Tag Archives: Occupy Wall Street

Tiny homes, big solutions …

The activists who’ve rallied behind “We are the 99 percent” are swinging hammers and raising money to build homes for the homeless in Madison — 99-square-foot homes.

Volunteers with Occupy Madison’s OM Build program are helping to take the tiny house movement — a trend in living that has seized the dreams of individuals seeking to simplify their lives by downsizing their dwellings — in a new direction.

“There’s so many people out there that are struggling quite a bit and it’s just hard to get housing at this point,” Occupy Madison board member Brenda Konkel said during a Madison Common Council meeting on May 6. “This is one tiny, tiny answer to that problem.”

At the council meeting, the nonprofit won unanimous support from the alders for an experimental tiny house village. The village, to be established on the site of an auto repair shop, will consist of nine tiny houses, a workshop, kitchen-lounge, retail store and bathhouse, as well as garden beds and landscaping.

“I would be happy to live across the street from this development,” said resident and former Alder Satya Rhodes-Conway during the hearing. Nearly 50 people stepped to the podium to speak on the issue, most of them in favor of the project.

“I kind of wish there was an empty lot across the street from my house so I could say, ‘Come here,’” she added, noting the sweat equity requirement of the future tiny house dwellers, the respect Occupy has shown neighbors and the sustainable elements of the plan.

Occupy’s rezoning request for one-third of an acre in the Emerson East neighborhood reached the council with a recommendation from the plan commission, but there was some opposition at the council meeting from people who raised concerns that the “portable shelters” don’t meet code, potentially creating safety issues and negatively impacting property values.

Occupy Madison treasurer and house designer Bruce Wallbaum sought to ease concerns: “We’re going to invest in this property financially and with volunteers.”

Ald. Larry Palm, who represents the district where the village will be located, also sought to reduce worries, noting revisions to the plan, including some stipulations that he added at the council meeting. Palm is convinced Occupy is committed to the cause. He said he’s inspired by the volunteers’ vision for affordable housing, sustainable development and communal living.

Their vision is shared by advocates for the homeless in cities where other tiny house communities are being established. Dozens of organizations have stated interest in founding tiny house villages and several communities are in various states of development. In Austin, Texas, there’s Community First. In Oregon, there’s Dignity Village in Portland and Opportunity Village in Eugene. And in Olympia, Washington, Quixote Village opened on Christmas Eve in 2013.

Quixote began several years ago as a camp for the homeless protesting a local ordinance prohibiting people from lying or sitting on a sidewalk. Last December, the camp’s occupants left their tents for the 2.17-acre village, which consists of 30 cottages, each about 144 square feet.

A full-time manager and a part-time resident advocate work in Quixote, which is supported by the nonprofit Panza, named for Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s servant in Miguel de Cervantes’ magnum opus.

A tiny house “can be very cozy,” said project spokesman Raul Salazar. “It is whatever the resident makes it. Some people have really settled in. Others have used it as a home base and a place to sleep at night, but do not spend tons of time in the home during the day.”

He added, “Our situation is not about someone who has chosen to downsize. Our residents were homeless, living in tents prior to being a resident in our village. The appeal here is actually having a roof over your head, no matter how big it is.”

But downsizing is the appeal for many who have opted to leave large homes, condominiums, apartments or lofts to reside in a tiny house — which is not a new way to live but rather a very old way.


Tiny housers are fond of reminding people that Henry David Thoreau, for his 2-year, 2-month and 2-day experiment on Walden Pond, took shelter in a “tightly shingled and plastered” English-style cottage about 10-by-15-feet.

“Some try (tiny house living) for a few months and others really make it a way of life,” said Mikey Browning, who’s lived in a humble home of 140 square feet in southern Minnesota for three years. “I wanted to reduce my footprint. The best way to do that was to reduce the footprint of my home.”

Tiny house advocate Dee Williams, after a health crisis and an awakening, decided about 10 years ago to sell a three-bedroom house in the Pacific Northwest and build an 84-square-foot home.

She wrote about the experience in the recently released The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir from Blue Rider Press: “Admitting that I’m ‘happy enough’ makes me wonder if I’m falling short of my potential as a middle-class American; like I should want more out of life than this tiny house and the backyard, and the way it feels to sit on the porch and watch the sun come up.

“But the facts are the facts: I found a certain bigness in my little house — a sense of largeness, freedom and happiness that comes when you see there’s no place else you’d rather be.”

Williams founded Portland Alternative Dwellings to teach others about the simple life, and she has opened her tiny house to many of the curious.

New Mexican Pedra Mitchell decided this winter that her home sweet home should be a house-to-go; one of her few new possessions in her downsized life is Williams’ memoir.

Relatives and friends tease Mitchell about the size of her living space — 110 square feet. “My brother says his doghouse is bigger, but you should see my brother’s mortgage,” said Mitchell, who doesn’t have a mortgage.

The housing crisis has helped convince many of the newest tiny housers to go small. One in 10 Americans live in the 100 hardest-hit cities, where the number of underwater homeowners range from 22 percent to 56 percent, according to a report released on May 8 by the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. The study ranks Milwaukee as the third hardest-hit large city, with widespread underwater mortgages.

Meanwhile, a survey at TheTinyLife website shows that about 68 percent of tiny house people have no mortgage.

