It was supposed to be a serendipitous tale of the American Dream: A tenant, through a combination of luck and hard work, purchases the home she had been renting for six years. Dawn Butler was willing to buy the house, her landlord was willing to cede the house, and even the bank at one point was willing to let her take over the mortgage.
However, real estate lawyers Rosenberg & Associates insisted on forcing a foreclosure. Butler was denied a court hearing at every turn. When she got with the Occupy Our Homes-DC lawyer, her case was heard but quickly dismissed.
On June 6th, the day after the eviction, I found myself bawling outside of National Tire and Battery waiting for repairs to be made on my car. The reality of these kinds of things always takes about a day to sink in.
It wasn’t the reality of my friend having been choked by a US Marshal into unconsciousness, nor was it the reality of many more of my friends having been thrown down brick stairs.
It was the reality that these people had lost their home. It was the reality that six years of their lives, catalogued in a house full of personal possessions, had been tossed onto the curb like piles of Wednesday refuse after a spring cleaning.
The leather couch I had sat on the night before while planning our insane milk-crate experiment being dragged down the stairs upside-down. The grandfather clock still ticking at 12:35pm. A US Marshal personally handing a crystal vase to Anne, Dawn’s mother. I wondered what had happened to the years’ worth of Mother’s Day cards on the mantel.
One June 5th, the night of the eviction, we had our regular Occupy Our Homes-DC meeting on the front lawn of the boarded up house. The front door, which had broken in half horizontally when the US Marshals tore me and two others from our makeshift blockade, was wedged back in place behind two large planks of particle board. The remainder of the milk crate blockade, our crate-astrophe, was lying in a heap on the lawn.
Despite the new location, I think the routine gave us all a sense of calm and resolve. The tone of our conversations was hopeful and proud. There was not a trace of defeat in anyone’s voice.
Triumphantly, it was announced that we had stopped nine other evictions that day. We discussed the reality of having to prepare for the next potential eviction. How we weighed the value of property and human life.
Sitting on the steps at the auto shop the next day I would wonder how we could possibly manage a nationwide call to camp out at the headquarters of a certain banking institution. How can we treat these throngs of people as more than a number? More than a spot in line?
Dawn Butler has lived as a tenant in a house since 2006. The lease she has had with the owner is based on sweat equity. Over the course of those six years, Dawn and Anne have put over $200,000 into the home – an average of $2777.78 a month.
In 2009, the owner of the house fell ill and fell behind on his mortgage payments in order to pay his medical bills. Until she got with our lawyers at Occupy Our Homes-DC, she was castigated in every court hearing or was denied a hearing altogether.
While I was getting to the first defense of Dawn’s home on April 2nd, our lawyer Ann Wilcox won a stay of eviction. The Marshals left; everyone rejoiced; I came late from an appointment for my car in Virginia.
A lot of this struggle has involved auto care for me.
At 8pm on June 4th, I was sitting in the Occupy DC Resource Center with Rooj when I got a call from Laura telling me that the US Marshals were due to evict Dawn at 9am. Rooj and I immediately went to work texting everyone we knew in the city to be at Dawn’s house at 8am the following day.
She created an event on Facebook and blasted it across social media. I drafted an announcement for an email blast on paper with a pencil since I didn’t have my laptop with me, having just come from a demonstration at the Freddie Mac Public Policy Office and the Washington DC Chase Mortgage Modification Center.
We called for an emergency meeting at 9pm at the Butlers’ home to plan the morning’s defense. I stopped by my apartment to grab sleeping materials for the night. I’m not sure if I’ll be spending the night, but I assume that it’s a pretty good possibility.
Marc threw his backpack in my car as he meets me on Colorado Ave. Having slept at my house the night prior, he was on the same amount of sleep that I was. Having marshaled the march with me earlier that day, he was just as drained.
I think he took a nap on the way.
Four occupiers, Lash, Britta, Eli the Medic, Kevin, and Marshall piled into my car to visit Marc at Howard University Hospital at around 1:30pm on June 5th. Lash had his shirt off and was leaning sideways in the front seat to avoid allowing the square foot scratch from being thrown down the bottom set of stairs by the US Marshals.
Eli the Medic told us how she had offered to provide treatment for the US Marshal who had hit himself in the face while trying to pull me off the milk crate barricade even though she hates cops. Britta talked about how she used how she was stereotyped as a womyn as a weapon in order to remain behind police lines, acting daft when given police orders. Kevin and Marshall were silent as they had been all day.
I texted and then called Sean who had become Marc’s brother after his family took him in following the eviction of the OccupyDC camp at McPherson Square. We pulled up to the hospital parking lot and sat in the waiting room as Marc went through several CT scans. I laid on the floor in the hopes of adding to the one and a half hours of sleep I was running on.
