A New Movement for Fighting Eviction

In the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Van Nuys in northeast Los Angeles, houseless people like JoJo have barricaded themselves for more than ninety days inside the property line of the home of Hernandez family, aspiring to the fabled “middle-class,” to prevent the family’s imminent foreclosure eviction.

On this tree-lined street, a new kind of revolution has begun. (need better picture of street). Those without houses and their mostly unemployed comrades are risking arrest in defense of the Hernandez family’s home. The family and their unlikely new friends have come to a common agreement to implement Article 25 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights starting with the Hernandez home: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”

In doing so, they have resisted sustained and escalating pressure from an international bank with a labyrinth of subsidiaries and enforcers, and two metropolitan police departments. And they’ve built an extended family.

The story of La familia Hernandez – at least until their resistance — is the same one that has decimated the dreams of working class families, disproportionately Black and Latino families, and it could not have done so more thoroughly if it had been planned. According to the U.S. Census, in 2006, Brown and Black families began closing the middle income gap with white families. Ten years earlier, in 1995, about 20% of white families were making between $50K and $75K, compared to just more than 14% of Latino and Black families. In 2006, that figure for white families had slipped to slightly under 19%, while it rose to over 15% for Black families and to more than 17% for Latinos. Companies like Countrywide lured these newly-prospering Latino and African-American families into subprime mortgages that were only feasible if both the families’ incomes and their homes’ values increased markedly and steadily in the first years of the loan. When the resulting housing bubble burst and the economy plummeted, families of color suffered foreclosures at twice the rate of white families, according to a 2011 report by the Center for Responsible Lending.

With their credit shattered and their years of home investment now in the pockets of bankers, the Hernandez family and others realize they will probably never scramble back to the middle-class dream of home ownership. The upward economic trend of families of color in the decade-plus between 1992 and 2005 has been upended, and many families are returning to housing insecurity and working class futures without assets for their old age, much less to invest in the next generation. White families have been caught up too, but for Black and Latino families, the foreclosure crises has swept away a generation of upward economic mobility, the Hernandez family among them.

With few options left after tracking a maze of title transfers that might or might not end at the doorstep of Bank of New York-Mellon ,and following a plethora of loan modification applications, Lupe, Antonio, Javier, Ulises, and Brenda Hernandez, with the younger children, decided that their house would test the system that had sucked them in and is now spitting them out. Ulises belongs to Occupy San Fernando Valley, which teamed up with Occupy the Hood and the Los Angeles Anti-Eviction Campaign to come to the family’s aid. A symbolic barricade went up, replete with anti-bank messages and warnings to neighbors of the 174 other pending foreclosures in their zip code. And dozens of people moved in with their tents and backpacks.

Across the country, housing advocates including the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, the Los Angeles Community Action Network, Take Back the Land based in Miami, and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change in Minneapolis are watching the action closely. So is the Los Angeles Police Department, which circles the block several times an hour through the night. Their visits are carefully logged by the cop-watchers lounging on couches in front of the barricade.

This wasn’t organized, this wasn’t planned. This came about through my son Ulises Hernandez. He’s been working with the Occupy movement. It’s been a crazy thing, but thanks to them [she waves at the people around her], we’re still here. It is protected. Thanks to all the people who’ve been here. It’s not easy, but we’re doing it. Everything involves sacrifice. For me, it’s a sacrifice to be here, but I’m doing it for my home. The work I do here is my way of thanking the people here. Thanks to all.
–Lupe Hernandez

If you squeeze between the tree and the eight-foot symbolic barricade in front of the Hernandez home in Van Nuys, you’ll feel it almost instantly, a subtle tension under the playful surface, but it’s nearly impossible to name. It isn’t what you see. What you see is easy and communal. On the back side of the barricade, Dennis mcgyvers a rolling door for easier entrance. You wend your way through bicycles and a half dozen tents in the front yard decorated with anarchy symbols and graffittied with messages like “Smash Isms.” Across the roof, Christmas lights spell out “Evict Banks,” and on either side of the front porch, sheets have been turned into homemade banners announcing “We Are Not Weak in the Face of the Powerful” and “Peace is the Other Word for Home.” You duck under the banner strung across the eaves over the front porch: “Stolen Property .”

