The Occupy movement here didn’t quite die a couple of years ago, despite the dysfunction and internecine ideological struggles. It’s not that they didn’t have direction; it’s that they had a thousand directions. A group of like-minded activists picked one – bank foreclosures – then started picking fights. Often, they’ve won. But when they’ve won, it’s generally been on the street. Today, they’re counting on a Hail Mary pass to win in court.
Occupy Our Homes Atlanta has a talent for finding sympathetic cases, then staking out homes under foreclosure to draw negative publicity to the banks involved. Their actions may be theatrical, but they effectively change the cost-benefit calculation for a lender, because drawing attention to marshals putting old women and disabled people on the street at the behest of Wells Fargo or Bank of America can affect brand value.
More than once over the last two years, Occupy’s threat to turn a foreclosure into a circus dragged indifferent lenders to the negotiating table. Occupy’s long-term goal has been to inspire underwater homeowners to resist in a foreclosure – to broadly raise banks’ cost of foreclosures to unacceptable levels.
Occupy’s position represents a moral challenge to the law. In their view, after the extraordinary – and extra-legal – bailout of banks during the financial crisis, it’s immoral to privilege the security interest of Fannie Mae over that of a homeowner. It’s civil disobedience akin to the lunch counter sit-ins of the ’60s.
In August 2013, OOHA blockaded the home of Mark Harris, a disabled Gulf War veteran in Avondale Estates facing foreclosure and eviction. Police arrested Harris and three protesters. Two locked themselves into a concrete-filled barrel, leaving police to spend an hour-and-a-half chiseling them out before arresting them.
The group generally refers to itself as the Avondale 4, perhaps because two of the three Occupy protesters have a reputation that might color opinions. Tim Franzen – he of the red hat – was often the public face of Occupy Atlanta and is a leader in Georgia’s Moral Monday movement. Meanwhile, Daniel Hanley has been an old school card-carrying socialist protester for years. It was he and Mariam Asad who were chained together in concrete in front of Harris’ garage.
Harris’ lawyer, Mawuli Davis, argued that a peaceful protest should be immune from prosecution under the 1st Amendment. He argued that the home foreclosed on by Fannie Mae is public property and that it’s legal to protest on public property. He even argued Stand Your Ground. Davis had planned to call Lynn Szymoniak, an expert in robosigning problems and mortgage fraud, to testify in the case, but Judge Dax Lopez ruled her testimony inadmissible. I assume Davis doesn’t want to use the term jury nullification, but I think that’s essentially what he’s looking for.
He’s not crazy. He might get it.
Two years ago, DeKalb County charged a dozen “sovereign citizens” with fraud and racketeering charges after they appropriated foreclosed homes and commercial property. The crew filed quitclaim deeds on million-dollar homes in foreclosure, called the locksmiths and utilities and set up shop. On the face of it the entire movement seems absurd, built from Illuminati-level conspiracies about how the government secretly borrows money against people’s true names at birth or how the legality of a courtroom might be a matter of how the letters of your name are capitalized and the fringe on the American flag behind the judge.
There’s an entire ecology of gloriously solemn weirdness like this operating just below the radar in DeKalb County. The next time you’re driving to Your DeKalb Farmers Market on Ponce de Leon, note the Egyptian-themed storefront down the street. The Nuwaubians‘ manifestation in DeKalb isn’t an accident.
Most of the sovereign citizens pleaded out, but three – Eliyshuwa Yisrael, Jermaine Gibson and Richard Jenkins – fought to a verdict.
Yisrael appears to be connected to the Black Hebrew Israelite movement of the Nation of Yahweh which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a cult-like hate group responsible for a series of murders. Nonetheless, Yisrael represented himself at trial. “If I deprived anybody of their life, liberty or property, according to Article 6, I’m right to go to jail. Send me on my way,” he argued before the jury. “The indictment says there are victims. Where are the victims? Only people can enter into a contract, not corporations. Why? Because a corporation cannot sign or give verbal instructions.”
And the jury acquitted them. Not a hung jury. Not a mistrial. Just not guilty.
Gibson went to jail three months ago on a federal gun charge associated with yet another deed fraud case. Jenkins is off the radar. But Yisrael’s on the Internet lecture circuit with talks like “The Common Law Doctrine of Corpus Delicti and a HOT! stare decisis review.”
Why in the hell would anyone buy Yisrael’s line in court? Because screw the banks, that’s why.
Georgia’s foreclosure rate remains one of the highest in the nation, and DeKalb County has been the hardest hit part of the state. Of the 12 zip codes at the top of Zillow’s negative equity list, half are in south DeKalb. The rate of foreclosures here has become self-reinforcing. As banks repossess homes, the foreclosure drives down property values nearby, pushing more homes’ value below their mortgage burden and increasing the likelihood of more foreclosures. People are trapped by forces beyond their control.
I’ve been working with the South DeKalb Improvement Association on a long-term project to identify and track patterns of foreclosure, blight and predatory lending here. And I can say with some confidence that the local, official policy response to the foreclosure problem hasn’t worked. DeKalb enacted a foreclosure registry ordinance a few years ago, but the data is effectively inaccessible and incomplete. The abandoned property list – also a recent innovation – doesn’t seem on first pass to be capturing real blight in neighborhoods. And data on predatory lending patterns simply doesn’t appear to exist.
Given the county’s track record … and Fannie Mae’s … and DeKalb County juries … it’s not insane for the four on trial to hope for an acquittal. But if their gamble doesn’t pay off, Lopez could sentence them to as much as three years in prison.
I’m torn. The very rule of law is at question here. But banks’ regulatory capture of the legal process has been largely unchallenged since the financial crisis. Is this what it takes to provoke legal change and a meaningful response to DeKalb’s foreclosure crisis? It’s insane. But so are the circumstances.