BILL MOYERS: As demand grows for the Obama administration and Congress to publish the real story behind the torture of detainees — and to hold accountable the officials responsible — so, too, has public pressure been building to hold the banks accountable for their role in the collapse of our financial system.
That's proving difficult, and here's one reason why. Just this week, the number two democratic leader in the Senate made an extraordinary confession. Senator Durbin of Illinois has been battling for bankruptcy reform, but many banks don't want reform, and they're pushing back against meaningful change, especially change that might help homeowners in danger of foreclosure.
On Monday an exasperated Senator Durbin told an interviewer that although, quote, "We're facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created, the banks are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill, and they frankly own the place." Let me repeat that: one of the Senate's own leaders says the banks own the place. And just yesterday, as if to prove Durbin's point, bankers killed the Senate's latest effort to staunch that wave of foreclosures, squashing a measure Durbin says would help one million seven hundred thousand Americans save their homes.
So what are regular folks to do? Well, some are picking themselves up and fighting back in one of the few forums left to them: the streets.
PROTESTORS: Enough is enough!
BILL MOYERS: Just this week, labor organized demonstrations outside Bank of America offices in more than 75 cities across the country, calling for an end to predatory lending and credit practices and demanding the firing of the bank's chair and CEO, Ken Lewis.
PROTESTORS: Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Ken Lewis has to go!
BILL MOYERS: They got their wish, at least half of it. On Wednesday, Bank of America stockholders fired Ken Lewis as chairman of the board but, in a close vote, kept him on as the bank's CEO.
Meanwhile, many other people struggling to save their homes are fighting and learning the transformative power of taking a stand together. We spent a few days with a community organizer named Steve Meacham. He's with a housing rights organization called City Life/Vida Urbana, in the working class neighborhoods south of Boston, Massachusetts.
ROBERTO VELAZQUEZ: My name is Roberto Velazquez and I'm facing a foreclosure.
ABBEY COOK: My name is Abbey Cook, I'm near the foreclosure, not sure yet but we're in trouble.
UNNAMED MAN: I'm trying to see if I can save my house.
STEVE MEACHAM [AT MEETING]: The first meeting of the 1st Bank Tenant Association of Lynn is happening this Sunday. And it's going to be modeled after what you're doing.
STEVE MEACHAM: I work for a community organization called City Life. And I'm a community organizer there. You know, that's become a bit famous of late as a profession, but I've been doing it all my life.
STEVE MEACHAM [AT MEETING]: We have intervened in a key arena, which is stopping evictions after foreclosure and by doing that we are getting leverage to negotiate good deals with the banks.
STEVE MEACHAM: Every 17 minutes somebody is being foreclosed in Massachusetts. Nationally, it's every 13 seconds. There were 1,200 foreclosures in Boston in 2008 and that probably is about 4,000 or 5,000 people. So that's pretty heavy statistics.
MELONIE GRIFFITHS: Foreclosure and eviction are two totally different processes.
STEVE MEACHAM: On our Tuesday night meetings we get our squad of people in here who are residents of foreclosed buildings. We spend about the first half of the meeting with everybody in the room, explaining basic legal rights.
JAMES BROOKS: Can I ask again, how many people need to see lawyers?
STEVE MEACHAM: We have a group of volunteer lawyers who are here each Tuesday night. And they go into the back cubicles of our office and people go out and speak to lawyers independently. So it's a great combination of creative lawyering and community organizing.
LAWYER: You shouldn't feel bad at all about any of this; you're completely legitimate in everything that you're saying. You're telling them exactly what they need, you're not telling them more than that, and if they don't give you that money, you can't leave.
JAMES BROOKS: Can you be evicted for not paying your mortgage? Yes or No?
JAMES BROOKS: Only a judge can evict you. So, if someone offers you cash for keys what do you say to them?
STEVE MEACHAM: A lot of what we do when people are coming in is create the moral space for people to feel like they have the right to resist, because they're told by almost everybody that they don't. You know, their first reaction is, "There's nothing I can do because the bank owns the building now." And that is part of a disempowerment that goes far beyond that situation.
And part of the reason that people love to come here, I think, is that not only are we giving them solidarity and support in fighting the bank, but in so doing, it's like a — kind of upsetting this whole apple cart of disempowerment that they've been fed for years and years and years.
STEVE MEACHAM [AT MEETING]: When you're done with the attorney, please come back. We have a lot more to do in the meeting, crucial protests coming up.
STEVE MEACHAM: How we got into this mess, this foreclosure mess, I think is a critical thing to talk about because it really affects how we respond. The right wing kind of puts out two scenarios, they say, you know, people were greedy and they bought more house than they could afford.
UNNAMED WOMAN: So Sovereign Bank sent me this letter and I'm just trying to figure out...
