan, “Para todos todo, para nosotros nada,” has been emblazoned across each of our hearts. However, there is a fascinating muddling between us and the “everyone” we’re helping. In the radio interview that morning, I was questioned about the existence and role of the homeless within Occupy Los Angeles. I answered simply, “You’re talking to a homeless person.”

This is the dichotomy inherent to the movement. I am fighting for a person who was denied health care coverage, drained of her life savings, and kicked out of her home. The fact is, I have no health insurance, am penniless, and houseless. Under most assumptions, a Latina grandmother living in the suburbs would have nothing in common with a young white man floating around the urban sprawl of downtown Los Angeles. This is what class war is, though. The erosion of the middle class and the oppression we’re all facing is blurring the line between occupiers as activists and victims.

So is the Occupy Movement the megaphone or are we the ones needing amplification? Under the umbrella of Money in Politics, we are oftentimes both. An individual’s struggle may be over foreclosures, but it could just as easily be over skyrocketing tuition, a relative lost to the Drug War, a friend killed in wars for profit, or a vaporized retirement plan. Omar Barghouti, a human and Palestinian rights advocate, said connecting the issues “is not a nicety, it is a necessity”. The absurdity of profits over people as standard operating procedure is deplorable. If we are going to stop any one injustice, we must come together to stop them all.

I’m reminded of a few quotes from the inspiring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said:

“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”

And, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The point is that we the ninety-niners are facing an existential threat and if we hope to not just survive but thrive, it means occupying every home, boycotting every exploitative corporation, and re-learning to lean on our communities. Like occupiers across the globe, we must take charge of our lives and be incessantly indignant at the oppressions we each face.

Despite being unable to prevent the erection of some fences and boards, the fight is just beginning. One day soon these foreclosures are going to stop and we’ll finally acknowledge housing as a human right. This is because there is no stopping Bertha, my fellow occupiers, or this global movement. We’ve taken the Wall Street bull by the horns and there’s no going back. If anyone falters in their resolve for breaking these heinous chains, they can just look to someone like Bertha Herrera. She thanked us, saying, “I wouldn’t have been able to get through this without you (all). I know I’m not alone in the fight, and that gives me the strength to fight for others who are going through the same troubles.” Let’s give her what she and the rest of the ninety-niners deserve. Each day will continue to be filled with both joy and misery. Yet each day is worth it as we continue to see victories where before there were none.

– Ryan Rice –

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