That’s the type of information that helped persuade Breeze Skinner to settle into her tiny house, currently parked on a farm outside Springfield, Illinois. She’d been renting an apartment but had the itch to own. “I was not seeing anything I could afford. I didn’t want to get into a situation where I couldn’t afford my mortgage and might lose my house,” Breeze said. 

Last fall, she visited a friend living in a tiny house and experienced the “small house swoon.”

These tiny house people connect at meet-ups and even a new annual conference held this spring in Charlotte, North Carolina. But mostly they click online, through Facebook and Tumblr, as well as websites that:

• Show where they live (tinyhousemap.com).

• Offer construction advice (tinyhousebuild.com).

• Promote resources (tinyhouseparking.com).

• Sell houses and plans (tumbleweedhouses.com).

• Post listings for really small real estate (tinyhouselistings.com).

More than 150,000 people follow TinyHouseListings on Facebook and others receive the daily emails of new homes to build, buy, rent or simply occupy. For instance:

FOR SALE: Cabin, land, solar panels, wind turbines, water tank, deep well, chicken coop with chickens, even a chain saw. Complete turnkey off-grid living setup.

FOR SALE: A lofted tiny house on wheels — 200 square feet — that comes with 1.66 acres of land. Plenty of trees, walking trail, gravel drive up to tiny home, wildflowers and lots of sunshine.

Tiny houses, bold cause

Occupy Madison’s OM Build is working to establish a cooperative eco-village of tiny houses at 2046 E. Johnson St., Madison — currently the site of Sanchez Motors.

The houses would be 99 square feet — 14-by-7-feet with a porch — and include a bed, loft, trailer, wheels, solar panel, propane heater, compostable toilet and a water system with a sink.

The effort to create housing for the homeless or formerly homeless, as well as a workshop, kitchen-lounge, gardens and retail store, involves thousands of volunteer hours, more than $80,000 in property improvements and a fundraising drive to purchase the property.

Source: Occupy Madison/OM Build

— L.N.

Oscars rich in tales of wealthy and poor

Early in “Captain Phillips,” the cargo ship captain (Tom Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener) drive from their Vermont home to the airport where he’ll take a flight to his next job, one that will bring him face-to-face with the less fortunate on the other side of the globe. Like the chatter of so many couples, their conversation turns to their general feeling of economic uncertainty.

“It just seems like the world’s movin’ so fast,” says Phillips, wondering about the future their kids will inherit. “Big wheels are turning.”

This year, many of the Academy Award-nominated films bubble with such undercurrents of worry, navigating the deep waters that separate the haves and the have-nots.

The lavish Oscar ceremony may be one of the highest profile parties of the year for the chosen few, but the theme of inequality is just as visible in the season’s nominees — from the dusty, dying towns of “Nebraska” to the Madoff-like fall-from-grace in “Blue Jasmine.” Tales of con-artists striving to short-cut their way to wealth (“American Hustle,” “The Wolf of Wall Street”) are joined by stories of detached observers of decadence (“The Great Beauty,” “The Great Gatsby”).

Of these films, Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” with five nominations, including best picture, is the most hotly debated. Though set in the late 1980s and early 1990s, its portrait of stock broker excess has struck a chord with contemporary viewers. But it has polarized moviegoers over whether it glorifies the over-indulgence of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio).

“What’s the emotion behind making the picture?” says Scorsese. “There’s a lot of anger. I didn’t go hang out in Zuccotti Park, so this is a way of expressing the frustration and also recognizing it. It’s not going to go away if you don’t look at it.”

Since a film typically demands years of work, the movies can take a while to catch up to societal trends.

Many of this year’s Oscar candidates were being written or planned as Occupy Wall Street protesters swarmed downtown New York in late 2011, and outrage grew at the expanding distance between the poor and wealthy.

Though some films were initially conceived before such issues were in the headlines, movies can take on the energy of their times during production. Payne’s “Nebraska,” nominated in six categories including best picture, is about an aging working-class man (Bruce Dern) who believes he’s won $1 million from a junk mail sweepstakes.

Payne says his black-and-white film about barren Midwest lives, while “a little comedy,” has a “sub-basement theme of waste and depression and forlornness. … So, yeah, all those elements showed up even more palpably in the film because of the time in which we were making it.”

Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” up for three Oscars including best actress for Cate Blanchett, was inspired, Allen has said, by a New York family ruined by the financial collapse. Playing a Manhattan socialite both before and after her husband’s fraud is revealed, Blanchett drew from interviews with Ruth Madoff.

“It wasn’t the monumental, historic fraud that her husband perpetrated,” says Blanchett. “It was the domestic betrayal of the affair that in the end she found most painful and morally repugnant.”

Blanchett’s Jasmine lives a life of fiction as bankrupt as her checking account. In David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” (nominated for 10 Oscars including best picture), nearly everyone is living some kind of fantasy — and hoping to cash in.

“We’re all conning ourselves one way or another, just to get through life,” says Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld as he combs over a hair piece.

There’s also a pervasive theme of simple survival in some of the best films of 2013, from the lost-in-space adventure “Gravity” (10 nominations) to the slave odyssey “12 Years a Slave” (nine nods). In the minimalistic shipwreck drama “All Is Lost” (one nomination), a sailor’s boat is randomly damaged by the detritus of global commerce: a shipping container.