In the living room a couple of folks are crashed on the sofas recovering from an early morning cop watch shift. In the kitchen, Lupe, who answers to the honorific “Mom” with a broad grin and a twinkle, seasons three stewpots full of whatever vegetables, pasta, and potatoes have been donated, while a guest washes the dishes. In the pool room, the table is carefully covered and converted into a workstation cluttered with markers, scissors, tape, and construction paper. A laptop alternates between 60s rock and Boot and the Coup, depending on whether Bilal or Craig is at the desk. Other laptops hum with video editing, and still others are being pounded on by people cranking out social media and press releases. In a backyard tent, gangly Adam hunches over a laptop researching international law on housing at the end of a cable strung from the house. Belying its name, Gris, the family’s adorable brown pitbull, has settled by Adam’s side. Gris has decided that every tent is a dog house, and he barges in at will. Adam freely explains his choice of a new residence: “It’s not the banks, it’s not this house. It’s a system that’s designed to destroy families, and it’s a damn shame. This is a thirty-year class war, and we are just now starting to shoot back, and it’s time. I’m for a world without borders, and no human being is illegal, and people have the right to live where they want to live, where they feel safe.” He’s distracted by a question, and then comes back to the interview. “How is more glass and stone and inflation the city of the future? The city of the future is housing everyone here. The city of the future is making sure nobody starves on the streets of L.A. That’s the future, otherwise there is no future. Para todos todo, nada para nosotros.” Benji, Dalesy, Willie, and Sam pore over an hours-long game of Risk, competing for the title of most imperialist. Someone carries a load of laundry from the backyard tents inside.

All of this is daily life for the Hernandez family. Dozens of people now mill through the house, after a morning general assembly where people take on the daily tasks of bathroom cleaning and dishwashing, where the day’s business of the media and legal research are planned, and when the latest neighborhood event is envisioned. Pamphlets are gathered for local churches. Someone interrupts Gretchen’s interview with a cell phone picture: “There’s a picture of you doing recycling. That’s no fun.” Gretchen retorts, “That’s the highlight of the day. Today that was the highlight.” She goes on, “We’ve grown to be a family. Dysfunctional maybe sometimes, but I really honestly love everyone here, and I feel like everyone is sincere. It’s a family now. It’s a political statement from the outside, but from the inside, it’s also a statement. It’s like what a community should be.”

It’s been a process of personal and political growth for those inside. Early on, the women complained that the traditional women’s work was in fact being left to the women, and they convinced their brothers to trade jobs. The women took up hammers. After meeting with Nico Black, an evicted Native woman suffering late stage cancer and her supporters from the American Indian Movement, the collective decided to change the name from Fort Hernandez, with its genocidal connotations, to Fuerza Hernandez. And they earned the support of AIM.

Together, they built a Halloween haunted house complete with a ghoul playing a diminished-key accordion and a zombie at his side, and grown-up ghosts and skeletons lying in wait for the dozens of neighborhood children who braved the eerily lit tarp. Across the lawn was a literature table with Halloween treats.

As Brenda Hernandez revels in the community involvement, “Whenever we have activities, we have stuff for the kids. We always have the kids in mind. That’s what draws the parents in: they have someplace to take their kids because resources are so scare for our parks and for everything. For them to just be able to bring their kids in and have someplace where their kids can get food, can get a free meal. I think that’s the best part of it, the community and the people coming together, and them understanding, and them relating to us.” Thinking for a moment, she adds, “That’s how you know it’s not just us. It’s them, too, whether they’re living in an apartment, whether they were already foreclosed on, whatever the situation may be, they relate to us.”

In its thirteenth week, this collective has taken on a life and a routine that allows people to shower and eat, to come and go, to use their skills and share new ones, to nurture each other. But for the newly extended Hernandez family, the collective is, at its roots, a means to a much more important goal.

This is about showing resistance, not just to the banks, but to the system entirely, because the politicians, the lobbyists, the banks, the courts, the LAPD, the sheriffs, are all working together on this big scheme to defraud everybody of their right to housing. This is about making a stand for the millions of homes that have already been lost. This is a stand, an action after the fact, but it’s also for the ones that are going to continue to be lost, for the jobs that have been lost, for the jobs that will continue to be lost, for the homeless people who are out on the streets when we have empty homes.

These corporations, these banks, these courts, their mindset is like the mindset of a psychopath. They see so many people going through so much injury and being affected by so much, and they just brush it off and ignore it. So this is just more than a stand here. This is to spark of a sense of resistance, to begin a culture of resistance, in the humans, in the people, the ones that are not controlling all these resources that we have.

The best, best outcome of this would be that anybody facing eviction, being thrown out on the streets, wrongful eviction, fraudulent eviction, that they question their loan, that they put a wall, or at least show resistance, they put up a signs, they could at least put up signs or a tent. You have people from all sorts of different backgrounds, from all sorts of different cultures, who’ve come together for one thing: to resist. To resist, whether that be the Health Department, DCFS, the Sanitation Department, City Hall, sheriffs, LAPD, banks. They’ve thrown everything but the kitchen sink at us.

