Occupy Moves to the Home Front

Occupy Wall Street found a new home this week—not a new park, or a plaza, or a square, but a house. Just weeks after the eviction from its encampment in the financial district, hundreds of occupiers joined local community members in a foreclosure tour of the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn through the rain, which concluded with a celebratory block party as a family reclaimed a foreclosed home owned by Bank of America.

As the march passed, I heard a local woman saying, “This was a long time coming.”

The action was one of many anti-foreclosure actions taking place in communities across the United States yesterday; the Guardian reported actions in at least 25 cities under the banner of a new Occupy campaign, Occupy Our Homes.

Across the country, millions of people face foreclosure or have already lost their homes; budget cuts mean that public housing assistance is becoming less available. Meanwhile, foreclosed houses sit empty, deteriorating and losing value. The Occupy Our Homes movement, according to its website, is meant to take on the tragic irony of “people without homes and homes without people” while also calling attention to one of the root causes of the financial crisis: bankers and speculators “gambling with our most valuable asset, our homes—betting against us and destroying trillions of dollars of our wealth.”

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Politicians and non-profits will join the cause not so much because they see an opportunity for themselves but because they can’t afford not to.

Other similar movements, including Spain’s Indignados or 15M movement, have used similar tactics, with protesters and evicted families occupying vacant bank-owned buildings.

For those of us who have been organizing and reporting on Occupy Wall Street for months, the afternoon was a reunion of familiar faces, of people who used to see each other daily in Liberty Plaza. But more visible than usual at Occupy Wall Street actions were collared clergy and members of the State Assembly and City Council. Together with locals and organizers with the NYC General Assembly’s Direct Action Committee, they were leading the marches and queuing the chants—all through the people’s mic, of course, megaphone-free. Along the way, staffers of groups that were once waiting-and-seeing from afar what Occupy Wall Street would do were now busily coordinating the action; among these are Van Jones’ Rebuild the Dream, New York Communities for Change, and Organizing for Occupation. And this, it seems, is our clearest glimpse yet of what Occupy Phase II will look like.

Without the focal point of an encampment, the movement’s actions will rely more and more on coordination with institutions more firmly established in neighborhoods where it works—as well as, despite the movement’s own leaderless structure, those institutions’ leaders.

While occupiers have almost always welcomed the support of outside organizations cheerfully, today I heard some grumbling from occupiers who have had negative experiences with this or that public figure in the past, and who are suspicious of traditional institutions as a whole. A City Council member might stand with the movement one day, but what will he or she expect from it on election day? And how far will a given non-profit organization go with civil disobedience before it starts to scare away its funders? These are new questions that the Occupy movement will be facing more and more.

The answer, though, seemed clear to me when I passed an activist running from the soon-to-be-reclaimed house with a drill in his hand—which presumably had just been used to bypass the house's lock. As long as this movement keeps nonviolent direct action at its center, as long as it refuses to wait for the powers that be to approve of the undertakings it deems necessary, its momentum will continue to grow. Politicians and non-profits will join the cause not so much because they see an opportunity for themselves but because they can’t afford not to.

With the march came a team from Occupy Wall Street’s Maintenance Committee to clean up inside the liberated houses. Outside, the occupation’s library and kitchen set up shop; teach-ins began and someone strung up a piñata.

That’s exactly what appears to be happening in Phase II, even more than Phase I. As more and more occupations are hardened by the experience of forced eviction, they’re more receptive to the spirit of direct action. Planned occupations will focus on ports, consumerism, and more. David DeGraw of OWSNews.org tells me that he has been getting text messages like the following from all over the country:

I just removed a newly changed lock off of a house to let original owner back in. My leatherman rules!

With a decreased focus on encampment sites, furthermore, the attention of Phase II will also likely be much more carefully oriented around the root causes of the crisis, as well as the mechanisms that perpetuate inequality and the power of the corporate elite.