Opinion: Inside eviction defense in Detroit
It’s a tense Monday morning in April and Taura Brown is on a roll, every word falling like a hammer.
Eli Day is communications director for We the People Michigan, a statewide organization building multiracial, working-class power. (Courtesy photo)
She’s standing at a microphone in front of her Tiny Home in the northwest Detroit neighborhood where Cass Community Social Services runs the Tiny Homes program. It’s day one of what will be a two-day effort to stop her eviction.
“I’m gonna fight this because this is bullshit. I’m going to stay in the fight if for no other reason than principle,” Brown said. “This has been rough, but I’m not gonna stop. I’m not.”
Twenty-four hours later, Brown is barricaded inside her home. Dozens of her supporters have locked arms outside her front and back doors, standing between Brown, a handful 36th District Court bailiffs and nearly three dozen Detroit police officers there to remove her from the place she’s called home for more than three years. This process is called eviction defense, an act of civil disobedience designed to expose the cruelty of legal court proceedings that end with people being ejected from homes and onto the street. It’s difficult to pull off, but the idea is straightforward: bring as many people as possible together to stand between a resident and the dump trucks, and make their job so impossible that they call the whole thing off.
For nearly four hours on Tuesday, a three-stage cycle repeats itself. In the first, the police, followed closely by the bailiffs, approach Brown’s home and initiate contact with the defense team. In response, home defenders do their best to bolt themselves together into an immovable wall.
Eviction defenders gather in an attempt to keep police and bailiffs out of Taura Brown’s home in the Cass Community Social Services Tiny Home program. Brown lost a court battle to retain the property. (Photo by Eli Day)
In stage two, police step aside and let the bailiffs escalate the confrontation with a storm of shoving, yanking, punching and choking their way to the door. Each time, they smash into that tightly organized line of defense and flame out, forcing them to move into stage three: fall back, and regroup for the next round. Eventually, additional reinforcements of bailiff and eviction muscle are needed to get the job done.
What happened to Brown is unique in many ways, but there are echoes of her story everywhere. Housing justice advocates see the ordeal as a shining example of everything that’s wrong with our nation’s reliance on private, or even supposedly charitable, rental markets. Housing is a universal human need, after all. And as long as it is possible to take that need away, people will pay an impossible cost. According to the National Institute of Health, unhoused people are shoved into the grave an average of 17.5 years prematurely.
This is not an abstract concern for Brown, who has stage five kidney disease and has dialysis treatment twice a week.
The eviction defense itself was a sprawling four-hour epic and is worth retelling in detail. And so is the history of eviction defense, the tactical weapon Brown’s supporters picked up on Tuesday, along with the deeper principles about human rights and flourishing that that principle flows from.
EVICTION DEFENSE DAY 2: 9-10:30 a.m.
An eviction defense takes strategic and dedicated organizing to pull off, as well as enormous trust between the people involved, who literally are putting themselves on the line for one another.
It’s taken “months and months and, honestly, years of preparing for this moment,” Sammie Lewis, an organizer with Detroit Eviction Defense, said. Everything from “making sure that we have legal observers” and that “people know the risks involved” to “signing people up for shifts and to bring food, hand warmers, and fire pits.”
It’s all on display Tuesday morning. By 9 a.m., police vehicles are already stationed at the far end of Monterey Avenue. When an F-150 with a large wooden wagon hitched to the back arrives, Lewis is there to make the experience extremely uncomfortable for the first mover to arrive.
The home defense team is trickling in, but out in front, it’s just these two for now. And Lewis is unsparing.
“Do you have a heart?”
“Get her away from me!” he shouts back.
“You are a willing participant in evicting a Black woman on dialysis. You’re going to hell.”
He grows frustrated: “I’m about to get disrespectful.”
“You could leave right now!”
Later, Lewis recounts this exchange as entirely improvised to create one more obstacle for movers before they even reached the barricade. “It was not part of the plan. But it became part of the plan,” Lewis said.
“The point is to delay the dumpster and I thought, ‘does this guy have a conscience at all?’” And it’s somewhat effective. He doesn’t leave, but he does go sit in his car for an hour, returning only for the second half of things.
