by Terry Messman
[dropcap]M[/dropcap]artin Luther King, Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1929, grew up and attended high school in Atlanta, and then earned his B.A. degree in sociology from Morehouse College in Atlanta.
After Rev. King was assassinated in 1968 while organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, he was buried in Atlanta. His widow, Corretta Scott King, established the King Center in Atlanta to preserve and pass on his legacy of nonviolent resistance to the interrelated evils of poverty, racial discrimination and militarism.
Rev. King was assassinated while trying to mobilize poor people in a massive campaign of nonviolent resistance to secure affordable housing for all, full employment and adequate income for those unable to work — the Economic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged.
When King was buried in Atlanta, his work was memorialized in the city of his birth, but the hopes for a Poor People’s Campaign seemingly were buried with him.
That bleak view is reinforced by the desperate poverty that grips whole areas of Atlanta today, especially in many neighborhoods where African-Americans suffer disproportionately from homelessness, foreclosures and evictions.
It is a sad reality that Atlanta, Georgia, the city with gleaming memorials to Martin Luther King’s struggle for justice, is one of the areas hit hardest by the economic crash and the housing crash that have reduced hundreds of thousands to homelessness or risk of eviction.
But this economic malaise has not driven out the spirit of nonviolent resistance from Atlanta’s poorest neighborhoods.
Timothy Franzen, program director of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) Peace and Conflict Resolution program in Atlanta, has achieved dramatic success in working with Occupy Our Homes Atlanta to organize people threatened with eviction and foreclosure.
The dedicated organizers of Occupy Our Homes Atlanta have achieved some of the most remarkable victories in the nation by organizing those threatened by foreclosure to nonviolently confront the banks and real-estate interests that have driven a record number of people into eviction and homelessness.
In Franzen’s four years with the AFSC, he has been instrumental in helping build a movement to defend besieged homeowners from the foreclosures that have struck Georgia with gale-force fury.
In an interview with Street Spirit, Franzen said that many homeowners in Atlanta are facing nothing less than “a tornado of foreclosures and eviction.”
Thousands are reeling from the devastation caused when the housing bubble burst. Even though the banks were bailed out with billions of federal dollars, economically distressed homeowners were abandoned to weather the storm of foreclosures with next to no help from their government.
“Georgia is regularly the top state for foreclosures,” Franzen said. “Half of Atlanta, the southern part, is almost 50 percent vacant at this point as a result of this tornado of foreclosures and evictions that have caused a manmade disaster, one like Atlanta has never seen before.”
Out of all the issues he could have chosen to address as director of the AFSC Peace and Conflict Resolution program, Franzen said he chose to wade into the flood tide of foreclosures because the AFSC often chooses to work with the most oppressed communities where few other organizations are working and many people have been essentially abandoned.
Foreclosures and evictions are causing entire neighborhoods to fall apart, ravaged by levels of poverty that rival the economic misery of the Great Depression.
When asked why Atlanta was hit so hard by the foreclosure crisis, Franzen described the “pro-business climate” in Georgia. In other states, he said, it may take two years for a foreclosure to go through and for somebody to be put out of their house.
“But in Georgia,” he said, “we’re a non-judicial foreclosure state so you don’t have to be taken to court. You can have your home foreclosed on after 31 days of missing a payment and it happens at breakneck speed. The process is so fast here that we are really one of the states that inspired ‘robo-signings’ because hundreds of people are losing their homes every day.”
Banks began putting so many people out of their homes so fast that bank executives didn’t have time to sign all the foreclosure documents. So they engaged in deception by hiring low-wage workers for a fraudulent practice known as “robo-signing.”
Franzen said, “It’s a type of fraud where the banks will set up an office somewhere and hire a couple of low-wage workers at $10 an hour and they will sit there and go through hundreds, sometimes thousands, of foreclosure documents and sign all the foreclosure documents en masse.”
Another cause of the foreclosure crisis, he said, is that “Wells Fargo and Sun Trust and some other banks have already settled out of court for their racist lending practices. It’s a fact that they gave out predatory loans to people of color and that’s one reason why the south of Atlanta is 50 percent empty, because those are the communities of color and they have just been ravaged.
“They look like a storm went through there because a storm did go through — an economic storm that pushed all these folks out of their houses.”
Franzen charged that the banks were, in essence, using the housing market to gamble against the future of thousands of Georgia’s poorest residents.
“These banks were betting against folks in those communities,” he said.
“They were giving out loans that they knew were bad. They have not had to pay a real consequence for that. The communities, on the other hand, have paid a really serious consequence. We have a homeless population that has exploded and these empty homes have become eyesores that have depressed the community. They have become crime magnets that are destroying the fabric of the neighborhood.”
The Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless reports that more children live in poverty in Atlanta than in any city in the nation. Many homeless advocates estimate that more than 20,000 people are homeless in Atlanta.
At the same time that poverty and unemployment rates were increasing, and housing costs were rising to historic levels, along came a destructive new form of speculation by the banks and mortgage companies — the final devastating component of what is now a perfect storm.
