Steve Babson , People Before Banks
The scene is straight out of Charles Dickens: shortly before Christmas, bank officers notify an elderly couple that they will be evicted from their home of 22 years in the dead of winter. The Garrett family has fallen behind on the mortgage.
William Garrett, who is legally blind and disabled by stroke, can no longer work in his trade as barber and hairdresser. His son-in-law, whose name is on the mortgage and whose business has suffered in the slumping economy, can no longer help shoulder the cost. William and his wife Bertha are scrimping by on social security and disability payments of less than $700 a month. The sheriff has already sold the house at foreclosure auction to the bank for $12,000, and the court-ordered eviction was scheduled for January 31.
The neighborhood is beset by abandoned houses and crime, “but my home is my home,” Bertha writes the bank. “I am not afraid to stay here! With my husband being sick the last ten years it has become the only stable force in our lives.” She has sold personal belongings and borrowed money from her extended family to make an offer to buy back the home for the same price the bank paid at foreclosure. “I am asking that you would find it in your heart to accept a cash purchase price of $12,000.” The bank seems prepared to accept the offer, then suddenly reneges and doubles the price. No sale.
In this tale of hard times in Detroit, what usually follows is the arrival of a truck delivering the dreaded dumpster for carting away furniture and personal property. The house would be emptied and the windows and doorways sealed with plywood— temporarily, until squatters or dope peddlers move in, followed by the scavengers who cart off metal and hardware, adding another gutted house to the more than 50,000 abandoned homes in Detroit.
But this story takes a different turn as the eviction date approaches. The Garrett’s daughter, Michelle Finely, calls everyone she can think of who might be able to help and finds a sympathetic reporter from the Michigan Citizen, Eric Campbell. He knows people linked to activists in Occupy Detroit. An emergency meeting convenes two days before the scheduled eviction, drawing participants from the Occupy movement, Moratorium Now, People Before Banks, and the UAW.
At 8:20 am on the morning of January 31, as the dumpster truck drives up the snow-packed street towards the Garrett’s home, the driver and his co-worker see something unexpected: the road is blocked with parked cars and 15 or more people refuse to allow the dumpster to get any closer to the house. After a 20 minute standoff, the truck backs down the road and leaves. Two police cars arrive shortly afterwards, but the officers refuse to intervene in a “civil affair” and drive off.
Meanwhile, 40 or so demonstrators are picketing the offices of the Bank of New York Mellon Trust in downtown Detroit, half of them drawn from UAW Local 600. Calls and emails pour into the bank demanding that it rescind the eviction and sell the Garrett’s their house for $12,000. By the end of the following day— as an estimated 100 demonstrators gather at a scheduled rally in front of the Garrett’s home— the bank announces its agreement to sell. Local TV stations cover the noisy victory celebration.
This was the third time in January that protesters were able to stop an eviction in metro Detroit. Volunteers who want to join the campaign for a moratorium on foreclosures can participate in weekly meetings of Occupy Detroit’s “Eviction Defense” subcommittee on Thursdays (6pm) at 1515 Broadway, just off Grand Circus Park. News and updates are available at peoplebeforebanks.org, including details of the upcoming protests on March 8 and 13 of pending foreclosure evictions by JP Morgan Chase.
Steve Babson is a member of Detroit DSA and is active in peoplebeforebanks.org