About thirty minutes in, around 9:30 a.m., the energy begins to shift toward the home. The rest of the eviction crew arrives, along with several more officers. At least two court bailiffs follow, who serve as the eviction enforcement arm.
Near the home, the defense team begins a tightly orchestrated procession: each person lapping around to the backyard and carrying what seems like an endless parade of tires to the front. They stack them in piles of three, and neatly arrange them in an arc from one end of the yard to the other. They’re building a barricade.
To brace the tires, they wrap a wire fence tightly behind the entire arc, as if to stiffen its spine for when the bailiffs inevitably come crashing in. It’s up within minutes. Inside the barricade, the defense team locks arms in front of the door.
It’s an entire obstacle course of walls and forced reroutes. None unconquerable, but each one adds another layer of inconvenience to make the eviction team’s job a little more unbearable.
They begin to chant.
“Fight! Fight! Fight! Housing is a human right!”
Tristan Taylor, an organizer with Detroit Will Breathe, is among the eviction defenders positioned outside Taura Brown’s home this week. (Photo by Eli Day)
Minutes later, police officers make their first move for the door, smashing into the home defenders. To the side, someone from the team of movers, recruited by the bailiffs and paid through the court, throws someone from the defense team to the ground. They quickly regroup, and find a new spot.
Around back, a similar scene plays out. The bailiffs are lunging after and shoving Brown’s supporters, who defend themselves, but never initiate contact. Men, women, and the elderly alike are thrown to the ground by their shirts, coats, and hair. But they scramble and lift one another up right back into position where they relink arms, like a gate being pulled toward the ground but finding its place again.
“Y’all thought this was gonna be easy? It’s gone be a long day,” Tristan Taylor, an organizer with Detroit Will Breathe, which led mass protests in the city for more than one hundred consecutive days after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd, said between deep breaths to the row of men in front of him. His shirt is nearly shredded to pieces. He cracks a half-smile.
HOW WE GOT HERE
Certain facts are not in dispute. Brown moved into her tiny home in December 2019. And she paid her $317 rent every month.
Rev. Faith Fowler, who sits at the head of the nonprofit behind them, Cass Community Social Services, markets the initiative as a “path to home ownership” for low-income people facing hard times. After seven years of residency, and mandatory participation in a CCSS program, residents are promised ownership.
But Brown grew skeptical of CCSS’ promises, started a neighborhood newsletter, began to speak out, and organized her neighbors. One of the alarms she rang was that CCSS did not seem to have a serious plan for moving Tiny Home residents to homeownership.
In January 2021, Brown was notified that her lease wouldn’t be renewed. To her, this was a clear act of retaliation for chipping away at the CCSS image, which was praised widely in the media at the time. As a representative pair of CBS Detroit stories put it, CCSS was offering a “humanitarian twist” on the “American dream.”
Attorneys for CCSS, however, argue that Brown was being evicted because she was listed on another lease in the city. As the Detroit News reports, “The nonprofit claims Brown does not live at the home more than 50% of the time and found her name on a lease elsewhere in the city.” Brown does not deny this. But her supporters argue there are several reasons to be skeptical of the CCSS story. For one, Detroit Eviction Defense reps say that this explanation was offered nearly a year after the lease non-renewal, following repeated surveillance of Brown’s comings and goings. According to the Detroit News, Brown “said she worked at the other apartment complex, where her then-boyfriend stayed, and was listed there so she could come and go as she pleased.” Brown also offers another, simpler, response when asked about this: “It’s none of my landlord’s business…You are not my friend. You’re not my parent. You’re not my employer. My obligation is to pay you. I’m not a serf. I’m not a slave. This is not a plantation. I should have the freedom to come and go as I want to.”
Despite this, Brown removed herself from the other lease, “thinking that would stop the eviction” she tells me. But CCSS didn’t budge.
In the same Detroit News story, Fowler points out that Brown has been “writing to our donors, threatening and sometimes protesting at events, thousands of postcards at church services” and “banners on the freeway,” before pivoting: “I’m not out to get her, and I don’t wish her ill.”
