Fighting Foreclosures and the Avondale 4

August 8, 2014 9:06 am

by George Chidi · 13 comments

OOHAUPDATE: The trial ended in a hung jury. Details to come.

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.  

Franzen

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.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Rountree August 8, 2014 at 9:49 am

George, you forgot the word “predictable.”

despite the (predictable) dysfunction and internecine ideological struggles…

saltycracker August 8, 2014 at 10:50 am

A core part of our freedom is property rights. The property owners chose to borrow money on their property and from here it gets sticky. The major lenders abandoned sound business practices and with financial structures that provided more cash that available loans, property values soared and anyone breathing got a loan. Now it is time to sort it out. That’s a complicated process with a lot of variables.

If I was on a jury where a lender leveraged a buyer beyond all verified sources of income on a home at inflated values (another tricky hurdle), I’d vote to declare the loan null and void giving title to the aggrieved. And encourage future situations to be worked out or show proof of good faith attempts, before they got to court. In that case the jury could establish a settlement level.

If I was on a jury involving unwanted occupiers of property held by a lender, even the worst kind of lender I’d give the occupiers the longest sentence possible and if evidence showed, encourage the previous owner to come on down.

That said, our too big to fails are bigger, have more influence and the FDIC banks don’t need to be in investment banking.

Lawton Sack August 8, 2014 at 1:50 pm

You don’t think the borrower has some kind of responsibility, though? I know there are probably some cases of persuasion into getting the loan, but there has to be many that are a result of poor choices by the borrower. We are quickly becoming a society of no consequences.

saltycracker August 8, 2014 at 8:12 pm

Yes I do. I generally have little sympathy for the highly leveraged and distain for a government that encourages debt. But less regard for a system in our society that devised irresponsible financial instruments to provide more money than borrowers and drove real estate values into a bubble of biblical proportions.

They crossed the line and are culpable in the amount over that line. Buyer beware doesn’t apply in fraud. My favorite gotcha bunch is Goldman Sachs who will represent the seller of a bad thing and tell the buyer they sold it to, later, they were under no obligation to disclose something to somebody that should know better.

George Chidi August 8, 2014 at 11:40 am

The jury has been out since about 3 p.m. yesterday. The judge just issued an Allen charge. They’re deadlocked.

saltycracker August 8, 2014 at 12:49 pm

Screw the banks ? Nah, even the honest lenders would/should leave. Its more related to the mob that burns down the neighborhood. If the jury pool in DeKalb can’t be educated – get out.

notsplost August 8, 2014 at 11:48 am

There is a big difference morally and ethically between a peaceful group of protesters trying to use standard civil disobedience tactics to make a point, and a group that seeks free room and board.

It’s not completely clear to me that the sovereign citizens fall cleanly into either group.

As far as the Occupy group, kudos for keeping up the fight and there should be consequences for banks that refused to do basic underwriting due diligence. The abuses by the banks however go beyond bad loan writing and robo-signing to include falsifying evidence to forge documents showing chain of title. Yves Smith over at the NakedCapitalism blog calls these “tah dah!” documents. They have a bad habit of suddenly appearing after the statute of limitations on signing clerical documents expires. Some Judges are catching on to this.

The proper remedy for this is contempt of court or falsifying evidence criminal charges against bank directors. Regulations like Dodd-Frank mean well but can always be outmaneuvered by the banks due to regulatory capture.

Orange jumpsuits for those who supervised the bad actors (usually at the C-level) are the answer.

Unfortunately the DOJ and other agencies seem to not care or in some cases actually want to return to the bad old days by loosening credit standards. Maybe some local sheriffs or Judges will pick up the slack.

xdog August 8, 2014 at 11:56 am

I didn’t know the Nuwaubians were still around. They have a deeply weird world view. I drove by to see their hq in Eatonton once and even at 35 mph it was worth it. You just don’t see many brightly colored Egyptian theme parks anymore.

Ed August 8, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Interesting post, George. Not everyday the Nuwaubians get some mention on PP.

gcp August 8, 2014 at 1:28 pm

Assuming they were charged with criminal trespass it should be an easy case for the prosecution but this is Dekalb County and they could buy a 1st amend. defense or any other weird defense.

And why is the one guy always referred to as a “disabled veteran.” What does his vet status have to do with his case?

And for you all that blame everything on the banks well the financial mess was caused by three entities: irresponsible lenders, irresponsible borrowers and an irresponsible federal government that encouraged the whole thing through tax breaks, loose lending standards, federally guaranteed loans, pressure on lenders…..

saltycracker August 8, 2014 at 7:31 pm

Correct – but who failed to meet your expectations ? The stupid or duped buyers, the nanny government encouraging debt or our public banks ? For me the first two met low expectations but I never thought that in our capitalistic economy the heads of the largest banks/financial institutions would wreck their own companies for personal gain or let Goldman Sachs and friends lead them over a cliff.
Scared the hell out of me – none of my advisors in ’07 said, step back.

Then to dig out they are allowed to build financial oligarchies. We will publically flog/fine them and then pass laws and do things to insure their continued success. Money talks.
Maybe we should step back and re-define what an FDIC bank does ?

My favorite read: Michael Lewis, The Big Short.

gcp August 8, 2014 at 10:39 pm

I blame lenders, borrowers and government equally. If any one of the three had acted ethically and responsibly the financial mess could not have occurred.

saltycracker August 9, 2014 at 12:01 pm

I agree with your partial blame, I just expect more of what should have been the responsible ethical capitalist in this, the lender, whose board sent a lot of stockholders and customers to a wachovian hell. Will never forget Wachovia calling me into a presentation, when we were buying real estate for long term and for cash on why we should borrow from them and invest the money in a long list of equity recommendations, that would earn so much more. We politely declined and were told we were missing a great opportunity and were quote “stupid”. Later heard the rep was building a big home and maybe needed the commish. Good personal responsibility move on our part but others not so lucky.

A few of my friends later lost a very big hunk of their retirement investments in wachovia and other financial stocks. We didn’t fully escape having GE and a few others that never came fully back.