Socialist Alternative

Lessons from Occupy Homes

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Ty Moore is on the Organizers Table of Occupy Homes MN and is the Midwest Organizer for Socialist Alternative

Occupy Wall Street changed the conversation. Now the challenge is to change the system (or at least win tangible reforms). So, as spring brings with it a fresh round of Occupy-inspired protests and campaigns, the central question facing the movement is how to transform mass support into mass action.

A large majority of the public – 77%, according to a December Pew Poll – agrees with the basic premise of Occupy Wall Street that big corporations and the 1% have too much power. But across the country, most Occupy events remain small and Occupy groups have failed to sink roots into working-class communities most impacted by Wall Street’s class war policies.

One of the exceptions to this trend is Occupy Homes Minnesota, a growing community campaign against foreclosures that is increasingly looked to as a national model. In a few short months, the campaign met with impressive success (see article in Justice 82).

After Occupy Homes forced Bank of America to renegotiate to keep Bobby Hull in his home, and mounted pressure campaigns delaying the foreclosure process of several others, more and more homeowners have approached us to fight back. We have consciously been building the foundations for a powerful, mass campaign and are poised to dramatically expand in the coming months.

This article is an attempt to draw lessons from our experiences that will help inform strategy discussions among Occupy activists across the country.

Bread-and-Butter Battles

When police repression and winter weather broke up Occupy Minneapolis, Occupy Homes MN was launched to re-gather the most serious activists around a bold mass strategy to fight foreclosures.

Our initial goals were twofold: First, to accelerate the momentum of Occupy by shifting gears into tangible bread-and-butter battles against the big banks. Second, to construct a vehicle for working-class communities to channel their rage at Wall Street into a powerful movement capable of forcing concessions from the 1%.

We recognized that, while mass sympathy existed for Occupy Wall Street, as long as concrete struggle remained limited to holding parks and plazas against police repression, there would be no hope for mass involvement. Instead, it would be necessary to re-position the movement to fight budget cuts, layoffs, racist police policies, and other real injustices meted out by the 1% and their political servants. The foreclosure crisis seemed like a clear place to start.

A Compelling Vision
One of the widely recognized keys to Occupy Wall Street’s success was their creation of a compelling story. The slogan “We are the 99%” caught on like wildfire. Similarly, the early emphasis in Occupy Homes was about building a compelling narrative.

We were extremely fortunate to have Monique White come forward among the early homeowners asking for help. Her story as a hardworking single mother who lost her job due to state budget cuts resonated with the experiences of millions. Moreover, as a black woman living in the most heavily foreclosed-upon neighborhood in the state, her struggle spoke to the ongoing legacy of racism in the banking and housing industry.

Real resources were put into ensuring Monique’s story would be told well and widely. Professional videos were produced, a serious social media apparatus was built, and careful attention to messaging was emphasized.

Using the occupation of Monique’s home as a model, a vision for a mass campaign was projected. At rallies, public forums, and campaign meetings we repeatedly explained our goal of getting hundreds of foreclosure victims like Monique to publicly pledge to stay in their homes until the banks renegotiated a fair deal. We publicly warned that any attempt to evict Monique or other homeowners would be met with mass resistance.

Building Capacity

On the basis of this clear vision, we appealed for supporters to energetically plug into a coherent campaign plan to transform the vision into reality. This has meant reaching out beyond the “usual suspects” of the Occupy activists and long-standing left circles.

A systematic canvassing campaign in neighborhoods most impacted by foreclosures was initiated, alongside outreach to community groups, churches, trade unions, and other potential allies. Energetic students recruited for an “Occupy Spring Break” initiative remained active and brought the campaign to their campuses. Important ties in the Latino and African-American communities have been established.

Implementing our campaign plan required building a solid leadership team that could quickly draw lessons, gauge progress, and propose tactical changes to the wider campaign as needed. The anti-leadership, anti-structure mood in Occupy had to be challenged. Many of the most serious activists, frustrated at the dysfunction of the General Assemblies, began informally meeting to discuss a strategy.

In a conscious effort to build a cohesive leadership team across ideological, racial, and other barriers, systematic “one-to-one” discussions are encouraged to build trust, to explore areas where we agree and disagree, and on this basis to work out a common vision for Occupy Homes.

