Occupy Protests Spread Anti-Foreclosure Message During National 'Occupy Our Homes' Action
WASHINGTON -- In the late evening on Tuesday, Brigitte Walker welcomed Occupy Atlanta onto her property in an effort to save her Riverdale, Ga., home from foreclosure.
Walker, 44, joined the Army in 1985 and had been among the first U.S. personnel to enter Iraq in February 2003. "I wasn't happy about it," she told The Huffington Post early Tuesday afternoon, speaking of her deployment. "But it's my call of duty so had to do what I was supposed to do. It was a very difficult duty. It was a very emotional duty."
Walker saw fellow soldiers die, get injured. She saw a civilian with them get killed. "It was very nerve-wracking," she said. "It makes you wonder if you're going to survive."
She was in Iraq until May 2004, when the shock from mortar rounds crushed her spine. Doctors had to put in titanium plates to reinforce her spine, which had nerve damage. Today her range of motion is limited, and she still experiences a lot of pain. She still struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. Loud noises and big crowds are painful. The Fourth of July is difficult for her
She settled in Riverdale, a town outside of Atlanta, after purchasing a house in 2004 for $139,000. She has a brother who lives in the area and enjoyed it when she would visit him. "It seemed peaceful and quiet," she said. "That's what I needed." Her active duty salary covered the mortgage.
But in 2007, the Army medically retired Walker against her wishes. "I thought I was going to rehab and come back," she said. "But they told me I couldn't stay in." Walker now has to rely on a disability check.
After retiring from the Army, Walker used up her savings, and then got rid of a car to help pay her monthly mortgage payment. "I didn't have problems until they put me out of the military," she said. "It was just overwhelming."
By April of last year, she was starting to fall behind on her mortgage. JPMorgan Chase -- which owns Walker's mortgage, according to an Occupy Atlanta press release -- has since begun foreclosure proceedings. She said the bank is set to take her house on January 3.
"Nobody is willing to help me," Walker said. "Where are the programs to help vets like me? I know I'm one of many."
Enter Occupy Atlanta.
"I'm very hopeful that it will help me save my home and allow Chase to give me a chance to keep my home," Walker said, speaking of the Occupiers. She added that she's willing to celebrate Christmas with the activists.
"I guess," she said with a laugh. "As long as it takes."
Hours before Occupy Atlanta joined Walker at her home, the activists organized protests aimed at disrupting home auctions at three area courthouses. At a Fulton County Courthouse, civil rights leader Dr. Joseph Lowery joined 200 demonstrators at the county's monthly foreclosure auction.
Across the country, activists associated with the Occupy movement and Occupy Our Homes reached out to families threatened by foreclosure and highlighted the crisis with marches, rallies and press conferences.
"Occupy Wall Street started because of a deep need in our country to address the financial and economic crisis that's been created by the consolidation of wealth and political power in our country," said Jonathan Smucker, 33, an organizer with Occupy Wall Street in New York. "The foreclosure crisis, at least as much as anything else, illustrates the deep moral crisis that we are facing. It illustrates what you have when you have your whole political system serving the needs of the one percent."
Mothers spoke out on front lawns. In New York City, Occupy Wall Street marched through the streets of East New York. At the same time, Occupy groups were protesting home auctions in Nevada and New Orleans. In Seattle protesters tried to save a family from eviction. In all, activists took over vacant homes or homes facing foreclosures from being evicted in 20 cities.
During the actions, the activists tried to keep the mood light. In Chicago they planned a house-warming party for a family moving into an abandoned home. To announce their presence in New York, protestes held a block party and, in a play on police tape, wrapped a home in yellow tape bearing the word "Occupy."
As the protest were taking place, the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, released a new report that found an increasing number of American homes are going unused, a spike attributed to high foreclosure and unemployment rates.
"According to Census Bureau data, nonseasonal vacant properties have increased 51 percent nationally from nearly 7 million in 2000 to 10 million in April 2010, with 10 states seeing increases of 70 percent or more," the report read. "High foreclosure rates have contributed to the additional vacancies. Population declines in certain cities and high unemployment also may have contributed to increased vacancies."
Vacant homes can cause a number of problems for the communities their located in, the report noted: "Vacant and unattended residential properties can attract crime, cause blight, and pose a threat to public safety."
The need for action was obvious to Smucker.
"People need a place to live," he said. "People need to have homes. Kids need to be able to count on not having to move, having some stability in their lives. That's something we can all agree on in this country."
Some of the most powerful stories came from the homeowners Occupiers targeted during the day's events. One mother from Petaluma, Calif, held a press conference outside her home and discussed her struggle with foreclosure. An Oregon mother talked about her lose of a second job, cancer and bankruptcy at an event at her house.
In Old Fourth Ward neighborhood of downtown Atlanta, Occupiers came to the Pittman family home. Carmen Pittman, 21, said the home has been the backdrop to every family function and holiday dinner as far back as she can remember. The ranch-style home had been in the Pittman name since 1953.
"My every Christmas, my every Thanksgiving, my every birthday, my every dinner was in this house," Pittman told HuffPost early this afternoon. "This was the base home. We could not stay away form this home. This home is my every memory."
Now she worries that the last memory she will have is the home's foreclosure. Her grandmother had become too sick to deal with the ballooning mortgage, and never addressed the court papers that arrived in the mail. Shortly before she passed away, the family finally realized the home was being foreclosed on when they got a notice on the front door. They have had to scramble ever since.
But on Tuesday, Pittman was feeling good about her prospects after the Occupy group had come to the house. "Maybe somebody heard my cries," she said. "I'm full of sadness and joy. It's like two mixed feelings at the same time."
Walker, the Iraq War vet, let the Occupy Atlanta activists set up tents on her property this evening. While her eviction date is still set for Jan. 3, she said she remained cautiously optimistic that her situation could change.
"Everything's fine," she said. "Everything's good. They have the tents set up outside. It's awesome. I was a little nervous. But it's awesome. I'm really hopeful and happy. I'm feeling really hopeful. I don't feel like all is lost anymore."
Additional reporting by Arthur Delaney.
Just some of the odd foreclosure stories of the last year: