In the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Van Nuys, houseless people have barricaded themselves for more than a hundred days inside the property line of the home of the aspiring middle-class Hernandez family to prevent the family’s imminent foreclosure eviction.
On this street lined with trees and cars from a decade ago, a new kind of revolution has begun. Those without houses and their mostly unemployed comrades are risking arrest in defense of the Hernandez family’s home. Those without houses and their mostly unemployed comrades are risking arrest in defense of the Hernandez family’s home. Renters piecing together part-time jobs drop off a few bags of provisions and spend the night in solidarity when they can. This small community formed in defense of the Hernandez home have determined to implement Article 25 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed by the United States in 1947, in their yard: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”
I live on Skid Row. And people on Skid Row had to live in tents because they have no homes, and to me it is a human right to house because there’s more homeless than there are houses now. Why should anybody live on the streets? Everyone should have a roof over their heads. Everyone should have at least one solid meal a day. People should be able to have healthcare. People should have free education. You know, small countries, they have that. We are such a large country, one of the world’s largest, richest countries, and we don’t take care of our people. So that’s why I do what do, because it’s a human right to house, it’s a human right to education, a human right to to healthcare.
With their credit shattered and their years of home investment now in the pockets of bankers, the Hernandez family, like thousands of others, realize they will probably never scramble back to the middle-class dream of home ownership. The upward economic trend of families of color in the decade-plus between 1992 and 2005 has been upended, and many families are returning to housing insecurity and working class futures without assets for their old age, much less to invest in the next generation. White families have been caught up too, but for Black and Latino families, the foreclosure crises has swept away a generation of upward economic mobility, the Hernandez family among them.
The family had few options left to save their home after contesting a maze of title transfers that began with Countrywide mortgage company and might end at the doorstep of Bank of New York Mellon, and following a plethora of loan modification applications. Three family members have no immigration papers and might seem an easy target for the bankers. But Lupe, Antonio, Javier, Ulises, and Brenda Hernandez, with the younger children, decided that their house would test the system that had sucked them in and is now spitting them out. At a farewell barbeque for the family, neighbors impulsively dragged scrap lumber, pallets, flower pots, and whatever they could find in the backyard and jerry-rigged an eight-foot wall, more art than impediment, across the front edge of the property, replete with anti-bank messages and warnings to neighbors of the 174 other pending foreclosures in their 91405 zip code. Ulises, an ox of a man with a boy’s face who’s left college to save the home, belongs to Occupy San Fernando Valley, which teamed up with Occupy the Hood and the Los Angeles Anti-Eviction Campaign to come to the family’s aid. Dozens of people moved in with their tents and backpacks.
Across the country, housing advocates including the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, the Los Angeles Community Action Network, Take Back the Land based in Miami, and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change in Minneapolis are watching the action closely. So is the Los Angeles Police Department, which circles the block several times an hour through the night. Their visits are carefully logged by the cop-watchers lounging on couches in front of the barricade.
This wasn’t organized, this wasn’t planned. This came about through my son Ulises Hernandez. He’s been working with the Occupy movement. It’s been a crazy thing, but thanks to them [she waves at the people around her], we’re still here. It is protected. Thanks to all the people who’ve been here. It’s not easy, but we’re doing it. Everything involves sacrifice. For me, it’s a sacrifice to be here, but I’m doing it for my home. The work I do here is my way of thanking the people here. Thanks to all.
If you squeeze between the tree and the eight-foot barricade, you’ll feel it almost instantly, a subtle tension under the playful surface, but it’s nearly impossible to name. It isn’t what you see. What you see is easy and communal. On the back side of the barricade, Dennis maneuvers a rolling door for easier entrance. You wend your way through bicycles and a half dozen tents in the front yard decorated with anarchy symbols and graffittied with messages like “Smash Isms.” Across the roof, Christmas lights spell out “Evict Banks,” and on either side of the front porch, sheets have been turned into homemade banners announcing “We Are Not Weak in the Face of the Powerful” and “Peace is the Other Word for Home.” You duck under the banner strung across the eaves over the front porch: “Stolen Property .”
