The Backyard Shock Doctrine

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Since 2007 the foreclosure crisis has laid waste to communities of color, but neighbors and activists are fighting back. 

This article
originally appeared Tom

We cautiously ascend the staircase, the pitch black of
the boarded-up house pierced only by my companion’s tiny circle of light. At
the top of the landing, the flashlight beam dances in a corner as Quafin, who
offered only her first name, points out the furnace. She is giddy; this house
— unlike most of the other bank-owned buildings on the block — isn’t
completely uninhabitable.

It had been vacated, sealed, and winterized in June 2010,
according to a notice on the wall posted by BAC Field Services Corporation, a
division of Bank of America. It warned: “entry by unauthorized persons is
strictly prohibited.” But Bank of America has clearly forgotten about the house
and its requirement to provide the “maintenance and security” that would ensure the property
could soon be reoccupied. The basement door is ajar, the plumbing has been torn
out of the walls, and the carpet is stained with water. The last family to live
here bought the home for $175,000 in 2002; eight years later, the bank claimed
an improbable $286,100 in past-due balances and repossessed it.

It’s May 2012 and we’re in Woodlawn, a largely African
American neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. The crew Quafin is a part
of dubbed themselves the HIT Squad, short for Housing Identification and
Target. Their goal is to map blighted, bank-owned homes with overdue property
taxes and neighbors angry enough about the destruction of their neighborhood to
consider supporting a plan to repossess on the repossessors.

“Anything I can do,” one woman tells the
group after being briefed on its plan to rehab bank-owned homes and move in
families without houses. She points across the street to a sagging, boarded-up
place adorned with aworn
banner — “Grandma’s House Child Care: Register Now!” — and a disconnected
number. There are 20 banked-owned homes like it in a five-block radius. Records
showed that at least five of them were years past due on their property taxes.

Where exterior walls once were, some houses sport charred
holes from fires lit by people trying to stay warm. In 2011, two Chicago firefighters died
trying to extinguish such a fire at a vacant foreclosed building. Now, houses
across the South Side are pockmarked with red Xs, indicating places the fire
department believes to be structurally unsound. In other states — Wisconsin, Minnesota,
and New York, to name recent examples — foreclosed houses have
taken to exploding after bank contractors forgot to turn off the gas.

Most of the occupied homes in the neighborhood we’re
visiting display small signs: “Don’t shoot,” they read in lettering
superimposed on a child’s face, “I want to grow up.” On the bank-owned houses,
such signs have been replaced by heavy-duty steel window guards. (“We work with
all types of servicers, receivers, property management, and bank asset managers,
enabling you to quickly and easily secure your building so you can move on,” boasts
Door and Window Guard Systems, a leading company in the burgeoning “building
security industry.”)

The dangerous houses are the ones left unsecured,
littered with trash and empty Cobra vodka bottles. We approach one that reeks
of rancid tuna fish and attempt to push open the basement door, held closed
only by a flimsy wire. The next-door neighbor, returning home, asks: “Did you
know they killed someone in that backyard just this morning?”

The Equivalent of the
Population of Michigan

Since 2007, the foreclosure crisis has displaced at least
10 million people from more than four million homes across the country.
Families have been evicted from colonials and bungalows, A-frames and
two-family brownstones, trailers and ranches, apartment buildings and the
prefabricated cookie-cutters that sprang up after World War II. The displaced
are young and old, rich and poor, and of every race, ethnicity, and religion.
They add up to approximately the entire population of Michigan.

However, African American neighborhoods were targeted
more aggressively than others for the sort of predatory loans that led to mass
evictions after the economic meltdown of 2007-2008. At the height of the
rapacious lending boom, nearly
of all loans given to African American families were deemed “subprime.”
The New York Timesdescribed
these contracts as “a financial time-bomb.”