Baz Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” (two nominations) and Italy’s “The Great Beauty” (the foreign-language film favorite) both revel in and recoil at the nightlife of decaying eras: late ‘20s New York or modern Rome.

DiCaprio, star of “Gatsby” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” marvels at history’s redundancy.

“Look at us right now,” he says. “We’ve had this gigantic economic crash but a few years later, here we are and everything’s sort of recalibrated itself and the economy’s booming.”

Yet while period films with contemporary overtones have been lauded by the Academy, many of the most current films were passed over: Harmony Korine’s neon nightmare “Spring Breakers,” Sofia Coppola’s teenage robbery caper “The Bling Ring” and Michael Bay’s beefed-up satire “Pain & Gain.” All depict runaway materialism, warped by delusion and sunshine.

Paul Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips,” up for six awards including best picture, might have easily been just from the perspective of the American hero, says lead Tom Hanks. But the film gives equal attention to the story of the terrorizing Somali pirates, who live in poverty and corruption but alongside a well-trafficked trade route.

“Every ship that goes by has BMWs and tennis shoes and TV sets and peanuts on it,” says Hanks. “So the source of their hopelessness is worthy of some degree of examination and some degree of dramatization.

“It’s not the same movie unless you have that element to it.”

Healing the divisions in postelection America

APPOMATTOX, Va. – Baine’s Books sits in the heart of this historic village, a Main Street institution where townspeople gather for coffee and conversation and, every Thursday after sundown, an open mic night that draws performers from near and far with guitars and banjos in hand, bluegrass and blues on their lips.

Talk of church and school, and most certainly music, almost always takes precedence at Baine’s. But we’ve stopped in at election time, and Lib Elder is at a corner table tucking into a chicken pot pie, an Obama-Biden button pinned to her blouse right next to her heart.

She knows without asking why a reporter has come to this corner of southern Virginia to write about an election that divided America among so many lines.

Red or blue. Left or right. Big government or small. Tea party or Occupy. Ninety-nine percent or one. Employed or out-of-work. Black or white or brown.

This is, after all, “where our nation reunited,” said Elder, her voice tinged with slight sarcasm as she quotes the slogan adorning every sign into the town where, on Palm Sunday 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, marking the beginning of the end of the Civil War.

It’s a nice idea, that a place could symbolize peace and harmony and, even, healing after what was inarguably the most divisive time in our nation’s history.

It’s just not something that Elder finds particularly authentic after another cutthroat election year across these “united” states.

The acrimony is still too fresh and far too raw. There was the family member, related by marriage, who accused Elder of “hating” her country because she had sent him a fundraising email for Barack Obama; Elder mistakenly believed he was a Democrat. And the white teenagers at the Appomattox Railroad Festival who saw her Obama button and jeered: “You know he’s black, don’t you?”

Peace and harmony? Elder, for one, doesn’t see them. Not in Appomattox. Not in America. Not even now that Election 2012 is behind us at last.

“I think we are much more divided,” said Elder, who heard similar concerns when she made get-out-the-vote calls during the campaign. “It’s not that people hate the election. … They just hate everybody screaming all the time. It’s harder to hear anything, the louder you get.”

And these days, she added: “Everybody’s voice is louder.”

It’s a familiar election-year narrative, that Americans – not just the candidates, not just the parties, not just the pundits who shriek at us from partisan programming – but everyday Americans themselves are divided by an ever-widening gulf. We see it in the narrow margin separating winner from loser on Nov. 6.

Exit polling also seems only to reaffirm these chasms. On one side we have women, the poor, people of color, urbanites, young voters and non-churchgoers. On the other we have men, those who are rich and white, rural Americans, senior citizens and those who attend church regularly.

Said Republican strategist and CNN commentator Alex Castellanos as he visibly agonized over this on election night: The country, “right now, it is split into pieces.”

But is all of this an every-four-year phenomenon that goes away when the yard signs come down and the Facebook tirades finally end, or at least subside? Can we do as our leaders do? Debate with fingers thrust in each other’s faces, tearing one another apart, and then shake hands, return to our corners and somehow attempt to live and work together once more?

In this slice of Virginia – a literal battlefield turned electoral battleground – there are those who are no longer sure.

They, like Elder, sense that something has changed. That the much-discussed polarization of this election will live on long past it, in ways depicted by more than a mark on a ballot.

Friendships may wilt, suggested local lawyer Michael Brickhill, as some “fade out of social circles that you no longer feel comfortable with … if there are strong differences of opinion.”

He recalled a business dinner in California not long ago in which the group agreed not to invite a guy who’d been ranting about the election.

“They were really, really afraid that he would not be able to relate on the common ground that we had formed,” which had nothing to do with politics, Brickhill said.

Others may be hesitant to, at least publicly, brand themselves by party identity, said Bryan Baine, a former composition instructor who now owns the bookstore in Appomattox.

“Why wouldn’t you be increasingly reluctant to put that label on yourself if it means this whole bunch over here is going to make assumptions about you or that whole bunch is going to make assumptions about you just because you said you were a Republican or Democrat?” he said.

Young and old, black and white, Republican or Democrat, so many in the area found accord on the notion of discord – even if the lens through which they viewed this division was filtered by their own unique perspectives and experiences.

