Coordinated protests thwart business as usual at Bank of America branches in DC

Photo by John Zangas

Simultaneous protests targeting Bank of America branches throughout the District of Columbia delayed openings and drew attention to the financial giant’s foreclosure practices. Occupy Our Homes DC coordinated the “reverse foreclosure” at eleven Bank of America locations on Saturday morning. They’ve taken up the case of Rev. Michael Vanzant, whom Bank of America is threatening to evict.

While customers were inconvenienced, they also learned about how Bank of America leads the pack in wrongful foreclosures. Unfair practices even extend to empty homes–the National Fair Housing Alliance recently accused Bank of America of maintaining foreclosed homes in white neighborhoods in better condition than in Latino or African-American ones. One woman reportedly closed her account on the spot when she heard how Bank of America is treating Rev. Vanzant.

UPDATE: Bank of America yesterday sealed its place in infamy when it announced the “largest securities class-action lawsuit settlement yet to arise from the financial crisis.” It will pay out $2.4 billion to avoid admitting that it misled shareholders when acquiring investment firm Merrill Lynch.

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Taxes hitting Romney hard–really, really hard

Mitt Romney estimates his federal income tax rate to be 15%, and here’s a point of comparison with the rest of us, the so-called 47%. As the chart shows, federal income taxes include individual income tax rate, payroll tax, corporate tax and estate tax–not just taxed salaries and wages, and capital gains. (Hard to know why capital gains would even be included under this strict definition of federal taxes–oh, except that it’s mainly the victimized wealthy class paying them.)

So, Mitt Romney is paying the same effective tax rate as an American household making $50,000. Just happens to be the median income. Of course, if Mitt is shelling out $2 million dollars to meet his 15% pound of flesh, he’s suffering a whole lot more than a family of four handing over $7,500. That’s just obvious. It’s penalizing success!

Sleepful Protest charges dismissed when prosecution fails to present case

Sleepful Protest defendants Rudy Roberts and Harris Nicholas

Judge Elizabeth Wingo dismissed the case brought against two activists who participated in ongoing Occupy DC demonstrations in front of several Bank of America branches. At the outset of the trial, government counsel told the judge that they were not ready to proceed with the case. The judge then dismissed the charges against Rudy Roberts and Harris Nicholas, who were arrested for blocking passage and failure to obey.

Roberts and Nicholas had been active participants in the Sleepful Protest, overnight occupations at Bank of America branches intended to draw attention to the bank’s foreclosure practices and taking taxpayer bailout money. Police arrested many protestors for blocking sidewalks during the first weeks of the Sleepful Protest in April.

Attorney Jeff Light advises Rudy Roberts, Harris Nicholas and Georgia Pearce on their rights at the Sleepful Protest

UPDATE: So why did the prosecution drop the ball in the Sleepful Protest case? It made “representations” to the judge that it was not ready for trial, but it seems unlikely that lack of preparedness would be the reason that it would let a case slide–especially an Occupy DC case.

The District has been consistently pursuing even trivial charges against protestors affiliated with Occupy DC, and sometimes expends great effort to do so. For example, even though the Assistant AG’s office was abysmally late in filing motions for the OccuBarn trial, to the point that Judge Wingo called it a “gross dereliction of duty,” it got its act together in a hurry when she demanded that a motion be turned in overnight. And Assistant AG Sean Farrelly was well-prepared for trial, parrying each motion and challenge brought by defense counsel Light. And after all this effort, the case was in fact successfully prosecuted; the defendants were found guilty. Trials related to Occupy DC tend to be more high profile than most. That could be one reason the AG’s office pursues these to the bitter end.

Defense counsel Jeff Light said that in the Sleepful Protest case the government had failed to even give him video evidence owed to them. He also said that Peter Saba from DC Attorney General’s Office sent him an email the previous day that the government wasn’t proceeding with the case.

Maybe the AG’s office knew they didn’t have a leg to stand on. That it could be shown, as the defense alleged in its motion, that the police arrested the defendants in retaliation for First Amendment activity and their constitutional rights were violated. That it could be demonstrated that the offenses the defendants were accused of were not in violation of the blocking passage statute as the Metropolitan Police itself defined it when they testified at a City Council meeting last February.

