“Beautiful Trouble is essential reading for the socially engaged artist.”Ken Krafchek, Graduate Director, MFA in Community Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art
“Home is where the heart is.”Proverb
To organize a strong show of physical resistance to an unjust eviction; to force a moral confrontation with a system that operates amorally.
It was a cold March morning in Rochester, NY, when the city marshal approached 9 Ravenwood Avenue in an attempt to carry out what he thought would be a routine eviction. Instead, he was met with eighty people holding signs and banners protesting the foreclosure and imminent displacement of the Lennon-Griffin family, including grandmother Catherine Lennon, her three daughters, and eight small grandchildren. Four people were chained to the stairs of the house. Next to them was a large sign that read, “We shall not be moved.” The eviction blockade had been organized by the anti-poverty group Take Back the Land.
The marshal left as quickly as he came, later saying, “this is not what I signed up for.” He would not return for weeks.
Eviction blockades are as old as evictions themselves, and like evictions, they tend to surge in numbers in times of economic hardship. In response to the Great Depression in the U.S., for instance, the National Unemployment Council — founded in Chicago in 1930 — formed hundreds of local branches to organize eviction blockades across the country. From January to June 1932, 185,794 families in New York City received eviction notices, and the Unemployment Council helped an estimated 77,000 of those families keep their homes. The eviction blockade can be an extraordinarily effective tactic when it has community support, when it is embedded within a larger movement or campaign, and when it is linked to winnable demands.
In the case of the Lennon-Griffin family, mortgage holder Fannie Mae eventually pushed the City of Rochester to conduct a SWAT-like operation to break the blockade and forcibly remove the family. The eviction created a terrifying spectacle: Special Operations officers stormed the house, crime scene tape was wrapped around the area, traffic enforcement officers blocked access by supporters and media. The police arrested seven people, including an elderly neighbor across the street in her pajamas. Though the eviction went ahead, the family’s plight and the actions and goals of the movement were elevated to a new prominence, and more families in the community stepped forward to defend their homes with eviction blockades. The eviction cost the city an estimated $9,000 — one-third the value of the original mortgage.
The negative publicity of breaking a community-supported eviction blockade tends to make local governments and banks more reticent to repeat violent evictions in the future. For example, just five weeks after Catherine Lennon was evicted, she publicly moved back into her house without the bank’s permission and with zero police interference.
In the wake of a property bubble that saw the banks bailed out while homeowners were left to fend for themselves, the tactic is an increasingly effective one for social movements everywhere. In the summer of 2011 the Indignados movement in Spain shifted its actions from public squares to neighborhoods, organizing eviction blockades across the country. Six months later, the Occupy movement followed suit. The organizing potential for such actions is as vast as the injustice it seeks to confront.
Effective eviction blockades create a decision dilemma for banks and local governments. If they call off the eviction, the family stays and the movement grows. If they go ahead with the eviction and break the blockade, they dramatically highlight fundamental injustices in the system and raise awareness of the movement.