Recently, there has been a lot of news coverage and discussion concerning singing foreclosure auction blockades in New York City. These protest actions have been going on since at least the fall of 2011, and their beauty and simplicity make them a uniquely compelling form of civil dissent. It seems hard to believe that a four-line tune any kindergartner could learn is capable of demolishing the cold machinery of the foreclosure process, but that has happened repeatedly in courthouses around our town. I had to experience this phenomenon for myself, and participated in one such event that occurred in Brooklyn on April 19, 2012.
For those of you who haven’t heard about them, the intention behind these actions is to use the power of people singing together to bring auctions of foreclosed homes to a screeching halt. Auction blockades humanize what has been so carefully dehumanized, ripping away the mask of “business as usual” to show what we all try so hard to hide and from which there is no escape. Whether we’re avidly bidding at an auction, averting our eyes from those of a stranger and staring at the subway car floor, or impatiently pushing our way through throngs crowding a sidewalk, our humanity is always hiding in plain sight. All it takes is a scrap of song to bring that humanity gushing forth. There is something uniquely vulnerable about a person singing in public, much less dozens of people, and no institution can stand unmoved for long amidst such vulnerability.
Embodying these ideas, and also embodying no idea at all, around 60 people met in an office in downtown Brooklyn on a Thursday afternoon, well in advance of the auction itself. We "blockaders" were given an overview of the lengthy screening process to get inside the courtroom, as well as a description of the manner in which our protest would unfold. We were very quickly sensitized to the critical choice that each individual needed to make: sing and be arrested, or remain silent and therefore stay “free.” Those remaining silent had an important role to play in the process, because by swelling the number of people seeking admittance to the auction they could bog down the screening process and delay the start of the auction significantly. Additionally, those who avoided arrest could offer jail support by awaiting the release of those who had been arrested and processed through “the system” as it is called.
I had already made the decision to not be arrested that day. Nothing that was said or done by anyone involved in the protest made me feel any less a part of the effort because I was unwilling to go to jail.
Glancing around the room and listening to the many questions asked about the upcoming auction action, I noticed a wide diversity of backgrounds, ages and faith traditions represented among those present. There was a lot of passion and energy in the crowd, and the sense of commitment in the room was reassuring and inspiring to me. Even so, I found myself wishing that more people of color had been present in our rather large group – especially since communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by the foreclosure and eviction crisis. The predominance of white people in the various manifestations of the Occupy movement has already been much commented upon in media coverage; as a white person myself I could only take note of the issue while contributing to it both voluntarily and involuntarily.
Those who were determined to sing and face arrest were organized into groups that would sing in sequence in an attempt to maximize the length of the auction blockade. People were encouraged to take their time getting up when ordered to do so by court officers so as to prolong our intended disruption. We are also given the message that court officers had been, thus far, reasonably courteous toward and even occasionally supportive of the demonstrators, and so we were counseled not to bring attitudes of hostility and resentment to bear on our interactions with officers. I thought that message was very healing and necessary since an attitude of “us” versus “them” – of “victims” versus “oppressors” – is all too easy to adopt.
Simple categorizations of people into opposing blocs gets us nowhere near the truth of our society and our lives. How could anything so complex and unfathomable as our grotesque economic and political system be neatly bisected with a clear, bright line? When I look carefully, I see a victim in the oppressor and an oppressor in the victim; their interdependence, dysfunctional as it might seem, is obvious. In the sadomasochism that defines our materialistic culture, it can be rather hard to tell who is the sadist and who is the masochist. Banks can easily be seen as sadistic and cruel, but they do need a willing borrower to exercise their unsavory function in our commercial system. The borrower – or one might say the “bottom” in this scenario – actually has a surprising amount of power relative to the lender (or “top”) but often fails to recognize or use that power. The auction blockade would be an interesting opportunity to turn things around and expose the more nuanced interchange between groups that usually identify themselves as separate from, and opposed to, one another. The “bottoms” and “tops,” often restrictively categorized in their own minds, would have the opportunity to become more truly “versatile.”
