While Occupy St. Louis hibernated for the winter, foreclosed homeowners and occupiers were invited to a meeting to discuss home defense. One of the homeowners, Annie Quain, successfully stalled her eviction long enough for the property to be put back in her hands. This is story of that process…
Annie could be anyone her age. She lived in her house for almost 20 years, raised her kids in it and slowly paid off her mortgage through her work as a house painter. A few years ago, when all of us started feeling the effects of the economy going to shit, work became harder to find and Annie fell behind on her payments. She then proceeded to enter the bureaucratic hell of foreclosure.
Wave after wave of confusing bank notices, her debt switching from one set of scum hands to another. Letters from banks telling her to do this, demanding that she do that. Annie making an effort to track down clear answers and getting nothing but the run-around. And all the while, Annie didn’t know what – if any – of the threats had legal weight behind them. Finally a letter telling her she had 30 days to leave. Like many people in her situation, Annie simply figured she’d stay in her house as long as she could. The eviction date came and went and after 4-6 months, she was still there.
Around this time in December, Annie (an occupier herself) attended a foreclosure meeting called for by the hibernating remnants of Occupy St. Louis. The movement of occupations that finally reached North America in the late summer, had peaked in most places by November. Luckily, though, most occupiers were still riding their high of collective defiance and were looking for ways to expand beyond taking over public parks. Towards the end of Autumn, this had taken the form of attempting to blockade bridges, ports and other places that keep society going one day to the next. There was also a push to occupy abandoned buildings – ones that better met the needs of sustaining an occupation.
With a couple strikes and threats of strikes around town, there was also the hope of workplace or university occupations, and in that, the desire to take space that would more immediately disrupt the flow of everyday life. Finally, there was the push to help move people back into their foreclosed homes or through direct defense prevent eviction from happening in the first place.
Annie explained her situation and folks decided to help. What followed was a series of meetings and potlucks every couple of months at Annie’s house off south Kingshighway and Chippewa. They helped us establish an emotional attachment to her home, as well as get to know each other better. We were also able to meet neighbors and get updates about Annie’s changing situation.
At their worst, they were everything one hates about meetings: the conversation being unfocused and going in circles; having to reach the same conclusion at every meeting because of the fluctuation of people present; people making speeches or being unaware of how long they were rambling or how off topic their comment was. Eventually, we realized we could begin the meeting with a brief update on Annie’s situation and summary of the defense plan (that way people could just accept it and we didn’t have to keep arguing about why it made the most sense).
At their best, one was shocked at how commonplace radical ideas were discussed and casually accepted as the most practical. The get-togethers reflected people and collective power at their best: willing to call the motherfuckers that run our lives – in this case: banks, the sheriff’s department, police, politicians and the media – on their bullshit. Riding the high of the occupied Fall, the group also understood (to varying degrees) the power we have when we push things farther than we think we’re capable of. It had also learned that the more we look upon ourselves and act as protagonists, and not to those in power as such, the more we take back power from those that run our lives and put it in our own hands.
THE DIGNITY BEHIND THE BARRICADE
When people want to defend a building against eviction, often the first impulse is to barricade the doors and hole up inside. If this is all that numbers allow for, great, but if it’s possible to expand farther out into the street (ideally, the whole block or neighborhood), then conflict can become more diffuse and expand from a single point or two to an entire zone. Instead of a house defending itself in isolation, the appearance is now a block or community shooing the buzzards from a wounded member.
While the barricaded house often plays out as the police slowly but surely finding a way in and those inside counting the minutes until they’re arrested, the barricaded block allows for defenders to stay mobile. There’s more space to move: to fall back or (if lucky enough) push forward, and also evade arrest. Instead of a door or window being the only point of conflict, the street can allow for multiple, consecutive blockades and other points of conflict. If folks can’t agree about what they’re comfortable with, it allows one group to do something at one end and another something different at the other, inside the house itself, etc.
The barricaded block also allows for neighbors to come and go from their homes on one side to normality on the other. They must pass through the zone of conflict, naturally forming an opinion and taking a side. In this case, Annie had already gone door to door telling her neighbors her situation, that she was going to stick it out and it might involve barricading the street. Neighbors responded sympathetically (with a few attending potlucks and discussions) or with indifference but willing to accept the barricades – an overall pretty ideal situation.
With a larger zone of conflict, police are forced to try and cordon off an even bigger area, perhaps beyond what they’re materially or socially capable of maintaining.
People in the world that have traditions of physically defending space – Native communities in Canada and New England, squatter communities in Europe, peasants in South America – have found these conclusions helpful.
