Courtrooms as Spaces for Activism

By Jay Kim and Karen Gargamelli

Common Law is a small nonprofit organization in Queens, New York that uses legal education and legal services to support organizing efforts.  One of our founding principles is our belief that the court system is inherently unfair.  Because of this, it is impossible for us to view the courts as an appropriate route to social change.  The courts can, however, be a space for activism and politicization.

We have spent the past five years working with homeowners fighting back against foreclosure.  We have seen firsthand how entire neighborhoods have been devastated by the foreclosure crisis while the court system has allowed banks to act illegally.  Because of this, we have intentionally targeted courtrooms as a place for protest and activism. 

From the fall of 2011 until the summer of 2012, we worked with housing activists to shut down foreclosure auctions throughout New York City.  The foreclosure auction is the cruelest point in the foreclosure process – it is where peoples’ homes are sold to the highest bidder, as if a home is a piece of art rather than shelter and stability for a family.  Foreclosure auctions are public and held inside a courtroom, overseen by court personnel.   We knew that the courtroom had to be the site of the protest because it was the court itself that was conducting the auction.

We intentionally organized an action that countered cruelty with beauty.  Our dear friend Luke Nephew (activist and co-founder of the Peace Poets) wrote a simple song that spoke directly to the court: “Listen Auctioneer, all the people here, we’re asking you to hold all the sales right now…we’re going to survive but we don’t know how.”  This song allowed us to vocalize our solidarity with homeowners currently in foreclosure and with all those who had lost their homes at the auctions.  Our plan was to sing “Listen Auctioneer” together inside the courtroom and disrupt the foreclosure auction with the loveliness of song.  This non-violent and simple strategy proved to be moving and effective.

Our first auction blockade took place in Brooklyn in October 2011.  Although we had anticipated about 50 activists to participate, only nine of us came prepared to risk arrest.  The nine of us sat spread out in the massive courtroom, surrounded by investors ready to make bids on homes.  Activists who could not risk arrest sat in the courtroom as well, with concealed cameras to record and document the action.  Would we be loud enough?  Would we get arrested right away?  Would we sing in tune?  These questions nervously ran through our minds.  Once the first home to be auctioned was announced, we shakily started singing “Listen Auctioneer.”

The entire courtroom froze with confusion.  Some court personnel looked amused while some investors stormed out in anger.  As our voices grew more confident and louder, we filled the courtroom and the halls of the courthouse with song.  We stood up, clapped and danced.  Police officers were called in but were reluctant to arrest a group of non-violent singing protesters.  Each time an officer asked us to stop singing, we sang even louder.  All nine of us were eventually arrested, but not before we managed to prevent the auction from going forward.  Afterwards, we moved quickly to distribute the footage of the auction blockade online and released a call to action.  Over the next several months, we held auction blockades in Queens, the Bronx, and more in Brooklyn.  Hundreds of activists were arrested, including several homeowners facing foreclosure, and dozens of auctions were stopped.

The auction blockades worked – not only to stop the auctions, but also as a way to inspire homeowners and present new possibilities of fighting back against foreclosure.  We showed the auction blockade footage to homeowners at our weekly foreclosure defense legal clinic and almost everyone was moved to tears.  Buoyed by the success of the auction blockades, homeowners began thinking creatively about how they, too, could organize in the court.

Presently, homeowners are organizing “court support” in courtrooms. Our foreclosure defense legal clinic is exclusively for homeowners who are self-represented.  Although we provide legal education and ongoing legal support, homeowners at our legal clinic file their own court documents and must go to court themselves.  Attending court appearances, much less making legal arguments in front of a judge, can be an intimidating experience.  Homeowners decided that a valuable way to address this was to organize ongoing “court support” for each other.  When one homeowner has a court appearance, many other homeowners from our legal clinic (and a few non-homeowner allies, like ourselves) also attend.  We wear large orange buttons that say “Court Support,” which makes us visible to the judge, court personnel and attorneys in the courtroom.  Our visible presence disrupts the courtroom’s ability to conduct business as usual and brings significant attention to the homeowner’s case. Court support does something very radical and key to movement building: it transforms an otherwise individualistic act of attending a court appearance into a collective experience.  We prepare together, we debrief together, we improvise together, and we celebrate our victories together.

Recently, we organized court support for a homeowner in Queens.  Court officers were taken aback by our large group of court supporters (almost twenty people) and called in reinforcements.  They believed we were there to conduct another protest such as the auction blockade.  We were there, however, as a silent witness. As we sat together, taking up an entire half of the courtroom, we felt powerful – and the bank took notice.  The bank’s attorney asked for more time to prepare her arguments and requested a new court date.  We left the courtroom jubilant because we knew that court support had given the homeowner an upper hand against the bank.  As we left, a group of court officers pulled us aside and asked us what was going on.  When we explained that we were there as court support for a homeowner fighting against foreclosure, they thanked us and told us to relay to the homeowner that he had their support as well.  As we develop and adapt our activism within in the courtroom, we are learning that silent (perfectly legal!) acts of love and solidarity can jar business as usual and bring a small measure of fairness to our System of Justice.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Movements and the Courts

One response to “Courtrooms as Spaces for Activism

  1. Almas Sayeed

    I defend tenants facing eviction due to foreclosure in Los Angeles. I love this piece and would love to try to adopt some of the same strategies here. Thank you.
    Almas Sayeed

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