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A New World in Our Hearts

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Presley Obasohan is fighting foreclosure on his home by Bank of America. Mr. Obasohan is underwater on his loan because in Dorchester, MA – the most diverse neighborhood in Boston  – building values have sunk to half or less of mortgage loan debt.

Presley Obasohan is fighting foreclosure on his home by Bank of America. Mr. Obasohan is underwater on his loan because in Dorchester, MA – the most diverse neighborhood in Boston  – building values have sunk to half or less of mortgage loan debt. Presley is trying to save his home for his daughters. He has petitioned and he has pled. He has waited on hold and stood in line. But on Friday, Presely joined the Right to the City Alliance in a mass action of civil disobedience, and was proudly arrested, along with 23 other Boston residents, for siting in at the Boston headquarters of Bank of America.

“I blocked the doors at Bank of America so that my neighbors, and me, can stay in our homes,” Presely told the press. “So many people have been thrown out of their homes or lost their jobs needlessly because of mistakes made by Wall Street Banks. Yet it’s the banks who are now rewarded with billions in tax refunds. Its time to fight back!”

Bank of America announced Friday that it would begin charging customers $5 per month to use their debit cards. This comes after B of A received $230 billion in taxpayer bailouts and other assistance since 2008 and received a $4.2 billion dollar tax refund for 2009, and as the nations largest lender has ramped up foreclosures on distressed homeowners in recent weeks, according to new data from the foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac. August 2011 saw the largest monthly increase in foreclosures since August 2007, right after the housing bubble burst.

As of March 2011, Bank of America had more homes in foreclosure than any other bank in Boston, with
two-thirds of these in “majority minority” neighborhoods. 61% of Bank of America’s subprime mortgages were concentrated in these same neighborhoods, revealing a pattern of pushing bad loans on People of Color and
the poor.

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Building an urban alliance for municipal power

Across the country, we are seeing the same story: the mortgage bubble created by Wall Street pushed predatory lending on urban communities, and since the bubble burst the fall out has been catastrophic. Unemployment and foreclosure have hit communities of color first and worst. This has exposed a national economy that cannot produce wealth or jobs for working class people. The economy is therefore unable to get out of a deep, deep recession.  Meanwhile, the right wing gets more and more entrenched in protecting the rights of corporations and banks to hoard wealth and to plunder the planet.

The combination of these factors means that we are hurling headlong into  cascading meltdowns in the economy, ecosystem,, and in the very fabric of social relations in our cities.  Between the apartheid-type laws in Arizona and Alabama to the murder of Troy Davis in Georgia, we are living in dangerous times.

But in this time of crisis, it is urban communities who are at the forefront of the movement to fight back.  It is People of Color organizations that are building out a more deliberate and powerful direct action flank of their organizing to demand payback from Bank of America and Wall Street, and to fight for transformation of our urban spaces – the places that are the economic engine rooms of global capitalism.

The  courageous action by Presley Oboshaun came at the end of a raucous march of over 3,000 people carrying colorful banners and banging drums to confront the nation’s largest lender for their role in the economic crisis. The march was led by members of City Life/Vida Urbana and the Right to the City Alliance, who carried signs that told their stories of predatory lending and foreclosure. As the rowdy procession snaked through downtown, they were joined by members of UNITE/HERE picketing at the Hyatt Hotel, and CWA picketing at Verizon Wireless.

The march and action was called by the Right to the City Alliance, a national movement of urban economic and racial justice organizations, deeply rooted in the neighborhoods that have been hardest hit by the implosion of the economy, and where centuries of economic and racial oppression is compounding the crisis.

Recognizing that the current political moment calls for a broad unification of key forces, Right to the City built an impressive coalition of over 50 organizations with progressive organized labor, the Green Justice Coalition, the Youth Jobs Coalition, the Immigrant Rights movement, and a diverse array of progressive groups to pull together one of the best organized and widely covered marches in recent memory.

This coalition was a representation of Right to the City Alliance’s strategy for municipal power. This strategy is to intentionally unite the core constituencies of the alliance’s member organizations with other sectors of the progressive community: progressive labor and urban environmentalists. Right to the City is advancing a program of community defense, and pro-active agenda setting to fight for the type of cities that will benefit the constituencies and provide solutions to address the root causes of the crises

Take back the block – #OccupyTheHood

On Saturday, Right to the City took their message into the neighborhood. The Four Corners area of Dorchester has been ravaged by foreclosures, with some streets seeing 5 or 6 properties totally abandoned. Led by the community organizing powerhouse City Life/Vida Urbana, the group staged an occupation of a wrongly foreclosed home, hoping to return it from the hands of Deutsche Bank to its rightful owner, a family who was illegally evicted and has left the area.