It’s about the homes that are being lost in Detroit, it’s about the homes being lost in New York, you know, it’s about the grandma that lost her home in Florida, it’s about the nurse who lost her home in Charlotte, it’s about everybody. There’s no borders when it comes to foreclosure defense fighting. If a family reaches out to me from North Carolina, and I can get out to North Carolina to help him, then I’ll be there. And that’s what it’s about. I don’t want to limit myself just to the U.S. This is a worldwide problem. Wall Street, man, all this money being washed through Wall Street.
–Ulises Hernandez

What you feel behind the barricade is as tense as the picture is pastoral. Inside the one-story, 3-bedroom suburban tract house, besides the bustle of business and playfulness, is a sense of urgency and significance. When you enter the back gate you pass a sign that reminds you that by being on the property, you are subject to arrest. The guests who’ve joined the Hernandez family, along with the Hernandezes themselves, have spent nearly three months working, eating, and sleeping in anticipation of the alarm warning that the bank has sent the sheriff’s deputies to evict them. They joke about it, they tease each other, but they all await the day that together they may have to weather whatever force the monstrous Bank of New York-Mellon decides to wield against them and their symbolic wall.

Police repression began in earnest in September, and with it the defense against the repression. A day after the family received a call from the Bank of New York Mellon asking for a promissory note, police harassment began with a call from LAPD complaining about the couches in front of the barricade, followed hours later by an unannounced midnight visit from the county Department of Children and Family Services, ostensibly to check that the house had running water. Then came the Los Angeles Police Department, one of the world’s largest paramilitary forces, circling the block day and night. The family and their friends responded at a police commissioners meeting with a complaint against the ongoing intimidation. On ???, 40 LAPD officers in riot gear stormed the street in a pre-dawn raid to issue a sanitation ticket, claiming the couches were in the street. The Hernandez’s houseguests moved them back to the curb. LAPD posted a notice to remove the barricade, claiming it was “on the sidewalk,” when this street has no sidewalks. In a bizarre, late evening visit, Sargent Gavin arrived alone and tried in vain to provoke someone to break the disciplined silence of the copwatchers who met him. The visit cost him a revealing Youtube video promptly posted from one of the computers on the pool table. A week later, Ulises Hernandez walked outside the barricade, and five narcotics officers leaped out of unmarked cars, pinned and cuffed him, and took him to the Van Nuys station for allegedly not paying a bus fare. He was bailed out that night. Then came the sanitation department with a bulldozer and a phalanx of policeofficers, batons drawn, and they plowed through the barricade, scooped it up, and dropped it into a waiting dump truck. The barricade was rebuilt in 24 hours, set back a few feet from its predecessor, with the help of a local muralist. Last week, Ulises was arrested again, this time by the Pasadena Police Department, after a peaceful demonstration of solidarity with the Zapatistas was attacked by the police, and he faces charges of inciting a riot.

Jesus speculated on the cops’ motives: “This is the first step, survival programs, clear examples of open rebellion. This is one of them, and this is why they want to take it down. This is like a miniscule version of society. These cops want to arrest us, harass us, but it’s not happening. We’re empowering ourselves, and we’re attacking them at every level we can in the legal sense. We can’t do their tactics because we are criminalized, we’re attacked, we’re murdered, and we’re not trying to do that.”

Looming invisibly over this expenditure of city resources is Bank of New York Mellon. Last month, the bank requested and then rejected the Hernandez family’s fourth application for a loan modification. Bilal, a legal assistant, offers a Constitutional perspective on the police harrassment: “This doesn’t have anything to do with the police. It’s a political action, which we’re protected under the First Amendment, to gather peacefully, assemble peacefully, to bring grievance. I don’t see any justification to surveil us, criminalize us, just because we’re doing these activities. It begs the question, ‘Why are they here?’, and it also makes it very clear who their bosses really are.”

Fuerza Hernandez is a new threat to capitalism. The capitalist dream has propelled two centuries of people to align with those more privileged than they, and to brush off those behind them on the economic ladder. In the United States, advancement is measured in material gain, and it is propelled by rivalry. But when they met the Hernandezes and their friends, the capitalist elites might just have pushed their system of avarice and alienation too far. In an economic climate that forces families economically downward, the Hernandezes have found security and their most faithful allies among the unemployed and houseless. It is an alliance that defies political wisdom, and it’s one that intimates at a coalition that might dismantle the American nightmare of prosperity at the expense of the less fortunate. It’s a coalition that United States capitalism can not allow to spread. The sheriffs are expected to tear down the barricade that protects the people at Fuerza Hernandez in the next week or two.

Plainspoken Javier Hernandez said simply, “We’re here to defend our house, everybody’s house now here, every person here is willing to get arrested for this house, so it’s our house. This is the community coming together to help us build a barricade. We had a pinata party out here. People decided just to hang out and started to build the wall, so it’s a community effort, a community service. I’m willing to camp out as long as it takes.”

Leslie Radford is an essayist, freelance journalist, and an adjunct professor of communication. She can be reached at lradford@radiojustice.net. The people at Fuerza Hendandez, if it’s still standing, can be contacted at occupyforthernandez@gmail.com