Banks began issuing predatory loans that have jeopardized thousands of homeowners in Georgia. Just as jobless rates are highest in the African-American community, so too are predatory loans striking those neighborhoods with disproportionate impact. Even a person’s home is not safe from the manipulations of the banking class.
Franzen said, “When the speculation market became intimately connected to the places we call home, it became in the best interest of the banks to get more and more folks taking loans. So they started giving loans to anybody that would take them, whether they could afford it or not.
“They were throwing loans out in the street and whoever could catch one would grab one. They forged documents, and broke their own rules to give loans to folks that couldn’t afford it. It got so bad that the market eventually crashed and now 60 percent of people here are underwater.”
Last December, Occupy Our Homes Atlanta was successful in helping to save the home of Brigitte Walker, an Iraq War veteran who had been gravely injured in combat, from foreclosure.
Brigitte Walker was sent to Iraq in February 2003. After more than a year of seeing fellow soldiers die in combat, her own military service ended in May 2004 when a roadside bomb exploded, severely injuring her back. Doctors placed titanium plates to rebuild her spine. She still experiences a great deal of pain from nerve damage in her spine.
While still in the military, she bought a home outside of Atlanta in 2004. After buying her home, Walker suffered a major economic setback when the Army placed her on medical retirement against her wishes. She was now forced to subsist on disability checks, and that cut her income in half, according to Franzen.
As a result, Walker began falling behind on her mortgage payments. For three years, she kept applying for a loan modification based on hardship. Despite her service to her country, despite the spinal injury she suffered in Iraq, despite her unavoidable loss of income, JP Morgan Chase Bank initiated foreclosure proceedings on her home.
Chase Bank set the date of her eviction for Jan. 3, 2012. “If ever somebody had a legitimate hardship, there it is,” Franzen said. “But instead of the bank saying, ‘We’re going to work with you,’ they said, ‘We’re going to sell your house on the courthouse steps and there is nothing you can do.’ So she reached out to us three weeks before her house was set to be auctioned off on the courthouse steps and we set up tents in her yard.”
Occupy set up tents on Walker’s front lawn on Dec. 6, 2011. Franzen said, “We put a huge banner over the house that said, ‘This home is occupied, shame on Chase Bank,’ and we called a press conference and said we’re not going to leave until Chase Bank does the right thing.”
The protest was all over the news. Next day, six members of Occupy entered a Chase Bank with Walker’s hardship letter and read it out loud in Occupy’s mic-check style. The bank threatened the six with arrest, but unknown to bank officials, more than 100 other protesters had been waiting around the corner. They suddenly surrounded the bank and remained there until the bank accepted Walker’s hardship letter asking for a loan modification.
That very night, Chase Bank officials called for the first time in all these proceedings, and pledged to work with Walker. Only six days later, the bank granted her a loan modification that not only allowed her to keep her house, but lowered her mortgage payments by several hundred dollars per month.
“It was a game changer for her,” Franzen said. “The banks were forced to relieve her debt. So, in a small way, that was the first time we regulated a bank.”
One year later, Brigitte Walker is still living in her home with her family. She has remained active in Occupy Our Homes.
As a result of all the positive news reports of her protest, Walker was invited to go to the White House and address Obama’s top housing officials, where she gave “a real riveting speech” about defending people’s homes from eviction.
Occupy Our Homes Atlanta has saved several other people from eviction this past year. It has generated national media coverage that has done a great deal to educate the public about the foreclosure crisis in America. Occupy also has begun challenging broader structural injustices, including predatory loans, robo-signing and other deplorable banking practices.
For the past 12 months, Franzen has been in nearly perpetual motion, traveling to protest after protest, bank after bank, arrest after arrest. In solidarity with those caught in the foreclosure crisis, he has been arrested five times in the past year for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.
Occupy Our Homes is a great sign of hope for all people caught up in the shattering experience of eviction. Their actions give us hope that we can overcome — no matter how powerful and well-entrenched the banks may be, no matter how many lawyers and lobbyists they employ.
Until Occupy Our Homes came along, low-income homeowners were met with the stone-hearted refusal of bank officials to negotiate in good faith with them. Occupy Our Homes changed the rules of this rigged game. Their insights in organizing now provide a highly valuable blueprint for action for housing activists everywhere.
Martin Luther King may be buried in Atlanta, but the spirit of his Poor People’s Campaign can never be buried. Today, fully 44 years after he first raised the nation’s hopes with his vision of economic justice for the poor, King’s truth goes marching on in the streets of Atlanta.
In his last dream, King invited the poorest citizens to camp out to press their demands for housing. Now, Occupy Our Homes has taken up this call for economic justice. It has shown the same willingness to go to jail in solidarity with the poor.
There is no better way to honor the memory of Martin Luther King in the city of his birth. When Atlanta activists march in support of people facing eviction, Martin marches alongside them, unseen.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on Occupy Our Homes Atlanta. See the January and February 2013 issues of Street Spirit for our reports on many other recent victories against foreclosures.