TELL IT LIKE IT ISN’T: PORTLAND POLICE AND PRESS SMEAR ANARCHIST SQUATTERS
Anarchists have taken a beating in the press as of late. Since the eviction of a squat on North Mississippi last month, Portland police and media have taken pains to cast anarchists who squat as awful, manipulative people.
Take, for instance, the Oregonian’s June 30 hit-piece “North Portland resident finds home illegally Occupy-ed,” which ran on the front page and the buffet of televised news offerings surrounding the same story. In the Oregonian piece, reporter Casey Parks describes a situation where Occupy-affiliated anarchists defraud an elderly former schoolteacher in foreclosure out of her home, after a series of medical bills put her in debt.
Kerry Cunneen, a Portland anarchist and squatter received a phone call from a friend on the night of Thursday, June 28, saying that the police were at the North Mississippi house where she had been living and that she and her housemates were being evicted. The police were accompanied by a realtor and some camera crews. When she arrived on the scene, she was told by police that she would no longer be allowed to access her home.
“I felt as if I had reasons to argue that the police in my home was their trespassing,” Cunneen said. “The things they were assuming were inaccurate. It just seemed like a complete circus.”
After being set upon by overeager reporter Thom Jensen and his “hard-hitting” reportage, which consisted of bellowing questions at unwilling interviewees and even chasing a person who was riding a bike for blocks on foot, Cunneen had to repeat a similar scene the very next day, as squatters returned for their belongings.
KATU’s online report “Alleged squatters leave home then bolt from questions [sic],” is a buffet of smears. The report ascribed the squat to a “radical arm of the Occupy movement”. Cunneen said that while she had momentary involvement with Occupy Portland, the claim of being some radical column within the group is far-fetched and said that the media seized a chance to portray Occupy and anarchists as sinister.
The KATU story calls the house a “disaster,” saying that walls were knocked out, that there were “trash, sleeping bags and laundry piled up everywhere” and that there “anarchy emblems and writings and socialist teachings [sic]” inside the house. Cunneen said that the police had gone through the squatters’ belongings and left the house in “disarray”. The police themselves had put the holes on the wall because, as the Oregonian points out, the police served a warrant for Brian Wiedeman, better known as Pax, at the same house on May 3. During the search connected with that warrant, the police had knocked out new plaster that previous inhabitants had put up, possibly looking for evidence concealed in the walls.
All the stories include comments from Canson, who said that the squatters deceived her, at one point telling her that they were a maintenance crew from her bank, and that she believed the squatters sent her a fake eviction letter. Canson also chided the squatters for “taking advantage” of people.
“When I heard the claim ‘Did you not send this woman an eviction letter?,’ that was the first time I had ever heard that,” Cunneen said.
All the media, to the last, failed to come up with the letter or look into any other scenario of where the letter Canson said she received came from. Sources from Bank of America denied sending an eviction letter. Bank of America owns Canson’s loan, as well as Recontrust, the mortgage-servicing subsidiary that is the servicer of Canson’s mortgage. Recontrust has had thousands of foreclosures voided by Oregon courts due to their unlawful use of robo-signing of documents. Bank of America was in the midst of an unprecedented rush to foreclose when Canson went into foreclosure. The massive surge in foreclosures connected with the recession has led to thousands of accusations of impropriety from homeowners nationwide, as well as from state and federal government. The enormous scale of abuse led to a federal lawsuit that a handful of the nation’s largest banks settled at a cost of $25 billion in March.
Portland bankruptcy lawyer Christopher Kane said that Canson most likely misinterpreted her foreclosure notice as an eviction notice.
“I’m not so sure I’ve ever heard of that happening,” Kane said. “Then again, some people know it’s coming and make arrangements about where the next move will be and that doesn’t make a lot of sense because if you can live there for free up until the time they foreclose on the place and not make a mortgage payment, they can’t kick you out until after it’s foreclosed. I always tell people, ‘Hey, hang out.’”
Kane also said that there is no reasonable incentive for a lender to defraud a person out of their home, precisely because the lender and the homeowner don’t want squatters or anyone else damaging the property, which will eventually be resold, and that he’s never seen a foreclosure notice that made it seem as if the homeowner was being ordered to leave.
“That would be patently illegal on its face,” Kane said.
Kane also said that homeowners may construe threats from the bank or collection agency as legally binding, without realizing that they have rights in a foreclosure. In Oregon, tenants whose landlord is foreclosed on must be given 90 days eviction notice from the new owners once the sale is finalized. For homeowners, the time between the notice of default and the foreclosure sale is four months, though it can stretch on indefinitely if no one buys the property, or the bank chooses not to reclaim it as inventory.
Cunneen said that Canson knew that the squatters were in her home. Cunneen said that when Canson was in foreclosure, she showed up at the house with a water bill and that the squatters paid her. This contradicts press reports that indicate that Canson was shocked that people were living in her former home. The eviction of the squatters was initiated when Canson learned that her home hadn’t been foreclosed on and initiated a short-sale with her lender to recoup a large portion of her debt.
Cunneen said that previous stories about Portland squatters, such as the press reports that came out when she was arrested in February for squatting, also highlighted a questionable document that police said showed anarchist squatters targeting elderly, senile homeowners. Cunneen said that the reality was that police were aware of a string of properties owned by delinquent landlords, a married, elderly couple who had no interest in maintaining their properties. Cunneen further alleges that the police led targeted actions where they convinced the couple to sweep people from their properties.
On Friday, as the squatters removed their belongings, reporters followed them as they left in a vehicle.
“They tailed me,” Cunneen said. “I drove all these different places and I got out of my truck and they filmed me doing that, too, being like ‘Oh, they even fled on foot.’ It’s like ‘because you were trying to follow me,’” Cunneen said.
The June 28 eviction was the third police action at that address that year. Cunneen said that it’s disconcerting to see the same cops over and over again. The police have been through her belongings, have searched her vehicle and possessions while serving warrants and have perused the political materials she’s kept, including literature and banners from protests. She said that the warrant looking for evidence in Pax’s case initially listed “anarchist materials” as one of the purposes, but the entry had been crossed off by a judge. Police, she said, know her on a first-name basis.
“We are easy targets and we’ve been targets,” Cunneen said. “We had surveillance on our house. They all knew we were there. It’s a show, to some degree, to make us feel alienated and unsupported. They know all the work we’ve done. It’s a personal and political antagonism at this point. It’s definitely scary.”
Cunneen, a former tenant’s rights activist and an organized squatter dating back to Portland’s Reclaim initiative in 2009, said that squatting is as much a practical choice as a political one.
“I’m poor,” she said. “I do it because I strongly believe that property is an ill that doesn’t work socially and I think that not paying a landlord the equivalent of a mansion’s worth of rent in my lifetime for a room is important. In this world, we can squat and in a better world we can set up something that is a little more comfortable.”
The story also conveys racial tensions; northeast Portland has been heavily gentrified since its heyday as a thriving black center in the 40s. Canson is black and the squatters shown in the news are white.
Cunneen said that squatters usually don’t know the background of the people who previously inhabited a home and that one unfortunate effect of racist subprime lending has meant that vacant houses will more likely have been inhabited by a person of color. A 2010 study by the Center for Responsible Lending shows that people of color are 76% more likely to go into foreclosure than white homeowners.
“It’s a media attempt to pit poor people and people of color against each other and focus [the story] away from banks, developers, the state,” Cunneen said. “North and northeast Portland have been gentrified for decades. Referring to them as ‘neighborhoods of color’ is to deny the extensive gentrification that is going on. Communities have been ripped apart here. That’s not what squatters do. That’s what developers do.”
The story, in this way, may be an attempt by police to rebut the narrative around the foreclosure defense of Alicia Jackson’s home, a May 1 action in which a coalition of groups helped a black homeowner who had been foreclosed on move into her vacant home. The police, where they are concerned, most likely want to deter other homeowners from following Jackson’s lead and inflame distrust for anarchists who are willing to assist in retaking property under siege by banks.
Cunneen said that her former activist work has taught her about the negligible difference between those paying for shelter and those that can’t.
“If you do an hour’s-worth of work on a hotline for evictions, you see that people are in barely a less precarious situation than I feel I’ve been in squatting,” she said. “A person in need of housing shouldn’t be devalued because of that. I go about this in a way that is tied directly to my ethics about how I should live my life. There’s empty homes. People need homes and I’m going to live in one because I need to and because I want people to recognize that’s okay. They don’t need to be ashamed.”
Casey Parks and KATU did not respond to requests to comment on this story.