Madeline Abbitt, a lobbyist who works in Richmond but lives in Appomattox County, sees polarization as a rural vs. urban issue. “I could look at the people in my condo unit (in Richmond) and I bet out of about 300 people, two might know what a deer is,” she said, only half-joking about those who likely oppose hunting and groups such as the National Rifle Association. “And you get out here, and you may know two or three people who know a gay couple.”

Joe Day, the African-American chair of the Appomattox County Democratic Committee, views America’s differences through the prism of race. He recalls the slurs scrawled across Obama signs in 2008 and finds little progress in race relations four years later, even with the president’s re-election.

“It’s still racism,” said Day, bemoaning the percentage of black teens in detention centers and a lack of black faces in city jobs. “Mr. Obama might be the first black president and we might’ve seen history. But there’s no unity in America.”

Jan Greene, visiting the Appomattox Court House National Historic Park on her way to a convention of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, sees parallels between what divided us in the 1800s and today. “I think especially in the South we are still very resentful of big government,” said Greene, who lives in Bradenton, Fla. “Washington has taken over more and more aspects of our lives.” Still, she added, “The South doesn’t have the strength to rise again.”

Brickhill, the lawyer, lives in nearby Lynchburg, Va., home to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church. Before the election, The Lynchburg Ledger newspaper published a column called “Can a Christian Vote for a Mormon?” – making the case for why those in the local Christian community could vote for Mitt Romney for president, even if a “Mormon would be unacceptable” in any leadership position in a Christian church.

Brickhill finds his community polarized along religious lines, certainly, but also “politically, socially, socio-economically. We’re polarized by our affinity for local collegiate teams. It’s either Virginia or Virginia Tech, and we are on the dividing line here.”

Perhaps these deep divisions have always been there, stemming from long-ago wounds that never mended or stereotypes formed via our peers or our parents or the place we call home.

Perhaps we just feel more divided because, as Elder suggested, we are more exposed to our dissimilarities in this very loud Facebook, Twitter, anonymous-online-comment-driven world, where everyone seems more emboldened to point out our many differences no matter the consequences.

And yet there are consequences, and so the question begs asking: Where is the line between a polarized America that is productive, and one that is destructive?

Among the many lines dividing us, where and when do we draw this one in the sand?

“Democracy is not about achieving agreement. It’s about figuring out how to live together when we don’t agree,” said social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who penned a pre-election column in The New York Times dishearteningly titled: “Look How Far We’ve Come Apart.”

Haidt is among those who believe that polarization itself isn’t a bad thing. “The competition between ideas can be healthy,” he noted, “or it can turn toxic.”

Unfortunately all signs before this election were pointing toward toxic. He cited a few studies, including research showing that Congress is more ideologically polarized than at any time since the end of the Civil War, a downward spiral that began with the cultural wars of the 1960s and 1970s during which the Democrats became “the party of civil rights” and the Republicans aligned themselves with the religious right.

Of course it’s tempting to write that off as a Washington problem among the so-called political “elites.” Not so. Everyday Americans feel more hostility and dislike toward those from the opposite party than at any time since the American National Election Studies began polling on the subject in the 1970s.

And these feelings go beyond where one side or the other comes down on any particular issue.

“Politics has become a litmus test now for all kinds of things,” said Shanto Iyengar, a political scientist at Stanford whose research on polarization finds the lines blurring between political differences and how one chooses to relate on a personal level.

Take online dating: “People don’t say anything about politics,” he said, because “you’re risking turning off a whole bunch of people.” Or consider cross-party marriages. Analyzing polling data, Iyengar found that whereas in 1960 about 5 percent of Americans would be upset if their child married someone from the other party, in 2010 that rose to nearly 40 percent.

“Fifty years ago when people were asked that question they just laughed …‘Why would I care about the party politics of my future son-in-law?’

“But today,” he said, “they care.”

This plays out every day in communities big and small across America, in myriad ways that remind us that division doesn’t end when the polls close on Election Day.

In Montana, Helena resident John Driscoll was so taken aback by a truck driver’s reaction to his Obama bumper sticker that he wrote a letter about it to a local newspaper. Driscoll had pulled over with a flat tire, and the truck driver stopped to assist but then admitted: “If I’d known you were Obama people I wouldn’t have stopped.” Later, at a tire repair shop, another man stared at the sticker – and then at Driscoll – and sniffed, “You can’t be serious.”

“It’s those kinds of things that tell you something, I guess,” Driscoll, a former Democratic legislator in Montana, said in an interview. “People are generally very respectful of each other and I think they still are, but not so much that I didn’t want to write that letter.”

In his book, “The Big Sort,” author Bill Bishop reveals how and why Americans have segregated themselves geographically, economically, religiously, socially and, yes, politically into like-minded communities. In one example, he writes about a Texas Republican who was ostracized from an Internet listserv in a liberal Austin neighborhood after he recommended a candidate for the board of the local community college.

“Within the day, the newsgroup reacted in a way that wasn’t as much ideological as biological,” wrote Bishop. This man “wasn’t just someone to be argued against. For the protection of the group, he needed to be isolated, sealed off, and expelled.”

“Politics,” said Bishop, “has become more about belonging to a tribe than it is about policy. And people will do almost anything to remain in their tribe.”

After all, he added: “How do you compromise on your identity?”

