US: Occupy Homes: The Battle of 4404 Cedar Ave

Minneapolis anti-foreclosure movement confronts banks, politicians, and police

The battle over the Cruz family home, nestled in a well-kept working class neighbourhood in south Minneapolis, emerged in May and June as the central struggle in the burgeoning nationwide anti-foreclosure movement.

All members of the Cruz family work, and for years they paid their mortgage in full and on time. But when their online payment to PNC failed to go through due to a bank computer error, the bank unapologetically demanded two mortgage payments plus penalties. When they were unable to pay what PNC demanded in time, the house fell into foreclosure, and the mortgage was sold to Freddie Mac.

Sheriffs posted an eviction notice on Alejandra and David Cruz’s door in late April, and the Cruzes invited Occupy Homes MN to begin a 24/7 eviction blockade of their home. For a peaceful first month, the Cruz family home served as a community hub, hosting teach-ins, neighbourhood barbecues, and Occupy Homes meetings. But the long-awaited battle eventually began.

Wednesday, May 23: First eviction attempt

Hennepin County sheriffs made their first major eviction attempt. Several occupiers immediately hooked into concrete lock-box barrels to delay the deputies. A text alert went out, and 100 supporters arrived within a short period, blockading busy Cedar Ave during rush hour until the sheriffs retreated.

Friday, May 25: Pre-dawn defense

Deputies returned at 4am with a jackhammer and a battering ram. While sheriffs jackhammered through the concrete lock-box barrels to arrest the activists whose limbs were locked inside, the delay allowed 40 people to mobilize in the pre-dawn hour.

For the occupiers, the situation appeared desperate, until someone suggested flanking the sheriffs that were guarding the front of the house. Activists ran through the alley, jumped the back fence, and re-occupied the property. Faced with the audacity of the protesters, and fearing the political consequences of mass arrests, the sheriffs again retreated. Occupiers removed flimsy plywood from the doors and reclaimed the Cruz home.

75 activists marched into the sheriffs’ headquarters, then the mayor’s office, presenting them with the Cruzes’ front door, mangled by the battering ram. Mayor Rybak pledged police would not take further action until the following Tuesday, and the five arrested in the morning raid were released on minimal bail.

Tuesday, May 29: Eviction and police station protests

Forty police swooped in, surprising activists. They rapidly cleared the home, arresting the one activist who managed to lock down. Dozens of Cruz supporters gathered, repeatedly rushing police lines. But with police securely holding the house, protestors marched down Hiawatha Ave., shutting down the major highway, then moved on to shut down a big intersection by a local police precinct

Wednesday, May 30: The re-occupation (and more arrests)

With only three private security guards protecting the house, Occupy Homes again tested the Mayor’s statement that “the City is not in the foreclosure business.” Linking arms, over a hundred occupiers linked arms around the Cruz home, ignoring the security guards’ objections, and again removed the plywood over the doors.

By nightfall, police again amassed around the house, arresting 14. Confrontations continued into the night, with occupiers linking arms, pushing up against police lines, and sitting down around the paddy-wagon filled with arrestees.

Since that night, the house sits under constant police surveillance. Heavy metal barriers were put over the windows and doors. Protests, prayer vigils, and other actions continued.

Thursday, June 21: National day of action

Alejandra and David Cruz led a caravan to Pittsburgh and, alongside supporters there, they marched into PNC headquarters to demand a meeting with the CEO. Their requests for a real negotiation were still rejected.

National Day of Action promo image

A national day of solidarity called by Occupy Wall Street drew protests outside PNC bank branches in 19 cities. In Minneapolis, fifteen were arrested – including internationally famed rapper Brother Ali – for crossing police lines at the Cruz home. A national call-in campaign targeting the leaked cell phones of top PNC executives was unleashed, and a petition is nearing 200,000 signatures.

Win or lose, the battle of 4044 Cedar Ave has already emerged as a national model for home defence, and exposed not only the profiteering of the banks but also the role of the sheriffs, police, and city officials as frontline defenders of the 1%.

Occupy Homes Takes On the Mayor

A few doors down from the Cruz family home lives Sasha Lindquist, himself a homeowner on the verge of foreclosure.