Over the last year and a half, I traveled through many of
these neighborhoods, reporting on the grassroots movements of resistance to
foreclosure and displacement that have been springing up in the wake of the
explosion. These community efforts have proven creative, inspiring, and often
effective — but in too many cities and towns, the landscape that forms the
backdrop to such a movement of hope is one of almost overwhelming destruction.
Lots filled with “Cheap Bank-Owned!” trailers line highways. Cities hire
contractors dubbed “Blackwater Bailiffs” to keep pace with the dizzying
eviction rate.

In recent years, the foreclosure crisis has been turning
many African American communities into conflict zones, torn between a market
hell-bent on commodifying life itself and communities organizing to protect
their neighborhoods. The more I ventured into such areas, the more I came to
realize that the clash of values going on isn’t just theoretical or

“Internal displacement causes conflict,” explained J.R.
Fleming, the chairman of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign. “And there’s no
other country in the world that would force so much internal displacement and
pretend that it’s something else.”

Evictions at Gunpoint

It was three in the morning when at least a dozen police
cruisers pulled up to the single-story, green-shuttered house in the
African American Atlanta suburb where Christine Frazer and her family lived.
The precise number of sheriffs and deputies who arrived is disputed; the local
radio station reported 25, while Frazer recalled seeing between 40 and 50.

A locksmith drilled off the home’s locks and dozens of
officers burst into the house with flashlights and handguns.

“Who’s in the house?” they shouted. Aside from Frazer, a
widow with a vocal devotion to the Man Above, there were three other residents:
her 85-year-old mother, her adult daughter, and her four-year-old grandson.
Things began to happen fast. Animal control rounded up the pets. Officers told
the women to get dressed. Could she take a shower? Frazer asked. Imagine
there’s a fire in your house, the officer replied.

“They came to my home like I was a drug dealer,” she told reporters later. Over the next seven hours, the
officers hauled out the entire contents of her home and cordoned off the street
to prevent friends from helping her retrieve her things.

“I have no idea where some of my jewelry is, stuff I
bought when I was 30 years old,” said Frazer. “I am sixty-three. They just
threw everything everywhere, helter-skelter on the front lawn in the dark.”

The eviction-turned-raid sparked controversy across
Atlanta when it occurred in the spring of 2012, in part because Frazer had a
motion pending in federal court that should have stayed the eviction, and in
part because she was an active participant of Occupy Homes Atlanta. But this
type of militarized reaction is often the outcome when communities —
especially those of color — organize to resist eviction.

When Nicole Shelton attempted to move back into her
repossessed home in a picket-fence subdivision in North
Carolina, the Raleigh
police department sent in more than a dozen police officers and an eight-person
SWAT team. Officers were equipped with M5 submachine guns. A helicopter roared
overhead. In Boston,
one organizer with the community group City Life/Vida Urbana remembers the
police acting so aggressively at an eviction blockade in a Haitian neighborhood
that the grandmother of the family had a heart attack right in the driveway.

And sometimes it doesn’t require resistance at all. On
the South Side of Chicago, explained Toussaint Losier, a community organizer
completing his Ph.D. at the University
of Chicago, “They bust in
the door, and it’s at the point of a gun that you get evicted.”

Exiles in America

There have been widespread foreclosures — and some
organized resistance — in predominately white communities, too. Kevin Kirkman,
captain of the civil division of the Lee
County sheriff’s office,
explained, “I get so many [eviction] papers in here, it’s unbelievable.”

than 75%
of the residents in North Carolina’s
Lee County are whites. But Kirkman still
sees the ripple effects of mass foreclosure here. “You’re talking about a
mudslide where a lot of things are affected. You’re talking about taxes, about
retail sales if people move, about food services, about gasoline. You see what
I’m talking about? When you lose a family in the community? Some people leave
the community. I have seen people leave the state of North Carolina.”

He added, “I’m going be honest with you, my feeling is
that I would not do these evictions.”