Pennsylvania librarian Roz Warren explored that very idea in a column she wrote this election year for a women’s website, revisiting the moment she discovered that her now daughter-in-law was a Republican. The lifelong Democrat found herself not only questioning how she’d raised her son – “loving a Republican was the one thing our son could have done to profoundly shock both his parents,” Warren wrote – but re-examining her own attachment to political identity and the perhaps skewed importance it had in her life.

Of course, Warren said in an interview, what matters far more than her daughter-in-law’s political preference is her heart – and her love for Warren’s son.

Besides, her son has now informed her, both he and his wife consider themselves independents.

“I feel very optimistic about the fact that the next generation perceives itself as independents … the focus being on, ‘Let’s you and I talk about issues that matter to us and not identify ourselves as Democrats and Republicans’ … with all the baggage that that entails,” she said. “Perhaps there is some hope.”

Just outside of the town of Appomattox, past the rolling hills where American once fought American, is the monument that gives this community its place in history. National Park Service Ranger Ernie Price’s office window looks out over the house where Lee and Grant arrived at the terms of surrender.

Price understands clearly the relevance between what divided Americans then and now: The many questions over government’s role in our lives, and ongoing disputes over racial inequality and freedom and individual rights over the greater good of the nation.

He also sees lessons that today’s leaders might take from what happened at Appomattox in 1865, in the cordiality exhibited by the two generals, and the compromises they were able to reach. In the respect bestowed by one-time enemies when each army saluted the other as the rebel troops laid down their arms before their Union adversaries.

“Just days before these guys were shooting at each other,” he noted.

The metaphor can hardly be missed.

Within hours of this election, Romney and Obama and Republican and Democratic leaders in Washington were talking about unity and compromise, about promising to do their part to find bipartisan solutions to the many problems facing the nation. But only time will tell whether our long-standing gridlock ends with some sort of deal and a collective salute.

In the meantime, what of the rest of us? Can we, too, if not erase our many lines in the sand find reason enough to cross over them every now and again?

Some see that as unlikely, fearing the animosity that has been growing across parties and among people these past years will only worsen over the next four.

Bryan Baine isn’t one of those.

There were no Romney or Obama signs gracing the windows and walls this election year at his bookstore on Main Street. Rather, his shelves are filled with books by Rachel Maddow, host on left-leaning MSNBC, and Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor. There’s a memoir by former Republican President George W. Bush, and biographies of Bob Dylan.

Baine knows how most in town might label him politically, but he prefers nowadays to just not say one way or the other – or even talk politics with his neighbor-customers.

“There so much I’d rather talk to you about. What music you listen to. What your family’s like. What literature you read. Those are much more interesting to me than who you vote for or what you think about abortion or gay marriage or whatever the hot button issue is,” he said. “In small towns we have to live with each other, and I think most of us are able to look at the person who has a different position and still move on.”

His Thursday open mic nights are the perfect example. “You’ll be sitting there and there’ll be people that you can peg as pretty conservative or as a hippie, and one might be playing bass and one’s playing mandolin.

“Democrats and Republicans. Together,” he said. “Just not talking politics.”

Civil rights groups accuse Bank of America of housing discrimination in Midwest

A coalition of fair housing groups – The National Fair Housing Alliance, the HOPE Fair Housing Center, the South Suburban Housing Center, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council and the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana – filed a federal discrimination complaint against Bank of America.

This complaint is the result of an undercover investigation of Bank of America that found the financial giant maintains and markets foreclosed homes in white neighborhoods in a much better manner than in African-American and Latino neighborhoods in Chicago, Milwaukee and Indianapolis.

The groups filed the complaint on Oct. 23 with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It is part of an amended complaint NFHA and seven member agencies filed Oct. 10 that looks at how Bank of America has differently maintained and marketed properties in white, African-American and Latino neighborhoods across the country.

The groups’ investigation in 13 cities of 505 foreclosed homes owned, serviced or managed by Bank of America found that it allegedly has engaged in a systemic practice of maintaining and marketing its foreclosed, bank-owned homes in a state of disrepair in communities of color while maintaining and marketing REO properties in predominantly white communities in a superior manner.

The investigation evaluated Bank of America REO properties in Atlanta, Charleston, S.C., Chicago, Dallas, Dayton, Ohio, Grand Rapids, Mich., Indianapolis, Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Milwaukee, Oakland/Concord/Richmond, Calif., Orlando, Fla., Phoenix and the Washington, D.C., area.

Shanna L. Smith, CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance, said, “Bank of America is not a good neighbor in communities of color. Instead, one of the nation’s largest holders of foreclosed homes is busy making excuses and passing the buck when it comes to taking responsibility for the homes it owns or services. In many white neighborhoods, Bank of America’s foreclosed properties fit in with most other homes for sale on the block, with manicured lawns and “for sale” signs. African-American and Latino neighborhoods deserve equal treatment.”

But in those neighborhoods, according to the complaint, Bank of America’s properties have broken windows and doors, water damage, overgrown lawns, no “for sale” signs, litter and other problems.

In Indianapolis, 100 percent of Bank of America REO properties in communities of color were missing a “for sale” sign as well as 79 percent in Chicago and 87 percent in Milwaukee, according to the complaint.

In Indianapolis 71 percent of all Bank of America REO properties in communities of color had substantial amounts of trash as well as 52 percent in Chicago and 33 percent in Milwaukee, according to the complaint.

