February 17, 2012

Occupy and Land Redemption


Occupy is usually called a movement, but it’s really a strategy and set of tactics toward certain goals. It’s the most visibly vibrant element of the longer arc of the democratic movement.
One of the most promising Occupation actions is direct action against bank foreclosures, literally occupying beleaguered and abandoned homes. Occupy Our Homes is a broad coalition of actions around the country. Occupy Minneapolis is an excellent example, occupying homes in order to prevent eviction of foreclosed residents.
This Occupy action supplements older actions like Take Back the Land, which since 2006 has been identifying idle bank- and government-“owned” houses and “moving homeless people into peopleless homes”. They call it “liberating homes”. Organizer Max Rameau explains the movement philosophy.

In other cases, foreclosed homes that are not yet empty, because the people, the families living there, haven’t been evicted yet. But either way, we’re liberating those homes for families, not occupying. The banks are actually occupying our homes. We’re in there, a liberation. I think this makes for an incredible movement, where we have a one-two punch. On the one hand, we’re occupying them on their turf, and on the other, we’re liberating our own turf so that human beings can have access to housing, rather than them sitting vacant so that corporations can benefit from them sometime in the future…

We have a network of organizations. We’re not a national organization. We call ourselves a translocal network. We network local organizations. We have a nonprofit that allows organizers like myself to go and do trainings in different cities. But really, people are doing this on their own. They’re not doing it because we’re telling them to do it. They’re doing it because we just don’t have any other choice.

He explains a typical redemption:

There’s a young lady in Chicago named Martha who we moved into a vacant home that had been vacant for quite some time in Chicago. We went there, scouted out the neighborhood—and that’s through the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign—scouted out the neighborhood, looked at the house, found the house in good condition. Then we talked to all the neighbors and said, “Look, this place is empty. We have a family that needs a place to stay. We would like to move them. It will help out the family. It’ll improve your neighborhood, because you won’t have so many vacant homes in the neighborhood. We’d like to have your support for it.” And we held a press conference, moving the family in, and all of the neighbors came out and supported that. And we’re there, and the family is still there. And that’s been three months or so. And the neighbors have signed onto pledges agreeing that if the police come to try to evict that family, they’re going to block the eviction, physically block the eviction there. And that’s with the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign in Chicago.

These actions are taking place in Chicago, Miami, Boston, Los Angeles, and many other cities. Add the new Occupy surge, and we’re saturating the country with this wave of home liberation. Many citizens already credit these kinds of occupations for gaining them time and concessions, even real mortgage modifications.
(None of those reform goals will avail in the long run. Obviously we can’t really “demand” anything of the banksters, who are simply thugs and robbers. We can only abolish them. But direct action is far more important than the currently moderate words and operational goals. Direct action, wherever citizens undertake it, will always radicalize ideas and goals. It will do so as the people see how the system rejects such modest, reasonable demands, responding with lies, lawlessness, and violence. It will do so also because action itself is a democratic tonic, building self-respect, self-confidence, and a growing will to demand nothing less than all that’s ours, and to demand it only of ourselves, instead of demeaning ourselves by “petitioning” the vermin elites.)
The mortgage system is based on two basic lies:
1. The banks rightfully own the land.
2. A housedebtor has an obligation to pay the mortgage.
But here’s the truth:

1. The banks never legitimately owned the land, we the people own it.

2. Even if they had, and however we look at it, since the Bailout we the people own the banks. So all their “property” including the land reverts to us anyway.

3. Even according to their own rigged “legality”, with the MERS system having dissolved unified ownership and in many cases lost the physical note, the banks have abdicated this ownership, inadvertently dissolved it.

4. As for the mortgage contract, if it’s non-recourse then walking away is a perfectly sound, by-the-book provision of the contract.

5. Since the banks stole everything they have to begin with, since they intentionally plunged the economy into this incipient Depression and used the crash they intentionally caused to loot even more trillions, we also have the moral right to stop paying but stay in the house as long as we want. This is an example of bottom-up direct restitution.

