At about 9:30 on Thursday morning, February 16th, a dozen anonymous people drifted into the weekly foreclosure auction held in the Clerk and Recorder’s Office located on the first floor of the Wellington Webb Municipal Building in downtown Denver.
We were from the Colorado Progressive Coalition and Occupy Denver, but we were dressed to blend in with our surroundings – jeans, hoodies, leather jackets, running shoes – like those worn by the regular auction bidders who attend every Wednesday to snap up “bargain” houses. The auction is the next-to-final stop in a months-long journey that begins with the homeowner, unable to make the monthly mortgage payment due to job loss, or ill health, or just too many bills to pay, receiving a notice that his or her home will be auctioned off on a date 3 or 4 months in the future.
We settled in among the regulars and waited while the Deputy Public Trustee conducted light-hearted banter about the process, assuring the bidders that they were performing a “public service” and that while some of them might be “snakes,” as long as they behaved themselves in her auction hall, they could be snakes outside. She assured the crowd that vigorous bidding often resulted in the foreclosed former homeowner getting a check, if the auction proceeds exceeded the bank loan amount plus the foreclosure fees.
She exhorted the crowd to follow the code of conduct: a ringing cell phone, talking, or moving about would get the offender thrown out immediately. To make her point, she introduced her enforcer, Lisa, a sturdy, tough-looking woman who didn’t crack a smile – she’s the straight-man to the wise-cracking deputy PT.
We waited while the few single-bid properties were put up for auction; those often returned to the lender because there were no bids. A few minutes after the first multiple-bid property was put on the block, one of our group stood up and began to speak: “Mrs Auctioneer, we object to this auction.” The element of surprise allowed him to make an eloquent case for the injustice that was being carried out until confusion among the officials turned to action. Lisa charged over and shooed him out of the room.
The bidding resumed after the auctioneer made a joke about Occupy Denver occupying the auction. Then a second member of our group stood up and began to speak. The auction bidders became raucous, yelling that the speaker should be thrown out. Lisa and another enforcer homed in on the speaker and led her out. She called out loudly that she didn’t want a check; she wanted to be allowed to stay in her home.
The bidding resumed again. Then a lone voice began to sing: “Listen, Auctioneer, all the people here…” More voices joined in. “….Are asking you to hold all the sales right now….” The voices became stronger. ”…. We’re going to survive , But we don’t know how…”
More raucous calls from the bidders: “Throw them out!”
Lisa and the tough guy waded into the audience, trying to identify the singers.
We stood up and began to file out, slowly, following the woman in the red hat, singing over and over, “We’re going to survive ….”
Our direct action did not succeed in halting the foreclosure auction. We did not prevent even one house from being auctioned off, or save one owner from eviction. What, then, are we trying to accomplish by interrupting a completely “legal” foreclosure auction?
To point out that to take a person’s home by force – for it is the entire weight of the State that insures that the person foreclosed upon vacates her home – is a grave injustice when that person has not been guilty of the overwhelming greed that caused the housing bubble, when that person has not made millions of dollars from pushing the sale of sub-prime loans or from re-selling those loans to other financial institution, when that person has not made millions of dollars in bonuses from slicing and dicing and repackaging those loans and selling them as AAA-rated Mortgage Backed Securities to investors, and has not been guilty of rating those loans as AAA, all the while knowing that the mortgages backing these securities were bound to fail. And all the while collecting millions of dollars in fees from the banks that paid them to rate the securities they were selling.
That person has not been guilty of creating financial derivatives and using them to bet against her own clients. Or of trading in Credit Default Swaps for which she had not set aside sufficient reserves and when called to pay them out had to go running to the US Government to be bailed out. That person has not been guilty of causing economies to crash and businesses to close and workers to lose their jobs.
No, that person losing her home has been guilty only of wanting a little piece of earth, a little house to call her own. To raise her family in. To care for her aging parents in. To come home to after a hard day’s work and put her children to bed in. That’s all. And now that is gone. She alone has paid the price for all the greed and hubris and reckless gambling by the bankers and mortgage lenders and the derivative traders.
We want to point out that a System that allows the people who broke the economy not only to remain unpunished, but instead to profit from their wrongdoings, is a broken System. It is an unjust System.
The functionaries inside the System, the Public Trustees, the bailiffs, and the deputies are good people doing their jobs. Our argument is not with them, because they are as much victims of a corrupt System as are the thousands of people in Colorado caught in the foreclosure crisis that has not been of their making.