Also, in Indianapolis, 57 percent of properties in communities of color had broken doors or locks, while in Chicago the figure hit 55 percent and in Milwaukee 41 percent of properties had that deficiency.

Thousands to protest in Charlotte before Democratic convention

Organizers of the March on Wall Street South expect thousands to participate in the demonstration on Sunday in Charlotte, N.C., just days before the start of the Democratic National Convention.

The march assembly begins at 11 a.m. in Charlotte’s Frazier Park on Sept. 2. The convention begins on Sept. 4, but delegates and press, along with the protesters, already are arriving.

Organizers with the Coalition to March on Wall Street South – Building People’s Power at the Democratic National Convention have been preparing for the march and other actions for about 10 months. The coalition involves more than 80 organizations. A news release said they “have united to form this unprecedented, grassroots coalition representing countless struggles – including labor, civil rights, immigrants rights, the student and youth movement, the women’s movement, the LGBTQ movement, the anti-war movement, the environmental movement, as well as the Occupy movement.”

The coalition’s demands, as stated on the Web, are:

• Good jobs. Economic justice. “Make the banks and corporations pay for their crisis!”

• Investment in education, health care, housing and “all human needs, not for war and incarceration!”

• Justice for immigrants and “all oppressed peoples! Stop the raids and deportations!”

Marchers will begin walking about 1 p.m., passing the headquarters for Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Duke Energy. They’ll also pass by the Time Warner Cable Arena, where the convention takes place on Sept. 4-5, and the Bank of America Stadium, where the convention concludes on Sept. 6 with Barack Obama’s speech.

Organizers secured permits for the march after eight months of work and a petition drive demanding the right to march.

A rally at Frazier Park will follow the march. Speakers include:

• Cindy Foster, president of the Southern Piedmont Central Labor Council.

• A representative of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.

• Jaribu Hill of the Mississippi Workers Center.

• Saladin Muhammad of the Southern Workers Assembly and Black Workers for Justice.

• A representative from the Undocubus.

• John Heuer of Veterans for Peace.

• Monica Embrey of Greenpeace.

• Larry Hales of Peoples Power Assemblies.

• Jared Hamil of the Coalition to March on the RNC.

• The Rev. C.D. Witherspoon of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

• Victor Toro of the May 1 Coalition for Worker and Immigrants Rights.

• Marilyn Levin of the United National Antiwar Coalition.

The entertainment lineup for the rally includes Jasiri X and Rebel Diaz, the Fruit of Labor Singing Ensemble, Cameron Aviles, a step team and drum corps from the Grier Heights community in Charlotte, a samba-infused drum corps from Greensboro called Cakalak Thunder and the National Day Labor Organizing Network’s string band.

Activists mobilizing for Democratic convention

Activists are assembling in Charlotte, N.C., to prepare for a massive march for jobs and justice on Sept. 2, days before the Democratic National Convention begins in the city.

Organizers with the Coalition to March on Wall Street South – an Occupy Wall Street campaign focused on the DNC – announced an outreach blitz beginning at noon Aug. 13.

Activists were meeting at Central Piedmont Community College to welcome out-of-state arrivals assisting with mobilization for the march, and other events occurring during the convention.

“Outreach is an essential task because, we do so much to organize locally and we put so much precious time an sweat into our work, that when we see folks come in from all over the United States, when we see folks take the time they could be using on something else we feel honored to know that they feel their place in the movement,” stated Cameron Aviles, a student at Durham Technical Community College and an organizer with NC HEAT.

“We’re taking our message for jobs and justice, and money for people’s needs not for banks and wars into communities across the country. Last week in Philadelphia, we held a forum about the March on Wall Street South that was attended by dozens of people who will be coming to Charlotte in just a few weeks,” said Berta Joubert-Ceci, an organizer with the Philadelphia International Action Center. “When we march here on Sept. 2, we’ll be standing with hundreds of thousands of workers across the globe who are tired of all these attacks by the banks and standing up to say: Enough is enough!”

“Just this morning, at a local restaurant, the brothers and sisters from Boston passed out fliers and posters,” said Darrion Smith, a worker activist with UE Local 150. “The waitress, customers, as well as other patrons were excited to hear about the rally on September 2. They were so excited the waitress started a rally in the restaurant about the rally on the second.”

The coalition held an organizing conference over the weekend that more than 60 people from several states attended. Local Charlotte and NC organizers were joined by activists from Illinois, Wisconsin, New York and Massachusetts.

Tea Party could hold rally before Republican convention

Two dozen tea party and like-minded groups are trying to organize a rally that would take place the day before the Republican National Convention begins and feature former presidential candidates Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain.

The Tampa Bay Times reports that the conservative Unity Rally 2012 could take place in a parking lot outside Raymond James Stadium, though details are still unclear.

The Tampa Sports Authority says the group has expressed interest but there has been no contract signed yet.

In St. Petersburg, the RNC itself is holding its official welcome event at Tropicana Field on Aug. 26.

In Tampa, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is holding a free public rally at the University of South Florida. A group of Paul supporters also is organizing a festival at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

The left-leaning Occupy Wall Street movement also is planning a presence outside of the convention.

Occupy protest coincides with AIDS conference

A coalition of groups is organizing a protest for July 24 in Washington, D.C., to coincide with the International AIDS Conference taking place there.

