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Grabbing the Bolt-Cutters With Take Back the Land

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Max Rameau, by Miami Workers Center, via Flickr

In Rochester, N.Y., activists are fighting to win control of Catherine Lennon-Griffin's foreclosed, bank-owned home as a community land trust, at her request -- making this one of the first examples in the country of a neighborhood winning back a bank-owned residence and designating it for community use.

Lennon-Griffin has been re-occupying her home Avenue since last Mother's Day, after being forcibly evicted in March by a SWAT team with dozens of officers and police cars. The eviction was so shocking that Lennon-Griffin's 72-year-old neighbor ran out of her own home in her pajamas shouting, "This is not America when we are removing people from their homes!" until she was arrested along with six others.

This repossession would not only be a victory for Catherine Lennon-Griffin and her grandchildren, who lived in a homeless shelter until the reoccupation, and a major setback to Bank of America, the current leader both in national foreclosures and in settlements for illegal and fraudulent mortgage activity. Winning this house would also be one of the first concrete successes for activists who see the housing crisis as an opportunity to reimagine American society's use of land on a mass scale.

"We are in a transformative moment," says Max Rameau of Take Back the Land, the group working with Lennon-Griffin's neighborhood. "Because this crisis is firmly rooted in the housing crisis, I think we're going to have significant changes in the way people think about not just housing but land itself." Since its inception in 2006, Take Back the Land has helped communities take over dozens of abandoned, bank-owned homes in Miami, Madison, Rochester and other cities, both to provide housing for those in need and to challenge entrenched ideas about privatization, control of space and how to de-commodify community needs.

Take Back the Land's approach overlaps in many ways with the Occupy movement. Rameau is strongly opposed to stating demands, for example, because he doesn't want to undersell the potential of this moment. (He compares housing groups that demand principal reductions to the early phases of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycotts, when the demand was not desegregation but merely "segregation with dignity.") The group is focused on underlying causes and human rights, treating the current wave of foreclosures as one symptom of the larger inequalities in land relations and our nation's failure to designate a family's shelter a basic human right. Finally, like Occupy, Take Back the Land sees the solution as mass action -- in this case, widespread home and land takeovers.

"If we were to go to Bank of America right now and say, 'Hand over all your vacant properties!' they would laugh at us and then call the police," says Rameau. "But if we went to them and said, 'We are now in control of 250,000 of your properties,' I think we'd be in a very different position. At some point it will cost the banks more to evict us from all these homes than the value of the homes. We need to reach that critical mass."

With a new wave of foreclosures coming this year, people across the country are clamoring for change more drastic than the $26 billion settlement for underwater homeowners approved earlier this month. Nearly 50 percent of Americans supported a moratorium on foreclosures in 2010, a rarely-cited figure that flies in the face of the those who insist that principal reductions pose a moral hazard and that underwater homeowners merely want a free house.

In mid-May, Chicago housing and Occupy groups are planning to take over dozens, if not hundreds, of vacant properties. Even in a conservative city like Raleigh, N.C., where those facing foreclosure say that the culture is filled with shame and alienation, Nikki Shelton and the group Mortgage Fraud NC briefly took back Shelton's foreclosed home two weeks ago. In Philadelphia and Detroit, urban gardeners are turning vacant lots into community gardens. Last weekend, 300 people near Berkeley, Calif., took over a tract of University of California-owned land that had been slated for privatization -- ironically, in order to become a high-end grocery store.

However, we are still far from taking over a quarter of a million homes or abandoning the individualistic, "manifest destiny" belief in private land ownership as the crux of society. Rameau is well aware of the other potential outcome of this decisive moment: increased privatization and consolidation of land in the hands of the few.

"I think it is very easy to see -- although I don't think that people in general are thinking about it -- that in 10 or 20 years the U.S. could have five landowners," he warns. "We could have advanced capitalism in terms of the economy but feudalism in the way land relationships work.

"But if we can articulate a map of how land relationships would work, how a society would be organized in which housing is a human right and how community control of land would operate, I think we can win that argument and convince enough people to join the fight and win."

Laura Gottesdiener is author of A Dream Foreclosed: The Great Eviction and the Fight to Live in America, forthcoming from Zuccotti Park Press, www.zuccottiparkpress.com. She has published in The Huffington Post, Ms. magazine, The Arizona Republic, The New Haven Advocate and other publications. She has organized with Occupy Wall Street and other anti-foreclosure organizations, and has lived in homes, apartments, tents and in Zuccotti Park. Laura is currently a precarious renter and has no aspirations to own a home.