The action team cleaned the home, brought in donated furniture, hung art on the walls and a banner off the porch. Hundreds toured the house and cheered in solidarity from the street, while music played and children danced.
Meanwhile the youth of Roxbury’s Alternatives for Community & Environment took over an abandoned lot and created a community garden “so that the community can grow our own food.” They asked people to stand with them for a blessing ceremony of the garden, and asked for food to grow strong and the land and community to heal and be healthy. They told the story of their journey to the 2010 US Social Forum, and how they had toured a community garden created by young people in Detroit, and been inspired to create a similar project in Boston.

Right to the City supported their vision and tied it to a movement building action about the banks and the political moment. It was a powerful  example of the practical and visionary action that is needed in order to begin reclaiming our homes, our dignity, our cities.

Movement momentum: Harnessing the psychic break

These bold actions in Boston unfolded in concert with the #OccupyWallStreet protests and the launch of #occupyBoston, an offshoot inspired by the infamous encampment in Zucotti park in lower Manahattan. The growing popular sentiment against Wall Street was an inspiring backdrop for the action, and indicates a growing frustration with the status quo by all walks of life.

So what is the role of community organizers and progressive leaders in this moment of #occupy momentum? After the dramatic mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge and the #occupy meme is spreading like wild fire,  progressive and liberal forces are rapidly aligning around the protests.

At smartMeme, we have a theory about “the Psychic Break:” a moment when the dominant narrative unravels and there is an opening for a new story to take hold on a massive scale. We saw this moment come and go in 2008 when the stock market collapsed, $700 billion was given to financial giants, and progressives mostly stayed home and kept quiet while the Tea Partyers got into position.

But we believe that #occupyWallStreet is re-opening that window and provoking another such psychic break moment, an opportunity that community groups, progressive labor and environmentalists cannot allow to pass by.

The Right to the City Alliance actions were organized and led by decades-old community-based organizations, led by People of Color and rooted in People of Color communities. This work will go on for decades after #occupy stops trending on Twitter, but  there is a clear understanding of the need to join these movements together and seize the political moment.

In Boston, Right to the City leadership shaped the message and the coalition building strategy, and made demands on Bank of America and other corporate targets. Right to the City had the vision, the know-how, and the people power to make this march a huge success. It was organized long before the occupation of Wall Street or the hastily planned takeover of Dewey Square next to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, but the alliance stands in solidarity with these encampments and those to come throughout the country and is working to help fortify and expand them.

One week later on “Columbus Day”/Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the Right to the City led coalition in Boston was in active collaboration with the #OccupyBoston encampment, and over 2,000 people marched together to demand jobs, and end to wars and Wall Street greed. It is not surprising that this alliance, with the muscle of labor and community base-building groups behind it, represented enough of a threat that the Boston Police moved in to clear part of the encampment last night. Over 50 people were arrested and many are still in custody. The networks built by Right to the City have been activated to support the protests and mobilize support, as well as advise on strategies to move forward. This is a model for how the work must be joined and the potential that this moment holds.

We have an opportunity to offer a narrative of explanation about what has happened, how we got here, and how we can move forward together. We are faced with the potential of rooting this insurrectional energy into a strong social movement that can rival the Tea Party and change the story about our economic system, solutions to the crisis, and deepening democracy. The actions by Right to the City in Boston offer us an instructive model on the kind of analysis and organizing strategy that is necessary now.

This moment requires the building of a united front that will not dissipate after the march/rally/campaign is over.  The task before us is to create strategic alliances locally, regionally nationally and beyond, to be prepared to make compromise but hold fast to our principles and the dire need for those most affected to be leading the charge.  Like the 30,000 who marched in support of Occupy Wall Street on October 5th in New York, our numbers must swell and represent this united front.

But we must be agile and graceful and bold enough – like the ballerina on the bull of the #occupyWallStreet poster. We must be visionary and courageous and tenacious enough – like the youth of Roxbury blessing their occupied garden.  And we must be brave enough, like Presley Obasohan, to put our bodies on the line and commit civil disobedience against the banks and for the people and planet that we love.

If we can do this, and build in good faith together to harness this moment and channel the momentum towards fundamental, radical social change – we just might be witnessing the stirrings of the new world that beats in our hearts. Let us dance to that beat, sing to this beat, and march together to this beat …all the way down to Wall Street. #occupytogether!

Doyle & Rachel worked together to amplify the impact of these actions in Boston.

Doyle Canning is co-director of the narrative strategy center smartMeme, and is co-author of Re:Imagining Change – How to Use Story-based Strategies to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World (PM Press, 2010). She lives in Boston.

Rachel Laforest is the Executive Director of Right to the City Alliance.  She lives in New York.