Jail Bankers Not Grandmas

Protest against the plight of the elderly, poor, disenfranchised and dispossessed as opposed to the fate enjoyed by wealthy plutocrats took the form of multi-pronged actions on June 11 in St. Louis, Mo., as activists showed solidarity with seven grandmothers who went to jail for justice.

During a week of demonstrations with the Home Defenders League, Occupy Our Homes and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE), seven women were arrested during an act of civil disobedience as they blocked the revolving doors at the Covington and Burling law firm in Washington, DC, on May 23. The women engaged in symbolic protest against the proverbial revolving doors between financial institutions and the Department of Justice.

Since that time, Midwest activists decided MORE needed to happen. So they took (direct) action.

Davina Curran, along with several other MORE activists, delivered a petition to the office of US Attorney Richard Callahan on June 11, the day the grandmothers’ court hearing was to take place in DC. The petition and organizing was intended to put pressure on the Department of Justice to stop prosecuting citizens – especially those of the senior type – for exercising their First Amendment rights. Activists also demanded that home owners be given fair modifications on their home mortgages, rather than continuation of the predominant process of forceful eviction. Additionally, they asked that big banks, hedge funders and CEOs be prosecuted for criminal wrongdoing that caused the financial and housing crisis of 2008, the effects of which continue to hit home (literally).

Two of the grandmothers arrested in DC for peacefully protesting the foreclosure crisis, Deborah Castillo and Annie Quain, both from the St. Louis area, were in court June 11 facing charges of “impeding an entry point” stemming from the actions in late May.

The bursting of the housing bubble that enriched higher-ups in Wall Street directly impacted homeowners like Castillo, who, in addition to her civil disobedience-related legal troubles, is currently involved in a law suit trying to win back her foreclosed home.

But with mega-banks back and bigger than ever, recording record profits while people like Castillo struggle, the pressure is on from protestors who inveigh against concentrated power. Yet, hitherto, it has had little effect at the macro-level.

High-risk speculation has not been seriously curbed. Mis-representative mortgage arrangements are continually made, even though “the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sent warning letters to around a dozen of America’s largest mortgage lenders and brokers, advising them to ‘clean up’ potentially misleading advertisements, especially those targeting veterans and older Americans,” Thom Hartmann reports.

Older Americans are indeed being disproportionately targeted, as Hartmann suggests and the seven grandmothers on trial can attest to.

Hartmann writes that commercial and investment banks need to be separated, since it was the abolishment of the firewalls between them during the Clinton years that opened the doors to the capitalist casino. He calls for bringing “back the boring bureaucrat bankers.”

Most would concur. Although, Curran said her ordeal has not been helped by institutional bureaucracy.

The mortgage modification process is “painstakingly long,” she said. Adequate guidance to help struggling homeowners is hard to come by, and the myriad forms those that apply for mortgage modifications are required to fill out add to the stress.

“You do a stack of paper work sky-high,” she said, apropos of her initial attempt to secure a payment reduction. The first time she and her husband applied for a mortgage modification, they did not, it turns out, actually apply for one, because they were required to go into default first.

“It was a very lengthy process,” she added. It did not end all that well either.

The couple started doing the paper work in August, and then, about “a week before Thanksgiving we got a notice that our house was being foreclosed upon,” she said. “But we were still doing paper work for the modification.”

At one point they were given a forbearance, so they did not have to make a mortgage payment for three months. But, at the end of that three-month period, they still owed the full three months payments.

“If you’re trying to get a modification, that’s not really accomplishing much,” she explained.

They have now managed to complete the modification, but like the bigger issues Curran and others contested and protested against June 11, the issue of basic fairness remains in the air.

“They decide everything,” she said. “You just give them the paper work. There’s no [dialogue or] questioning. You’re at their mercy.”

Even with the modification, Curran questions whether she and her husband can sustain payments given their other expenses and the combined $75,000 student loan debt they owe. The two were not allowed to factor that student debt in when documenting their financial situation as they tried to negotiate their mortgage adjustment.

Civil disobedience alone will not accomplish the institutional change activists want to see, Zach Chasnoff, another MORE activist, recognizes. He was in DC when the grandmothers were arrested and was also present for the solidarity action in St. Louis.

Transparent, multi-pronged and democratic tactics appear key.

Chasnoff mentioned how the “inside outside contingent strategy,” wherein some people from MORE delivered the petition directly to the US attorney’s office while others outside displayed a banner reading, “Jail Bankers Not Grandmas,” conveyed important messages to those in power and to the public. The latter is who MORE and activists across the country hope to really empower.

Until everyone who was sold a home at an artificially inflated price is permitted a principal reduction, Curran intends to continue concerted activist efforts, including (if need be) civil disobedience. People from St. Louis to DC share similar sensibilities, and age is not slowing them down.