The We Can End AIDS coalition is organizing the “mobilization for economic justice and human rights” to demand

• An end to cuts in HIV/AIDS services.

• Full implementation of the national AIDS strategy intended to “end AIDS in the United States.”

• A lift on the U.S. ban on federal funds for syringe exchange programs.

• Full access to AIDS and reproductive health services.

• Accountability from drug-makers and governments.

• An end to the criminalization of sex workers, drug users and people living with HIV/AIDS.

• Tax Wall Street – “the global 1 percent” – to stop cuts to domestic and global AIDS services.

The coalition’s platform begins, “We demand a world in which the lives and health of individuals, workers, families and communities are prioritized over ideology and the interests of corporations and the wealthy. But across Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe – and right here in the United States and the capital of Washington, D.C. – this is often not the case. We have the science, the treatments, and the resources to end the HIV epidemic, but not the political will.”

The “Occupy The Roots of HIV” demonstration is set for noon on July 24, with actions planned at the White House, Treasury Department and the National Chamber of Commerce.

The coalition is seeking people to help organize actions and to endorse the mobilization.

A call to action also encourages protests beyond the Beltway on the same day.

The International AIDS Conference takes place July 22-27. Other events coinciding with the conference include displays of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.

To learn more about the protest, go to http://www.wecanendaids.org.

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May Day actions taking place coast to coast

May Day protests may disrupt the morning commute in major U.S. cities today as labor, immigration and Occupy activists rally support on the international workers’ holiday.

Demonstrations, strikes and acts of civil disobedience are planned around the country, including the most visible organizing effort by anti-Wall Street groups since Occupy encampments came down in the fall.

While protesters are backing away from a call to block San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, bridge district ferry workers said they’ll strike to shut down ferry service, which brings commuters from Marin County to the city. Ferry workers have been in contract negotiations for a year and have been working without a contract since July 2011 in a dispute over health care coverage, the Inlandboatmen’s Union said.

A coalition of bridge and bus workers said they will honor the picket line, which may target an area near the bridge’s toll plaza. Occupy activists from San Francisco and Oakland are expected to join the rally.

“We ask supporters to stand with us at strike picket lines on May Day and to keep the bridge open,” said Alex Tonisson, an organizer and co-chair of the Golden Gate Bridge Labor Coalition.

In anticipation of the strike, the agency that operates the Golden Gate Bridge and related public transportation systems canceled the morning ferries from Marin County to San Francisco and urged regular riders to make alternate travel plans.

Police say they are working with other area law enforcement agencies and have a plan in place for potential disruptions. They would not discuss specifics.

Across the bay in Oakland, where police and Occupy protesters have often clashed, officers are preparing for a long day as hundreds of “General Strike” signs have sprouted across town.

In New York City, where the first Occupy camp was set up and where large protests brought some of the earliest attention – and mass arrests – to the movement, leaders plan a variety of events, including picketing, a march through Manhattan and other “creative disruptions against the corporations who rule our city.”

Organizers have called for protesters to block one or more bridges or tunnels connecting Manhattan, the city’s economic engine, to New Jersey and other parts of the city.

The Occupy movement began in September with a small camp in a lower Manhattan plaza that quickly grew to include hundreds of protesters using the tent city as their home base. More than 700 people were arrested Oct. 1 as they tried to cross the Brooklyn Bridge.

The city broke the camp up in November, citing sanitary and other concerns, but the movement has held smaller events and protests periodically since then.

Elsewhere on the West Coast, Occupy Seattle has called for people to rally at a park near downtown. Mayor Mike McGinn has warned residents there could be traffic delays and has said city officials have evidence – including graffiti and posters – that some groups plan to “commit violence, damage property and disrupt peaceful free speech activity.”

In Los Angeles, Occupy is organizing a daylong “people’s power and bike caravan” that will start from the four cardinal directions around the city in the morning, converging on downtown LA’s financial district in the mid afternoon for an approximately 90-minute protest. The themes of the marches are foreclosures and police brutality.

In a website statement, Occupy LA promised the event will be “city-paralyzing” and “carnivalesque” with en route actions including a food giveaway in a South Los Angeles park, and mini-rallies outside the Veterans’ Affairs and Bank of America buildings in West Los Angeles.

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Undercover NYPD officers infiltrated liberal groups

Undercover New York Police Department officers attended meetings of liberal political organizations and kept intelligence files on activists who planned protests around the U.S., according to interviews and documents that show how police have used counterterrorism tactics to monitor even lawful activities.

The infiltration echoes the tactics the NYPD used in the run-up to New York’s 2004 Republican National Convention, when police monitored church groups, anti-war organizations and environmental advocates nationwide. That effort was revealed by The New York Times in 2007 and in an ongoing federal civil rights lawsuit over how the NYPD treated convention protesters.

Police said the pre-convention spying was necessary to prepare for the huge, raucous crowds that were headed to the city. But documents obtained by The Associated Press show that the police department’s intelligence unit continued to keep close watch on political groups in 2008, long after the convention had passed.

