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Towards a National Take Back the Land Movement

Kamau Franklin
Date Published: 
April 1, 2010

At the height of the financial crises in 2008 Max Rameau, a community organizer in Miami for the past ten years, began to see a quiet devastation taking hold in community after community: foreclosure signs, houses for sale, unrented properties, the downward slide of home values as people worried about increased mortgage payments, soaring levels of unemployment, and a gathering storm of homelessness unparalleled since the Great Depression. Max notes, “All around me people seemed to be at the brink of disaster. The government was not doing much so we stepped in and tried to do something dramatic and worthwhile. We could not ignore what was taking place around us and people trusted us because of how long we have been active in the community.”

After engaging with the community, Max started Take Back the Land on a simple premise: it is better to have houses filled instead of left abandoned. Neighborhoods concerned about blight, crime and property values would rather have families living as their neighbors and taking care of homes, regardless of what the banks want. Max says, “There is an obvious benefit to having homes looked after and supporting families than standing by and watching banks in cahoots with the government destabilize communities.” Take Back the Land decided to stop foreclosures by getting the community involved in having families in homes that would otherwise become dilapidated and further erode community cohesion.

Direct action

Members of Take Back the Land worked with various communities and families to physically prevent the local Sheriff from carrying out evictions. Soon the group started finding homes and talking to community residents about placing families back in the vacant houses. The idea caught on with other community activists and progressive media across the country. Groups began to contact Max to form a national coalition. Organizations like US Human Rights Network, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Picture the Homeless, Survivors Village in New Orleans, and Chicago Coalition to Protect Public Housing began engaging in similar work in other areas, creating a national coalition that has begun to support direct action to stop foreclosures, as well as repopulate empty homes, and create community space from abandoned property.

In New York, several building takeovers have allowed homeless and recently evicted people to move into apartment buildings. There have also been occupations of abandoned spaces in Harlem with demands to turn them into community green spaces, actions that led to climactic confrontations with the police. The Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign was launched after a meeting with South Africa’s Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, a movement that used direct action tactics to push for land reform. In New Orleans there have been continued protests against the closing-down of public housing. These organizations decided to come together to form a national coalition under the same name, Take Back the Land, founded on simple principles: housing is a human right; the local community should have control over housing, the leadership of this movement should come from impacted communities, particularly low-income Black women; and direct action is an important tactic in the current context.

New landscape

Michael Moore’s documentary Capitalism: A Love Story hit movie theaters across the country in the fall of 2009 reaching millions of people and highlighting some of the work that Take Back the Land was involved in. Following the publicity, both on the local and national level, the coalition feels it is on the verge of sparking a new mass movement that can challenge how people view property ownership by banks. Saki Hall of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement explains, “In one moment large banks have caused the biggest economic destabilization in 80 years and what has happened to these banks? They have walked away mostly unscathed. All received multi-billion dollar loans, low-interest borrowing, creating huge profits without at this moment any serious financial reform to stop this from ever happening again and protecting working homeowners and renters. People are questioning this imposed relationship between saving banks and not saving people and communities. We want to challenge that—we want to challenge these banksters, who are robbing our communities.”

The fact is that the country’s largest banks, the same banks largely responsible for the current crisis, are walking away with multimillion dollar bonuses, while a record two million foreclosures occurred in 2009, up from 1.7 million in 2008. Over ten million homes, approximately one in four, are “underwater” meaning that the mortgages are more than the value of the homes. Through President Obama’s meager program, millions of homes should be eligible for lower mortgages. So far however the banks have only allowed 30,000 permanent mortgage decreases, less than one percent of all eligible mortgages. In certain areas of the country the devastation is even more dramatic. In Arizona close to 50 percent of homes are underwater (the mortgage on them is worth more than the market value). In Florida it’s 44.7 percent, in California it’s 34.7 percent, and Michigan it’s 37 percent. Not in anyone’s lifetime has the value of a home in the US dropped this much. Meanwhile the large banks, after receiving close to $400 billion in bailout money and zero percent interest rates on short-term lending, have recovered and are back to making substantial profits and paying large bonuses, all on the taxpayer’s dime.

In addition the official national unemployment rate is ten percent. If you are Black the numbers are scarier. Official Black unemployment rate is 16 percent. It has been estimated that soon over 50 percent of Black children will be raised in poverty because of this new economic order. Critical masses of Black people are used to living on the edge of destitution in America, but these new numbers are even more frightening.

National campaign

Take Back the Land has a goal to launch a national campaign in May in which hundreds if not thousands of foreclosed and vacant homes are filled with individuals and families. The hope is that the movement will reach a critical mass in “occupations” and that the banks will then be forced to make a deal. Kali Akuno from the US Human Rights Network states, “If we don’t seriously challenge these institutions by working directly with the most affected parts of the community to take back the housing stock we will not survive. This seems to be the only way to force the big banks and the federal government to listen and deal with the needs of the people…The economic order must be upended.”

Organizers and communities are not waiting on the government to respond—there is a feeling that the social contract between government and voters has been completely broken. Waiting on President Obama to finally push through strong financial, mortgage or housing reform seems to have become an endless wait. Many are saying that the hope they put into voting for a new President has to be redirected into community action, and it has to be done now. The Take Back the Land Campaign is gearing up for just that, with a call for actions to take place across the country this coming May, focusing specifically on building and home takeovers in cases of foreclosure, vacant buildings, vacant land, and public housing. Through this kind of direct action, the coalition is trying to articulate the concept of housing as a human right on the national level, a campaign which would have far-reaching implications if it were to gain momentum.

DeBoRah Dickerson, member-leader of NYC's Picture the Homeless, says that in the current political climate, “When I speak to people they are outraged by what the banks have gotten away with, crippling the economy, causing the loss of millions of jobs, and ratcheting up the homeless population. People are devastated, but angry. We feel that in Take Back the Land we have a unique opportunity for the previously homeless, the newly homeless, and others facing the current economy to organize together and push housing as a human right.”

Kamau Franklin has been an attorney/activist for over 15 years. He is on the national coordinating committee of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. For more info on the campaign, please check out