Occupy Y'all Street: Occupy Atlanta Fights Foreclosure, Fannie Mae Demands Protesters' Emails
This is the second in a series of stories and short films on under-publicized Occupy sites. The first is here. Stay tuned in the coming days for more from our road trip through the South.
SNELLVILLE, Ga. -- The day after Fannie Mae evicted a police officer and his family from their suburban Atlanta home, the government-owned mortgage giant demanded the family turn over all its correspondence with members of Occupy Atlanta, according to court documents.
In early November, Christopher Rorey, an officer with the DeKalb County Police Department, had invited the activists affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement to his quiet neighborhood in Gwinnett County, about 25 miles outside of Atlanta. The Rorey family had spent 13 months fending off foreclosure. They were on their second lawyer and second civil suit. After losing a last ditch court hearing, attended by Occupy protesters, an eviction was imminent. The Roreys were down to last options.
A large storage bin now occupied their driveway. Slowly, next-door neighbors had started to help fill it. Belongings ringed the darkened living room in neat stacks. In the front room, more was piled on the couch; the big-screen TV had been moved out of the way. The finished basement had been stripped clean except for a lone black leather office chair. In the kitchen, the cabinets had been emptied, and the stove had been put in the bin on the driveway.
The demonstrators set up large orange-and-blue tents on the Rorey front lawn, unrolled bedding in their basement, and hung signs from their porch that read: "THIS HOME IS OCCUPIED" in rainbow colors.
The organizers said they liked the fact that Christopher, 43, was a cop. And they liked the Roreys' story.
"I never suspected that we would be in this situation," Tawanna Rorey, Christopher's wife, told The Huffington Post. "Here we are the little people once again, getting squashed on."
The small encampment was quiet. The donated food was plentiful. The only hint of danger came from the activists smoking on the lawn. Later, the Occupiers' kids drew on the sidewalk with chalk. The real drama over the house had taken place in courtrooms, in consultant offices and on phone calls with the mortgage authorities.
In the spring of 2010, the Roreys decided they wanted a loan modification. They had managed to pay their mortgage each month. They just wanted a little more breathing room. When they made the request to their mortgage servicer, then-called Everhome, the Roreys say they were told that unless they could prove financial hardship, they couldn't get the modification.
A foreclosure consultant they hired told them to stop paying their mortgage. Counterintuitive as it may sound, it's common advice in the industry.
The Roreys took the advice that summer. In September, Everhome entered into foreclosure proceedings on the Roreys. On Oct. 5, they were foreclosed on.
Their foreclosure consultant has since been arrested for allegedly breaking into foreclosed homes and renting them out.
"Fannie Mae is committed to helping homeowners avoid foreclosure whenever possible," Amy Bonitatibus, senior director for Fannie Mae corporate communications, stated in an email to HuffPost. "We have a Mortgage Help Center in Atlanta where homeowners can meet with a trusted housing counselor to discuss their mortgage situation and options to avoid foreclosure. Unfortunately, the homeowner did not seek assistance from our Help Center."
The Roreys' attorney Asim A. Alam says it was unknown that Fannie Mae was the lender until well after the foreclosure. Everhome never mentioned Fannie Mae's involvement. Shortly before the foreclosure proceedings started, the Roreys expected that the consultant would file a modification request. They are unsure if he ever did, Alam says.
Everhome did not return a request for comment.
"I am very happy [this case] is receiving this much publicity," Alam tells HuffPost. "It is a representative case. Most of my clients are not poor, lazy people who get in over their heads. They are getting screwed over by the bank. They were given inaccurate information by their lender. What happened to the Roreys can happen to anyone in the community."
Fannie Mae hasn't been too pleased with the publicity over the Rorey case. In their filing, the company's lawyers don't just request all email correspondence between Christopher and Tawanna Rorey and Occupy Atlanta. The lawyers also demand any and all emails between Alam and the activists.
"What angle are they coming from?" Tawanna Rorey wonders. "What are they really after? I know it's not for our good ... This just shows you how deep, how deep and dirty and low down big business is. They stop at nothing."
Fannie Mae also wants copies of all stories and interviews concerning the Roreys. The lawyers write:
"Produce all articles Plaintiff and/or her attorney have copied which were in any print newspaper and/or online relating to the Foreclosure Sale. Produce copies of all recorded interviews given by Plaintiff, Christopher Rorey, Plaintiff's attorney, Asim Alam, and/or anyone purporting to speak on Plaintiff's behalf, relating to the Foreclosure Sale."
If Fannie Mae has its way, their lawyers will soon be coming after HuffPost.
We pulled up to the Rorey home in the late morning of the occupation's second day. All was quiet except for the hum of local TV trucks, drawn by the novel drama of the police-occupy alliance. An activist shuffled the tents around on the lawn. A veggie platter, a large bag of wasabi peas and a nearly-empty box of granola bars sat untouched on the front porch.
It was a Tuesday. Over the weekend, Occupy Atlanta demonstrators had tried to retake their old spot downtown at Woodruff Park. Authorities arrested 19 protesters. Occupy Atlanta organizer Tim Franzen says he doesn't miss the helicopters and riot police.
After the protesters' first all-nighter on the Roreys lawn, Franzen could only complain about the reporter that woke him up. "There's like a news crew walking around looking to interview somebody," he explains to HuffPost later that day. "They came in and started shining a light in the yard."