Important weaknesses and debates over democratic process continue within Occupy Homes MN, but in practice we have established a self-confident, politically representative, and effective leadership team capable of mobilizing the energy and ideas of larger numbers of people.

We are now gearing up for a major new campaign this summer, aimed at building a statewide network, expanding the number of public homeowner campaigns into the hundreds and popularizing the demand for an across-the-board principal reduction for underwater homeowners and a foreclosure moratorium.

The Need for Demands

From the first days of Occupy Wall Street, outspoken opposition to adopting clear demands dominated the movement. Some argued that demands for reform undermined the revolutionary spirit of Occupy. Others worried demands were divisive. And as long as the main practical goal was to simply maintain physical occupations of parks and plazas, the problems with these arguments were less apparent.

Once the movement shifted into a real class struggle with the banks over tangible assets – people’s homes – the whole discussion rapidly changed. Several immediate problems arose from Occupy Homes’ lack of a program to solve the housing crisis.

Far from being more revolutionary, the lack of demands reduced the campaign to essentially fighting house-by-house. One week we’d demand US Bank offer Monique a fair deal; next week we’d demand Bank of America negotiate with Bobby. But how could this work once we brought hundreds of homeowners into the campaign?

The only way to beat the power of the banks is to build a mass movement around clear demands for collective solutions. Demands help popularize clear goals for the movement and provide protection from politicians watering down or diverting our struggles. They allow movements to establish the terms of debate and to expose the wider agendas of those in power.

Through this process, working people begin to feel their collective power, to see the corrupt role of the 1% and their governing institutions, and to recognize the need to challenge capitalism as a whole.

The discussion on a program for Occupy Homes MN is ongoing, but three basic demands on three clear targets were agreed for outreach materials. First, a call on the banks to renegotiate mortgages to levels homeowners can afford. Second, for state authorities to pass an immediate moratorium on foreclosures. Third, for the mayor and sheriff to stop sending police to evict families at the banks’ behest.

Avoiding Co-Optation

Since Occupy Wall Street rose into the national spotlight last fall, attempts to co-opt the movement have been made by various liberal groups aligned with the Democratic Party.

The biggest OWS national day of action was called for November 17 last year and was effectively organized in coalition with SEIU (Service Employees’ International Union). But when SEIU’s President Mary Kay Henry used the occasion to publicly endorse Obama’s re-election campaign and his anemic jobs bill, many occupiers were justifiably enraged. More recently, spearheaded the impressive “99% Spring” initiative, drawing thousands into “direct action trainings” which, in reality, were part of their 2012 campaign to elect Democrats.

The mistake made by many in Occupy, however, is to simply avoid working with unions or liberal groups. Occupy Homes took the approach of active coalition with more established community groups, while maintaining political independence and a mass movement strategy.

An important test came when Occupy Homes organized a confrontation with Minneapolis Democratic Mayor R.T. Rybak, urging him not to send police to evict Monique White. We initially got seven of nine city councilors to sign a petition with the same demand. Following the action, leaders in SEIU who had donated money and significant human resources to Occupy Homes put pressure on activists to stop publicly calling out the mayor. Their ties to the mayor and wider Democratic Party, they argued, could be used for behind-the-scenes negotiations instead.

This failed strategy of refusing to put public demands on the mayor has been tested. SEIU and others have campaigned against foreclosures for over a year already, but the mayor and his police were completely left off the hook for their complicity in the housing crisis and have continued evictions with political impunity. In reality, elected officials are far more vulnerable to public pressure than the monolithic banks. Collective solutions to the foreclosure crisis will require policy changes by local, state, and federal governments. And since both parties are funded and controlled by the big banks, achieving political change means placing demands on both parties.

Occupy Homes, while maintaining a working relationship with SEIU leaders, rejected their approach and has continued to protest the mayor’s use of police resources for the bankers’ profit-driven agenda.

Socialist Alternative has been involved from the early days of the campaign, with members involved in both strategic planning and day-to-day work. It has been an inspiring and educational experience for us, and all involved. Moving forward, we must closely study similar campaigns across the country and internationally, including the mass household tax boycott led by our Irish affiliate organization. The goal must be to build an ever-growing, constantly learning movement that can win tangible victories for working people and, even more importantly, train a new generation of community fighters to carry the struggle against capitalism forward.

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