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Occupy Bernal: Occupy at the local level

It’s Sunday afternoon, and two-dozen San Francisco homeowners and activists are gathered in front of venture capitalist Peter Briger’s house, in the wealthy South Bay suburb of Atherton chanting,  “Come out and talk to us! Don’t throw us under the bus!”

Briger is co-chairman of Fortress Investment Group, which owns the company foreclosing on some of the demonstrators’ homes. A protest two weeks earlier at the downtown San Francisco offices of the company did not draw a response, so they are taking their concerns to Briger’s home.

The demonstrators are surprised when Briger actually does step out of his house to meet them. He listens to some of the homeowners speak, and then agrees to look into their cases. The demonstrators press Briger to do more – they want him to stop the impending evictions of two of the homeowners. Briger tells them he can’t make that promise. But the next day, the evictions are postponed.

Ross Rhodes, one of the demonstrators, is proud of their successful tactics. “You know, we can’t get you at work, we’re coming to your house!” he says. Rhodes is a member of Occupy Bernal, a local offshoot of the greater Occupy movement, based in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood. He has lived in Bernal since the 60s, and was facing foreclosure on his own home when he got involved with the group, back in February. 

Occupy came to his house, too. Rhodes laughs as he recalls that rainy Wednesday night, when a strange man pulled into his driveway and rang the doorbell.

It wasn’t the bank. It was a member of Occupy Bernal named Buck Bagot. He had heard about Rhodes’ situation and had come to ask him to join the group.

Bagot is also a long-time resident of Bernal Heights, and a self-described leftist activist since the early 70s. He and a handful of other activist neighbors founded Occupy Bernal in early January, coming together around another neighbor’s impending foreclosure.

Bagot says at that point, most members of the group were not facing foreclosure themselves, but wanted to take action to help those who were. At first they didn’t know much about the issue, but once they started to look into it, they found the problem was much more widespread than they would have thought.

According to real estate website Block Shopper, foreclosures were almost unheard of in Bernal until 2010, when the rate jumped from zero per year to 17. And it’s kept climbing since then.

Though home prices in the neighborhood have climbed significantly in the last two decades, the neighborhood has historically been working class. Many of the homeowners in trouble are longtime residents. Some had paid off their mortgages years before, but became targets of predatory lending during the housing bubble. Many are low-income, people of color, or seniors. Bagot says that initially, Occupy Bernal didn’t totally reflect that. “We were pretty much white ex-new left radicals when we started,” he says.

The group has diversified over time, as more neighbors and homeowners, like Ross Rhodes, signed on to fight the foreclosures. Rhodes eventually won his fight to get a loan modification, but has stuck around and become a leader in the group. Around 40 or 50 people now show up to weekly action planning meetings. Many are homeowners who have faced or are facing foreclosure themselves. Merrie Jo Musni and her husband won a loan modification on their home through their affiliation with Occupy Bernal. She says that even though they were successful with their own foreclosure fight, it’s important to keep fighting for others. She says they “owe a debt of gratitude to the people who helped us, and we’re paying it forward. We’re out there as often as we can.”

Meetings take place every week in Bernal Heights, as well as the San Francisco offices of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, or ACCE. ACCE is a non-profit that had already been doing advocacy for homeowners facing foreclosure and eviction. The members of Occupy Bernal allied with them from the beginning. Together, they help homeowners understand their paperwork, advocate for them with the banks, and plan press conferences and demonstrations like the one at Peter Briger’s house. They’ve also been successful at stopping evictions and property auctions by bringing large groups of people to disrupt the proceedings.

Buck Bagot says the combination of Occupy and ACCE is a winning one. “They’re a really great organization, but they’re not community-based like we are,” he says. “Because we had the inclination and the time to talk to people before they lost their property, we got to get in front of the issue.”

Taking the time to talk to people and make personal connections has led to a continuous growth of the organization; Occupy Noe Valley is the most recent offshoot. Many people who wouldn’t have thought to align themselves with the Occupy movement have been drawn in, either through neighborhood door-knocking campaigns or old-fashioned word of mouth.

Larry Faulks is facing foreclosure on his Diamond Heights home, but says he was initially wary about coming to a meeting with these “Occupy people”.

“My vision of it was a group of people with tambourines and bullhorns, and that’s what’s gonna save the world,” he says. But when he went to the meeting, he says he found something different. “I was surprised to see that there was a lot of older people, like me. The group has lots of people of color, like me.” He says the diversity made him feel more comfortable.

Even a seasoned activist like Buck Bagot initially found Occupy’s approach somewhat challenging. While he did visit the San Francisco encampment in the fall of 2011, he was looking for a different way to embody the Occupy movement’s ideals.

“I’m 61 years old. I work,” he says. “I couldn’t camp out. I couldn’t spend six hours in a general assembly.”

Bagot says Occupy Bernal was formed to “try and take the possibilities created by Occupy and the ideals stated by Occupy, and root them in a concrete struggle in our neighborhood.”

Homeowner and activist Ross Rhodes says that kind of change is exactly why he continues to align himself with the Occupy movement. He says he doesn’t know what the future of Occupy is, but he is certain that it has changed the political conversation in America, just like it changed his own thinking.

“It’s the haves and the have-nots,” he says, “but we put a number on it, the one percent and the 99 percent. And, yeah, that opened my mind to the perspective of life, how we’re living today.”

Crosscurrents Occupy Bernal