STEVE MEACHAM: And that's simply not true. People weren't greedy. The people who are in our room were buying any old house in a working-class neighborhood and they were being told by everybody that they should. Even if prices are high, you have to buy now because they will only go up. That's what everybody was saying.
And second, even though they could see they couldn't afford that monthly, they were being told by the bank that they would be refinanced. And they say, "Why the heck would the bank lend me money they don't think I can afford?" Nobody thought that the banks would lend money they didn't think you could afford. And yet that's exactly what they were doing.
STEVE MEACHAM: Well Dorchester is kind of the epicenter of foreclosure crisis in Boston. You know, there's maybe as many as half of all the foreclosure deeds in Boston are filed in Dorchester.
I think at one point a single family house in Dorchester was probably going for $350,000 to $400,000, like in 2005 and -6 at the height of the real estate bubble. And now those same properties are worth probably less than $200,000 — half that mortgage value or less. And that is the crisis in a nutshell right there.
One of the unheralded things about this crisis right now is that there's an awful lot of owners who come to us who cannot afford their home at the inflated value, at the adjustable rate mortgage price. But they have plenty of income to afford their home at the real value at a 30-year fixed. And so why not just give them the property back at that amount? If they're foreclosed on, the best the bank can do is sell the property at the real value. By definition, that is the absolute best.
If Deutsche Bank forecloses on Joe Schmoe the best they can do is to sell that property at real value. So if Joe Schmoe can afford the property at real value, why not sell it back to him? But the only reason the banks aren't doing that is because of what they call moral hazard. They say basically that homeowners should be punished because they signed these loan documents.
These are the same guys who have run our entire economy into the ground and who have been rewarded with billions in taxpayer bailouts and have used billions of that money to give bonuses to the very executives that drove their companies and the whole economy into the ground. And they are citing moral hazard as the reason why they can't resell that property to the existing homeowners at the real value. That is disgusting and hypocritical and in the extreme.
MELONIE GRIFFITHS [AT MEETING]: I kind of feel like you might want to have somebody look at your debt to income ratio too just to make sure you're in a comfortable loan, because something doesn't sound right. Especially if just losing a small part time portion of your income causes you to not even be able to make those payments.
MELONIE GRIFFITHS: I heard about City Life when I knew I was kind of falling behind on my mortgage and I was coming close to foreclosure. And my — you know, there was no help.
MELONIE GRIFFITHS [AT MEETING]: Okay? Alright, thanks, Ada.
MELONIE GRIFFITHS: When you come here, you automatically get connected. It was the only place I came. I was kind of looked down upon everywhere else I went. So I automatically felt a connection.
STEVE MEACHAM: I think people do come to their first meeting because they have a specific problem, they want to address it. People keep coming over time, and a lot of people come even after their problem is solved because they found something profound here. They found a community that works in a way that probably few other communities that they're involved in work. They found a community of struggle I guess you would say, where people are involved in dealing with opponents that they didn't really think they could deal with. And they built up a lot of camaraderie in the process of fighting those opponents.
STEVE MEACHAM [AT MEETING]: You know, this is all Dorchester basically here and Jamaica Plain and Roxbury.
MELONIE GRIFFITHS: One of the things I loved about when I came to City Life and what kept me here was that they didn't really do it for me, they helped me. They would direct me, but they never once did it for me and I liked that.
STEVE MEACHAM: You can fight it, you know. Somebody might want to give them a call from here who's not you.
MELONIE GRIFFITHS [AT MEETING]: Yeah. I know. I just want to be fighting all the time...
MELONIE GRIFFITHS: It's empowering. And I think that's what we do for our members. And it's kind of — it empowers them to then take on a leadership role. Although I work for City Life, I have people in the group that are just as involved, just as committed and dedicated to this work and I think it's because of the approach that City Life takes.
STEVE MEACHAM [AT MEETING]: I'll look it over. I'll make some suggestions probably; we'll get to a final one. You sign it, I'll send it and fax it over to the lawyer.
STEVE MEACHAM: People who come to us generally don't get evicted. People who get into the room, who are a part of our organization, who get the legal help that's in the room, don't get evicted at a rate of maybe 95 percent they don't get evicted.
Exactly the opposite is true for people who don't get to us. They get evicted almost 100 percent. So, therefore, that dramatic difference means we got to get people here. And we do that through regular mass canvasses.
MELONIE GRIFFITHS [AT MEETING]: So is there anybody who wants to take part of Dorchester?
STEVE MEACHAM: We have a bunch of volunteers who come to the office here. And they visit foreclosed buildings and leave fliers and talk to people, and tell them, "don't move."
MELONIE GRIFFITHS: The last canvass we did one lady, she yelled at me, went crazy on me, and she called me two weeks later. So you know, these are really — and all I said to her was, "Okay, I'm sorry I'm just going to leave this..." and she was like "Get off my door!" and I was like "I'm just going to leave this bag." And she called me two weeks later to apologize and ask for help, and we've been able to help her, so...
