Wednesday, January 4th was a long day for Rich, a ruddy-faced and Bronx-accented member of Occupy Los Angeles. There was an event planned that afternoon at the home of Faith Parker, a 78-year-old retired schoolteacher and mother facing foreclosure. The problem: Ms. Parker lived eleven miles away in South Central. Rich, 20 years homeless, rose early and began walking. “Sure, I could’ve bummed bus fare. But then you don’t get to see anything along the way,” he later told me.
Rich’s actions got me thinking about compassion. The word’s definition, like many in the English language, fails to live up to its legacy. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “compassionate” as “pitiable” or “piteous,” but this notion of compassion as the “feeling sorry for” is wrong. The word derives from the Latin patiri and the Greek pathein, meaning “to suffer, undergo, or experience.” Adding the prefix com- (with) makes compassion more literally definable as “to endure along with another person,” to enter that person’s point of view, or to feel another’s pain as if it were one’s own.
The 20th was a rough century for compassion. America’s rise as the world’s sole superpower, coupled with the indoctrination of an egocentric “American Dream” as the self-proclaimed and untested best pursuit, encouraged individuals to embrace self-interest as their principle informer of action. The payoff of this investment in self-centeredness has become evident over the past few years: this mirage has benefited only a privileged few. Following decades of suppression and degradation of collective or egoless thought, there is a gaping hole in American life where community once thrived.
This is one of many voids within mankind’s collective psyche that I believe Occupy has begun to fill. Nationwide, the Occupy movement’s defense of foreclosed homes and individuals is an embodiment of the compassion espoused by the greatest among history’s prophets and philosophers. Since December 6, 2011, Occupy Los Angeles and Occupy the Hood have marched in the footsteps of these titans by occupying homes alongside the evicted and foreclosed, disrupting and/or dispersing foreclosure auctions, protesting predatory banks, lobbying city government for redress, and unifying the community around defeating one of the most difficult, stigmatized, and unjust crises presently facing the 99%.
The shift to foreclosures as a focus for the movement occurred first in Atlanta and Los Angeles, and has since spread throughout the nation. Occupy Atlanta is credited with, among other things, saving the Higher Ground Empowerment Center. This 108-year-old historic church fell behind in following having to pay a high repair bill after a tornado ravaged downtown Atlanta in 2008. On December 22, Occupy Los Angeles responded to an emergency call for support to help Gary Cohen, a disabled veteran who lives in Palmdale, California. By occupying the foreclosure auction in Norwalk where Mr. Cohen’s home was to be sold until Mr. Cohen was able to file his bankruptcy proceedings, Occupy Los Angeles was able to help Mr. Cohen win a stay of eviction. He has since secured a loan modification and his home, once only minutes from being sold out from under him, has been saved. In New York on the 26th of January, 35 Occupy Wall Street protesters were arrested for peacefully disrupting a foreclosure auction. “Occupied Real Estate” agents distributed brochures which profiled the properties up for auction with occupiers posing out front. “If speculators want to bid on these listings they should know they come with eviction defense activists from Occupy Wall Street,” said Danielle Moeser of Occupied Real Estate.
Despite these victories, the banks, responsible for the mortgage crisis in the first place, continue to wage economic war on America. Bertha Herrera, 70, of Van Nuys, is swept up in the tumult. Ms. Herrera has spent the last ten years volunteering as a chaplain at three hospitals. Her last paid employment was coordinating a program for children with physical and mental disabilities, and before that at a community resource center offering aid to impoverished women and single-mother families. Despite having every right to do so, she does not levy blame upon the banks for causing the mortgage crisis. She blames them for tricking her into losing her home of 30 years.