6. Such squatting is actually positive for the community. In many regions the banks simply let the foreclosed or abandoned property rot, to everyone’s detriment.

So there’s the basic argument for complete bottom-up debt jubilee. (For an introduction to the technical aspects of how the banks have even legally forfeit their alleged ownership of the land, see here.) I’ve written lots more on the Land Scandal and the redemption we must take.
This anti-bank land redemption action, against REO (real estate-owned, i.e. bank-owned) in practice and principle, is where we’re starting out. Where must we end up?
America needs tens of millions of small farmers. This is a physical, economic, and political necessity. The only way we’ll achieve this democratic and food production imperative is to redeem our land on a massive scale from the banks and corporate gangs which have stolen it. There’s several possible ways this can happen. Going with the idea of occupations, we can look to the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) of Brazil and many other countries. The MST provides an ideal we can aspire to everywhere, even in America.

In Brazil, according to the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), by 2002 some 8 million hectares of land have been occupied and settled by some 1 million people, most newly engaged in farming. Other countries with escalating land occupations include Paraguay, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Argentina, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, India, Thailand, South Africa, and others.
This tactic of land occupation is one of the central tactics in the contemporary struggle for land reform. The MST has set the standard for other landless people’s movements around the world. They are noted for both their success in occupying land—as measured by the amount of land occupied, the number of people settled, and a rate of abandonment of the settlements that remains well below 10 percent of new settlers—as well as for the sophisticated nature of their internal organization. The MST uses a two-step method to move people from extreme poverty into landownership and farming. They begin by reaching out to the most excluded and impoverished segments of Brazilian society, such as landless rural day laborers, urban homeless people, people with substance abuse problems, unemployed rural slum dwellers, or peasant farmers who have lost their land. Organizers give talks in community centers, churches, and other public forums, and landless families are given the opportunity to sign up for a land occupation.

Step one sees these families move into rural “camps,” where they live on the side of highways in shacks made from black plastic, until a suitable estate—typically land left unused by absentee landlords—is found. Families spend at least six months, and sometimes as long as five years, living under the harsh conditions of the camps, with little privacy, enduring heat in the summer and cold in the rainy season. As the MST discovered almost by accident, however, the camps are the key step in forging new people out of those with tremendous personal issues to overcome. Camp discipline, which is communally imposed by camp members, prohibits drug use, domestic violence, excessive drinking, and a host of other social ills. All families must help look after each other’s children—who play together—and everyone must cooperate in communal duties. People learn to live cooperatively, and they receive intensive training in literacy, public health, farming, administration of co-ops, and other key skills that can make their future farm communities successful. When people used to occupy land directly, they usually failed to stay more than few months. But when they have first been through an MST camp, more than 90 percent of them stay on their land long term.

Step two is the actual land occupation. It usually takes place at dawn, when security guards and police are asleep, and it involves anywhere from dozens to thousands of families rapidly moving out of their camp onto the estate they will occupy. Crops are planted immediately, communal kitchens, schools, and a health clinic are set up, and defense teams trained in nonviolence secure the perimeter against the hired gunmen, thugs, and assorted police forces that the landlord usually calls down upon them. The actual occupation leads to a negotiation with local authorities, the result of which may be the expropriation (with compensation) of the property under Brazil’s constitutional provision requiring the social use of land, or the negotiated exchange of the occupied parcel for a different one of equal value. In some cases security forces have managed to expel the occupiers, who typically return and occupy the parcel again and again until an accommodation is reached.