These were how the arguments went in support of barricading the street. And surprisingly, people agreed. And, why shouldn’t they, they’re brilliant ideas? Perhaps as society fulfills less and less of its promises, ideas, tactics, and strategies thought radical five, ten years ago will become good ol’ fashion common sense.
So a rough plan formed. A sympathetic lawyer was going to stall the bank in court as long as possible. At whatever point we thought a real eviction was imminent, we’d start a 24-hour presence at Annie’s house and have barricade material and a phone tree at the ready for when the sheriff arrived. Depending on how many people showed up in time, that’s how large an area would be barricaded and defended. If people didn’t show up in time, we’d march around the neighborhood with banners and leaflets explaining what was happening and possibly block a major street nearby. If everything failed, we’d help Annie move back in as soon as possible.
DEUS EX MACHINA AND ITS FALL OUT
As legal maneuvers ran out, a meeting was called for people to commit to specific times and barricade material they’d be able to provide. But in the day or two that passed between the call for the meeting and the meeting itself, a childhood friend had found out about Annie’s situation. They looked up what Annie’s house was being sold for (now only $14,000, a 1/5 of the money the bank claimed Annie’s owed them in debt), and offered to buy it back for Annie.
Through the shock of the announcement people tried to talk about where to go next. Other people had approached the group wanting to resist being foreclosed on. Sadly, instead of seeing the re-buying of the house for what it was (potentially humiliating and a defeat), people began brainstorming ways to raise money for other people to buy-back their homes. Others tried to figure out the best way to spin things to give good PR to their group or ideological current (hopefully not what this article is doing). But the most important lessons, of course, were hard to see and express in the moment. Overall, though, people felt good for Annie, and felt resolved to keep fighting the other foreclosures.
It seems clear now that what made the group unique was its willingness to defend Annie’s home, physically, no matter what. And that though there may be strong differences in ideas and tactics, pressure and threats can be delivered from many angles and work together. This strategy works as long as everyone knows that we need to approach those in power by threatening them, taking from them without asking, and that anything they “give” us is something we’ve wrested away from them.
However, such a strategy will enforce their power over our own if we’re not always articulating this at their expense: exposing their bullshit and explaining our own power. Anything that is done to stall or resolve the situation makes sense, as long as we always appear as though we’re taking the upper hand and there is the very real threat of something like barricades behind them. Otherwise we’re helping repair the image of banks or getting a politician re-elected.
YOUR HOME IS YOUR HOME, NO MATTER WHAT
Picture your home. What do you see? I see my bed and I feel the visceral sensation of resting there. My home is where I eat, where I keep my favorite things – books I’ve read over and over, cherished letters, pictures of loved ones. It’s where I’ve had some of my favorite sex and worst fights. I’ve painted and patched it, crafted it uniquely (consciously or not) so it’s an extension of myself, so it can be a refuge for friends – a place to celebrate and mourn. What does it mean to own a home? Only in the nightmare of private property would it have anything to do with a piece of paper with a name on it. Those of us defending Annie’s house understood this. The degree to which we were willing to make it our point of refusal varied.
If we’ve had a taste of what means to stand our ground and look out for each other (and liked it!), perhaps the next step forward is a solidarity network. A group of people that friends, neighbors, family (and eventually strangers) could call on to amplify their struggle. Whether that’s resisting eviction, getting paid back-wages, telling a rapist to fuck off, tearing down anti-panhandling signs, etc., the group would be comprised of those that keep society functioning one day to the next, but who always find themselves holding the short end of the stick.
No experts, no professionals. Just us.
Annie, may your home always be yours.
To the rest of us and Annie too, our strength rests in our refusal and willingness to remain unbowed to those that try and control us.
A FINAL NOTE: THIS SHIT IS DAUNTING, and REFUSAL
Foreclosure exists because we live in a world where our ability to take care of ourselves has been stripped from us. Abundance exists all around us, but we’re denied it and reduced to living moment to moment – just trying to stay afloat in a sea of survival. Even if you want to live independently – providing for yourself and your friends – it’s been made impossible. Annie has certainly done so with her home for almost 20 years. (She even offered a supporter who had an uncertain living situation a bed and room in her house if they should ever need it).
Banks, through the logic of property, have flipped reality on its head. Banks have made themselves seem like they’re helping to provide a human necessity, when in reality they exploit this need (and simultaneously make people less self-sufficient). They go even further by making it seem as though Annie is in the wrong. That by being unable or refusing to pay them money she’s taken advantage of a communal resource – not doing her part to keep society afloat.
Foreclosures are a natural result of being forced to play this sick game, a game which many of us are refusing to play any longer. In opposing foreclosures, on the one hand is the need to remain steadfast in our critique of property, banks, money, etc. On the other is knowing that Capitalism will likely not collapse tomorrow nor will the force that will destroy it arise that quickly either (it’s possible and we want it, but still very unlikely). In this light, how do we find a balance without being entirely unpractical or spineless?