Still, the difficulties white America has faced during the
foreclosure crisis don’t compare with what Wall Street and the banks have
inflicted, physically and psychologically, on African American neighborhoods.
As countless leaked documents, insider dispositions, and Department of Justice filings demonstrate, those neighborhoods were systematically and
illegally targeted for the worst of the worst mortgages. As one former Wells
Fargo mortgage broker explained in a sworn affidavit, “The company put ‘bounties’
on minority borrowers. By this I mean that loan officers received cash
incentives to aggressively market subprime loans in minority communities.”

This pushing of predatory loans was all the more
insidious because these same communities had been starved of mortgages for
decades as a result of the Federal Housing Authority’s refusal to guarantee
loans in communities of color. As Mike Fannon, development associate for the
Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, explained, “The same banks that
denied capital now injected too much toxic capital and decimated the local

The effect, according to a 2012 National Fair Housing
Alliance report, has been “the largest loss of wealth for these
communities in modern history.” Between 2009 and 2012 African Americans lost
just under $200 billion in wealth, bringing the gap between white and black
wealth to a staggering 20:1 ratio.

There is also a longer trajectory of racial exclusion at
play here, a history that makes the foreclosure crisis yet another chapter in
an epic and enduring quest for home. From enslavement to sharecropping,
redlining to restrictive covenants, the United States has too often been an
inhospitable land for people of color. Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King
echoed W.E.B. Dubois in declaring that the African American still “finds
himself in exile in his own land.” Today, it’s hard not to see that reality
painted across the 2010 census data, where the maps measuring the concentration
of vacant houses and the maps measuring the concentration of African Americans,
while not exactly the same, are uncomfortably close to a match.

As Ben Austen wrote in the New York
Times Magazine,
“The U.S. Postal Service, which tracks these
numbers, reported that 62,000 properties in Chicago were vacant at the end of last year,
with two-thirds of them clustered as if to form a sinkhole in just a few black
neighborhoods on the South and West Sides.” The same phenomenon holds true in
cities across the country. And once a house is empty in such neighborhoods, all
too often, no one is moving back in.

Crime Starts at the Top

“There were feces in the basement, urine, rolled-up
carpet,” said Thomas Turner, a housing activist in Chicago describing the inside of a foreclosed
home, once owned, according to neighbors, by an 80-year-old man.Under the ownership of the
Pittsburgh-based bank PNC, Turner explained, “It was abandoned for six years,
so squatters and strippers had punched holes in the walls. There was no toilet,
no tub, all the kitchen cabinets were torn out. The bedroom looked like someone
had taken a sledgehammer and just started swinging… I still see gang members on
the front porch or rolling up real slow in the car.”

Another Chicago
resident, Erica Johnson, described a vacant home similarly. “There were
clothes, books, broken dressers, little white drug bags, used condoms,” she
said. “It was a little drug house, and they were probably bringing their girls
up in here.”

Some foreclosed homes become brothels, such as a Deutsche
Bank-owned house in South Los Angeles where
the girls’ names and prices were scrawled in blue marker across the
upstairs walls. Others become meth labs or gang hideouts.

These bank-owned vacant houses help spread crime and
poverty in already distressed communities — a reality that became obvious to
me when I accompanied Dorian Morris, a certified building inspector, on one of
his surveys of the vacant homes on the north side of Minneapolis. Signs on nearly
every home advertised the severity of the housing crisis in this area: neon
green “no trespassing” stickers on boarded-up foreclosed homes and red “stand
together, stop foreclosure” posters on places supporting Occupy Homes
Minneapolis. On more than a dozen lots, the only indication that a family once
lived there was a skinny red metal rod marking the spot where a razed house
once stood.

As in other hard-hit African American neighborhoods
across the country, residents here had organized to stop bank-pursued evictions
from stripping the value from the community. Neighborhood support had, for
instance, helped a mother named Monique White beat her eviction in a highly
publicized six-month
battle against US Bank only weeks before I arrived.
Still, the never-ending evictions were eating away at the stability of the

“That’s a known crack house,” said Morris, as he pointed
at a brick structure less than 100 meters away from a neighborhood park. More
than half the homes within sight were boarded up with plywood. Within five
minutes, we had passed two former residences he identified as current drug
houses and a handful more that he said had already been raided by the police —all foreclosed homes where
families used to live.