The challenges piled up for Brown. In fall 2021, Fowler’s lawyers filed a motion for contempt against Brown for allegedly violating the terms of a mediation agreement, forcing Brown’s lawyers at Lakeshore Legal Aid to withdraw from the case. Unable to afford an attorney, Brown said she was forced to represent herself. After a two-year slog, a judge ruled that CCSS could evict Brown last month.
By 9 a.m. Tuesday, April 4, 2023, police vehicles were stationed at the far end of Monterey Avenue and an F-150 with a large wooden wagon hitched to the back arrived to assist with removing Brown’s belongings from the home. (Photo by Eli Day)
The Detroit News reported their reasoning: “The main issue with this case has been and still is to this day based on the fact that (Brown) signed a lease and that lease expired. Upon that lease expiring, she was notified that her lease would not be renewed,” Judge Shawn Jacque said.
The 36th District Court, in a statement this week, said Brown’s case went through the judicial system over 19 months and “all proper legal procedures were followed.”
“At each step, Ms. Brown exercised her rights as a tenant and received due process,” it reads.
The irony here is that if the city had actually implemented its Right to Counsel ordinance by its own self-imposed deadline back in October 2022, Brown might have overcome Fowler’s attorneys much stronger firepower with the help of a city-funded lawyer of her own. As a recent Rock Community Fund report found, tenants with attorneys “are nearly 18 times more likely to avoid disruptive displacement than unrepresented tenants.” But because the city failed to set up the office, Brown said, “the right to counsel has not helped me and I don’t think it’s helped anybody. Showing up to court without an attorney is the worst thing that can ever happen to you.”
Back at the eviction on Tuesday, the bailiffs escalate the level of force with each new round. Around 10:30 a.m., one of them makes an announcement: “We’re here to do a court order. If you interfere, these guys are gonna remove you,” he said pointing toward his crew. “If you wanna leave, leave. Or somebody’s gonna need to call EMS!”
Several people look around in disbelief more than fear. Here is a court representative, making a blunt threat of force against a group of protesters carrying out an act of nonviolent civil disobedience on the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination.
A couple scenes later, that same bailiff is shoving, screaming at, and choking home defenders at the back door. In one instance, he is falling into one with his right hand wrapped around their neck. In another, he has both hands wrapped around someone else’s neck from behind as they fall to the ground.
His crew follows along. Shoving turns into punching. Some are sleepy jabs that miss but others hit their target. After punching one home defender, one of the bailiff’s guys steps back and pulls out what appears to be a pair of scissors, taunting the person he’s just thrown a haymaker at. By this point, the movers successfully kicked the back door in.
In all, at least two home defenders walk away with bloody mouths.
When asked about the ubiquitous use of force by the police and court officers, a representative for Fowler suggested in a statement that the home defenders’ words were a greater source of violence than the police and court bailiffs.
“Cass Community Social Services tried to exercise extreme care to avoid the emotional event that took place at the tiny homes this morning. We never condone violence and planned with the courts, law enforcement and additional parties to make sure people – Ms. Brown, the protestors, the bailiffs, police, neighbors, staff and onlookers – would not be injured or arrested.
“Conversely, Ms. Brown and the outside group have been announcing for weeks that she would not vacate the home and that they planned to “use any means necessary” to avoid the court-ordered eviction,” it reads.
Meanwhile, Sammie Lewis has “to get a CT scan on my back now because of the pain I’m in” after being “body slammed into a corner of the house so hard that” they had “to stop just to make sure I could move all my body parts.”
“That wasn’t an act of extreme care, that was an act of state violence,” Lewis argues.
The 36th District Court, in its statement, said the officers “possessed a lawful court order to proceed with this eviction.”
“Any individuals who physically interfered with its execution only succeeded in inciting an altercation,” the court’s statement reads. “There are legal ways to have your voices heard, and today’s incident was not productive.”
This is weak stuff. If you think about it for two seconds, it’s easy to see that by “productive,” the court means “things that uphold our power and authority” not “things that make the world a better place.” Because if the court was serious about the second thing, then they would acknowledge that civil disobedience has been one of the single greatest vehicles for change that the country has ever had. They would acknowledge that an act of civil disobedience on the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination represents one of the greatest global traditions – ordinary people coming together to stop what they see as an act of completely legal barbarism.