Failure to prepare is not quite the same as dropping charges, so we’re left to ask why. If defendants choose to pursue a civil lawsuit in the coming weeks, maybe the reasons will become more clear.

Franklin School advocates convicted, remain determined to fight homelessness

Photo by Associated Press

After three days of trial, a jury delivered a guilty verdict to six defendants charged with unlawful entry of public property, a felony offense. The six were among thirteen people affiliated with organization Free Franklin DC, which orchestrated a political action intended to draw attention to the abandoned state of the building, formerly used as a homeless shelter.  On November 19, 2011, they were arrested after they entered the vacant building, ascended to the roof of the Franklin School and unfurled a large black banner saying, “Property Under Community Control.”

Judge Patricia Broderick sentenced the defendants to 5 days in jail, suspended, 3 months unsupervised probation and a $50 fine. She further instructed them to stay away from the Franklin School, also known as the Franklin Shelter, located on 13th St. across from Franklin Park. In handing down the light sentence which lacked a requirement of community service, she remarked, “Most of what they do is community service.”

Yet the social issues of homelessness and usage of public resources that the defendants and their supporters sought to highlight had a hard time being voiced in the courtroom. Judge Broderick declared, “This is not a trial by political process.” She denied defendants recourse on legal grounds to most of the good faith defense, which would have allowed testimony about the past contentious struggle with District government over the building’s usage. She also seemed determined to keep the trial from becoming a political platform and was adamant that the jury wouldn’t be swayed by outside influences, such as Free Franklin DC t-shirts worn by some audience members.

The prosecution also sought to keep political and social issues from entering into play. Free Franklin DC supporter Ray Valentine said the government “worked hard to prevent any mention of the shameful history of this building and others like it.”

The defense never disputed that the six defendants entered the building on November 19, but the government had to meet a high burden of proof. In an unusual tactic, the defense challenged the actual ownership of the building, contending that it belonged to the community, not to the District government, and therefore the community was entitled to determine how it should best be used. Defense counsel Kanita Williams said that the defendants entered with the good faith belief that they weren’t committing an illegal act, and she repeatedly stressed that they entered through an open door, bringing with them cleaning supplies in order to “restore” the building. Defendant pro se Jesse Schultz said, “We had reason to believe that we were welcome in the Franklin Shelter.”

The strategy of government prosecutor Adam Dinnell however was to keep the case a simple matter of unlawful entry. In his opening statement to the jury, he said, “This case is about property rights, and the rights of an owner to control whether they want people on their property or not.”  Three government witnesses testified that the legal property owner is the District government, and they also gave testimony which conflicted with the defense’s assertion that they entered freely. “If they just walked through an open door, why did it take the police three hours to get in?” Dinnell asked, referring to a request for the fire department’s aid. He contested the defendants’ presumption of authority, saying that their decision to act “doesn’t trump the decisions of elected officials. It didn’t entitle them to take over the building.”

Defendant Jesse Schultz chose to act as his own attorney during the proceedings because “I felt there was a need for someone to introduce things a lawyer can’t without risking their bar card.”

“For me,” he said, ”the verdict shows that the public still has to follow the system no matter how corrupt the system has become, no matter how much damage the judicial system is a part of it. A lot of normal people aren’t ready to rebel yet. Hopefully that will change.”

Another Free Franklin DC community member wasn’t pleased with the verdict but pointed out that publicity was positive. “I think it’s good that the defendants had the opportunity to make a case in front of the jury and re-state demands, bring more attention to the issue,” DC resident Anna Duncan said. “The defendants showed throughout the trial that the Franklin building belongs to the people, and the community should be the one who decides what to do with it.”

Defendant Rosa Lozano, who testified during trial, said, “The real crime here is the mismanagement of public resources like Franklin and the lack of services for DC’s homeless.”

The organization seems determined to keep organizing and challenging District officials to address the future of the Franklin School. “We’ll continue to fight to get public property used to meet community needs,” Duncan said.

