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Last Occupiers Standing

The “we’re just pissed about everything” movement has had its day. The new activist tack is to focus on one glaring social problem.

ON A RECENT AFTERNOON this summer, about three dozen Occupy protesters converged on the Market Street offices of PNC Bank. Although armed with the usual array of signs and flyers, these folks had a much more specific goal than did the first-wave occupiers. They wanted to force the bank to negotiate a mortgage modification for an elderly Bayview woman named Yin Wong—the victim, they said, of an illegal foreclosure. The occupiers didn’t plan on leaving until they had delivered a letter with their demands to the local bank head.

An energetic but nonviolent scuffle ensued. Security guards scrambled to lock the lobby’s revolving door, but not before a couple of occupiers wriggled through. (One wedged himself between the doors and was eventually pushed in.) Soon things settled into a comfortable siege, as the occupiers chanted rounds of disarmingly goofy slogans: “PNC, you dirty louse / Don’t throw Yin out of her house!”

The protesters were members of Occupy Bernal, a local Occupy offshoot formed last December and devoted to housing justice. Buck Bagot, a longtime activist and a founding member of the group, surveyed the proceedings with a critical eye. “Most of our actions aren’t this boring,” he said.

Boring or not, the group is very busy. Housing justice organizations like the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment have been doing such work for years, but Occupy Bernal—like similar groups around the country, from Oakland to Minneapolis to Atlanta—has brought fresh bodies to the cause, along with a certain theatrical flair. It organized a bus tour of Peninsula mansions belonging to Wells Fargo board members, has occupied homes to stave off evictions, and is pushing for a moratorium on foreclosures in San Francisco. And when any San Francisco home goes up for auction, occupiers go to city hall to drown out the auctioneer with whistles and loud music.

So far, the group has postponed some 200 auctions for 20 to 25 homes and has helped get loan modifications for three of its members who were facing foreclosure. Ross Rhodes, a 56-year-old lifelong Bernal Heights resident who almost lost his home, had just won a loan modification from Wells Fargo. “If it weren’t for Occupy, I’d probably be homeless now,” he said.

San Francisco has had 2,405 foreclosure sales in the last three years, and chances are good that many of them were tainted. An investigation by the local assessor-recorder’s office found that banks had violated at least one law in 84 percent of the foreclosures it studied. In Yin Wong’s case, PNC purchased her mortgage from another bank, but nobody told her. When PNC didn’t get her mortgage payments, it began the foreclosure process.

“What we’re finding is that there’s almost always something the bank did wrong,” said group member Julien Ball. (He’s also the guy who got trapped in the revolving door.)

About an hour after the protest began, word came down that the bank would accept Wong’s letter. Satisfied for the moment, the group broke up. The key, Bagot explained, is to keep the pressure on. “If they won’t work with us, we’ll just keep going after them.”

Within a week, the occupiers got good news: The bank had canceled the eviction. Soon after, however, the bank reversed the decision—but soon after that, Occupy Bernal got involved again, and the eviction was canceled for good.

 

Originally published in the December 2012 issue of San Francisco.

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