We were lucky enough to sit down with Laura Gottesdiener and chat about her new book, A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home
What was your role in Occupy and what were your reasons for joining the movement?
I worked in the people's kitchen in Zuccotti park for most of October and November, until the police raided the encampment. I was living out of the country at the time that Occupy started, so I didn't know that it was happening until after the Brooklyn Bridge march. When I heard about the movement, through an article in the New York Times, I remember thinking that so many of the reasons that I'd gone to live abroad were the same reasons that Occupy had begun: frustration with our economic system, frustration with the culture, which is a very individualistic and selfish culture that embodies the way our economic system determines the morals and human interactions that govern our lives. And so I thought, if this is an opportunity to really impact society—an opportunity to give voice to that frustration—I need to go home and participate in this. So I flew to New York City, and got to the park on October 5th, which was the day the unions got involved with a huge rally in Foley Square. So when I showed up at the encampment nobody was there, and I said, “Oh no! the movement's over! I just flew all the way back from Argentina and nobody's here!” And then somebody told me, “No! No, they're in Foley Square!” So I go to Foley Square, and there are around twenty thousand people there, which was very exciting. After the ensuing march I went back to the park that night with everybody coming back from Zuccotti, and I lay down, and the next morning somebody offered me breakfast. And I asked, “Where did this breakfast come from?” And they told me, “Oh, the kitchen's in the center!” So I decided that if there was a kitchen, they probably needed some help. And I went to volunteer and I stayed with the kitchen all through the first few months, up until the eviction.
So what did you do after the Occupation was evicted?
After the raid, I did a number of things: I worked with the direct action group, I helped edit the movement journal Tidal. But mostly I spent a lot of time thinking about what we would do if we couldn't live in parks. Because the evictions were happening all over the country—all of the parks were just falling like dominoes. It was obviously coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security, and we understand now that the FBI and all of the government agencies played a coordinating role in evicting the movement. But I remember thinking about what the movement could look like on a neighborhood level. And so when I heard in the late winter that general assemblies were happening at the neighborhood level, and that people were embodying very similar principles to the horizontal, democratic society that Occupy had espoused, but in neighborhoods that had been most attractive by the lawsuit machine that we were protesting against, I became really interested in that. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to understand how these actions were being organized, and actually how they'd been being organized since before OWS even began. And so I went up to Detroit to write a small article about the anti-eviction and home liberation movement there, because it was very active, and it is still very active. I wrote that first article for the website Waging Nonviolence, and from there I just kept writing more and more about the anti-eviction movement. I started to shift from organizing New York to really covering a lot of the organizing that was going on in neighborhoods around the country, and trying to bring more light to good aspects of the movement, through my writing.
What was the most inspirational moment that you had while writing this book, in terms of your political activism?
Truthfully, I think that one of the most inspirational moments came before I knew that it was a book project. I was in Detroit and I met a woman named Bertha Garrett who had successfully beaten her eviction and foreclosure using direct action and community organizing, with the help of nearly a dozen community organizations, church groups, neighborhood groups, and activist groups. I couldn't help thinking, “what is this 65-year-old woman, who has not been a political activist before in her life, doing performing pretty extreme civil disobedience, rallying hundreds of people to block the street when the city went to try to drop the dumpster off to haul out all of her things, sitting down in front of her bank's office, and saying, “I'm not going to leave. I'm not leaving unless you talk to me to negotiate my mortgage.” So I wondered, “What could possibly have inspired this?” Because I think in New York during Occupy it seemed like a moment in which everybody was undergoing a rapid political analysis, rapid political transformation. But New York City has a long history of political activism and theory. Here in northwest Detroit, what could possibly inspire this? At one point Bertha looked at me, and she said, “You know, Laura, it's not that I didn't understand that the banks owned the piece of paper. It's that the banks didn't understand that I owned my home.” And in those words, those two sentences, I felt like she had adequately and powerfully summed up everything that we had been talking about, which is the idea that we need to radically transform the way we understand what ownership means, what value means, and use the power we have to shape those definitions. This woman, not a lawyer, not necessarily owning a lot of capital, decided: “I don't care if one of the most profitable banks in this country—in this world—says they own something. They don't understand that, actually, I'm defining what my home means, I'm defining what my life means, and I'm not leaving this home.”
So what was the scariest thing you learned while writing this book? the thing that most represents the evils that you're talking about.
Sure, but first I want to say, it wasn't scary. Because it was a beautiful community. But, you know, some places I went I could see firsthand the devastation wrought by the financial crisis, some of which was quite staggering to me. Seeing full blocks foreclosed on, houses that had been half-burnt-out, because there were so many homeless people squatting in buildings that fires got out of control. To see and hear homeless people explain what their lives are like, that to me was the most striking—not just because that's such an extraordinarily challenging existence, but because our class divide and the way in which income inequality has grown in this country really has rendered a lot of this experience invisible. And it's not simply because people at different sides of the class divide don't often traverse it, which is true, but it's also because mainstream media doesn't report on these issues. It's because we don't see it reflected in popular culture. So when I spent days and weeks with the people living these invisible lives, I was struck by how many people don't fully understand what it means to live in this country for millions of people every day.
What impact do you think Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement had on the anti-foreclosure movement?
I think it's important to note that the anti-foreclosure and anti-displacement movement has existed, and was thriving, since before Occupy. And groups like Moratorium Now, in Detroit, Take Back the Land, which is a national network, City Life, which has been existing in Boston for thirty years, all these groups predated Occupy. And so when groups like Occupy are formed as a national organization, that was lot of drawing on the strength of pre-existing neighborhood groups. The way that Occupy, I think, impacted this movement, was in two ways. One, it tied the movement, in the mainstream's eyes, more clearly to broader financial crimes, and broader mechanisms of economic exploitation. It was suddenly more obvious the way that people being thrown out of their homes is related to a broader systemic injustice of capitalism. The second, more significant way was the impact of the creativity and the Direct Action focused nature of Occupy Wall Street. So you saw a proliferation of actions, and a proliferation of interests and creativity across the country as a result of Occupy. And it wasn't that these movements hadn't been doing pretty amazing direct action, I mean, Take Back the Land had been doing home liberation and land liberation for five years before Occupy Wall Street rolled around. But there was just suddenly more going on.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I think it's important to say, particularly on this two-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street: things are worse than they were in 2011, when this movement began. Income inequality throughout the so-called recovery has grown significantly worse than it was before the collapse. And now, we're at a point, and economists debate this, but we're essentially at a point where we have worse economic inequality than during the Great Depression, or the same economic inequality as during the Great Depression. We've seen no significant movement at the Federal level, most largely at the State level, to ameliorate this crisis. We've seen ten million people thrown out of their houses since 2007. Literally millions of children. So I don't want to celebrate this anniversary. I want to talk about how the need for this movement is more than ever. And the idea that Occupy Wall Street occupied a space in time and place in 2011, and it was a moment—that's true. But all of the problems, all of the context that led to this movement's existence, is still in place now. So we should be doing something about that, right now.