Something that seems clear is that Annie stayed in her house as long as she did because she felt some safety in our offer to help – putting pressure on banks and physically defending the home. If nothing else, emboldening her, ourselves and others resisting foreclosure is a victory in itself.
The more we stress this bottomline – your home is your home, no matter what – and the more we act in regards to this dynamic – We don’t trust politicians, the banks or police – they’ve gotten us into this mess. We need to look out for each other – the more powerful our home defense becomes. Any step away from this – getting bogged down in the bureaucratic details of foreclosures or trying to get people with societal power to endorse us (politicians, union reps, clergy, media, police) – the more we shoot ourselves in the foot. It becomes a defeat if we walk away thinking banks or people better off than us just need to cut us a break, or if we create a public façade with the same message. If we see Annie’s story as refusing to budge and helping each other out, while creating unforeseeable possibilities, it leans towards inspiration and momentum building.
Annie’s foreclosure story up until this point follows almost every foreclosure story I’ve heard. If you can stomach the uncertainty, stick it out. Start talking to neighbors and friends. Don’t give up your home!
In terms of tactics, strategy and ideas about the world, the group was all over the place. As soon as someone would get done making a speech about the need to picket the bank, someone else would try and focus back on ways to materially defend the home, then someone else would suggest putting pressure on the Alderwoman, then another speech, then a new idea about pressure, trying to focus, speech, pressure, focus pressuring, ideas about focusing our speeches…….
When it comes down to it not only are individuals in positions of power helpless to do anything, they often don’t want to because they profit off of systems of debt slavery, enforce it, campaign for it, make it seem natural and those opposing it extremists.
 Think of commuters that pass a sabotaged ticket dispenser during a fare strike. They need to get somewhere, they can’t pay and by simply commuting that day they participate. Similar to how the commuter now has to think about the situation – do they prefer not having to pay, why the fuck do we have to pay to begin with, thank god I got a break today, etc – neighbors passing in and out of the barricaded street have to think about all the roles and dynamics going into the situation. Perhaps they even find the structure on our side of the barricades – promoting decentralization, direct participation, talking about the problems we face instead of bottling them up and schlepping along – more healthy and enjoyable than the ones they’re setting out to.
The world’s a fucked up place, and not just because a handful of people do fucked-up things, but when others try and stop them, some goodie-two-shoes calls the fucking cops. It’s like, why can’t people just standby and do nothing instead?
How long or often will neighbors tolerate police road blockades? How bad do they look using such force to drive someone from their home? Are they willing to use so many materials, resources and money for every eviction? Do they have that many?
SPOLIER ALERT: So… baricades still haven’t reared their mis-shappened heads. But their acceptance is a step forward from years past, and the logic behind it is worth spreading to others interested in home defense.
In response to Annie refusing to leave, U.S. Bank hired Millsap and Sing, LLC, HTs, attorneys at law, to “defend” them. In recent years, Millsap and Singer have made a name for themselves dealing with foreclosure cases. These individuals have choosen to use their creative energy to figure out the prettiest way to make the death machine look and sound.
For months they sent Annie letters threatening ‘pay this fine or you’re getting evicted.’ Among their favorite fees is the “drive-by inspection,” in which they claim to inspect your home by driving by it – if they even do that – and then mail you a bill for $265. They’ve extorted thousands of dollars from Annie and others in this way. By the end of Annie’s story, they had advised U.S. Bank to sue Annie for 8 months of “back rent” for the time she refused to leave her home.
Their offices are located at 612 Spirit Dr., St. Louis, MO, 63005. Phones: 636-489-0273, 636-537-0110, 816-421-2712, and 816-421-2712. Fax: 636-537-0067.
Initially some sympathized with Annie because of how long she’d been there, that she’d made an effort to pay and simply couldn’t and was being driven away. At a meeting though, it was asked if the group could agree to help others fight eviction, regardless if it was even something as simple as someone being behind on rent somewhere they hadn’t lived very long. Once again, to our surprise and without hesitation, the group immediately agreed.
The thousands of abandoned properties around St. Louis alone should make this point clear.
 By insisting that foreclosures and evictions (not simply certain kinds of them) and that the system that produces them are what we are against, we were able to open up other possibilities. In the time we were able to wrest away, other opportunities arose. If Annie had decided to tell the bank to fuck off and that she would never buy back her own home, we would have continued supporting her (perhaps more principled), but no one deserves to live in that sort of uncertainty. As someone less than half her age, I don’t want to, and it makes sense that she took the offer.