With the launching of several actions to “Occupy Our Homes,” the Occupy movement once again has shown its ability to cut to the heart of the crisis.
First they occupied Wall Street and other financial centers, highlighting who really holds power in America: the big investment banks that took huge bailout payments even while continuing to destroy the economy for the rest of us. By targeting Wall Street, not Congress, the movement avoided partisan wrangling and evoked widespread sympathy across the country.
The occupations were inspired in part by the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo. But this is America, not Egypt, and despite some notable successes (such as the general strike in Oakland), it is clear that the movement does not yet have enough active supporters to prevent police from violently closing all their camps.
Making this negative into a positive, the occupiers are now throwing themselves into the struggle against mortgage foreclosures. In some places occupiers are accompanying homeless people as they move into vacant foreclosed homes. In others, they are setting up tents in the front yards of families threatened with foreclosure.
The great thing about this move – besides that they are helping people stay in their homes – is that Occupy is making a head-on attack against the central myth of the Tea Party, namely that the economic crisis was caused by irresponsible mortgage borrowers. As I pointed out here, this is simply not true. The market in mortgage-based derivatives did not collapse because some borrowers defaulted; it collapsed because high-risk mortgages had been rated, fraudulently, as prime investment grade. You can get the details in this column by Barry Ritholtz, who calls the claim that home mortgage borrowers caused the crisis “the Big Lie.”
But the Tea Party has been making the opposite argument at the top of its collective lungs. They were inspired, in part by Rick Santelli’s televised rant on the floor of the Chicago Board Options Exchange, which concluded with Santelli’s rhetorical question, “This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” This video was immediately posted on the FreedomWorks website, and used to organize local Tea Party groups around the country.
Now Occupy is confronting this story head-on with its own narrative. The foreclosed-upon are victims, not perpetrators of the crisis. In many cases, the people threatened with loss of their homes have been making payments regularly but now have negative equity because the banks have destroyed the market in real estate. They are not asking the taxpayer for a handout; they are asking the banks, which did get handouts, to share the losses from the cisis they caused.
One year ago, the Tea Party was winning the war of stories. With this important move, the Occupiers are beginning to turn things around.