LAUREN WOLINSKY: And they have meetings on Tuesdays that you can attend and they have a translator that comes and translates into Spanish the entire meeting.
STEVE MEACHAM: The basic message is: "Just because you're living in a foreclosed building doesn't mean you have to leave. Know your rights."
DEBORAH MASON: I'm thankful somebody left one of these on my door because I was panicking and trying to get ready to look for a place. And just didn't know what to do.
STEVE MEACHAM: And so through this mass canvassing that's going on constantly, that's how people find us and they come to the meeting. And once they get here, they don't get evicted.
I've been a community organizer or an organizer in one way or another for — since 1972. So that's a long time now. That's 37 years. After some initial period when I was doing community organizing in Cambridge actually, I went to work in Quincy Shipyard as a welder. And the shipyard was both a grand place to work and a hellhole of a place to work.
You know, it was grand in the sense of 6,000 people working in common labor to produce this gigantic product, you know, a 1,000-foot long boat. Cranes would be going back and forth in the dark and whistles going off. It was quite a sight, it was a grand thing.
On the other hand, the corporation that owned it, General Dynamics, was an awful company to work for. And they would make you, you know, get your time cards signed to go to the bathroom, and then you had to get it signed again when you came back so they could tell exactly how many minutes it took you to be down in the john. And, you know, they wouldn't let you go into a warm shack to have your coffee at break time because, you know, they thought you might spend too many minutes in there or something like that. And so, it was just a miserable place to work in terms of the heat and the cold and the weather and everything else. And constant exposure to noxious chemicals and you know — there was one, I have a million stories, but there was one time that they started painting all the barges before we welded them, and they painted them with an epoxy paint and when you welded on them it turned into cyanide gas. And we actually had to wage a struggle so that we wouldn't be breathing cyanide.
So there was all these struggles going on there that, it made class in this country crystal clear. To the degree that class had been a kind of an understanding I had from thinking about it or reading about it or things I had experienced as a young person, as a child, now was something extremely visceral, you know. That moved it from my head to my gut. And it greatly influenced my subsequent organizing around housing.
STEVE MEACHAM: These are all protest signs. We have a million of them, so I've got to pick out the ones that are useful for the Bank of America protest.
STEVE MEACHAM: We have a strategy at City Life that we describe at each bank tenant meeting that we call The Sword and The Shield, La Espada and El Escudo. The Shield is the legal defense and The Sword is a public relations, public protest offense. And we find that the two work extremely well in combination.
STEVE MEACHAM: This is our Bank of America puppet, who doubles as our Deustche Bank puppet, and several other greedy people. But we have this sign that hangs on his teeth, that says ‘Bank of America' and on the other side that says ‘I want your bailout and your homes.'
A legal defense is not enough because in Massachusetts the banks can evict you for no reason. And so for many people the strongest legal defense will simply slow the bank down. Slowing the bank down, however, can be very, very important because it gives us a chance to use the public protest to good benefit.
STEVE MEACHAM [AT PROTEST]: Hey, hey, ho, ho, greedy banks have got to go!
We're here in front of Bank of America because we are demanding that the bank take the rent of people who live in foreclosed buildings instead of evicting them. We're demanding that Bank of America sell those properties at real value to the occupants instead of evicting them. We're here demanding that we want to give money to the bank. And the bank won't take it. Instead they want to evict us.
STEVE MEACHAM: So if the bank is facing the prospect of a long, drawn-out legal procedure, even one that they might ultimately win, that is both time consuming and expensive.
STEVE MEACHAM [AT PROTEST]: Banks get bailed out!
CROWD: People get thrown out!
STEVE MEACHAM [AT PROTEST]: Banks get bailed out!
CROWD: People get thrown out!
STEVE MEACHAM: And if, at the same time they're going through that, they're being regularly protested by City Life or they have public officials calling them, asking them, why a bank that just got taxpayers' bailout money should be evicting people who are willing to pay rent, that is a public relations battle the bank loses every time. So faced with that combination of long, drawn-out legal defense and public protest, the banks are very often choosing to negotiate and settle with us.
CROWD: No foreclosures! No eviction! No foreclosures! No eviction!
STEVE MEACHAM: City Life, if it's known for anything, it's known for demonstrations. And we do a lot of them. The most famous of recent times are eviction blockades that are right in front of somebody's house being evicted.
STEVE MEACHAM [AT PROTEST]: Today we are witnessing a courageous woman taking a stand based on principle!
STEVE MEACHAM: And the point of that is pretty clear. We're trying to stop the bank from coming through our lines to evict the family. One reason we do the blockades is because they get a lot of publicity. If 50 or 75 people come and sit in front of a building and they're folks willing to be arrested, that is dramatic and it gets a lot of publicity.
