Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Detroit Conference Held on How Banks Destroyed the City

Detroit Conference Held on How Banks Destroyed the City

Over 20 speakers discuss the impact of the economic crisis and how to build a fightback movement now

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire

A day-long conference entitled: "How the Banks Destroyed Detroit: Make the Banks Pay," was held at UAW Local 22 on the westside of the city. The event was sponsored by the Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions and Utility Shut-offs, which has been demanding the halt to home seizures and the placing of a freeze on the payment of debt-service to the banks by the city of Detroit.

The conference took up some of the major issues facing the city and other urban areas throughout the United States. Atty. Jerome Goldberg chaired the gathering and outlined the role of financial institutions in forcing 237,000 people from Detroit within last decade.

Goldberg noted that the same banks that engaged in predatory lending and fraud got trillion of dollars from the government but refused to modify homeowners' loans. At the same the banks continue to get paid full value for the "toxic assets" when they force working people from their homes.

In providing examples of how the economic crisis is in large part a result of institutional decisions made by banks, Goldberg pointed out that "There is no money for schools, students or teachers while 87% of state school funds go directly to the financial firms. Even the casino tax revenues, once touted as the salvation of the city, go directly to a trustee who pays out debt-service to the banks.

"At one point Detroit was the leading city for home ownership among workers, particularly African Americans. Today it is at the bottom," Goldberg emphasized.

Other speakers at the conference included labor historian Steve Babson, a member of the People Before Banks Coalition (PBBC) which has focused on winning a moratorium on foreclosures from Chase Bank and demanding justice for migrant workers employed in the tobacco industry and represented by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC).

Babson ran a power-point presentation on the history of the struggle against economic injustice in Detroit. He gave the example of the Unemployed Councils in the 1930s which organized communities to stop evictions and place people back in their homes after evictions.

The newly-elected Congressman Hansen Clarke addressed the conference and congratulated the Moratorium NOW! Coalition for pioneering the work around housing as a human right. Clarke, a previous State Senator, sponsored the only anti-foreclosure bill in Michigan, SB 1306 and 29, which would have placed a halt to home seizures for two years.

Although the bill made perfect legal and economic sense, the pro-banking elements within the Michigan Senate blocked the initiative from getting out of the banking and finance committee. Congressman Clarke said at the conference that he will submit a bill in the House of Representatives to impose a national moratorium on foreclosures.

Atty. Vanessa Fluker, a specialist on home foreclosure law, spoke on how the government-controlled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are continuing the bank bailouts by guaranteeing the defaulted home loans at the full value of the mortgage. Fluker noted with the present system in place, there is no incentive for the banks to modify loans if they reap the inflated value of the mortgage when people are thrown out of their homes.

The Banks and City Services

In regard to the impact of the banks on the status of civil servants, Cheryl LaBash, a retired city worker, noted that the issuing of Pension Obligation Bonds by Detroit further heightened the municipal budget deficit. The bond rating agencies control the value of city borrowing from the financial institutions and consequently Detroit is deeply indebted to the banking firms due to the high cost of borrowing and the usurious interest rates charged to the tax payers.

LaBash said only a mass mobilization of the city workers and the community could win a moratorium on payment of debt-service to the banks. This would create the conditions for "people's control of the budget which would decide what is to paid and what is to be spent in the interests of the people."

Susan Schnur, a bus driver and member of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), discussed how cuts have had a severe impact on public transportation in Cleveland where she resides. "Transit cuts determine which neighborhoods will be saved and the ones that will be destroyed."

Schnur also discussed the attacks on public employees that have taken place in the state of Ohio. This state passed similar legislation to that proposed in Wisconsin which would eliminate collective bargaining for public employees and bust the unions.

"The working class must fight back. We have no other choice," Schnur told the conference participants.

Another lawyer, Bob Day, who works for the Detroit Neighborhood Legal Services, noted that many developers are buying up foreclosed and abandoned homes in Detroit for a dollar from the banks. They then sell these homes on land contracts that are fradulent.

"One corporation in South Carolina bought 2,000 abandoned homes in Detroit and if people default on the land contract deals they are swiftly evicted from the properties. The consumers are often stuck with large water bills and back taxes that run into the thousands of dollars," Day told the crowd.

City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson spoke to the conference and supported the demand for a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions. She reported on her proposal for the allocation of $10 billion from the federal government to rebuild Detroit in the same way a Marshall Plan was enacted in Europe to foster development after World War II.

A representative of the Michigan Foreclosure Task Force, former State Representative Steve Tobocman, pointed out the value of real estate in the state has dropped in some communities as much as 50 percent. He also warned of efforts underway in the current state legislature to reduce the redemption period for foreclosed homes from six to three months.

Another key struggle in Detroit is being waged by the people with disabilities community which was represented by Lisa Franklin of the Warriors on Wheels organization. She discussed the deplorable conditions for the city's para-transit service which forces people with disabilities to wait sometimes up to three hours for connecting transportation. The city is still plagued with the lack of accesibility for people in wheelchairs.

Other speakers included Derek Thacker of the Detroit chapter of Fight Imperialism Stand Together (FIST). Thacker pointed out that student loan debt now has surpassed credit card debt in the United States.

Bryan Pfeifer, a union organizer and member of the Wisconsin Bail Out the People Movement (BOPM), reported on the tremendous fight back against austerity and union busting now going on in the state. Pfeifer organized a demonstration outside the Milwaukee headquarters of Chase bank on June 8 calling for a moratorium on foreclosures in the state.

Traveling to the conference from North Carolina, Ben Carroll discussed the struggle of public sector workers in the state and the need to organize the south which is still a bastion of low wage labor and racism. Carroll reminded the audience that the Democratic National Convention is being held in Charlotte in September 2012.

The Detroit conference agreed to a resolution calling for the convening of an "International Tribunal on the Crimes Committed by the Banks" that would coincide with the DNC in Charlotte. The city is home to the headquarters of Bank of America, one of the worst culprits in the foreclosure crisis.

Autoworker and UAW member Martha Grevatt talked about how the bail out of the auto industry created further opportunities to lower wages and cut benefits for employees. Grevatt pointed to the two-tier wage system as a means to breakdown solidarity among workers and to maximize profits for the auto companies.

"General Motors in the U.S. used to employ more than half million people and are now down to less than 100,000. There has been long standing relationship between the auto industry and the banks," Grevatt emphasized.

Conference Adopts Program of Action

The participants in the conference passed several action proposals which included support for a resolution sponsored by Wayne County Commissioner Martha G. Scott to halt the Sheriff mortgage sales. A hearing was held on the issue on June 13 which was attended by well over 100 people at the City-County Building downtown.

Other proposals adopted included the need to produce 50,000 leaflets for distribution in southeast Michigan demanding a moratorium on foreclosures, evictions, utility shut-offs and the payment of debt-service to the banks. A hearing proposed by City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson to coincide with the 44th anniversary of the Detroit rebellion of 1967 was endorsed and supported by the audience.

In addition, the conference voted to demand a moratorium on student loan debt and the advancement of demands that prohibit school closings and teacher lay-offs in Michigan.

The conference agreed to reconvene in September in order to assess progress made and lessons learned from the implementation of the action proposals.

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