One year after their successful defense of Bobby Hull’s house in South Minneapolis, Occupy Homes Minnesota demonstrators have escalated the bet by launching a high-profile new campaign that they hope can solve two persistent problems with the same remedy: Moving the homeless and those who lost their homes through foreclosure into abandoned properties.
Their campaign will focus on making a “foreclosure free zone” in Minneapolis’ Powderhorn and Central neighborhoods — two areas hit hard by the housing crisis — and home to many of the thousands of abandoned houses in the Twin Cities. It is both daring and risky, and could lead to an eventual confrontation with city police.
On Thursday, December 6, nearly 200 housing justice activists held a spirited rally at Hull’s house at 3712 Columbus Avenue and then marched five blocks to 3915 Portland Avenue, where they began occupying a vacant property in solidarity with John Vinje, an Occupy-backed homeowner who was evicted from his suburban Minneapolis house earlier this fall. Police spokesperson William Palmer confirmed they knew about the march, but that no incidents were reported.
“We’re moving into this house with John tonight to send a message to the banks that these are our communities, these are our homes, and when we organize and fight, we can take them back,” said Occupy organizer Nick Espinosa. “We’ve got people sleeping on the streets, and there’s millions of vacant homes across the country. It’s time we put people in these homes and turn them over to community control. After these banks have been bailed out, they need to help rebuild these communities, not take people out of them.”
A few famous faces in the world of politically-active hip-hop music graced the demonstration. Chuck D from Public Enemy rallied the troops at Hull’s front door, and Minneapolis rapper Brother Ali performed a house concert in Hull’s living room.
“The most criminal thing that ever can happen is people being thrown out onto the streets from a building,” said Chuck D, a native of Roosevelt, Long Island, who was in Minneapolis to play a concert at First Avenue. “When I was growing up during the time of R&B — that’s Reagan and Bush — I couldn’t understand all the boarded up cribs in my neighborhood with people living on the street.”
A year ago MSNBC host Ed Schultz broadcast a live show from Bobby Hull’s front yard. The former Marine’s booming voice and buoyant humor made him a catalyst for the young Occupy Homes movement, and by February, Hull had secured a renegotiated mortgage from Bank of America. “We took over my house last year. This year I wanna take over this neighborhood. I want my neighborhood back,” yelled Hull. “All we got is sweat equity, and we gotta start paying with sweat equity. Cause sweat equity is money to me.”
Before marching on the abandoned home, jubilant Occupy activists packed into Hull’s living room to hear Brother Ali perform songs from his new album “Mourning in America” that focused on the plight of the homeless, the poor and the forgotten in this country. “Houses are seized and they’re tossed in the street,” he rapped. “Orphans of creed in a culture of deceit. The strong hunt the weak and the poverty steeps!”
Brother Ali has backed the Occupy Homes movement since it began supporting homeowners in North Minneapolis last year, and he submitted himself to voluntary arrest by Minneapolis police during a tense standoff at the Cruz house this past summer. The rapper recounted how he and his son were once homeless and had to sleep wherever they could put down an air mattress. “What if that was you born to the left of the tracks? The place where you live is infested with rats. The army didn’t segregate that. Everybody that could left in a snap and they never looked back. Your school is underfunded, teachers overworked, and when it comes to textbooks you gotta settle for scraps!”
Occupy’s strategy to turn the Powderhorn Park and Central neighborhoods into a foreclosure free zone and move evicted homeowners into abandoned houses represents a major escalation in their housing justice fight — both practically and politically.
“From the beginning we’ve discussed at Occupy Homes how do we win more than one house,” explained Chris Gray, an Occupy organizer and local school teacher. “We could win one at a time, but when we win one house, we lose nine homes in Minneapolis every day. The foreclosure eviction free zone is an attempt to do a community re-negotiation, so that everyone in the community has the right to have their mortgages rewritten to today’s market value. If you add up the negative equity in Powderhorn and Central neighborhoods, it’s $52 million — that’s $52 million that the community is paying to Wall Street banks.”
“There are vacant houses everywhere. The school where I work has a 10 percent homeless rate right now. And so, to me, occupying vacant homes makes a lot of sense. This is a way we can begin to control our own housing.”