In April 2008, an undercover NYPD officer traveled to New Orleans to attend the People’s Summit, a gathering of liberal groups organized around their shared opposition to U.S. economic policy and the effect of trade agreements between the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

When the undercover effort was summarized for supervisors, it identified groups opposed to U.S. immigration policy, labor laws and racial profiling. Two activists – Jordan Flaherty, a journalist, and Marisa Franco, a labor organizer for housekeepers and nannies – were mentioned by name in one of the police intelligence reports obtained by the AP.

“One workshop was led by Jordan Flaherty, former member of the International Solidarity Movement Chapter in New York City,” officers wrote in an April 25, 2008, memo to David Cohen, the NYPD’s top intelligence officer. “Mr. Flaherty is an editor and journalist of the Left Turn Magazine and was one of the main organizers of the conference. Mr. Flaherty held a discussion calling for the increase of the divestment campaign of Israel and mentioned two events related to Palestine.”

The document provides the latest example of how, in the name of fighting terrorism, law enforcement agencies around the country have scrutinized groups that legally oppose government policies. The FBI, for instance, has collected information on anti-war demonstrators. The Maryland state police infiltrated meetings of anti-death penalty groups. Missouri counterterrorism analysts suggested that support for Republican Rep. Ron Paul might indicate support for violent militias _ an assertion for which state officials later apologized. And Texas officials urged authorities to monitor lobbying efforts by pro Muslim-groups.

Police have good reason to want to know what to expect when protesters take to the streets. Many big cities, such as Seattle in 1999, Cincinnati in 2001 and Toledo in 2005, have seen protests turned into violent, destructive riots. Intelligence from undercover officers gives police an idea of what to expect and lets them plan accordingly.

“There was no political surveillance,” Cohen testified in the ongoing lawsuit over NYPD’s handling of protesters at the Republican convention. “This was a program designed to determine in advance the likelihood of unlawful activity or acts of violence.”

The result of those efforts, however, was that people and organizations can be cataloged in police files for discussing political topics or advocating even legal protests, not violence or criminal activity.

By contrast, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street protests and in related protests in other cities, officials at the U.S. Homeland Security Department repeatedly urged authorities not to produce intelligence reports based simply on protest activities.

“Occupy Wall Street-type protesters mostly are engaged in constitutionally protected activity,” department officials wrote in documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the website Gawker. “We maintain our longstanding position that DHS should not report on activities when the basis for reporting is political speech.”

At the NYPD, the monitoring was carried out by the Intelligence Division, a squad that operates with nearly no outside oversight and is so secretive that police said even its organizational chart is too sensitive to publish. The division has been the subject of a series of Associated Press articles that illustrated how the NYPD monitored Muslim neighborhoods, catalogued people who prayed at mosques and eavesdropped on sermons.

The NYPD has defended its efforts, saying the threat of terrorism means officers cannot wait to open an investigation until a crime is committed. Under rules governing NYPD investigations, officers are allowed to go anywhere the public can go and can prepare reports for “operational planning.”

Though the NYPD’s infiltration of political groups before the 2004 convention generated some controversy and has become an element in a lawsuit over the arrest, fingerprinting and detention of protesters, the surveillance itself has not been challenged in court.

Flaherty, who also writes for The Huffington Post, said he was not an organizer of the summit, as police wrote in the NYPD report. He said the event described by police actually was a film festival in New Orleans that same week, suggesting that the undercover officer’s duties were more widespread than described in the report.

Flaherty said he recalls introducing a film about Palestinians but spoke only briefly and does not understand why that landed him a reference in police files.

“The only threat was the threat of ideas,” he said. “I think this idea of secret police following you around is terrifying. It really has an effect of spreading fear and squashing dissent.”

Before the terrorist attacks of September 2001, infiltrating political groups was one of the most tightly controlled powers the NYPD could use. Such investigations were restricted by a longstanding court order in a lawsuit over the NYPD’s spying on protest groups in the 1960s.

After the attacks, Cohen told a federal judge that, to keep the city safe, police must be allowed to open investigations before there’s evidence of a crime. A federal judge agreed and relaxed the rules.

Since then, police have monitored not only suspected terrorists but also entire Muslim neighborhoods, mosques, restaurants and law-abiding protesters.

Keeping tabs on planned demonstrations is a key function of Cohen’s division. Investigators with his Cyber Intelligence Unit monitor websites of activist groups, and undercover officers put themselves on email distribution lists for upcoming events. Plainclothes officers collect fliers on public demonstrations. Officers and informants infiltrate the groups and attend rallies, parades and marches.

Intelligence analysts take all this information and distill it into summaries for Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s daily briefing, documents show.

The April 2008 memo offers an unusually candid view of how political monitoring fit into the NYPD’s larger, post-9/11 intelligence mission. As the AP has reported previously, Cohen’s unit has transformed the NYPD into one of the most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies in the United States, one that infiltrated Muslim student groups, monitored their websites and used informants as listening posts inside mosques.

Along with the political monitoring, the document describes plans to use informants to monitor mosques for conversations about the imminent verdict in the trial of three NYPD officers charged in the 2006 shooting death of Sean Bell, an unarmed man who died in a hail of gunfire. Police were worried about how the black community, particularly the New Black Panther Party, would respond to the verdict, according to this and other documents obtained by the AP.

The document also contained details of a whitewater rafting trip that an undercover officer attended with Muslim students from City College New York.

“The group prayed at least four times a day, and much of the conversation was spent discussing Islam and was religious in nature,” the report reads.

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