Occupying an Auction

I’d never been to a house auction before, so when I heard about a “Stop the Sale” action to save the home of two Oakland residents, I went to the Alameda County Courthouse, entered the building, and looked all around. But I didn’t see any protesters. Finally I asked at the information desk and was told the auction was being held outside, on the south steps overlooking Fallon Street.

Outside, on the steps? Really? This sounded like something from the 1820s–a scene from a vaguely remembered movie came to mind. So I looked more closely at the leaflet in my hand, and sure enough, that’s what it said.

Exiting the building, I heard a din from around the distant corner that I was approaching. The sound grew and grew as I neared the end of the building, turned the corner, and stepped into a world of incredible noise. The beating of drums, banging of pots and pans, and the rhythmic chanting of people. Demonstrations are often loud, sometimes very loud. But this was loudness beyond loud. Loudness to the point of a deafening silence.

There on the steps, over a hundred people were gathered, pressing in tightly from all sides around a man clutching a fistful of documents. He was clearly the auctioneer, and he seemed to be reading from the documents. His lips were moving, but no words could make their way through the din. It was like watching a silent movie.

“Occupy Oakland” read a large sign being held above the auctioneer’s head. All around were signs and banners declaring “Stop the Sale!” and “¡Alto a la venta!” Many people were wearing red shirts with the words “Causa Justa” and “Just Cause.”

No buyers seemed to be present. Perhaps they’d been driven way by the noise, like vultures from a promised kill that was showing unexpected signs of life. Still kicking, alive and full of sound.

After a few minutes of this the auctioneer left, presumably giving up, and a woman took up a bullhorn, “It’s not over!” she yelled, urging us to stay. Speaking both in Spanish and in English, she told us the auctioneer was likely to return and make the sale if we left.

The home we were there to save belonged to Nell Myhand and Synthia Green. Synthia had suffered a stroke and is now blind. They’d gone through lengthy loan modification applications, and in the midst of these procedures, Chase Bank–which may not even have had legal title–had put it up for auction. The speaker explained that if the house were not sold this afternoon, it would take the bank another month or more to schedule another auction, so in the meantime the bank would be forced back into negotiations with the women.

On the street below, cars drove by, some of them honking and waving to us.

“We need noise over here!” someone yelled, interrupting the speaker and directing us to the corner. A second auctioneer had appeared, this one black. I guessed that they’d substituted him for the previous one who was white, thinking such a tactic might work. But the people here were color blind, and this auctioneer got the same reception as his predecessor.

“Not for sale!” began a chant. “Not for sale! Not for sale!” Someone at the edge of the gathering was beating a drum. Soon the chant and even the drum were drowned out as pots and pans went into action. The auctioneer’s lips moved, silenced by the din. Then he stepped out onto the sidewalk, near the bus stop, with us in pursuit, closing in on him. He began walking up the sidewalk along 12th street, with us hot on his heels. Sheriff’s deputies didn’t interfere with us, but simply cautioned us to stay off the street.

“Banks got bailed out — we got sold out!” we chanted, following the auctioneer up the street and down the street, carefully remaining on the sidewalk. The auctioneer sometimes spoke to the deputies, presumably asking them to intervene, but they were only concerned with keeping us off the street.

“Mic check!” someone called out. The pots and pans were silenced.

“This man works for LPS,” a speaker told us, and explained that to be auctioning houses, the law required that the auctioneer be bonded. “This man is NOT bonded!”

The procession resumed, the un-bonded auctioneer walking up and down the sidewalk, attempting to escape us and sell the house.

More people were arriving. Somebody asked me what was happening. I briefly summed up the situation. The crowd had grown; there looked to be about two hundred people now.

Up and down the street, across Oak Street and back; this went on for an hour, till finally the auctioneer gave up and left.

We’d stopped the sale, which meant that the bank would be forced to negotiate for another month. And if they tried to put the home back on the auction block, we’d show up again, with pots and pans.

We gathered around Nell, who took up the bullhorn and thanked us for coming to their rescue.

Rarely at a demonstration do we see immediate results. This day we did. Foreclosure disproportionately affects women; and this being International Women’s Day; it was an appropriate day for this action.

Daniel Borgström is a member of the KPFA Local Station Board Rescue Pacifica Caucus. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Kennedy years, and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes on various topics including travel, history, and struggles against corporate dominance.  He can be reached at danielfortyone@gmail.com Read other articles by Daniel, or visit Daniel's website.