Organizing against Bank of America in enemy territory Favorite 



May 8 2012


North Carolina

This week, thousands are descending on North Carolina for the Bank of
America shareholders’ meeting. The protest comes on the heels of the
successful Wells Fargo shareholder event in San Francisco, where
thousands of protesters shut down the conference, and the U.S. Bank
meeting in Minneapolis, where dozens of homeowners spoke out against
foreclosures. A sequence of direct action trainings and spokescouncils
will culminate in three marches at 8 a.m. on May 9, which will converge
on the doors of the shareholders’ meeting. There, thousands will protest
Bank of America’s laundry list of abuses: funding mountaintop coal
removal, perpetuating student debt that has now surpassed $1 trillion
nationally, laying off more than 100,000 workers in the last few years
and, of course, foreclosing on millions of homeowners across the
country. In anticipation, the Charlotte City Council has already passed
laws criminalizing protest, as well as camping and carrying permanent
Organizers are thinking about much more than just the shareholders’
meeting, however. Just as important as the mass action are the
homeowners across North Carolina who are building a grassroots
resistance network that will keep the pressure on the banks long after
the May 9 action.
A month before the shareholders’
meeting, North Carolinian homeowner Nikki Shelton went face-to-face with
an armed, 20-person SWAT team during the first home reoccupation in the
state’s recent history. The action, organized by Mortgage Fraud North
Carolina and bolstered by Occupy activists, is part of a growing wave of
home takeovers occurring across the country, one that has spread from
major urban centers all the way to enemy territory: the suburbs of North
Carolina, mere hours from the international headquarters of Bank of
The foreclosure battle is both physical and psychological in North
Carolina. People won’t talk about foreclosures outright; they tend to
mention it evasively, as if in code. In the conservative suburban and
rural regions of the South, housing developments exploded after World
War II and homeownership is a way of life, both economically and
culturally. For African Americans, homeownership is a particularly
powerful symbol of freedom and upward mobility, and many tell stories of
grandparents who grew up as slaves and, after emancipation, saved money
to purchase a home for their family.
One fall afternoon in 2010, Nikki Shelton’s 17-year-old son broke the
cultural gag order on the foreclosure crisis in a moment of
unintentional organizing. Their neighbor, Marcella Robinson, was visibly
pregnant and gardening in her front lawn, and Shelton’s son stopped to
express his surprise at a pregnant woman doing manual labor. Robinson
explained that it was soothing and that she was feeling pressure from
being under constant threat from Bank of America and its subsidiary,
Countrywide Financial. Shelton’s son told her that his mother, who lived
only a few doors down, was going through the same thing. After making
that connection, Robinson and Shelton started knocking on doors and
learned that many of their neighbors were struggling not only with
Countrywide’s adjustable-rate mortgages — a loan so dangerous that
Countrywide executives revealed it to their staff only in a meeting in
an underground bunker — but also outright fraud.
By the following May, Shelton and Robinson had assembled a group of
more than 50 homeowners, Mortgage Fraud North Carolina, and held their
first meeting in Shelton’s backyard. They had to meet outside because
she and her family had been evicted from the home that Easter Sunday. A
year later, the group would break the locks and reoccupy the house.
Shelton believes that the fight over foreclosures will require
radical reeducation to completely transform how people think about the
mortgage crisis. She’s tired, for instance, of reporters asking her how
many mortgage payments she missed. (The answer is only one, in April of
2008.) Reporters never ask questions, meanwhile, like whether the bank
illegally foreclosed on her through robosigning (it did) or whether
crooked local lawyers and court clerks are aiding and abetting its fraud
(they are).
Shelton sees all foreclosures as “fictional orchestrations,” a
performance of greed and illegality that requires what she calls
collective “conservative ignorance” in order to continue. The banks,
lawmakers and the media reinforce the shame and silence that perpetuates
this ignorance through intimidation (like the bank contractors sneaking
around Robinson’s home taking pictures), violence (like the SWAT team
that removed Shelton from her house) and the blaming of victims (like
debates about whether principal reduction is a “moral hazard” for
homeowners when the $7.7 trillion federal bailout doesn’t appear to pose
such problems for banks).
As the efforts of Shelton and Robinson demonstrate, community
building and education can spark direct action even in corners of the
United States without long histories of housing organizing and where
home ownership is deeply entrenched. The combination of large-scale
protests, such as what is taking place at the Bank of America
shareholders’ meeting, and on-the-ground homeowner organizing can turn
symbolic actions into meaningful victories. In Minneapolis, for example,
Occupy Our Homes combined a six-month grassroots campaign for the house of a woman named Monique White
with a highly successful protest and speak-out at the U.S. Bank
shareholders’ meeting. The result: Monique White won her home last
Thursday — offering hope of similar victories for Shelton and other
homeowners in North Carolina.
“Wall Street was not banking on the American citizens getting
educated,” Shelton says. “They were not counting on us saying, ‘I know
what’s going on.’ And now that they are starting to realize that we’re
getting educated, that’s when the chaos starts.”

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