In the living room a couple of folks are crashed on the sofas recovering from an early morning copwatch shift. In the kitchen, Lupe, who answers to the honorific “Mom” with a broad grin and a twinkle that belies her determination, adds cilantro to one of the three stewpots full of donated carrots, beans, and chicken, while a guest washes dishes. In the pool room, the table is carefully covered and converted into a workstation cluttered with markers, scissors, tape, and construction paper. A laptop alternates between “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” or “Boots Riley and the Coup,” depending on whether Bilal, the sage organizer from another era, or Craig, the radicalized and houseless thirty-something, is at the desk. Other laptops hum with video editing and the chatter of people cranking out social media and press releases. In a backyard tent, tall, gangly Adam in a “Bad for America” message over a Bank of America logo on his t-shirt, hunches over a laptop researching international law on housing at the end of a cable strung from the house. Gris, the family’s pitbull, has settled by Adam’s side. Gris has decided that every tent is a dog house, and she barges in at will.
Adam explains his choice of a new residence: “It’s not the banks, it’s not this house. It’s a system that’s designed to destroy families, and it’s a damn shame. This is a thirty-year class war, and we are just now starting to shoot back, and it’s time. I’m for a world without borders, and no human being is illegal, and people have the right to live where they want to live, where they feel safe. How is more glass and stone and inflation the city of the future? The city of the future is housing everyone here. The city of the future is making sure nobody starves on the streets of L.A. That’s the future. Otherwise there is no future. Para todos todo, nada para nosotros.”
Benji, Dalesy, Willie, Eddie, and Sam pore over an hours-long game of Risk, working strategies, competing for the title of most imperialist. Someone carries a load of laundry from the backyard tents inside.
It’s been a process of collective and political growth for those inside. Early on, the women complained that the traditional women’s work was in fact being left to the women, and they convinced their brothers to trade jobs. The women took up hammers. On the political front, the Hernandezes and their allies met with Nico Black, an evicted Native woman suffering late stage cancer and her supporters from the American Indian Movement. After talking with them, the collective decided to change the name from Fort Hernandez, with its genocidal connotations, to Fuerza Hernandez. And they earned the support of AIM.
Gretchen interrupts her chores to explain: “We’ve grown to be a family. Dysfunctional maybe sometimes, but I really honestly love everyone here, and I feel like everyone is sincere. It’s a family now. It’s a political statement from the outside, but from the inside, it’s also a statement: it’s like what a community should be.” Gretchen’s usual impish grin turns into a comfortable, reflective smile. Every morning, people are rousted out of their tents for a morning general assembly where they take on the daily tasks of bathroom cleaning and dishwashing, where the day’s business of the media and legal research are planned, and when the latest neighborhood event is envisioned.
The barricade and the occupied home are visual reminders of the vulnerability of this tight-knit neighborhood to the immense transfer of wealth from the middle-class to the wealthy through the banks. The Hernandez family’s houseguests knock on neighbors’ doors to chat and hand out flyers about the Hernandez fight, and the community’s loss of housing and local businesses. The barricade comes down for a neighborhood pinata party, and the party ends up raising a second wall that complies with police orders to get the couches off the street. They build a Halloween haunted house complete with a ghoul playing a diminished-key accordion and a zombie at his side, and grown-up ghosts and skeletons lying in wait for the dozens of neighborhood children who brave the eerily lit tarp. Across the lawn is a literature table with Halloween treats.
Brenda Hernandez, a college student, jumps onto the sofa to chat. She revels in the community engagement. “Whenever we have activities, we have stuff for the kids. We always have the kids in mind. That’s what draws the parents in: they have someplace to take their kids because resources are so scarce for our parks and for everything. For them to just be able to bring their kids in and have someplace where their kids can get food, can get a free meal. I think that’s the best part of it, the community and the people coming together, and them understanding, and them relating to us.” Thinking for a moment, she adds, “That’s how you know it’s not just us. It’s them, too, whether they’re living in an apartment, whether they were already foreclosed on, whatever the situation may be, they relate to us.”
