Here’s a heartening story from the old neighborhood:
An 82-year-old great-grandmother cried tears of joy Friday as nearly 200 neighbors rallied in her support on the day she was to be evicted. Mary Lee Ward was granted a reprieve when the owner of the Brooklyn house where she lives agreed to continue meeting with her lawyers next week. “You have to stick with it when you know your right,” Ward told the cheering crowd. “Don’t let nobody walk all over you.”
Ward, who fell victim in 1995 to a predatory subprime mortgage lender that went under in 2007, has been battling to stay in the Tompkins Avenue home for more than a decade. A city marshal was supposed to boot Ward from the one-family frame house Friday, but didn’t show as her lawyers sat down with an assemblywoman and the home’s owner. … “I hope they realize that they can never really win,” Ward said. “I will not compromise.”
Why don’t we see more of this kind of thing? There are millions of families with homes in foreclosure, and millions more heading that way. Being forcibly evicted from your home has got to be one of the most wrenching experiences there is. And yet as long as you’re in the house, you have some real power. And the moral and emotional claims of someone like Ward to her home are clear, regardless of who holds the title. Someone just has to organize it. Here, I think, is where we are really suffering from the loss of ACORN — these situations are tailor-made for them.
Still, there is some good work going on. I was at a meeting recently of No One Leaves, a bank tenant organization in Springfield, MA. Modeled on Boston’s City Life/Vida Urbana, this is a project to mobilize people whose homes have been foreclosed but are still living in them. Homeowners who still have title have a lot to lose and are understandably anxious to meet whatever conditions the lender or servicer sets. But once the foreclosure has happened, the homeowner, paradoxically, is in a stronger negotiating position; if they’re going to have to leave anyway, they have nothing to lose by dragging the process out, while for the bank, delay and bad publicity can be costly. So the idea is to help people in this situation organize to put pressure — both in court and through protest or civil disobedience — on the banks to agree to let them stay on as tenants more or less permanently, at a market rent. In the longer run, this will discourage foreclosures too.
It’s a great campaign, exactly what we need more of.
But there’s another important thing about No One Leaves: They’re angry. The focus isn’t just on the legal rights of people facing foreclosure, or their real chance to stay in their homes if they organize and stick together, it’s on fighting the banks. There’s a very clear sense that this is not just a problem to be solved, but that the banks are the enemy. I was especially struck by one middle-aged guy who’d lost the home he’d lived in for some 20 years to foreclosure. “At this point, I don’t even care if I get to stay,” he said. “Look, I know I’m probably going to have to leave eventually. I just want to make this as slow, and expensive, and painful, for Bank of America as I can.” Everyone in the room cheered.
Liberals hate this sort of thing. But it seems to be central to successful organizing. Back when I was at the Working Families Party, one of the things the professional organizers always talked about was the importance of polarizing — getting people to articulate who was responsible for their problems, who’s the other side. It was a central step in any house visit, any meeting. And from what I could tell, it worked. I mean, it’s foolish of someone like Mary Lee Ward to say, “I will not compromise,” isn’t it? Objectively, compromise is how most problems get solved. But if she didn’t have a clear sense of being on the side of right against wrong, how would she have the energy to keep up what, objectively, was very likely to be a losing fight, or convince her neighbors to join her? Somebody or other said there are always three questions in politics. You have to know what is to be done — the favorite topic of intellectuals. But that’s not enough. You also have to know which side you are on, but that’s not enough either. Before you devote your time and energy to a political cause, you have to know who is to blame.
A while back I had a conversation with a friend who’s worked for the labor movement for many years, one campaign after another. If you know anyone like that, or have been part of an organizing drive yourself, you know that in the period before a union representation vote, an American workplace is a little totalitarian state. (Well, even more than usual.) Spies reporting on private conversations, mandatory mass meetings, veiled and open threats, punishment on the mere suspicion of holding the wrong views, no due process. And yet people do still vote for unions and support unionization campaigns, even when being fired would be a a personal catastrophe. Why, I asked my friend. I mean, union jobs do have better pay, benefits, job security — but are they that much better, that people think they’re worth the risk? “Oh, it’s not about that,” he said. “It’s about the one chance to say Fuck You to your boss.”
Hardt and Negri have a line somewhere in Empire about how, until we can overcome our fear of death, it will be “carried like a weapon against the hope of liberation.” When I first read the book, I thought that was pretty strange. But now I think there’s something important there. Self interest, even enlightened, only takes you so far, because when you’re weak, your self-interest is very often going to be in accomodation to power. I’m not sure I’d go as far as Hardt and Negri, that we have to lose our fear of death to be free moral agents. But it is true that we can’t organize collectively to assert our rights in our homes and our jobs as long as we’re dominated individually by our fear of losing them. Some other motivation — dignity, pride, anger or even hatred — is needed to say, instead, that nobody is going to walk all over you.