Published: Saturday, December 10, 2011, 3:00 PM
The group's tent is likely to remain on Public Square until city permits expire at the end of the year. After that, the group protesting corporate greed might gear up to fight what they consider the related problem of property foreclosures.
They say that little of the $700 billion that banks received as part of the U.S. Treasury Department's Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, resulted in troubled homeowners getting mortgages they could afford. Some members mentioned the $13 billion of income banks received by taking advantage of below-market, short-term loans from the Federal Reserve.
"These giant banks have made off with billions of dollars, crashed the system, got rewarded for crashing the system with billions in bailout funds, and the upshot is that real people are losing their homes," said Ben Shapiro, who helps run a farm in the city's St. Clair-Superior neighborhood.
Occupy Cleveland's first foreclosure "action" occurred in November when some members occupied the backyard of Elisabeth Sommerer's home on West 94th Street in Cleveland, which is in foreclosure. The protesters were prepared to intervene when Cuyahoga County deputies came to evict Sommerer and her two small children. Resistance proved unnecessary. City Councilman Brian Cummins, an Occupy Cleveland supporter, and other public officials helped her get a 30-day extension in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court.
Though Occupy Cleveland seeks to put down roots, it still shares something with Occupy movements uprooted in other cities: a somewhat strained relationship with City Hall.
The tensions are in no way as explosive as they have been in places like Oakland, Calif., and New York City, where violent clashes ensued as police tore down encampments. But bad blood has existed between Occupy Cleveland and Mayor Frank Jackson's administration since the city arrested 11 protesters in October for breaking a 10 p.m. curfew for Public Square.
Some members sought an injunction in federal court, saying the curfew violated their freedom of speech rights by limiting access to the city park. The suit was dismissed after the city agreed to grant Occupy Cleveland 24-hour access to Public Square, but authorities then began stringently enforcing an ordinance prohibiting camping in city parks.
More recently, friction has revolved around the tent, or canopy. Protesters want the city to grant a permit for a heater. They accuse city officials of trying to freeze them out of Public Square. City officials say they have been reluctant to issue a permit because of safety and liability concerns.
Appealing to mutual concerns
Cummins said the city and Occupy Cleveland shouldn't be at odds.
"There is this mutual lack of respect between the movement and the administration," he said. "There is no time to belittle and disrespect each other when their common goals are very similar.
"We have done a lot in identifying issues and strategies relative to the foreclosure crisis," Cummins said of the city's efforts. "I see this movement as the social consciousness pushing the city to do even more."
On Monday, Cleveland City Council supported Cummins' resolution "recognizing and supporting the principles of the Occupy movement." The nonbinding measure also calls for the council and the Jackson administration to work together to "minimize economic insecurity and destructive disparities." This might include "reviewing apparent inequities many people in Cleveland face when lender foreclosure proceedings occur," the resolution says.
Ken Silliman, Jackson's chief of staff, said the city doesn't want to be at odds with Occupy Cleveland.
"There clearly is a commonality of issues," he said. "I would be hard pressed to find a mayor of a major American city who has been as aggressive in protecting rights of citizens vs. predatory banking practices. As council president, [Jackson] sponsored the state's first ban on predatory lending and when he became mayor, the city sued 21 Wall Street banks.
Cummins, who has offered to be a liaison, said he will continue bringing both sides together because he believes the union could be a formidable force against foreclosure.
Greater Cleveland's foreclosure crisis dates back at least a decade, making it one of the areas in the country that has struggled with the problem the longest. Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, with an 8.2 percent foreclosure rate, ranked 27th among 100 metro areas, according to an analysis released in August by the nonprofit Local Initiatives Support Corp. Greater Youngstown, with a 9.7 percent rate, ranked 21st. Akron ranked 32nd with a 7.9 percent rate.
Cleveland has been especially hard hit. The city's annual survey of vacant and distressed properties in August showed 7,761 of them, nearly 700 more than the year before.
Officials say that many properties on the list resulted from foreclosure. Since 2007, the city has spent about $76 million cutting grass at, boarding up and demolishing vacant properties, according to city records.
"It is time to put pressure on banks and shame them," said Rebecka Hawkins, a Case Western Reserve University law student and a member of the Occupy Cleveland foreclosure committee.
"It is really shameful what they are doing in our community and in communities across the country. It is bankrupting our cities to maintain and patrol these areas in which we have a bunch of abandoned homes. Property taxes aren't getting paid, which is also having an impact on the schools."
Hawkins said she believed the group's tactics should include educating people about the foreclosure process and holding banks accountable.
Group hopes to tap into public outrage
Occupy Cleveland plans an aggressive, "in your face" approach to protesting foreclosures. Most anti-foreclosure efforts in Northeast Ohio have been more formal, ranging from nonprofits doing foreclosure prevention counseling to the Cuyahoga land bank, which is focused on redevelopment projects using vacant and abandoned properties.
Hawkins said the collective outrage of residents must be harnessed before systemic change can occur.
"The voice of the people can rise above the power of big corporations and banks," she said.
More than a decade ago, Empowering and Strengthening Ohio's People, or ESOP, was one of the first groups to organize against financial institutions that had issued subprime loans. Members' tactics included protesting at the local offices of such lenders, where they often threw plastic sharks at their targets. Current efforts include demonstrating at the homes of investors who bought foreclosed properties in bulk but have failed to maintain them.
Mark Seifert, ESOP's executive director, said he welcomed Occupy Cleveland to become part of the fight against foreclosure, even if the movement's tactics differ from his group's approach.
"Their anger is not a hell of a lot different from anger our people have been expressing for many years," he said. "Where we are a little different is that we try to take the anger and translate it into an organized direction that results in a solution.
"Our organizing tends to be that we drill down on a specific target -- banks, government entities, etc. -- and come up with specific demands, then try to execute those demands," Seifert said.
Responded Tim Smith, a community organizer for social justice and peace issues: "This isn't about demands. It about finding solutions."
Frank Ford, senior vice president for research and development at Neighborhood Progress Inc., also welcomes Occupy Cleveland's entrance into the foreclosure fight. The community development organization has played a major role in the area's foreclosure response, including performing data analysis and funding anti-foreclosure efforts.
"There is plenty of work to be done, so new people wanting to get involved is a good thing," he said. "However, I would encourage them to, as much as possible, collaborate with everyone who has already been working on the issue as to have even a greater impact."
As Occupy Cleveland seeks its position in the foreclosure war, the issue of the tent looms. Silliman, the mayor's chief of staff, said that until the group is able to get liability insurance, it is unlikely the city will issue another permit.
While some members believe the group should take a winter hiatus from Public Square, others believe deserting the post is not an option. Smith said about a dozen regulars man the tent, though the group's membership is more than 60.
"It's a symbol," said Smith, who believes the group should continue to fight for heat. "It says: 'We're still here. We haven't gone away. We're still at this.' "
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