The foreclosure stories of community members, shouted out by the People’s Mic like all the other speeches, were invariably poignant. There was the woman who explained how her landlady “turned our building into an ATM for her family” by taking out a couple of subprime loans worth more than the building’s total value, with the ultimate result that the tenants were evicted and the speaker went into the shelter system. There was the man from Picture the Homeless who explained, “I am street homeless, and the biggest problem with being street homeless is that if you stop and try to rest, the police will harass you.” There were the stories of having to negotiate with a succession of banks as mortgages repeatedly changed hands. A young man, completely new to People’s Mic procedures and nervous about speaking, came forward to explain, “I’m going to be foreclosed on today.” Organizers made arrangements to send a detail to his house to forestall the eviction, and one of the politicians present (I think it was City Councilmember Charles Barron, whose district we were in, though I couldn’t see clearly who was on the stoop at that point) said, “We’ll make sure the foreclosure doesn’t go through,” at which a woman behind me grumbled loudly, “It’s not the politicians–it’s we the people who have the power when we take it to the streets!”). It was hard to hear at times; the crowd was large enough that the mic procedure called for three waves of repetition. Announcers had to appeal for patience and respect for the speakers, which appeals were generally heeded. Finally, a distant voice was heard, insistent, persistent, from the depths of the crowd, and another impromptu speaker emerged.
This was an older woman with a West Indian accent, also brand new to the People’s Mic, who told a story that at first appeared to ramble, but on closer inspection proved to be as tightly constructed as classical tragedy. She had a son. He never went to public school. She sent him to Catholic school for all of his education. (The implication was that she’d done everything in her power to protect him.) He entered the military. He was in college for four years. (No, wait, wait, the People’s Mic said–that got misheard–he was in Kuwait for four years.) He was in Kuwait for four years and then he was in Iraq. He was killed in Iraq. They couldn’t tell her how he died. The State Department sent her a message of condolence, but they said they couldn’t tell her whether he died from enemy fire or from friendly fire. They said they were sorry. After her son was killed, she got sick. She had worked all her life, not one but two jobs. Now she couldn’t do anything. She couldn’t make her mortgage payments. Her house was being foreclosed on.
What do you say after hearing words like that? The young woman m.c. did a graceful job of acknowledging the power of the stories we’d heard and sent us on our way toward the march’s final destination, where a family was already living in a foreclosed home that had had presumably been “reoccupied” with the help of housing activists. At this point, two hours had elapsed since I joined the march, and Eleanor and I had to head home. On the way to the train, and again on the platform, we were stopped by women who wanted to know what it was all about. “Are they occupying everything now?” a middle-aged school crossing guard asked; when she heard about the foreclosure issue, she nodded her approval, and an energetic young woman who Eleanor thought might have been one of the high school students we’d seen leaning out of the windows of Thomas Jefferson High (I thought she was a little older) shared her enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, we’d been joined by a friendly suburban woman named Camille, who confided that she lives in New Jersey and had hardly ever been on a subway train before. I found my own reactions to Camille rather comical, as she behaved like the complete stereotype of the naive out-of-towner, confessing in a loud voice how clueless she was about navigating in the city, and thereby triggering all of my long-time-New-Yorker alarm signals (don’t let ’em see you looking vulnerable! being the first law of public conduct in our fair town). It turns out I haven’t been a New Yorker quiet long enough to divest myself of a quiet horror of being associated with those un-hip to the urban milieu–but Camille was so fetching in her enthusiasm for the various Occupy Wall Street events she’d been to (including the November 17 march over the Brooklyn Bridge) that I felt slightly ashamed of my own snobbishness. She spoke wistfully of “these kids today” and how they were leading our generation. “I just did all the right things,” she said. “Went and raised a family.” I wanted to ask how her family reacted to what she was doing now, but thought better of it.
I went home with contradictory impressions. I was stirred by the somber power of the foreclosure stories; bemused by the (no doubt inevitable) presence of politicians at a “grassroots” event, as it seemed to foreshadow the coming struggle between insurgent forces and the Democratic Party; entertained by the echoing cadence of an irreverent new chant:
You say budget cuts–
we say you’re fuckin’ nuts!