WASHINGTON -- Owners of foreclosed homes were arrested Monday during a protest outside Justice Department headquarters, where they demonstrated against prosecutors' failure to take legal action against bankers.
Seventeen former homeowners were arrested, according to Washington police. The demonstrators were seized outside the Justice Department building as they sat in groups behind a police barrier, singing protest songs largely invoking language from the Occupy Wall Street movement. They began blocking traffic in front of the Robert F. Kennedy building at 2:00 p.m. Five hours later, Constitution Avenue remained blocked from 9th Street to 10th Street.
Those arrested were charged with "incommoding," or obstructing traffic, according to Ann C. Wilcox, a lawyer representing the protesters. Many of the protesters who were not arrested had set up tents outside the building and said they planned to spend the night.
(UPDATE: On Tuesday morning, police arrested those who stayed the night. The video above shows Carmen Pittman surrounded by three large officers before she is tased. More on her story of foreclosure here and below.)
The protest was organized, in part, by Occupy Our Homes, a grassroots organization that grew out of the Occupy Wall Street demonstration to support homeowners facing foreclosure. Other grassroots organizations, including coalitions from as far as Washington state, California and Florida, also joined.
No Justice Department officials come outside to acknowledge the protesters. A department spokesman wasn't available for comment after business hours.
"We want our attorney general, Eric Holder, to bring some accountability from the banks and put them in jail," said Vivian Richardson, 62, of San Francisco, whose home was foreclosed on in 2010. Richardson fought against the banks to win back her house with the help of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and other community-based organizations.
Nearly a third of all foreclosed borrowers who faced foreclosure proceedings brought by the biggest U.S. mortgage companies came to the brink of losing their homes due to potential bank errors or now-banned practices, according to a study from bank regulators published in April.
Many homeowners who successfully fought banks have received compensation checks far below the value of the homes they lost.
Eric Krasner’s home in Frederick, Md., was foreclosed on in 2010 after he had filed for bankruptcy. Krasner, 52, now living in Atlanta, battled banks for years before winning compensation. He said his fight revealed disorganized distribution by federal regulators of a $9.2 billion settlement with mortgage companies over improper foreclosures.
"When they said, 'Oh we're going to do this settlement, but it's taking so long we're not even going to look at your files,' I started calling my elected officials looking for answers," Krasner told The Huffington Post. "How are they going to determine how much pay us ... if they're not going to even look at our" files?
Krasner figured he was owed $62,000 from the settlement, but when his check came, he received only $2,000. Many in his situation received as little as $300 in compensation. "Until Eric Holder does his job and puts bankers in jail, this is going to continue," Krasner said.
"Banks were bailed out when they needed help ... and they're not giving back like they were supposed to," said Richardson, echoing the anger toward the big banks that received billions in 2008 and 2009 to help keep them afloat after the economy soured.
That "too big to fail" and "too big to jail" feeling has recently been taken on by the Democrat-controlled Senate.
In March, the Senate voted 99-0 in favor of a non-binding budget amendment, introduced by Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), to eliminate subsidies or funding advantages for Wall Street banks with more than $500 billion in assets. However, it is a non-binding amendment, and it was attached to the Senate budget that was never taken up by the Republican-controlled House, which passed the budget introduced by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) earlier that month.
In early March, Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee that some banks are in fact too big to prosecute because doing so "will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy." Last week, Holder tried to roll back his earlier statement, telling a House Judiciary Committee that there is "no institution ... who cannot be investigated and prosecuted by the United States Department of Justice."
UPDATE: 10:30 a.m. -- Atlanta activist Carmen Pittman was arrested and tased Tuesday morning outside of the Justice Department building. In 2011, HuffPost's Jason Cherkis and Sara Kenigsberg visited Occupy Atlanta and covered Pittman's battle with her banks:
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."