The challenge is how to get from the relatively small-scale housing occupation movement to such a vast land occupation movement. In ideas we can try to engineer and reverse-engineer strategy and tactics for this.
One important fact, which goes to the core of how to organize the movement in the first place and what its general philosophy and expressions are to be, is that on every front we’re seeking to organize and render militant the land-beleaguered (the “middle class” now being liquidated), the landless, and anyone who wants to farm, who wants to craft, who wants to break free of their “employment” (or, increasingly, their fruitless search for employment), who wants to break free of the money economy, who wants to break free of all corporate/state hierarchy.
The MST recently visited Occupy Wall Street, as part of a communion of the food movement and the Occupy phenomenon. (This was just a few days after I wrote that MST and OWS are on the same wavelength.) This collaboration in spirit promises a galvanizing collaboration in action, as the movement for relocalization, democracy, freedom, and self-prosperity continues to gather. Everywhere we see and feel how we’re on the right track. Our enemies, for all their fearsome firepower, have built their fortresses and prisons on sand. We the 99%, we the people, build upon our rock-solid landbases, the bases of our elemental humanity, which all the lies and blandishments of the rotten criminal age have not been able to efface.
We see how, for all the brainwashing, threats, and violence of the system, most people still do what they can to remain human. We see how, the moment coercion is removed, almost everyone becomes fully human again. This proves that humanity shall triumph in the end. All we need to do is fight.



  1. This piece is really interesting.
    My analysis of what is going on is a little different from yours, though.
    You know that I don’t like the “mean, bad guys” take on the way society is organized. I find it simplistic.
    Your piece illustrates, to me, what has been COLLECTIVELY AILING US for quite some time : the inflation of what language creates, in the form of elaborately complicated SOCIAL SYSTEMS that tend to get disconnected with flesh and blood people. This alienation happens because of the nature of language itself, and not because some bad guys decide that they want to exploit other people. (I do not mean that evil does not exist in the world, but evil is the result of complicated interactions between actors, not simple reactions between oppressor and oppressed.)
    My French etymological dictionary picks up a critical turning point in the 18th century in French when the substantive becomes increasingly abstract. This increasing abstraction appears in all domains of the French language, and I am willing to bet that it also appears in other Indo European languages, including English.
    One manifestation of this is what is behind the substantive… “the banks”. The expression “the banks” itself creates a cultural consensus that we know what we are talking about, and can readily identify what we mean by “the banks”, since the word exists, and we use it in conversation. But…. when you start questioning what “the banks” means, and to what it refers, things become much more grey. This phenomenon is even more evident with “money”.
    To me, the occupy movement represents, possibly, an attempt to reassert the necessity of firmly anchoring our language, the way we talk, so that we have more consensus, and more idea what we are actually talking about TOGETHER.
    Moving the people into the houses is also an attempt to bypass the triumph of linguistic abstraction over our lives.
    It is saying that WE ARE BODIES (and not just linguistic entities…) and OUR BODIES COUNT.
    Funny things happen when you have your eyes so trained on the sky that your feet can no longer feel.. THE EARTH…
    Please take a look at Toby’s most recent post on “Econosophy”. He has translated a German author who says all this much better than I do, too…
    A real POET…

    Comment by Debra — February 17, 2012 @ 6:55 am

    • the inflation of what language creates, in the form of elaborately complicated SOCIAL SYSTEMS that tend to get disconnected with flesh and blood people. This alienation happens because of the nature of language itself, and not because some bad guys decide that they want to exploit other people.

      On the contrary, the reality is the real crimes of flesh and blood people. The abuse of language and the alienation it seeks is part of the assault, and is indeed a crime in itself.

      I agree completely that we need to get back to straight, clear, honest language. That’s what I try to do.

