Justice for Whom: Wall Street or Our Streets?

Starting Monday May 20, 2013, over 100 protesters gathered outside of the Department of Justice headquarters in Washington D.C. This protest, organized by Occupy Our Homes along with a collection of community organizations, like the Home Defenders League as well as evicted homeowners, was centered on demands that the Obama Administration, especially Attorney General Eric Holder,Prosecute Wall Street bankers for stealing our homes, savings and livelihoods; and “End the foreclosure crisis.”

Among the demands were the calls to ‘reset mortgages to their current value’ (“principal reduction”) and ‘restore and rebuild wealth stolen from communities’, particularly communities of color, which have often been the hardest hit.  The organizers have said that this demonstration is a call for the acknowledgement and immediate relief from some of the dire need faced by millions of citizens and residents. Many of the signs invoked human rights, and housing activists throughout the country have been using this framework to show that in order to truly alleviate the enormous suffering resulting from the United States’ refusal to ensure the human right to housing is met, we need to urgently re-imagine a housing system that is equitable and meets the housing needs of all our residents.

At Monday’s action, at around 2:00pm, the police forcefully arrested 17 former homeowners, even using a stun gun on one protester, under charges of disrupting the flow of traffic. Following the arrests, protestors opted to begin an overnight occupation, during which approximately another 8 people were arrested.  Tuesday and Wednesday of this week have seen continued action, organized by various labor groups in solidarity with those arrested. On Wednesday May 22, 2013, an unverified number of protestors were arrested while sitting in the revolving door of the Department of Justice, an action conducted in indignation against the relationship between Washington D.C’s political elite and Wall Street. This metaphorical revolving door has been a topic of continued agitation, as the 5-year statute of limitations on financial crimes is coming to a close and not a single banker or Wall Street executive has faced any criminal charges. 

Both Attorney General Eric Holder and Lanny Bruer, head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, were previously employed by Covington & Burling, a Washington D.C based law firm, and while "Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said Holder and Breuer had complied fully with conflict of interest regulations… she declined to say if they had recused themselves from any matters related to the former clients."  Holder’s continued inaction is revealing of his continued lowering of the status of justice in favor of preserving the power of elites.  As Holder stated in front of a Senate Judiciary Committee, “…I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if we do prosecute — if we do bring a criminal charge — it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy. I think that is a function of the fact that some of these institutions have become too large.” As the chief law enforcer of the United States’ government, Eric Holder’s actions and inactions carry the similar weight. Choosing to uphold certain laws, like those that allow for forced evictions, and not others, like fraud, are representative of Holder’s priorities as a member of the executive branch’s cabinet. While he may recuse himself from investigation, it is necessary to question his ability to fulfill the duties of his office, especially as a public servant.

Though Holder has modified parts of this statement, this sentiment is demonstrative of Holder’s, as well as the Obama administration’s, placement of the interests of the dominant class above the basic rights and fundamental needs of people. The lasting failure of the Department of Justice to prosecute executives for the financial crimes that have perpetuated and compounded the effects of the 2008 financial crisis, has allowed for the crippling effects of this crisis to continue to deprive millions of Americans the right to adequate housing.

This string of actions started on Monday outside of the Department of Justice brings to light the fact that the right to adequate housing is continually and unapologetically violated in the United States. As housing continues to be considered a commodity traded in a market, there will never be reprieve from the systemic maintenance of a demand market via institutionalized homelessness, forced evictions, and exploitative credit-debt relationships. All of these injustices and struggles remain intertwined. The struggle for the right to housing should and must be fought for at every point. This is extends beyond solidarity. Everyone and every community with different access and concepts of housing are continually struggling against an unjust system of housing distribution. As Bayard Rustin once said “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers. Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable.” This struggle being waged on the streets of DC, within our communities (where we see continued community success), and throughout the country, through civil disobedience, legal action, and a number of other means, is part of a series of important steps being made in the struggle for the decommodification of housing and for housing being recognized as a human right.