Alas, one very real power held by borrowers that would not be revealed on that day is the power to reduce consumption so as to borrow as little as possible. When we slowly walked to the Brooklyn Supreme Court building at 360 Adams Street by way of the Fulton Street Mall, this latent form of consumer power was very much on my mind. The endless parade of stores, some with hawkers outside loudly beckoning passersby, vividly underscored the root of the problem we were about to call attention to in our protest. Consumption, and the borrowing that enables it, is more often a choice than a necessity for many people. It is fair to say that our society's enshrinement of bright shiny things creates a lot of consumer indebtedness and, with or without the debt, a lot of personal suffering.
When we arrived at the limestone-clad courthouse building, there was a long line at the main entrance. The sun was shining brightly and a sea of lavender tulips at their peak lent charm to the scene. Some of our compatriots unfurled a large banner in front of the courthouse, with their children lending a hand in holding the banner aloft. The rest of us shuffled into the building where we passed through a metal detector and had our bags searched. My two harmonicas attracted the officers’ curiosity but were left alone; however, my reusable metal silverware set was considered problematic and had to be checked before I could get on line to enter the courtroom where the auction would take place.
During this initial screening process, I admittedly went a little overboard in the level of courtesy and appreciation I showed the court officers but felt it was critical to connect with them and demonstrate that I understood their role and responsibilities. From the moment I stepped into the courthouse, I focused my attention keenly on not turning the authorities there into an “other.”
After we got past the initial checkpoint we joined a second screening line to access the courtroom itself. We were repeatedly informed as we waited that any electronic devices would have to be checked prior to our entering the courtroom. The authorities did not want us videotaping the disruption and arrests to come, as had occurred in some prior instances. Someone behind me wistfully noted that electronic devices were freely permitted at the auctions prior to the advent of these blockades, and that there formerly had been no lengthy additional screening after one entered the courthouse building.
But the additional screening that had been put in place after the protests began and the long waiting time it occasioned was all to our advantage in our effort to disrupt the auction. The long delay caused by protesters in the screening line provoked muffled complaints from two men who were waiting on line to bid on the properties to be auctioned. They were clearly frustrated by their inability to get inside the courtroom, but they carefully avoided making inflammatory criticisms of the Occupy folks that surrounded them. The numerous protesters and scattered “investors” mingled peaceably together in that single line, filing past the courthouse candy shop and news stand run by Carmine Cataldo III. Candy, like debt, is bad for us but helps to make our lives somewhat more bearable. This connection eluded those present; no one on line protested the candy and sugary beverages sold with inspiring humility by the blind man who had made his living in that manner, and in that place, for over 16 years.
I was among the last people admitted to the courtroom just before the auction began. The starting time had been scheduled for 2:30pm but it had been substantially delayed while the many people seeking access checked their phones and were scanned yet again with a hand-held metal detector. I took my seat at 3:05pm and the auction process began about two minutes later. Security was heavy; only the center section of the large courtroom was opened for visitors and, consequently, the pew-like benches were crowded with people. Ten court officers with an abundance of white plastic handcuffs at the ready restlessly paced to and fro along the aisles; meanwhile, a stern announcement was made that any attempt to disrupt the auction would lead to arrest with a charge of disorderly conduct. It was perfectly obvious to nearly everyone present that this was a warning that would go unheeded at the earliest possible moment.
That moment was not long in coming. Almost immediately after we had all been instructed to be quiet and obedient so as to grease the wheels of foreclosure commerce, Judson Memorial Church Community Minister C.B. Stewart stood up and boldly spoke out against the unjust nature of the seizure of homes. She was promptly hustled outside the courtroom, and then the singing itself began. For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the tune that is sung at foreclosure auction blockades, it goes a little something like this:
All the people here
Are asking you to hold all the sales right now;
We’re going to survive but we don’t know how….
