Shortly before midnight last night, 86-year-old activist Dorli Rainey—yes, the Dorli Rainey whose Maalox-covered pepper-sprayed face became an icon of the Occupy movement—got a text message that sheriff deputies were about to evict ironworker Jeremy Griffin from his foreclosed South Park home. So she immediately jumped in a cab and headed down to Griffin's house to put her body on the line.
Of course she did.
Twelve hours later, the sheriffs had yet to arrive, but a couple dozen fellow activists did, transforming the lawn and sidewalk in front of Griffin's home into a kinda Occupy Seattle reunion. This is the first "eviction blockade" to be staged by SAFE (Standing Against Eviction & Foreclosure), an activist organization that grew out of Occupy Seattle, focused on helping homeowners fight back against the banks through pragmatic public protests.
An eviction notice warned Jeremy Griffin and his dog Daisy to be out of their South Park home by midnight last night.
The mood was almost festive (at one point, much to the delight of Rainey and others, schoolchildren from Concord Elementary across the street broke into a supportive chant). Griffin was surprisingly upbeat for man who soon could lose his house. "When you pick the right fight, you win," Griffin defiantly proclaimed as he thanked his comrades for their support. "What matters is that people have joined together to fight the banks."
It's a bold answer to those who criticize the Occupy movement for being too disorganized and unfocused to accomplish anything. SAFE is a direct offshoot of Occupy Seattle both in terms of organizational structure (horizontally, without hierarchy) and its membership (several of its founders are former Occupy activists). But unlike Occupy, SAFE's demands are specific and its tactics well proven. Such direct action blockades to stop evictions has been successfully employed by Occupy groups before, from Minnesota to Atlanta, often shaming the banks into negotiating with homeowners instead of evicting them.
SAFE's initial action got off to a promising start. As TV cameras rolled and speakers urged people to call Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman (212-761-4000) to ask him to negotiate a home-saving lease/purchase agreement, Morgan Stanley's executive offices called for Griffin. They would talk to their lawyers, Griffin says he was assured, and then get back to him.
Given the crisis facing local homeowners, it's surprising something like SAFE took so long to happen in Seattle. "42,000 Seattle homeowners (one in three) are $3.9 billion underwater on their mortgages," according to a report by United Black Clergy and the Washington Community Action Network. Many of them will face foreclosure, like the more than 16,000 Seattle-area residents already foreclosed on since the financial collapse in 2008.
Of course, the assholes who wrecked the economy got bailed out. Part of that was the $700 billion Troubled Assets Release Program (TARP). "These troubled assets that were supposed to be relieved were all of these mortgages that had been taken on by the banks," James Parker, a SAFE activist, explains. "The banks called these mortgages 'toxic waste mortgages.' They knew they what was happening. And that's why this whole thing burst."
Under TARP, the banks were supposed to negotiate with homeowners. But Griffin says Wells Fargo, the bank that foreclosed on him in South Seattle, has refused to negotiate. SAFE activists say they've accompanied Griffin and tried to deliver checks to the downtown branch for the past four months, as a sign of good faith. (Griffin's name was on the deed, but his ex-partner was on the loan.)
"We went up to the mortgage department and it was 4 o'clock," Parker explains. "They were going close at 5. But they actually just closed down the entire branch rather than talk to their own client... Jeremy is saying, 'I want to pay to stay in my home,' and they're not letting him."
Griffin fell behind on his mortgage after losing his job in the construction industry collapse (thanks, Wall Street!), but now he's back on his feet, working 35 hours a week on the new South Park Bridge. He's offered to buy his house back from the bank, for about $20,000 more than the bank paid for it at auction, but until today they've refused to talk him.
Whether today's action will be enough to save Griffin remains to be seen, but the SAFE activists say they're ready to risk arrest to block his eviction if that's what it comes to. That means tossing the likes of Rainey and city council candidate Kshama Sawant, who joined the protest, in jail. As for Sawant's opponent, incumbent council member Richard Conlin, "If he wants to join the movement, we welcome him," Sawant told me.
Sergeant Katie Larson from the King County Sheriff's office says they'll look for ways to "peacefully resolve this issue," but says "it's our job to enforce the court order." She sounded surprised to hear about the blockade. "We do these all year. We've done thousands of these, and we have very few problems." In fact, she said, their detectives' workload is "pretty horrific," so the eviction could go down as late as June.
Which means SAFE activists could be camped out a very long time.