Occupy Homes is calling for the Minneapolis Police Department to follow its own foreclosure protest protocol, which requires a number of steps before people can be arrested. The demand that police follow their own rules came after seven people occupying vacant houses were arrested within 10 days in March. On April 1st, Occupy held a rally in downtown Minneapolis and marched on the offices of Police Chief and City Attorney Susan Segal, where protesters placed the boards the police had used to board homes reclaimed by Occupy Houses.
According to Becky Zosia Dernbach, communications director for Occupy Homes, more than 20 homeless people have taken shelter in homes reclaimed by Occupy over the past year. “Suddenly we are seeing three raids on three different homes and seven arrests over the course of 10 days,” Zosia Dernbach said.
“We hope the city drops these charges,” she said, adding that in the past, trespassing charges against Occupy members have been reduced to a warning. “There were no warnings given over the last 10 days,” she said. “That seems curious that when black people are arrested for trespassing — all the people who have been arrested have been black.”
Occupy Homes wants policy solutions to the homeless crisis. While vacant homes give people shelter for a while, “We need long term solutions that give security,” Zosia Dernbach said.
Alternative options include a proposal for banks to donate empty homes to nonprofits, or for the city to pressure banks to cede the homes, according to Zosia Dernbach. “So many of these vacant homes are attracting actual crime,” she said, adding that in several of the reclaimed homes, Occupy has found empty bullet shells and liquor bottles. “We think that housing should be used for housing, not blighting our communities,” she said.
At the rally on April 1st, Antoine Martinneau, one of those arrested, said he has lived in several reclaimed homes, and now currently lives in one in South Minneapolis. “We found a house on Chicago Avenue that was left wide open,” he said. “There was wind blowing through the place, anybody could have just walked in there. And while we were in the process of that, the police came, guns drawn, lined us up on the kitchen wall and accused us of breaking into the house. We told them that we just were there to clean the place up and to move a family in, and renegotiate with the bank so it could be turned into affordable housing.” According to Marinneau, the police took the Occupy members to jail without a probable cause charge. Instead, the activist were charged with possession of burglary tools — a felony — as well as trespassing and refusing to depart.
“They’ve said they won’t use police resources for evictions unless it’s absolutely necessary,” said Zosia Dernbach. “It seems like they’re not viewing this as an eviction, but I’d like to know what else barging into a house and pointing guns at people, dragging them out of their house and arresting them is if that’s not an eviction.”
“There’s an escalation on the part of the police,” said Ty Moore, another member of Occupy Homes who ran unsuccessfully for the Ward Nine City Council seat in 2013. “Especially with the new mayor, who’s pledged to address the equity crisis, especially in housing. It’s really outrageous. A real equity agenda means putting the means of families — the needs of poor communities — over the needs of Wall Street and big banks.”
“We’re here today because in the last two weeks, the city of Minneapolis has absolutely declared war on homeless families,” said Occupy organizer Nick Espinosa. “They’ve declared war on people seeking shelter, and they’ve abused our members, our residents, our friends, and we’re here to hold them accountable.”
Kate Brickman, communications director for Mayor Betsy Hodges, denied that there has been a policy change regarding arrests of Occupy protesters.
During one of the arrests, Minneapolis City Council Member Andrew Johnson jumped out of bed and came to the house while Occupy members were being arrested. “I came to observe, and find out why they were serving (arrest warrants) on a Saturday,” he said.
When he talked to Chief Harteau, Johnson said that the chief floated the idea of a work group with Occupy Homes members, and then Mayor Hodges became interested in taking a lead with such a work group. Currently, Johnson said, Hodges is putting together a meeting with the police, Occupy Homes and City Council members looking at the policy and making sure that cops are following protocol.
“We need to make sure the protocol is effective and working,” Johnson said. “We want to strike the right balance.”
Added to that balance, he said, are the rights of neighbors who live near reclaimed homes. “When they do these actions, they really need to engage with neighbors and have the neighbors on board.”
According to Johnson, in the case of one of the arrests, a neighbor thought that the reclaimed home on Chicago Avenue was being burglarized, and called 911. In another case, a neighbor was upset about the Occupy signs, and another neighbor felt it would be better for the house to go through foreclosure.
“We need to figure out how to be fair to officers, and to our neighbors,” he said. “That’s why we are trying to get Occupy and the police together.”
Johnson sees no reason why banks can’t donate empty homes to nonprofits. In addition, it’s important to work with the county and the state to increase funding for existing shelters and affordable homes, he said. Beyond that, job creation is an important step, as well as steps such as “ban the box,” which would prohibit employers from discriminating against people with criminal histories.
“What Occupy is doing is making us have a really important discussion right now around vacant homes,” Johnson said.
There will be a forum on Tuesday, April 29th about the protocols and issues surrounding the arrests of Occupy Homes activists. The forum will take place at 6 p.m. at Mayflower Church.