[repeat loudly until arrested]
I neglected to ask those in charge of our protest the origin of this song, and cannot now find the answer to this question online. It may be a folk song with no known origin, a fact that would make it even more appropriate for our shared purpose than a song with known authorship. Or it may have been written by Organizing for Occupation (http://www.o4onyc.org/about_o4o/) especially for these actions.
Group by group, singers raised their voices loudly in song as had been planned; they were quickly ordered to stand up, were swiftly handcuffed with white plastic ties, and then were escorted out by court officers. As this distressing and heartwarming scene unfolded, an officer carefully videotaped the goings on, a privilege we members of the public were being denied.
I was surprised by how quickly the whole thing unfolded. The arrests seemed to happen with dizzying speed – it was so rapid I couldn’t even count the number of people who were being led away. The closing of white plastic handcuffs around the protesters’ wrists made a menacing sound – it was reminiscent of the buzzing from a swarm of angry cicadas on a hot summer afternoon. The court officers were brusque and impatient, but with few exceptions they appeared to conduct themselves professionally enough under the circumstances.
As I later learned, a total of 38 people were arrested in just nine minutes. For a short interval afterwards, all of those who had been detained were held together in the small antechamber just outside the courtroom. Each time the doors to the courtroom opened their singing became markedly louder, making things harder for the officials who were attempting to recommence the auction proceedings that had been disrupted. The singing, alternately clear and muffled as the doors opened and closed, was stronger and more beautiful than it had been inside the courtroom itself.
By 3:16pm the auction had resumed despite the continued singing of those waiting to be taken away. The first property was sold at 3:19pm while court officers continually scanned the much smaller crowd for anyone who might have an inclination to be disruptive. A few more people raised their voices in song and they were hauled out of court to join the others; the videotaping of the courtroom by one of the court officers continued. By 3:23pm the singing outside the courtroom had ceased, presumably because all of the protestors had been taken elsewhere in the building for booking. Even so, five officers remained on high alert and the atmosphere in court was tense to say the least.
During the arrests I sat quietly, watching the goings on and taking notes. I was highly conscious of the fact that I would be immediately arrested if I made the slightest move to disrupt the auction. Perched uneasily on the hard bench in my red tee shirt advertising Pat Barrett’s Transmissions, Inc., I was a glaring security risk; the court officers kept a wary eye on my every move. It was an eerie feeling to reflect on how very little it would have taken for me to fall into the clutches of law enforcement, and my sympathy for the officers was severely taxed by the paranoia their vigilance triggered deep inside me. The choice I had made to not sing, to not be arrested, felt very burdensome because it took a lot of self control to maintain my freedom. Freedom maintained in such a way does not feel very free at all; that was a very palpable lesson I took away from my experience on that afternoon. In fact, I would have felt much more free if I had pulled out my harmonica and begun to play “Listen Auctioneer” as I had taught myself to do while waiting on line in front of the courthouse.
After the singing outside the courtroom had ceased, I wondered how long I should remain at the auction. There seemed little point to lingering, but quite spontaneously the strange thought arose in my mind that I might actually bid on a property. What an outrageously transgressive move that would be… and yet how very seductive! For better or worse, however, the auction itself seemed highly mysterious to me and raised a host of questions in my mind. What were these properties actually like? Who had owned them previously, and what was their current condition? Were these buyers getting bargains or not? What were the economics of the transactions, and had the investors conducted scenario analyses to stress test their baseline assumptions against a worst-case scenario?
As these rather bizarre thoughts from a former existence flitted through my head, my eyes at last focused on the far wall of the courtroom, behind where a judge would normally sit. There, engraved in the beige wood paneling were the words “The place of Justice is a Hallowed Place.” How poignant and tender, the collision of that ideal with the messy reality unfolding in my own mind and in the room around me. I held back tears as I finally left the courtroom.