Can the #Occupy Movement Be a Turning Point?

As the Wall Street occupation continues, Boston residents are sitting in to save their homes—and providing a lesson in how to sustain the powerful spark of the #Occupy movement.

Presley Obasohan is fighting foreclosure on his home by Bank of America. Mr. Obasohan lives in Dorchester, Mass.--the most diverse neighborhood in Boston--where building values have sunk to half or less of mortgage loan debt. Presley is trying to save his home for his daughters. He has petitioned; he has pled. He has waited on hold and stood in line. But on Friday, Presely decided enough was enough and he joined the Right to the City Alliance in a mass action of civil disobedience.

Along with 23 other Boston residents, he was proudly arrested for siting in at the Boston headquarters of Bank of America.

"I blocked the doors at Bank of America so that my neighbors, and me, can stay in our homes," Presely told the press. "So many people have been thrown out of their homes or lost their jobs needlessly because of mistakes made by Wall Street banks. Yet it's the banks who are now rewarded with billions in tax refunds. It's time to fight back!"

Why Bank of America?

As of March 2011, Bank of America had more homes in foreclosure than any other bank in Boston, with two-thirds of these in "majority minority" neighborhoods. Sixty-one percent of Bank of America's subprime mortgages were concentrated in these same neighborhoods, revealing a pattern of pushing bad loans on people of color and the poor.

On Friday, Bank of America announced that it would begin charging customers $5 per month to use their debit cards. This comes after receiving a $4.2 billion dollar tax refund and ramping up foreclosures on distressed homeowners in recent weeks, according to new data from the foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac. August 2011 saw the largest monthly increase in foreclosures since August 2007, right after the housing bubble burst.

"Across the country, we are seeing the same story: the mortgage bubble created by Wall Street pushed predatory lending on urban communities, and since the bubble burst the fallout has been catastrophic," said Rachel LaForest, executive director of the Right to the City Alliance, which led the protests. Unemployment and foreclosure have hit communities of color first and worst. But it is urban communities who are at the forefront of the movement to fight back. We are took this direct action to demand payback from Bank of America."

Building an Alliance

This confrontation with B of A came at the end of a raucous march of over 3,000 people carrying colorful banners and banging drums to confront the nation's largest lender over its role in the economic crisis. The march was led by members of City Life/Vida Urbana, who carried signs that told their stories of predatory lending and foreclosure in Boston. As the rowdy procession snaked through downtown, they were joined by members of UNITE/HERE picketing at the Hyatt Hotel, and CWA picketing at Verizon Wireless.

When the march arrived at the Massachusetts headquarters of Bank of America, the crowd chanted "The banks got bailed out, we got sold out" and "Bank of America, Bad for America" as nervous bank employees peered through the glass. The civil disobedience team managed to block the entrances to the building, and to occupy the lobby of the bank itself. As they were arrested one by one, they were led through rows of cheering demonstrators shouting, "We stand with you!"

The Right to the City Alliance is a national movement of urban economic and racial justice organizations, deeply rooted in the neighborhoods that have been hardest hit by the implosion of the economy, and where centuries of economic and racial oppression compound the crisis. Right to the City built an impressive coalition of over 50 organizations including the SEIU-inspired umbrella MASSUNITING, with progressive organized labor, the Green Justice Coalition, the Youth Jobs Coalition, the Immigrant Rights movement, and a diverse array of progressive groups.

Take Back The Block, #Occupy the Hood

On Saturday, Right to the City took their message into the neighborhood. The Four Corners area of Dorchester has been ravaged by foreclosures. Led by the community organizing powerhouse City Life/Vida Urbana, the group staged an occupation of a wrongly foreclosed home, hoping to return it from the hands of Deutsche Bank to its rightful owners--a family that was evicted and has left the area.

The action team cleaned the home, brought in donated furniture, hung art on the walls and a banner off the porch. Hundreds toured the house and cheered from the street, while music played and children danced.

Meanwhile the youth of Roxbury's Alternatives for Community & Environment took over an abandoned lot and created a community garden. They asked people to stand with them for a blessing ceremony of the garden, and asked for food to grow strong and the land and community to heal and be healthy. They told the story of their journey to the 2010 US Social Forum, and how they had toured a community garden created by young people in Detroit, and been inspired to create a similar project in Boston. Right to the City supported their vision and tied it to a movement building action about the banks and the political moment. It was indeed a powerful occupation.

Movement Momentum: Harnessing The Psychic Break

These bold actions in Boston unfolded in concert with the #OccupyWallStreet protests and the launch of #OccupyBoston, an offshoot inspired by the now famous encampment in Zucotti Park in lower Manhattan. The growing popular sentiment against Wall Street was an inspiring backdrop for the action, and indicates a growing frustration with the economic status quo by people from all walks of life.

But what was different about this action was that it was organized and led by community-based organizations, led by people of color, and rooted in communities of color. This leadership shaped the message, the coalition building strategy, and the demands on Bank of America and other corporate targets. The march was organized long before the occupation of Wall Street or the hastily planned takeover of Dewey Square next to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. The community organizations that planned it are deeply rooted, with long experience uniting people around similar issues. After this action, they'll continue that work.

So what is the role of community organizers and progressive leaders in this moment of #occupy momentum? After the dramatic mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday, the #occupy meme is spreading like wildfire and progressive forces are rapidly aligning around the protests.

As #OccupyWallStreet enters its third week, Van Jones and his new organization Rebuild the Dream, organized labor, and community organizations have vowed to march downtown in solidarity with the protests this Wednesday.

On Sunday night, the Greater Boston Labor Council appeared at the General Assembly of #OccupyBoston. They pledged their solidarity and invited the group to meet with them to discuss how to build together.

At smartMeme, we have always been interested in "Psychic Breaks:" moments when the dominant narrative unravels and there is an opening for a new story to take hold on a massive scale. We saw this opportunity come and go in 2008 when the stock market collapsed and $700 billion was given to financial giants. Underprepared and shell-shocked progressives mostly stayed home and kept quiet while the Tea Partiers harnessed common sense opposition to bailing out the rich into a movement that was cynically designed to support the status quo.

But we believe that #OccupyWallStreet is re-opening that window and provoking another such psychic break moment, one that can amplify common sense progressive demands for structural change. At least we hope so.

We have an opportunity to offer a narrative explaining what has happened, how we got here, and how we can move forward together. We are faced with the potential of rooting this insurrectional energy into a strong social movement that can rival the Tea Party and change the story about our economic system--a movement that could unite behind real solutions to the economic and democratic crises we face. The actions by Right to the City this past weekend in Boston offer us an instructive model on the kind of analysis and organizing strategy that is necessary now.

But we must be agile and graceful and bold enough--like the ballerina on the bull of the #OccupyWallStreet poster. We must be visionary and courageous and tenacious enough--like the youth of Roxbury blessing their occupied garden. And we must be brave enough, like Presley Obasohan, to put our bodies on the line and commit civil disobedience against the banks and for the people and planet that we love.

If we can do this, and build in good faith together to harness this moment and channel the momentum towards fundamental, structural change in how our economy and political system function, we just might be witnessing the stirrings of the new world that beats in our hearts. Let us dance to that beat, sing to the beat and march together to the beat, all the way down to Wall Street. #OccupyTogether!

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