As we drove, we discussed the illegal chain of events
that transformed these homes into drug dens. The crimes started at the top.
Banks peddled toxic mortgages like crack, paying employees cash incentives to
push them in African American neighborhoods. The loans exploded,
so they forged millions of foreclosure affidavits to speed
state-enforced evictions.

Once homes are vacant, bank contractors insufficiently
seal and maintain them, allowing intruders to strip the houses of their copper
wiring, plumbing, and sometimes even the furnace. The copper alone sells for
anywhere from 50 cents to a dollar per pound. Finally, people dealing drugs
begin to use the houses at night as distribution centers. The street-level
crime drags down neighboring property values, spurring more foreclosures and
evictions. And so the cycle continues.

Banks are legally obligated to maintain and market their
foreclosed properties, but they often shirk those responsibilities —
especially in communities of color. In an investigation of more than 1,000
homes across the country, the National Fair Housing Alliance found that bank-owned homes in communities of color were more
likely than homes in white neighborhoods to have graffiti and peeling paint on
the exterior, trash and dead leaves strewn across the sidewalk, unsecured locks
on the doors, and be missing “for sale” signs on their front lawns.

Foreclosed houses in such neighborhoods were also 80%
more likely to have a broken or boarded-up window, and 30% more likely to have
trash on the front lawn. After a lawsuit, Wells Fargo paid $42 million to settle charges of racially
discriminatory maintenance; there’s scant evidence to suggest the practice has
changed since. Cities have increased fines levied against banks that don’t
maintain their houses, but not a single bank has been held accountable for drug
dealing, murders, and rapes that occur on their unmaintained or poorly
maintained properties. The only “crime” they appear concerned about is when
community activists try to fix up such homes and move families in — doing the
job the bank was supposed to do in the first place. Then banks call the police
to arrest the “trespassers.”

Sacrifice Zones

The double standards in property maintenance lead to an
“extremely troubling” trend in home sales: these uninviting neglected houses,
disproportionately located in communities of color, are most often being
snapped up by investors rather than families. Overwhelmingly, the investor of
choice is the Blackstone Group, one of the world’s largest private equity firms
and now the nation’s largest owner of single-family homes. Since April 2012,
Blackstone has spent
more than $4.5 billion
buying at least 30,000 houses concentrated in cities
hard-hit by foreclosure, including Atlanta, Jacksonville, Orlando, Chicago, Charlotte, Phoenix, and urban areas across California. According to local real estate brokers, the company often
makes its purchases in cash.

The idea is that there’s big money to be made in rental
properties these days, given that there are millions of displaced, former
homeowners with wrecked credit scores looking for places to stay. It’s like a
pay-to-play game of musical chairs — except Wall Street owns the stereo, the
speakers, the chairs, and the roof, and somehow when the music stops you’re
always out.

Vacant houses, whether owned by banks or Blackstone,
create foreclosure spirals, each vacant house dragging down the property values
of neighbors, which, in turn, decreases a city’s property tax revenue and the
capacity of local government to provide essential services. Shuttered schools in Philadelphia
and Chicago. Closed
in Cleveland.
Slashed senior programs in Baltimore. All of these essential services,
eliminated far more often in communities of color, are the collateral damage of
the foreclosure crisis.

A 2011 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office,
submitted to the House Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs, cited nearly a dozen
examples of how such declines in tax revenues caused by vacancies have led
cities to cut funding for public works, libraries, parks, recreation programs,
and school districts. One city even cut a program intended to address vacant
foreclosed properties, thanks to a tax revenue shortfall.