Importantly, Detroit Eviction Defense members do not deny that eviction defense is a crystal-clear act of lawbreaking. Just the opposite: breaking the law, and doing it in a way that illuminates the cruelty that laws can often open the door to and magnify, is the entire point.
As one home defender explains to a bailiff who asks how they can justify protesting a completely legal eviction: “Because the legal system places the landlord’s interests above tenants.”
A recent American Civil Liberties Union report finds that the court system is titled heavily in landlords’ favor, but drops significantly when tenants have an attorney. If legal outcomes are based not on the facts or moral stakes of a case, but on who can afford an attorney, then what’s legal and what’s moral are entirely different questions.
A couple beats later, one of the most prominent and aggressive movers, is staring up at the home defenders on the porch, his arms spread wide. He says that he’s got a job to do, and asks “Are y’all gone come to my house, barricade, protest, all that when I can’t pay my rent?”
Someone shoots back quickly and plainly: “We will if you ask us to.” Several “Yeahs” follow. He throws his arms in the air and walks back toward the street.
Lewis says that “they’re gonna have a lot of trouble sleeping tonight. I think that a lot of it did get through to them. It hurt their feelings and hurt their egos as Black men. They knew it was wrong.”
You can see it wash over them in moments like the ones above. Or when they half-joke to each other about the fact that they’ve ended up on the side of police and a white nonprofit executive, punching people in the face and evicting a 44-year old Black woman and stage five kidney disease patient. Importantly though, they carry on, enforcing the court order without hesitation.
The same bailiff seen with his hands around someone’s neck is last spotted walking from the scene, bumping into one of the home defenders in the middle of the street. The bailiff turns around and throws a wild punch at him, his now exhausted arm falling into the man’s neck and shoulder. It is an anticlimactic end for him.
By the time noon rolls around, they’ve evicted Brown, tossing fragile boxes through the air to one another. In all, it took the backup of another set of movers, and a few more armed men in tactical gear. By the end, there’s dozens of cops and at least 14 of their cars. They’ve blocked off both ends of the street and their vehicles line the alleys. But the home defenders do not go quietly. They block, obstruct, and barricade to the very end, stretching the home defense out till nearly 1:00 p.m. when the silver F-150 finally screeches off.
WHAT COMES NEXT
This is the last resort organizers hope to never need to turn to.
“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that we even have to do this,” Lewis told the crowd on Monday.
“It’s a ridiculous fight that should not even be a fight because housing is a human right.”
The statement, and the home defense itself, draw a line that housing justice advocates can point to when questioned about their motivations. In the short term—supporters wanted Brown’s eviction called off. And longer term, they argue that no one be put in this position again and that evictions should be avoided at all costs everywhere.
That view is shared by an increasingly large, and tight, web of progressive tenant organizers across the city. Members of the Moratorium Now! Coalition and Detroit Tenants Union were also present, joining the home defense, chanting, and filming police and bailiff aggression.
They’ve got company around the country. National polling shows that overwhelming majorities of people want politicians to take strong action to fix the nation’s spiraling housing crisis.
And across the city, Black and working-class led groups are making the case that the private rental market exists to make money for investors, not create stable housing for people.
In this way, Tuesday’s home defense was potentially a preview. Housing justice advocacy could become much more coordinated and widespread in the months and years ahead, with robust policy plans on eviction prevention, rent control, and tenants rights, locally and statewide.
And Brown has pledged to be there for all of it. As she pieces together her next steps, including finding a place to live and hopefully, preparing for a kidney transplant, she knows certain things for sure.
“All home defenses should look like this,” she said. “Your landlord does not have a right to police you, and you have to be willing to fight back.
“I want people to know how serious housing is. Today, it was my turn to be evicted. Next time, I’ll be on the other side with the home defense.”
Eli Day is a Detroit native. He writes about politics, history, and racial and economic justice. His writing has been featured in The American Prospect, New Republic, In These Times, Current Affairs, Mother Jones, and Vox, among others. He currently serves as the communications director for We the People Michigan, a statewide organization building multiracial, working-class power.
First published at https%3A%2F%2Fwww.bridgedetroit.com%2Fopinion-inside-eviction-defense-in-detroit%2F
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