Angered by the massive police presence, Sasha wrote a letter to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, signed by three other neighbours, that effectively sums up the role of government and police in capitalist society:

"Mayor Rybak, the city attorney, and the chief of Minneapolis police have all declared that the city is not in the business of providing free private security for banking institutions. Their actions, however, speak louder than their words: there have been a total of five raids on the Cruz house in the last two weeks. Last Friday, I awoke to the sound of chainsaws and jackhammers as sheriff’s deputies hacked away at the concrete barriers that protesters had erected…"

The living experience of the class struggle has always been the best teacher of political theory. While study after study reveals Wall Street’s widespread crimes against homeowners and their flagrant disregard for even the lax laws governing financial institutions, hardly any bankers sit behind bars.

Meanwhile, 39 Occupy Homes activists have been arrested since late May. Chief Dolan, head of the Minneapolis police, sent a widely publicized letter to Mayor R.T. Rybak outlining the costs of securing 4044 Cedar Ave against the Cruz family and Occupy Homes: $45,585, including “work performed by him, an inspector, three lieutenants, five sergeants, 155 officers, a public information officer, a crime lab officer, three forensic scientists and two video analysts,” and the Fire Department (Star Tribune, 6/14/12).

Strategic Weak-point

The issue is already causing public divisions within the Democratic Party machine that runs Minneapolis. “There’s no way Minneapolis property taxpayers should be footing the bill for [evicting activists] who are trying to keep a family in their home… We send that [$45,585] off as an invoice to PNC [the Bank who foreclosed on the Cruzes] and ask them to pay for it,” proposed Gary Schiff, an ambitious city councillor reputedly eyeing a run for mayor himself. “Arresting every protestor is not a sustainable solution to the foreclosure crisis.”

It’s also not sustainable for Mayor Rybak’s political career. City officials may be able to weather the political fallout of mass arrests to force foreclosed upon families out of their homes once, twice, maybe even a dozen times.

But upwards of 3,000 homes are foreclosed on in Minneapolis each year. If hundreds of homeowners “take the pledge” to occupy their homes – which is the central goal of Occupy Homes MN – responding with police repression would hopelessly expose Mayor Rybak and his allies in the Democratic Party as agents of Wall Street.

Electoral Challenge Needed

Yet as recent history has repeatedly demonstrated, unless social movements put forward a clear and credible political alternative, big business will simply replace unpopular capitalist politicians with “fresh faces” who carry out the same policies.

Imagine if, in the coming year, Occupy Homes MN succeeds in building a mass campaign of hundreds of homeowners facing foreclosure, backed up by their neighbours, unions, and community groups. Imagine if Occupy Homes used this base to run a homeowner for Minneapolis Mayor in 2013, calling for a moratorium on foreclosures and vowing to reprioritize police resources toward white-collar criminals instead of evicting families.

Combined with ongoing home defence campaigns, and mass door-to-door canvassing to build an active base of support, an electoral challenge could transform the debate. The main goal would not be to win the election, but rather to use the electoral platform to broaden the struggle and popularize the demands. A credible campaign would add tremendous pressure on the local Democratic Party machine to shift police priorities.

Again, Sasha Lindquist’s letter opposing police “providing free private security for banking institutions” poses the question perfectly:

“…As a local resident and not as a member of any group or organization, I am requesting that the city cease providing this type of security. What would happen if they did? The occupiers would be inside, quiet as mice – just like they were for four weeks before the police marched in. Freddie Mac would then have incentive to work with the Cruz family on modifying their loan. The occupiers would call it a day and go to sleep in their own homes. With the Cruz family back home, we’d have our stable community once more.”

If city and county authorities simply stopped enforcing evictions whenever bankers demanded it, a de facto foreclosure moratorium would be in place. The banks would have no choice but to collectively bargain with homeowners. Occupy Homes’ call for across-the-board principle reduction to current market value could be achieved.

Occupy Homes MN is already looked to as a national model. Creating a clear political voice for the 99% here could jump-start discussion on what’s needed nationally: a broad new political party of, by, and for working people to challenge Wall Street’s political stranglehold on our country.

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