Now in its fourteenth week, this collective has taken on a life and a routine that allows people to shower and eat, to come and go, to use their skills and share new ones, to nurture each other. But for the newly extended Hernandez family, the collective is, at its roots, a means to a much broader goal.
This is about showing resistance, not just to the banks, but to the system entirely, because the politicians, the lobbyists, the banks, the courts, the LAPD, the sheriffs, are all working together on this big scheme to defraud everybody of their right to housing. This is about making a stand for the millions of homes that have already been lost. This is a stand, an action after the fact, but it’s also for the ones that are going to continue to be lost, for the jobs that have been lost, for the jobs that will continue to be lost, for the homeless people who are out on the streets when we have empty homes.
These corporations, these banks, these courts, their mindset is like the mindset of a psychopath. They see so many people going through so much injury and being affected by so much, and they just brush it off and ignore it. So this is just more than a stand here. This is to spark a sense of resistance, to begin a culture of resistance, in the humans, in the people, the ones that are not controlling all these resources that we have.
The best, best outcome of this would be that anybody facing eviction, being thrown out on the streets, wrongful eviction, fraudulent eviction, that they question their loan, that they put a wall, or at least show resistance.
It’s about the homes that are being lost in Detroit, it’s about the homes being lost in New York, you know, it’s about the grandma that lost her home in Florida, it’s about the nurse who lost her home in Charlotte, it’s about everybody. There’s no borders when it comes to foreclosure. There should be no borders in foreclosure defense fighting. If a family reaches out to me from North Carolina, and I can get out to North Carolina to help him, then I’ll be there. And that’s what it’s about. I don’t want to limit myself just to the U.S. This is a worldwide problem.
Wall Street, man. All this money being washed through Wall Street.
What you feel behind the barricade is as tense as the picture is sanguine. Inside the one-story, three-bedroom suburban tract house, along with the bustle of business and playfulness, is a sense of urgency and significance. When you enter the back gate you pass a sign that reminds you that by being on the property, you are subject to arrest. The guests who’ve joined the Hernandez family, along with the Hernandezes themselves, have spent nearly three months working, eating, and sleeping in anticipation of the alarm warning that the bank has sent the sheriff’s deputies to evict them. They joke about it, they tease each other, but they all wait for the day that together they will weather whatever force the gargantuan Bank of New York Mellon decides to wield against them and their wall.
Police repression began in earnest in September, and with it the defense against the repression. A day after the family received a call from the Bank of New York Mellon and filed a qualified written request to untangle the web of titleholders (to which they still haven’t received a response), the LAPD called to complain about the couches in front of the barricade, followed hours later by an unannounced midnight visit from the LA County Department of Children and Family Services, ostensibly to check that the house had running water. Then came the Los Angeles Police Department, one of the world’s largest paramilitary forces, circling the block day and night. The family and their friends responded at a police commissioners meeting with a complaint against the ongoing intimidation.
The complaint succeeded only in provoking the LAPD. In a bizarre, late evening visit, Sergeant Gavin arrived alone and tried in vain to provoke someone to break the disciplined silence of the copwatchers who met him. The visit cost him a revealing Youtube video promptly posted from one of the computers on the pool table. On the 45th day, Ulises Hernandez, the family spokesperson, walked outside the barricade, and six narcotics officers leaped out of unmarked cars, pinned and cuffed him, and took him to the Van Nuys station for allegedly not paying a bus fare. He was bailed out that night.
LAPD posted a notice to remove the barricade, claiming it was on the sidewalk (although this block has no sidewalks), and a week later, 40 LAPD officers in riot gear stormed down the street to the home in a pre-dawn raid to issue a sanitation ticket. A week later, the sanitation department brought a bulldozer and a phalanx of police officers, batons drawn, and they plowed through the barricade, scooped it up, and dropped it into a waiting dump truck.