The final dystopian outcome of this spiral is what
journalist Naomi Klein famously termed the shock doctrine: a crisis is pushed so
far that it finally justifies dramatic outside intervention (read:
privatization). It’s the type of outcome we’re currently seeing in Michigan, where, according to a court
last week, “Detroit’s
recent bankruptcy filing only emphasizes the broader consequences of predatory
lending and the foreclosures that inevitably result.” That city may be
undergoing the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, but unlike when the
big banks and giant financial outfits teetered at the edge of collapse,
President Obama has made it clear that this time there will be no
billion-dollar federal bailout.

“With the mass displacement, it ends up being a situation
where people are just like, ‘Well, we’ll just have to bulldoze those homes,'” Chicago organizer Toussaint
Losier told me. “They become sacrifice zones rather than places where people
bring imaginative solutions.”

The Shield and the

Small groups of community organizers are shouldering the
Herculean task of protecting such neighborhoods abandoned by the federal

“Look, if you want to take our home, it’s an act of war,”
explains Losier, so his group’s response is, metaphorically, “the sword and the
shield.” It’s a strategy he learned from the Boston anti-foreclosure group City Life/Vida
Urbana. The shield represents the exceedingly modest legal protection afforded
to people under a judicial system that assigns more rights to the banks than
them — and allows no-guilt settlements for the powerful caught flagrantly
breaking the law. (In the case of foreclosure crimes, see for example the $335 million Bank of America discrimination settlement in
2011, the $26 billion robo-signing settlement in 2012, and the $8.5 billion settlement over wrongful foreclosures in

The sword represents actions — from petitions to
eviction blockades — aimed at stopping evictions and repairing neighborhoods.
And yes, there is a life-size, fabricated sword-and-shield set at the City Life
office in Boston.
First-time attendees of the group’s weekly meetings must hoist the sword over
their heads and assert that they are willing to fight for their homes. “Then we
will fight with you!” the rest of the group cheers.

Across the country, communities of color deploy these two
strategies, and a third that could be called “the paintbrush”: creative tactics
aimed at building something new amid the devastation. In Detroit
and Philadelphia,
neighborhoods are seeding community gardens in hundreds of vacant lots. In Boston, one set of
community activists cleaned up their block and dumped the trash — gathered
from the front lawn of a foreclosed Bank of America-owned home — on the
doorstep of the regional bank president’s brownstone.

In Minnesota and California, grassroots
political organizing pressured state legislatures to adopt the nation’s first
two homeowner bills of rights. A Barclays report later complained that “servicers have become
significantly more cautious when carrying out foreclosure sales” as a result of
the legislation. In Chicago,
home liberation groups are rehabbing and occupying vacant properties, while
anti-violence groups are intervening in the conflicts caused by poverty and
mass displacement.

Both of the foreclosed Chicago houses that Thomas Turner and Erica
Johnson described as being filled with feces, used condoms, and drugs are now
clean, painted, and occupied. Turner even stenciled small purple birds on the
walls of the one he worked on. But the continued scale of the crisis —
forgotten by a media more interested in rising home values than eviction notices — requires more
than community rehab and tepid financial regulation. It demands that we
question, and reimagine, a system of property ownership that has prevented
large segments of the population from making real decisions about the
communities in which they live. And in case you’re thinking that this is a
problem only for Black America, think again. As theNew York Times warned in April, “The
alchemists of Wall Street are at it again… reviving the same types of
investments that many thought were gone for good.”

The question is whether, this time around, we’ll see
their potion for what it is: poison that threatens to turn each of us, as
W.E.B. Dubois wrote, into “an outcast and a stranger in my own house.”

Laura Gottesdiener is a journalist,
social justice activist, and author of
A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to
Call Home
, published this month by Zuccotti Park Press. She is an associate editor
for Waging Nonviolence, and she has written for
Rolling Stone, Ms.
magazine, the
Republic, AlterNet, and other publications. This is her
TomDispatch piece.
She lived and worked in the People’s Kitchen during the occupation of Zuccotti Park.

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, licensed under Creative Commons

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