Franzen, 34, is tall and lanky. With his red winter cap and plaid shirt buttoned to the neck, he could be dismissed as another hipster. But not quite: Franzen spent his teenage years in out and out of city jails, hooked on gin and cocaine. Burglaries fueled the rebellion. His last stint, at 19, was a year in a Georgia prison.
By the time he got out, Franzen had worked toward putting his life back together. He started a chain of halfway houses emphasizing detox and life skills that he hadn't learned early enough. The Iraq War got him thinking beyond Atlanta's most-marginalized. But he is still driven by his experiences in the criminal justice system and the guys that he saw pass through it on their way to much worse.
"We all have the narrative that drives us to do this occupation work," Franzen explains. "And for me that narrative, the lens I see this whole movement through is confronting this crisis of priority ... They're victims of this system, of this crisis of priority."
At 12:24 p.m., the first cop car drives by.
Tawanna Rorey, 38, needs to be coaxed out of her house. A silver-haired TV reporter is waiting on the lawn for a promised on-camera interview. There is another reporter waiting on the sidewalk. The day before she had done several interviews. CNN even did a story. But she is still camera shy.
Franzen seems to get Tawanna and her shyness. When she finally comes out, she stays close to the activist like he is a life raft. She tells her story not with the decibel level of a demonstrator, nor does she lard her story with slogans cribbed from Noam Chomsky or Naomi Klein. She tells the reporter that she is a stay-at-home mother.
Nothing about her performance is ready-made for YouTube. Only her nervous smile hints at her hardship. After she finishes telling her story one more time, the reporter comes in close. He hushes her with "you-did-greats."
At first, Tawanna Rorey will only allow us in the basement of the house. The basement is not hers anymore; it's occuppied. Activists sit on the carpet in the dark and tap away at laptops and smartphones. A case of bottled water dominates the sapce. That night, a huge vat of donated baked ziti will be set up on a table here. The room will be packed with strangers talking paradigm shifts.
Tawanna has to be coaxed into letting us onto the first floor and in the kitchen. It's hard to tell what is private and what should be public. Their stuff is scattered all over the place. It's hard to keep order in an occupation.
Before buying the house, the Roreys saved for a couple of years. She worked as an office manager. He had his police officer job. The Roreys had bought the house new in 2003 for $179,000. It was their first. They loved the backyard, and the basement. There was room to grow. They have two sons, ages five and 11, and a daughter in college.
Tawanna Rorey said she thought the best way to explain their house guests was through the story of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.
"Occupy Atlanta are trying to stand up, bring light and a voice to all of us who have very small voices," she says. "That's how I explained it to them. That really sounded courageous to them."
The Roreys try to keep things normal. Tawanna and Christopher negotiate who is going to take their elder son to football practice.
Franzen has rarely, if ever, known the Roreys diligent normalcy. But he is still in his element here, sitting in a green plastic lawn chair out front, guarding the house from the police that have yet to show up. This is where he sees the next fight.
"We don't want to spend all of our energy fighting police over a hunk of dirt," Franzen explains. "That's not what a lot of us signed up for. We want to take on the banks, we want to take on economic disparity. And sure, the fight in the park does connect to that. We don't want to give it up. We should have the right to assemble there. But we also want to be doing some serious base building, building community support. I don't know. I just get the feeling that fighting in the park is not really doing that and not really reaching Americans who are hurting the most."
Occupy Atlanta had moved into the fourth floor of a homeless shelter to protect it from redevelopment. That has been successful; the shelter is expected to remain open through the winter. The Rorey home was their first push into the suburbs. Franzen didn't see it as a permanent move; he wanted to help form a suburban off-shoot, Occupy Gwinnett, that could take over the Rorey fight and go on to address foreclosures and other county issues.
Of the move to the Roreys, Franzen is up-front.
"The narrative was strong and the injustice was clear," he says. "And it made tactical sense."
That night, the occupation's second, would prove to be its tactical high point. Occupy Gwinnett began on the Rorey front lawn; the new group not only formed but ran its first general assembly. By the end of the night, it sounded like any community meeting, with its talk of transportation issues and government red tape. Except after this meeting, some members were sleeping on-site, and there was a press conference.
"Occupy Gwinnett is here," Franzen declared as the Occupiers squinted into the TV crews' bright lights.
The next day, the sheriff had threatened to issue arrest warrants for both Christopher and Tawanna as accomplices if Occupy Atlanta continued its protest on the property. They relented.
"I am not going to address accusations made by Occupy Atlanta," Sheriff Butch Conway offered in a statement to Huffington Post. "Evictions are never pleasant for anyone, but I have a job to do and I'm doing my job."
The following day the Roreys would be evicted. The press was there to take pictures of their belongings on the front lawn.
The family is now staying with relatives. Only the Roreys' civil suit continues.
"When we went to Snellville, it was an experiment," Franzen says now. "We learned a lot from the experiment. We were not prepared for how strong the system is. And how big the pushback was going to be."
Occupy Atlanta has started demonstrating at the local Fannie Mae office. Tawanna Rorey spoke at the first demonstration.
Rorey believes she's doing the right thing by joining forces with Occupy Atlanta.
She says, "I don't regret it at all."
The music heard on the video is by Elizabeth Cotten.
Before Atlanta, Georgia, we were in Gainesville, Florida to start our Occupy Y'all Street series. Watch: