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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: "Voilà comment ils détruisent nos vies"

by Pierre Barbancey

"Look, This is the Way They Destroy Our Lives"

Election 2008

Translated Tuesday 11 November 2008, by Henry Crapo

Mortgage foreclosures, expulsion. The financial crisis hits hard at ordinary people, those who will never see the green color of those 700 billion dollars allocated by the government.

Report from Detroit, by special envoy

There’s a constant, sad, rain over Detroit, adding fog to layers of fog. In the deserted downtown, only the church seems to be alive and inhabited. Some lights are to be seen through the windows. Some homeless people find shelter, a dry place, under the narrow cornices of the building. Across the street, a former movie theater become concert hall, still carries the marquee "Fox", which dates from the era when the famous company did not yet have its own television chain entirely devoted to neo-conservative propoganda. But that tone is still of actuality: the programs in that hall are sponsored by "Ford", one of the Big Three. The ups and downs of the automobile industry used to determine the general economic climate in Detroit [1]. Now, it brings only rain.

Without really trying to avoid the heavy falling rain, in a suit too short for him, his eyeglasses covered with condensation on one side, droplets of rain on the other, Jerry Goldberg walks rapidly. He hurries in to the church, grabs the handrail to mount the stairs four by four. Out of breath, he salutes the dozen people assembled, men and women, white and black, already seated around the table. If they are there it’s because they in no way they want to finish like the homeless people they passed at the entrance of the church building.

Cornered by their mortgage, these loans contracted in order to purchase a house, loans with the particularity of having a variable rate of interest, meaning "ever-increasing", they are no longer in a position to be able to pay. The horizon for these people, and there are thousands in the same situation in Detroit, and hundreds of thousands or even millions across the land, is that of foreclosure: their home will fall into the moneybags of the loan agency. In brief, after three monthly payments not made, it’s expulsion. "This was a working-man’s city, and now it’s devastated," advances Jerry Goldberg, angrily, himself a former auto worker, now trained as a lawyer. He was trained not in business law, but in law for the most deprived, for those of whom the judge rarely hears in statements from lawyers at the bar. "There are often as many as 40 to 45 cases of expulsion in a single day at court. These people have no money with which to hire a lawyer," explains Jerry. "When you defend them you catch the mortgage companies off guard; so often they are accustomed to winning without having to lift a finger." He added with a smile, "Sometimes we win."

"There are 72,000 foreclosures in Detroit alone. They throw the people out of their homes, and the houses are then stripped bare," observes Jerry, whose fees are perhaps lower than they would be if he were a blue-collar worker. According to the New York Times, 18% of the homes in this city are already empty. This is a record that Detroit shares with New Orleans, the city heavily damaged by the hurricanes Katrina and then Rita, in recent years. In Motown (contraction of "motor town", the nickname of Detroit when it was the capital of automobile manufacture) their tsunami was economic. The wave of capitalist crisis has carried away the neighborhoods, and with them, the lives, of the workers (see l’Humanité for 28 October) [2].

While Jerry pulls some slightly humid papers out of his jacket pocket, Timothy Evans, 52 years old, gives voice to his fears. Even if, for the moment, he can still pay his bills, if he ever stumbles he will never be able to get back up. "When they turn you out of your house, they put all your belongings on the sidewalk. They treat you like dogs." Images turn round in his head of that
family, his neighbors, who found themselves, overnight, thrown into the street. The children were crying, the father at the point of being taken off by the "cops". "You had to try to collect everything without knowing where to go," said Timothy. "You had to do it right away, because, two days later, everything is looted: plumbing, windows. You don’t even recognize your own house. That’s how they destroy our lives — like that." Helen Brown, 64 years of age, is there also. Near her home, an old couple who had lived in the neighborhood for 45 years had to deal with medical expenses. Without health insurance or anything of the sort, which would have been too expensive, they had to take a mortgage on their house very rapidly in order to get medical care. But they quickly lost footing and found it impossible to make their payments on the debt. "They simply took their house," said Helen, outraged.

Maureen Taylor, from Michigan Welfare Rights, an association for the defense of social rights in Michigan, quotes statistics that give you chills down your spine. "In one year they have cut the water supply to 45,000 homes, here in Detroit", she assures us. "They don’t give a damn". Worse, if you are a welfare recipient, or receive any public aid whatever, and you don’t manage to meet your bills, they cut off your water and then take away your right to keep your children, because it is not possible to leave them in a living space that does not have water! The so-called "morality" of this rotten society is thus safe. "We are punished because we are poor. As if that were our fault," charges Maureen.

If Maureen and Jerry organized this late meeting in the annex of a church in the center of Detroit, it is to gain ever more people for the battle already launched several months ago, aimed at obtaining an immediate moratorium on foreclosures and expulsions. It’s the campaign "Moratorium Now". Recently a demonstration was organized in front of City Hall to bring pressure to bear on the mayor and on the Democratic governor of the State of Michigan, so he would declare a state of emergency in Detroit. "With this moratorium, we call upon people to fight," points out Jerry Goldberg. "The law should be imposed by the people themselves." Maureen giggles about the declarations of the spokesman for the association of stock brokers dealing in mortgages in Michigan, one Brian Seibert, for whom a moratorium is not necessary and is counter-productive. "The judges reproach us for disturbing their routine," she jokes. More seriously, "We fight, we mobilize, we go to where the expulsions are to take place, and once the ’movers’ have left, we help the family reinstall their belongings in the house. It’s a form of resistance. The people are astonished, but they realize that they can do it. We encourage them to do the same if one of their neighbors finds himself in the same situation."

Maureen speaks of the authorities’ attitudes. They do not always impose a moratorium, but they do hurry to reimburse the mortgage companies, all the while preventing those expelled from recovering their home. "We have installed a lady who was living alone with her two children, in this way. But the authorities took the question to court," emphasizes Jerry. "I will show that this woman has correctly prevented the destruction, even the pillage, of the house by living in it and transforming it. It’s not just a simple shelter," he notes. "Before, there were jobs and people had money. Now they have destroyed the city. But the whole country is like Detroit [3]."

While the 700 billion dollars allocated by the federal government will augment the funds of companies that were at the origin of this crisis, the little people who have lost their money and find themselves in the street remember that it is they who feel directly the consequences of the present crisis. "The Republicans and their friends told people for years to put their money into stocks, and now look at the result," says Maureen Taylor, who shares Jerry’s sentiment. "In this country, the political parties are so much behind the banks that the only way the people are going to obtain something is if they stand up for themselves."

[1"faisait la pluie et le beau temps" in French: or "determined the foul or fair weather", whence the pun.

[2Sorry, not available in translation, at present.

[3A personal note: Detroit is the city where this translator for l’Humanité in English was born and raised.

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