Schultz emphasized that Franklin School represented a larger cause. “Franklin is an essential piece in a battle between people and money. Look where it’s located, on K St., where money and politics intersect.”

The defendants intend to appeal their sentence.

Trial opens for District housing advocates arrested at Franklin School

Photo by Associated Press

A jury was selected and the government delivered its opening statement on the first day of trial of six activists arrested for unlawful entry of the Franklin School almost eight months ago. While the defense has yet to make its opening statement, the crux of the trial may hinge on rights of property owners versus use of public property for the public interest. The jury may also hear a great deal about the state of housing and the homeless in the District.

On the afternoon of November 19, 2011 a large black banner was unfurled from the roof of the Franklin School, also known as Franklin Shelter, and a large crowd gathered on the street. The banner said, “Public Property Under Community Control.” Thirteen activists, affiliated with a group called Free Franklin DC, had allegedly broken into the school, formerly a homeless shelter on 13th St. in Downtown DC, and made their way to the roof through a skylight.

In his opening statement, government prosecutor Adam Dinnell sought to persuade the jury that the trial was about the rights of property owners and “whether they want people on their property or not.” The government of Washington, DC owns the building. He stressed that the trial was not about social issues, political issues or “whether the DC government has made good or bad decisions” regarding the use of Franklin School.

Gabriel Bernstein of Free Franklin DC responded to the prosecutor’s opening statement by saying, “Public property is different than a private home. Government is accountable to the people.” He also criticized the District for its handling of the Franklin School. “[The District] attempt[ed] to  claim the shelter as ‘surplus,’ ignoring public petitions. The government has not been responsive to the people it serves. And to simply make it parallel to a private home reduces government to a [mere] property owner.”

Free Franklin DC seeks to utilize the historic building for public use and ties its abandonment to larger problems of housing and homelessness in the District. In a statement released last November, it said:

The Franklin School building, owned by the city, has been vacant since late September 2008 when the DC government closed the homeless shelter that was housed there right before the beginning of hypothermia season. Despite promises that all of the residents would be given permanent housing, the majority wound up in other over-crowded shelters away from downtown, far from physical and mental health care and other needed services, or were put out onto the street. Three years later the city continues to break its promises to house and shelter DC residents, under-funding housing and shelter programs, including cutting $3 million from services for DC’s 6,500 homeless individuals and $20 million for affordable housing last year alone. The DC government refuses to ensure the most basic human right to housing for everyone in our community.

The trial is scheduled to continue in DC Superior Court at least through July 11.

Homeowner in foreclosure interrupts testimony of JP Morgan CEO responsible for $2 billion loss

Retired paramedic Deborah Harris (photo by coolrevolution.net)

A woman who disrupted a Senate Banking Committee hearing on June 13 was arrested along with five others from the housing advocacy organization Occupy Our Homes DC. Deborah Harris interrupted the opening statement of JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who was giving testimony on his bank’s recent $2 billion losses in hedge fund investments. Her home is being foreclosed on by Chase Bank.

The Raw Story reports that protestors yelled, “Stop foreclosures now, stop foreclosures now!” before being escorted out of the hearing by Capitol Police.

Though Dimon remained stone-faced, the demonstrators have numerous reasons to protest the financial institution for its history of questionable foreclosures.

JPMorgan Chase has been sued by state attorneys general and others for alleged foreclosure fraud. They have also been twice sued for subprime lending practices that led to the housing finance crisis in 2008, and for automating the foreclosure process through robo-signing, the practice of a bank employee signing thousands of documents and affidavits without verifying the information contained in the document or affidavit.

Last week Occupy Our Homes DC, which has publicized Harris’ case as part of its campaign to raise awareness of epidemic foreclosures in the area, conducted a sit-in of Chase Home Loan Modification offices in Washington, DC in an effort to gain a negotiation for the retired paramedic.

“It was powerful for Deborah to be able to confront and stand up to Jamie Dimon,” Rooj Alwazir of Occupy Our Homes DC said, “And tell her story of why he’s stealing her home of 17 years, [at the same time that] he’s trying to justify a $2 billion loss [as a result of] his own negligence.”