Shortly before midnight on May 14, 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's 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, police had yet to arrive, but a couple dozen fellow activists did, transforming the lawn and sidewalk in front of Griffin's house into a kind of Occupy Seattle reunion. This is the first "eviction blockade" to be staged by SAFE (Standing Against Foreclosure & Eviction), an Occupy Seattle offshoot focused on helping homeowners fight banks through civil disobedience.
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 full-time on the new South Park Bridge. For months, he attempted to make payments to stave off foreclosure, but he says Wells Fargo refused to negotiate.
Even the judge who ordered the eviction seemed ashamed, according to a transcript of the hearing earlier this month. Griffin had explained that he offered to buy his house back from the bank that purchased it, offering about $20,000 more than the bank paid at auction, but to no avail. "I'm kind of stuck with what the law says," acting judge Robert Stead said at the hearing. "I agree, but..." his voice trailed off. "Here we are. Good luck on it."
Despite the struggle, the mood on the first day of the blockade was almost festive. Griffin seemed surprisingly upbeat for a man who could soon lose his house. "When you pick the right fight, you win," Griffin 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 (horizontal, 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. Other Occupy groups from Minneapolis to Atlanta have successfully employed similar direct actions, often shaming the banks into negotiating with homeowners instead of evicting them.
SAFE is 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. (A Morgan Stanley spokesperson later told The Stranger that Deutsche Bank now owns Griffin's house. The eviction order says Deutsche Bank is acting as a trustee for Morgan Stanley.)
Given the crisis facing local homeowners, it's surprising something like SAFE hasn't caught on quicker in Seattle. A report by United Black Clergy and the Washington Community Action Network found that "42,000 Seattle homeowners (one in three) are $3.9 billion underwater on their mortgages." 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. "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 what was happening. And that's why this whole thing burst."
Under the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program, the banks were supposed to negotiate with homeowners. But Griffin says Wells Fargo, the bank that foreclosed on him, refused to negotiate. (Griffin's name was on the deed, but his ex-partner was on the loan, making him technically ineligible for federal programs.) 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.
"We went up to the mortgage department and it was four o'clock," Parker explains. "They were going to close at five. But they actually just closed down the entire branch rather than talk to their own client."
As this paper went to press, about a dozen activists maintained a vigil in front of the house, preparing for a confrontation when officers arrive. Whether that 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 would mean tossing blockaders like 86-year-old Rainey and city council candidate Kshama Sawant in jail, along with anyone else alerted by SAFE's text-message network who rushes to the scene when the police show up.
"If we have to arrest people, we will arrest people," says Sheriff John Urquhart. But Urquhart doesn't seem pleased by the prospect: "This country has evolved into a situation where a number of people are losing their houses, and I think that's a shame."