I couldn’t get any.
By midnight on the 6th, we had resolved to erect a barricade out of milk crates collected from the remains of the OccupyDC library connected with whatever kind of chain we could find at Wal-Mart which we decided was likely our only bet for such material at such an hour. Rooj had sent out a press release, and Melissa had sent out an emergency home defense announcement to our email contacts.
Marc and I set out to get the materials necessary for setting up the barricades: 3 padlocks, two hundred feet of chain, 2 U-locks, at least 20 crates, and superglue. I pulled my car around and emptied it of the banner making material that had been taking up my trunk space for the past week.
We returned with what we could find: three Masterlocks, three Brinks locks, 180 feet of 30-foot sections of wire rope, superglue, and 18 milk crates. Marc was dead set on a Sleeping Dragon or Tootsie Roll or Bracelet or whatever. We didn’t have handcuffs, but he resolved to make do with the nylon rope that we had and the carabineer from his keychain.
I went back to McPherson Square to retrieve 12 more crates, a three foot section of wide PVC pipe, a 6 foot section of thin PVC pipe, and a tent pole that unfortunately did us no good. By the time I got back, Hippy Brian was working on the second banner that read “Save This Home” in yellow spray paint outlined in black marker. He had begun to outline the letters with black latex paint, but decided to help us rig up the crate-astrophe.
The crates would be chained to each other, the door handle, the fence on the right side of the yard, the gate to the basement under the stairs, and the bars over the basement window. Marshall, Brian and I would be chained to the barricade while Marc and Ricky would be roped in a Sleeping Dragon through the gate to the basement under the stairs.
A Sleeping Dragon is a pretty ingenious means of slowing the dismantling of a human hard blockade. Instead of merely locking arms or handcuffing to each other, two people’s arms are chained together inside of a length of PVC pipe. In order to be detached, law enforcement must carefully saw through the PVC pipe and then cut the chain. It’s a delicate process that’s usually very time-consuming.
At our regular Occupy Our Homes-DC meeting on May 29th, a week before the eviction, our lawyer Ann Wilcox briefed us on the meaning of the motion that was dismissed the day prior.
Despite both Dawn Butler’s and the landlord’s acknowledgement of the lease, as well as Chase Bank’s acknowledgement of the lease in their written testimony, Judge Wright decided that the work and material value that Dawn and Anne had put into the house did not constitute payment for a lease. What do you expect from someone who doesn’t have to lift more than a pen or a gavel for an income? Such is the illusory value of money over labor in capitalism.
According to Ann, the Marshals executed court orders in a different quadrant of the city every day. The eviction was in a matter of days. Ann had already filed another motion to reconsider to be heard the following Tuesday morning. With a motion pending, we assumed that there was little to work on. Plus, we had a barbecue and a rally with a secret march to plan by the end of the week.
And so we sat on it.
Having set my alarm for 6am at 4:30am the morning of June 5th, I went to sleep on an air mattress that fit the entire area of the foyer. The banners were set to dry and the blockade was most of the way complete. It only needed to be attached to the fence, gate and bar; tightened; and padlocked on the inside.
The plan seemed foolproof. They would have no choice but to spend hours cutting apart our insane barricades or to simply walk away thinking that we were insane. It may or may not have been a rumor, but we were working off of the assumption that the US Marshals only had an hour to execute a court order before they had to move onto the next.
We intended to give them at least two hours of work through an initial soft blockade and then the hard blockades we were erecting. We estimated that the soft blockade would take a half hour while the hard blockade would take an hour.
When my alarm rang an hour and a half after I had laid my head to sleep, I set about waking the others up after I hit the snooze button a couple of times. It took until about 7am before everyone was up.
I finished rigging up the barricade while Hippy Brian finished the banner. Marshall rigged up the first banner which read “Eviction Free Zone” in all capital letters with rope and connected it to the fence outside while Ricky and Marc fashioned their makeshift Sleeping Dragon. Melissa contacted media inside while Anne wrote a statement for the court for Dawn’s hearing that day.
I finished what I could of the crate-astrophe while still allowing the front door to be operable since Marc had glued the locks of the gates to the back door the night before. Ben, who had done much of the legwork in setting up the crates the previous night, went to get breakfast from the 7-11 down the street. He would later lead the soft blockade. Marc and I followed soon after.
When we came back, I did my part to hurry Anne in writing her court statement. The pressure to finish before the US Marshals were scheduled to arrive forced her to belie her sentimentality with her home. She wanted to remain inside, to go down with the ship. Although I was optimistic that the Marshals would never get inside for one of several reasons, I insisted that she must be out by 9am, that being out of the purview of any cameras or witnesses gave the officers a license to act with impunity, that they know that in a courtroom it is her word against theirs.
