Thursday, December 1, 2011

Media: Groups Aim to Seize Foreclosed Homes in Holiday Protest



Willie J.R. Fleming, co-founder of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, conducts a training session for a planned campaign to break into bank-owned foreclosed homes and turn them over to homeless families. Paul Beaty for the Chicago News Cooperative
by DON TERRY - Dec 1, 2011 - Chicago News Cooperative

Even if the winds of winter blow the Occupy Chicago protesters and percussionists off the corner of LaSalle Street and Jackson Boulevard, civil disobedience is not going into hibernation.

A coalition of community organizations, including Occupy Chicago and Occupy the Hood Chicago have been holding training sessions in recent days to prepare for a “homes for the holiday” campaign to find housing for poor women and children.

The groups plan to break into and rehab vacant bank-owned foreclosed homes throughout the city and hand them over to homeless families in a series of news conferences and “house warming’’ events on Dec. 6.

“Since this is the holiday season, we’re trying to get the banks into the spirit of giving,’’ said Willie J.R. Fleming, co-founder of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, as he conducted a training session for more than 60 people last Saturday afternoon on the South Side. “We want to hit the banks with jabs and upper cuts and everything imaginable.’’

Other groups plan to clean and board up abandoned buildings and send the banks a bill for the labor and materials. Protesters also are preparing to mount non-violent “eviction defenses’’ – standing in the way of sheriff’s deputies as they try to carry out evictions.

“During the civil rights movement they did sit-ins,’’ Fleming said. “We’re doing live-ins.’’

The “homes for the holiday” campaign is part of a coordinated nationwide effort, largely organized by Occupy Wall Street, Occupy the Hood and Take Back the Land, a Washington D.C.-based organization that since its early days in Miami in 2006 has been at the forefront of the movement to seize bank-owned foreclosed homes and move in the homeless. Demonstrators are scheduled to commit similar acts of non-violent civil disobedience on Dec. 6 in Atlanta, Boston, Miami, New York and several other cities, which organizers hope will serve as a dress rehearsal for larger actions in the spring. Organizers say they plan a series of demonstrations, marches and eviction protests across the country starting in March and focusing on the issues of foreclosures, corporate excess and economic inequality.

“It is a first step in a very long upward battle,’’ said Evelyn DeHais, a member of the Occupy Chicago press committee. “We’re going to put out a call to action to as many people as we can. The idea is to inspire this kind of action throughout the winter and beyond.’’

The Cook County Sheriff’s Department is responsible for conducting evictions. Frank Bilecki, a spokesman for Sheriff Tom Dart, said that no one in the sheriff’s foreclosure and eviction unit had heard about the events planned for Dec. 6 until contacted by the Chicago News Cooperative this week.

“All of our eviction teams will be aware of it now,’’ Bilecki said. “We have to make sure we’re ready for it.’’

The Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign training session on Saturday included tips on “how to canvas, how to talk with neighbors/community to get them to support and get involved in defense when necessary, how to identify properties and assess damage, how to support homeowners going through foreclosures, how to take back the land and Occupy Everything,’’ according to its website.

Max Rameau, founder of Take Back the Land, spent Monday and Tuesday in Chicago conducting training sessions before traveling to Miami to do more. At a storefront art gallery in Bridgeport Monday night, he told a largely white crowd of more than 60 Occupy Chicago supporters that the goal of the movement was to “cost the banks money’,’ but more importantly “to start a community conversation about housing as a human right.’’

“What we are doing is illegal,’’ Rameau said. “We are intentionally breaking the law. We’re saying the law is crap and we want to break it.’’

He said Take Back the Land targets only bank or government-foreclosed homes and only after searching property records and canvassing neighbors to rally support. He said the shortest time a family has lived in “a liberated’’ property was two weeks in Madison, Wis. “We made a tactical mistake of moving a black family into an all-white neighborhood,’’ Rameau said. The longest amount of time has been almost three years and counting, he said.

Last June, the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign moved a homeless woman and her four children, who were living in their van, into a foreclosed, vacant two-flat on the South Side. They are still there.

In an interview, Rameau said the Dec. 6 campaign was organized because “occupiers were starting to begin to think about what is going to happen in the winter and some people realized it didn’t make the most sense to just fight to try stay in these outdoor spaces.’’

The housing campaign, he added, was also a way to make the months of occupation and protest “more relevant to people of color.’’

“You don’t just defend a park,’’ Rameau said. “You defend people’s homes. That’s what’s relevant.’’

In preparation for the Dec. 6 event, Communities United Against Foreclosures and Evictions moved two sisters and their six children into a vacant bank-owned house in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood on the Northwest Side. The group also plans to move a family into a vacant house in Rogers Park as part of the campaign.

Another group, SOUL – Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation– is planning to seize a vacant bank-owned house and move in a homeless family in mid-December. After that, the group hopes to do it again and again.

“We need to raise the stakes,’’ said SOUL’s Byron Hobbs. “We’re looking at sustained occupation of several properties on the South Side.’’

The South Austin Coalition on the West Side has located a vacant house to take over on Dec. 6 but it must be rehabbed before a family can move in, said Elce Redmond, an organizer. He said the group also will clean and board up an abandoned house frequented by drug addicts and prostitutes down the street from an elementary school.

“We’re going to send the bill to the bank,’’ he said.

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