CROWD: Shame, shame, shame!
STEVE MEACHAM: I think organizing is a lot about morality. A lot of ways in which people are oppressed is presented to them as normal. They may really get the fuzzy end of the lollipop, but it's presented to them as just normal. It's just, you know, I've had a big real estate corporation representative say to me, as they're evicting everybody, "Nothing personal, it's just the market."
And so a lot of our job is to say — is to apply a moral lens to this thing that you're not supposed to apply a moral lens to, which is the market. So that if you're evicting people in order to make profit and it's just extra profit, you don't need that money to run your building, then it is appropriate to say that's immoral. Or if you're a bank evicting people for no reason and you're going to cause untold suffering all over the city and the state and the country just because you don't think you want to be a landlord, that's immoral. And people have to bear the moral responsibility of their actions even if they're doing it through the market. And so bringing the moral lens to that stuff really helps our people and helps us organize the resistance.
As part of The Shield and The Sword method there is also a legislative part to our program.
STEVE MEACHAM [ON BUS]: Well we're on this tour bus today with legislative aides and with press people to give people an understanding of what the foreclosure crisis is like in a hard hit neighborhood in Boston, the Four Corners neighborhood of Dorchester. A lot of the legislative aides that have come on the bus are sponsors or supporters of key legislation that Massachusetts Alliance Against Predatory Lending is sponsoring and so this tour is very important in terms of showing the real need for that legislation and showing the need for resistance.
STEVE MEACHAM: This is really criminal, what's going on, so it seems appropriate to put up on the building that this is a "White Collar Crime Scene." You know, this is a crime scene, a white collar crime scene. We're going to put it right here on the porch.
PRIEST: Right now in my rectory, I have two people staying in my living room because they're homeless. They've lost their house and they have no place to go. This is the problem we have.
UNNAMED WOMAN: We need to have our neighbors to be able to stay in their homes and to be able to live here and to keep it the thriving community that we've worked so hard to bring it to be.
STEVE MEACHAM: When a person comes to their first rally it is a very scary thing to kind of raise your voice in a public setting like that. And when you do it and you kind of overcome that and join in the chants or lead the chants or speak at a rally...
UNNAMED MAN: And it was to fight foreclosure and we were able to stop five times, I told them I'm not giving up.
STEVE MEACHAM: ...it's very transformative. People find their voice that way. And I've seen it happen a lot of times that people in moments of struggle become different people and they become better people.
MELONIE GRIFFITHS: It seems like just yesterday that we stood in front of my property, almost in the same way, a lot of the same people, defending the same cause.
I don't know where that strength came from to do what I did. When I think back, like, the me that I know would've just moved out. I always say to people, I'm like, "Foreclosure was kind of like one of the best things that happened to me." And they're like, "Huh?" like — but so much good came from it. I was able to help so many other people. I learned so much good information that if I'd had before, you know — but I can just turn it onto other people and help them not make the same mistake. And I kind of feel like it gave me my calling. It kind of put me where I needed to be.
REGGIE: I'm a working American. I work 60 hours a week sometimes. I have the money to pay the rent. The realty company won't take the rent payment. I thank God for the struggle and the unity of the people that are out here trying to fight this fight on behalf of the whole community.
STEVE MEACHAM:We will not let Reggie and his family be evicted, will we?
STEVE MEACHAM: I think that the process by which people, number one, go from feeling like victims to being activists on their own behalf. And then they take a step beyond that and they become activists on other people's behalf, other people that were in the same situation they were in.
LOCAL TV REPORTER: Just a last question, what's it doing to the neighborhood? Just real briefly, what kind of an effect?
STEVE MEACHAM: And then they become activists on other issues besides housing. And pretty soon they're trying to change the system. And the process by which people go through all those stages is a vital part of community organizing. It's not only a "community organizing" way of being, and not only builds organization — that it does — but if empathy is somehow the quintessential human emotion, the quintessential thing that makes us human, then solidarity is its expression.
STEVE MEACHAM [AT MEETING]: We close each meeting with a solidarity clap so if you wouldn't mind standing up.
STEVE MEACHAM: And I think that that experience of solidarity is something that feels so good that people come back just for that.
STEVE MEACHAM [AT MEETING]: We're going to beat back bank attack! We're going to beat back bank attack! We're going to beat back that bank attack! We're going to beat back that bank attack..."
BILL MOYERS: That's it for the Journal.
Log onto our website at pbs.org for more about the foreclosure crisis and to find community organizers in your area. there's also a complete guide to our coverage of banks and the bailout and a history of the controversy surrounding the torture of terrorist suspects.
My conversation with Bruce Fein and Mark Danner continues online, log onto the Moyers website at pbs.org, search "Moyers" and click on Bill Moyers Journal.
I'm Bill Moyers. See you next time.