The house was empty of people by 8:52am.
We were all rather disappointed and somewhat appalled by the resulting media from the day. Nearly every story apart from one article on the Washington Times blog section led with clashes between US Marshals and protestors.
An article on WAMU seemed to imply that protestors assaulted law enforcement. The aforementioned Washington Times article stated that one protestor “became unconscious.” Social media talked of wounded warriors and displays of state militarism. Media left and right roiled in exaggerated tales of martyrdom and hooliganism.
By June 7th, Dawn was receiving calls from relatives reacting to certain news pieces that made it seem as if she was unable to make her rent payments. Marc and I both found ourselves misquoted in OccupyDC’s own newspaper, the DC Mic Check. If it wasn’t already, it became glaringly obvious: In the face of controversy, there is no such thing as truth.
Beyond the anti-state propaganda, tales of irresponsible radical rebellion, willful ignorance of fact, and stretching of truth, that we were fighting for the right to housing was almost invisible. Pictures of US Marshals with M-4 assault rifles circulated the internet while pictures of Anne Butler’s broken sake glass collection were distributed only by a few of us within Occupy Our Homes-DC.
Commenters poked fun at pictures of the US Marshal sitting on the ground dumbfounded at his self-inflicted injuries. Occupiers spewed calls for vengeance at pictures of Marc lying unconscious on the street, having been repeatedly strangled, pulled by the head, and having his head pinned to a wall by the leg of a US Marshal before passing out and being thrown into the midst of his comrades.
At least we could vent our collective frustration to each other on the Occupy Our Homes-DC list serv. This marks probably the only time that a list serv has ever actually calmed its members down and made them grow closer.
According to those who did not have themselves chained to the house, the US Marshals did not want to proceed with eviction given what they saw. The representative from Chase Bank which stole the house from the Butlers insisted that the eviction proceed.
The Marshals asked MPD to intercede with the blockades of people as such a task was not within the purview of the authority of the US Marshals in eviction orders. The MPD refused, insisting instead on doing crowd control on the sidewalk. According to our lawyers, the US Marshals had unlawfully assaulted everyone whom they touched that day.
The front gate had been padlocked with one of the Brinks locks and lashed closed with nylon rope. Marshall, Brian and I were attached to the milk crate blockade with a roller bar of a thin PVC pipe woven with wire rope. Marc and Ricky were Braceleted downstairs with Marc outside so he could smoke cigarettes. Ricky realized he would not be able to roll cigarettes with one arm lassoed inside the PVC pipe.
Everyone who was part of the hard blockade was expecting to be arrested. The US Marshals moved in, pushing aside people who sat on the front steps. As they were pushed, they ran around to the neighbor’s yard in order to hop the fence to set up a second wave of blockades, much to the chagrin of the media who had posted up in the front yard.
Eli with a Sprained Ankle rejoined the soft blockade at least twice. Kelly at least once. Lash was thrown down the front steps. Melissa was thrown across the front lawn. Insults and expletives were hurled at the mostly silent Marshals.
Finally the Marshals got to the hard blockade. Brian wrapped his arms and legs around Kevin. Eli with a Sprained Ankle was pushed off of the stoop onto a rock in the neighbor’s yard. Kevin was pulled out. Brian’s arm was twisted through the gap between the PVC roller bar and the wire rope by a Marshal who appeared intent on breaking Brian’s wrist.
The US Marshals began frenetically pulling on the roller bar. Some of the milk crates began falling on our heads. Then a crack. The door came loose, and with it, the entire crate-astrophe tumbled over our heads into the line of Marshals.
Marshall was pushed over the side fence. Brian was dragged out of the yard. I was left sitting on the steps until the US Marshals hoisted me up and carried me upside-down across the yard. When my head was in a milk crate, the officers hoisted my upper body and carried me gently to the street.
Minutes later I saw Marc laying in the street unconscious. A US Marshall walks by with a bloody ACE bandage wrapped over his eye. Several occupiers are sobbing over Marc’s body. His head beet red. His eyes shut. His breathing shallow. Jeremy leads us in a poorly worded but heartfelt prayer.
We harangue the MPD officers to call for an ambulance. When they say that they’ve called for one, we decide we don’t believe them and make our own call. After 10 minutes of Marc being unconscious with his head in Kelly’s cross-legged lap, I impatiently make room in my hatchback for Marc’s body, line it with my sleeping materials, and pull the car around. I yell for them to put him in. Everyone insists that we can’t move him because we don’t know what damage has been done.
Fifteen minutes after being thrown into the street, Marc comes to consciousness as the ambulances pull up. A wave of relief sweeps over all of us. As the EMTs arrive, they help Marc up and test his mental well-being: “Do you know where you are?”
With a smile, he says, “Uh, DC?”