The barricade was rebuilt again, in 24 hours, set back a few feet from its predecessor. This latest barricade is covered in a mural of “Government of, by and for the people” and a mechanistic bank with spider legs and teeth, painted by local artist. Last week, Ulises was arrested again, this time by the Pasadena Police Department, after a peaceful demonstration of solidarity with the Zapatistas was attacked by the police, and he faces charges of inciting a riot.
Jesus, a perceptive guy who bounces among friends’ couches when he’s not at the Hernandez home, speculated on the cops’ motives: “This is the first step, survival programs, clear examples of open rebellion. This is one of them, and this is why they want to take it down. This is like a miniscule version of society. These cops want to arrest us, harass us, but it’s not happening. We’re empowering ourselves, and we’re attacking them at every level we can in the legal sense. We can’t do their tactics because we are criminalized, we’re attacked, we’re murdered, and we’re not trying to do that.”
Looming invisibly over this assault on a family’s tranquility and the expenditure of city resources is Bank of New York Mellon, claiming to be the title-holder. Last month, the bank requested and then rejected the Hernandez family’s fourth application for a loan modification. Bilal, a legal assistant, offers a Constitutional perspective on the police involvement: “This doesn’t have anything to do with the police. It’s a political action, which we’re protected under the First Amendment, to gather peacefully, assemble peacefully, to bring grievance. I don’t see any justification to surveil us, criminalize us, just because we’re doing these activities. It begs the question, ‘Why are they here?’, and it also makes it very clear who their bosses really are.”
La familia Hernandez’s situation is the same one that has decimated the dreams of working class families, disproportionately Black and Latino families, and it could not have done so more thoroughly if it had been planned. According to the U.S. Census, in 2006, Latino and Black families began closing the middle-class income gap with white families. Ten years earlier, in 1995, about 20% of white families were making between $50K and $75K, compared to just more than 14% of Latino and Black families. In 2006, that figure for white families had slipped to slightly under 19%, while it rose to over 15% for Black families and to more than 17% for Latinos.
Similar small but significant gains for Latino and Blacks extended across income groups until 2010, when the backward slide became apparent. Companies like Countrywide, the originators of the Hernandez mortgage, lured these newly-minted middle-class Latino and African-American families into subprime mortgages that were only viable if both income and housing values increased markedly in the first years of the loan. When the economy flipped, families of color suffered foreclosure at twice the rate of white families, according to a 2011 report by the Center for Responsible Lending.
Fuerza Hernandez is a new threat to the hypercapitalist structure that buffets families in the maelstrom of economic machinations. The American Dream has propelled two centuries of people to align with those more privileged than they, and to push those behind them off the economic ladder. In the United States, advancement is measured in material gain, and it is propelled by rivalry.
The Hernandez family has met their opponents: a system of repression that, at one end, is police harassment, and, at the other, suppression from the core of capitalism. But when the Bank of New York-Mellon and the police met the Hernandezes and their friends, the capitalist elites might just have pushed their system of avarice and alienation too far.
In an economic climate that forces families economically downward, the Hernandezes have found security and their most faithful allies among the unemployed and houseless. It is an alliance that defies political wisdom, and it’s one that intimates at a coalition that might dismantle the American nightmare of prosperity at the expense of the less fortunate. It’s a coalition that United States capitalism can not allow to spread. The sheriffs are expected to tear down the barricade that protects the people at Fuerza Hernandez in the next week or two.
Plainspoken Javier Hernandez, the quiet family pillar who who watches it all unfold in an open collar under a sports jacket, said simply, “We’re here to defend our house, everybody’s house now here, every person here is willing to get arrested for this house, so it’s our house. This is the community coming together to help us build a barricade.”
This story appeared in the L.A. Progressive.