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Deborah Castillo  Headshot

Make Wall Street Pay, Restore Our Communities

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After five long years, reports of federal legal action against banks, including JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Bank of America, are raising hopes that Wall Street might finally be held at least partly accountable for their misdeeds.

Some in the media are crying out as if the big bankers were being persecuted within an inch of their lives. As much as they complain, not a single banker has gone to jail as a result of the mortgage debacle.

But I did.

Here's how my journey to facing arrest in the nation's capital began: My husband and I built our own home here in St. Louis. We never missed a payment on our mortgage. Then came Wall Street's Great Recession. My husband lost his job. Our family was hit by health problems.

Our own battle with the bank left our home empty and vandalized while Wall Street banks are larger, richer, and more profitable than they have ever been, thanks to the bailouts they got from us taxpayers.

In May of this year, I stood with hundreds of others who have fought foreclosure or been evicted from their homes by big banks. We went to our nation's capital to take part in a peaceful protest to "Bring Justice to Justice" -- calling on the Department of Justice to keep families in their homes and hold banks and bankers responsible for the financial crisis that ruined so many lives. 27 "home defenders," as we call ourselves, were arrested that day.

Later that week we went to the offices of Covington & Burling, the law firm that represents big Wall Street banks in Washington, D.C. (Eric Holder was a partner in that firm before he became U.S. Attorney General. Lanny Breuer, who was Holder's top criminal prosecutor at the Justice Department, also came from that firm, and returned after years of refusing to bring criminal charges against a single major Wall Street executive.) Seven of us -- mostly grandmothers who had fought foreclosure -- were arrested for literally refusing to leave and symbolically blocking the revolving door between Covington and the Department of Justice. We were later prosecuted by none other than Eric Holder's Justice Department.

Almost all of us who were arrested last May were fighting unjust foreclosures. Some of us had been evicted at gunpoint from the homes we bought. Others told terrible stories of being forcibly removed by police while in pajamas and undergarments.

That's why, five years after the housing collapse, we don't feel the banks are being treated too harshly at all. Unlike my sisters and brothers who stood up to the big banks, no Wall Street executives have ended up in handcuffs. But in the absence of criminal prosecutions (to date), multi-billion dollar lawsuits against the big banks could help bring desperately needed relief to families and communities.

As they negotiate settlements with the government for the trillions in damage they caused to the world economy, the big banks should halt foreclosures and instead work out fair settlements with the millions of families still in the foreclosure pipeline. As part of their settlements, they should enact wide-scale principal reduction, the resetting of mortgage payments based on the fair market value today, not the inflated numbers from the days of the mortgage bubble. And they should restore community wealth by returning homes to those unjustly foreclosed-upon wherever possible, and turning vacant houses over to non-profits to create permanent affordable housing.

Since the week of protest in DC, my friends Anne Haines of St. Paul and Mildred Obi in Atlanta worked with Occupy Homes to win back their houses from big banks that had needlessly and illegally foreclosed on them. Others have continued to fight for their homes and help others to do so.

The Home Defenders League recently launched a petition calling on JPMorgan Chase -- whose $13 billion settlement with the federal government was announced Tuesday -- to end foreclosures and offer a fair modification to all homeowners. While the people who crashed our economy complain about having to pay pennies on the dollar for a crisis they caused, millions of Americans are still reeling from lost homes, lost savings and lost livelihoods. Doing the right thing now, even this late in the game, would save hundreds of millions of dollars, save homes and neighborhoods, and constitute a meaningful step toward justice that has been so long in coming.