      Comment by Russ — February 17, 2012 @ 9:30 am

      • “Straight, clear, honest language”… maybe.
        Happy you didn’t stick “clean” in there too..
        Personally, I have always appreciated men with flowery, poetic, and COURTLY language TOO…
        (I HATE the TRANSPARENT universe that the CLINICAL “verb” creates, just as much as I despise those tall pointy, glass buildings that mushroom all over la Défense, in Paris, right next to my mother in law’s old apartment building. Ironic that “La Défense” has all those TALL, POINTY, Tower of Babel skyscrapers, isn’t it, and in a high finance area, not a military one ??)
        John Keats AND Ernest Hemingway ? On alternate days ?
        Why not ?
        Once again, “THEY” don’t abuse language because… THAT language creates THEM THAT WAY.
        It also creates.. US that way. We are not separate from it, and our reality is not separate from it either, particularly as regards our social systems.
        Even the admen, who conveniently imagine that they are manipulating others truly do not understand how they manipulate themselves at the same time…
        Lucidity is the greatest illusion of them all…
        Is “straight, clear, honest language” the answer, or resurrecting THE VERB ? Hopskipping over the latin/greek etymons to uncover the old Anglo Saxon/Frank words.
        A rollicking, joyous verb, too.
        LITERALLY, by the way…

        Comment by Debra — February 17, 2012 @ 12:49 pm

      • That’s just reification, and as usual such inventions would exonerate the gangsters.

        Comment by Russ — February 17, 2012 @ 6:28 pm

      • That’s the biggest bunch of bullshit you have come up with yet on this site.

        Comment by Debra — February 18, 2012 @ 1:12 pm

      • “That’s the biggest bunch of bullshit you have come up with yet on this site.”

        Uh oh! Debra has stopped taking his meds.

        Comment by Tao Jonesing — February 18, 2012 @ 3:40 pm

    • Debra,

      Language creates nothing. Language is a tool. And it does not wield itself.

      Comment by Tao Jonesing — February 18, 2012 @ 2:31 pm

      • As we see here, one can mystify anything when one wants to defend the poor helpless elites, as Debra has in the past explicitly admitted she wants to do.

        Comment by Russ — February 18, 2012 @ 3:56 pm

  2. Russ- have you seen any statistics comparing Brazil with North America in terms of land ownership concentration, average sizes of estates, % land unused, etc? MST’s model seems promising, but in order to adapt it I think we need a much clearer picture of what the state of play is and what our desired outcome looks like.

    Comment by paper mac — February 17, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

    • You’re right about those questions. While I’ll have to look for those numbers, I gather from what I read that Brazil has far more idle, “privately” owned large tracts, while in America most such land is government owned. The problem is so pervasive in Brazil that they saw fit to include in the constitution a provision for the takeover of such idled private land. I think that while the MST starts out with direct action, they also often count on winning a constitutional/legal struggle, as far as the long term viability of a given occupation.

      So in those ways the state of play is more favorable there, no doubt. There’s one of the unknowns (so far as I know) for the movement strategy here.

      The final goal as far as the negative, I’m satisfied, is the dissolution of state and corporate hierarchies. One weapon toward this is forcible enough direct action which renders these hierarchies incapable of enforcing their prerogatives. Another is choking off their rent streams (and the perceived viability of these profit streams). Both of these can be achieved by taking back as much stolen land as can be redeemed.

      Meanwhile this also works toward the affirmative goals of food sovereignty on an agroecological basis, and the restoration of stable communities by and for those whose very shelter is uncertain or destroyed.

      Comment by Russ — February 17, 2012 @ 6:41 pm

    • Brazilian land concentration is severe and is driven primarily by export monoculture. (What I said about “idle” land was based on what I read about the occupations, which usually meet no immediate resistance. I guess the quasi-slave workers on these industrial farms would see little reason to resist, and really ought to join the occupation.)


      Even government reformist programs to settle small farmers on land has not halted the concentration rate.

      I couldn’t immediately find a simple resource about US land distribution. Here’s what’s probably a typical example, this blurb from a wikipedia entry.


      While sizeable numbers of households own no land, few have no income. For example, 10% of land owners (all corporations) in Baltimore, Maryland own 58% of the taxable land value. The bottom 10% of those who own any land own less than 1% of the total land value. This form of Gini coefficient analysis has been used to support Land value taxation.

      If this is typical, then we’re on the right practical track when we take the political track of attacking corporate land property in principle and calling for its reclamation by the people.

      That’s a quick answer. I’ll need to do far more research on this.

      Comment by Russ — February 18, 2012 @ 3:21 am

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