On November 18, 2008, activists in Cleveland, Ohio came together to form an organization called Ohio Moratorium Now on Foreclosures, Evictions, and Utility Shut-offs. A Cleveland winter lay ahead of us in one of the most poverty-stricken, foreclosure-ridden cities in the United States. All around the US on a daily basis came stories of working people thrown into the streets. And something more important, too: resistance to these foreclosures was taking place. Activists, friends, and neighbors of those at risk were organizing pickets to block bailiffs and were marching on banks and city halls to demand a moratorium. The demand was simple and inspiring: don’t put the cost of your economic crisis on the backs of working people. “Bail out the people, not the banks.”
A few excerpts from Crain’s Cleveland Business give a flavor of the context:
As the volume of bank-owned properties increase, lenders are shedding properties at startlingly low prices to investors who promptly resell them for gains from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. . . . [I]n 2005, 2.6% of foreclosed homes in Cuyahoga County sold for less than $10,000, but by July of this year the volume of such “extremely distressed sales” increased nearly twelve-fold to 42%.
Sales and repeat sales of foreclosed properties are ravaging Cleveland property values, as 63% of the properties in the city were sold for less than $10,000 between 2005 and July 2008. The study finds that 75% of lender-owned properties on Cleveland’s East Side were sold for $10,000 or less, while 32% of lender-owned properties on the West Side sold for similarly low prices.
About ten people formed the nucleus of the Ohio Moratorium Now group at its inaugural meeting at a branch of the Cleveland Public Library. All were politically active in the autumn of 2008 in Cleveland, having participated in bank demos or the October 22 march against police brutality and having attended an October 27 forum on the economic crisis. This forum was addressed by several activists, including a college student who had interned with the Detroit, Michigan foreclosure moratorium organization during the summer and a national leader of Workers World Party.
The November 18 founding meeting was called by the Peoples Fightback Center, the Cleveland Chapter of the New Black Panther Party, the Lucasville Uprising Freedom Network (formerly the Cleveland Lucasville Five Defense Committee), and the Baldwin Wallace College Chapter of Fight Imperialism, Stand Together (FIST). Several of those attending were activists in their union locals, too.
It was agreed the group would take a two-pronged approach to its work. As individuals its members were free to participate and help organize direct action to keep people requesting assistance from being removed from their homes. The Detroit model of direct action would be the guide (cf. <www.moratorium-mi.org>)
The other method of struggle was agitation for foreclosure moratorium laws to be passed at the city, county, and state levels. (Only one elected representative responded to inquiries and that in the negative.)
Ohio Moratorium Now pooled housing rights information. We eagerly sought out people at risk of removal by the bailiffs or eviction from rental properties who were interested in resisting. The outreach to find these people included e-mail announcements to local activists and clergy and leafleting during rush hour on Public Square.
The leaflet read in part:
Foreclosures . . . evictions . . . heat shut off . . . no jobs
IT’S A COMMUNITY EMERGENCY!
WILL THE STIMULUS KEEP OUR HEAT, ELECTRIC AND WATER ON?
WILL IT PUT THE HOMELESS BACK IN THEIR HOMES?
The experts are finally saying it but everyone else already knows it: we’re in a recession and heading for a depression. Most of our neighborhoods are already there. Ohio is an economic disaster area.
It’s time for us to join a nationwide movement that is keeping people in their homes and keeping their utilities from being shut off. Hundreds of billions of dollars have gone to a handful of bankers, while throughout the Cleveland area families are facing tragic disruptions. It’s time to demand action for people, not just on Main Street, but on every street.
The second and third weekly meetings grew. The third meeting reached 16 in number. Attendees included a reporter from college radio station and a Black woman whose family faced eviction. The family was able to remain in their rental and mass action was not required.
As December wore on, however, no other contacts at risk of foreclosure or eviction came forward, and each subsequent meeting of Ohio Moratorium Now saw greater drops in attendance. One meeting in February 2009 had to be cancelled because only two people showed up.
What happened? How did a growing group being built around a crucial political issue come to a point in a few short months where its membership had evaporated?
In my opinion there are several reasons, none of which the small beginning nucleus of the group could have overcome in the short term.
First, Cleveland did not see the pace of resistance Detroit had seen. Detroit activists had a year’s head start, and were making the most of it throughout the spring and summer of 2008, before the economic crisis reached a national scale. The Detroit activists had become known, and people were attracted by their successes.
Second, the Cleveland activists did not have the numerical strength to sustain weekly meetings or the kind of foreclosure court leafleting during courthouse hours that might have brought more homeowners to the group. One of the strengths of the Detroit group was their leafleting of homeowners coming to the courthouse about the foreclosures they faced.
Third, by late 2008 and early 2009 some banks had launched their own unofficial moratoriums on foreclosures as they positioned themselves as responsible citizens in quest of TARP money, as well as for fear of political repercussions like those suffered by the publicly humiliated banks in Detroit.
Fourth, the election and inauguration of Barack Obama. All independent political action in Cleveland seemed to slacken with this historic event. Those who bought into Obama’s “change” campaign, and those who just “hoped for the best” because there were no clearer and more stirring signs of resistance to attract them, remained at home when invited to meetings.
Nevertheless, there still remains the task of ensuring that the social consequences of capitalist crisis are not paid by the working class and its exploited allies, which is what the foreclosure moratorium is all about. Creating a direct-action movement where the people can put their stamp on events and actions independent of ruling-class politics and prerogatives will continue to be at the center of that work.
Jay Rothermel lives in Cleveland, Ohio.