After an accident left her on disability, Ms. Herrera refinanced her home and enlisted a roommate to ensure continuity of payment. She discovered in 2009 that her set interest rate was to become variable in 2010, which she would be unable to afford. Following a loan modification request, Ms. Herrera was first coerced into unwittingly signing the last page of a loan modification contract, the rest of which was not mailed to her for more than a month. Her loan holder then informed Ms. Herrera that she was not required to make her next three months’ payments. When she requested documentation verifying this, she was stalled (later, when she appealed and explained being misled by the representative, the claim was denied due to lack of documentation). After skipping the first payment, Ms. Herrera became concerned and followed up. VeriQuest said they’d get back to her.
Shortly thereafter Ms. Herrera received a past-due notice from her lender. She paid it the next day, upset and uneasy about being misled. When she later made her August payment, she discovered that the money was not being applied to her principle, but instead to “insurance and taxes.” After inquiry, she discovered that her lender had begun paying her homeowner’s insurance, even though she was already paying it herself, and was attempting to charge her a second time, alongside other fees. She received a notice in early November that she had an outstanding balance of approximately $2,000. Five days later, she received another notice that her balance had risen to $5,000. By November 15, VeriQuest threatened foreclosure without immediate and full repayment for a past-due balance of over $6,000.
For 27 years, Bertha Herrera had faithfully paid her mortgage. As she scrambled to mobilize emergency payment, her lender had already moved to foreclose. It is alleged that documents of service were presented to a “tall and slender woman” on November 18 to a woman named Bertha Herrera. Ms. Herrera is 5’4”, neither slim nor stocky, and never received the documents. Without notice of service, her five-day window to challenge the foreclosure in court slammed shut while the bank had her scrambling to mobilize the funds to pay the full sum (payment they then refused).
Ms. Herrera has continued to fight for her home despite being evicted on January 5 alongside approximately fifteen brave home Occupiers. Until recently, the re-sale of her house had proceeded so quickly that she was approached by a woman interested in “taking a look around the place” while Ms. Herrera was moving out her possessions prior to the deadline for their removal. Although clearly pained by this and other humiliating moments throughout the process, she remains strong, hopeful, and thankful.
Her strength and resilience has paid off. The bank has recently begun returning Ms. Herrera’s calls, and there is hope that her home may yet be saved. When I ask her of the service provided by the Occupiers, and about compassion in general, her voice lit up: “How I describe it, [Occupiers] have carried my burden for me, with me. I can’t imagine, simply can’t imagine going through that alone. The way the sheriffs pounded, slammed on the door until they broke the latch…”
This is what true compassion looks like. Compassion isn’t feeling bad for someone or offering condolences. Compassion is living a moment of unbelievable vulnerability alongside a fellow human being while selflessly devoting oneself to their wellbeing. Above all, compassion is about not having to go through it alone. This, according to Ms. Herrera, is the single most important lesson. “Reach out to family and friends, don’t be ashamed…Someone you know can lead you to someone who can help you find the resolution you need.” One of many reasons the Occupation of Solidarity Park was life changing was the way compassion was lived there, daily, together. From the peacekeepers offering their bodies to calm unrest and the wellness committee offering healthcare, to the various “neighborhoods” looking out for each other and building communities, and even in the way people would hear out those who just needed some time to speak, compassion breathed and thrived. Now we must expand this success from the encampment to the psyche. The American Dream tells us to do! But compassion is to listen.
The action at Ms. Faith Parker’s South Central residence went well that day. Recently the bank has returned to the negotiating table; her home may yet be saved. She, beautiful and courageous in her own right and possessing a story every bit as compelling as Bertha’s, is not going to go easily. Occupy will be at her side for every step of the way.
That evening, I gave Rich a ride back to General Assembly. It was then that I learned he had walked all the way from downtown. After I voiced my disbelief, he chuckled, and in his Bronx accent mused, “If you’d told me 20 years ago that I’d spend my whole day walking to South Central to try to save the house of someone I didn’t even know, I’d have told you you was nuts.” He sounded at peace.
(Foreclosure battles are constantly ongoing. If you would like to get involved, or if you require foreclosure assistance, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Occupy Los Angeles General Assembly).