RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Folks Bite Sharks

The first time I heard about predatory lending was in 2001 at a meeting of the National People’s Action—NPA—at their convention in Washington D.C. One of the co-chairs, Inez Killingsworth, from Cleveland, was conducting a panel of people who had been hurt by mortgage lenders that said one thing then did another.

As the panelists told their stories, which included being harassed for payments much larger than they could afford, having payments change after a couple of years of steady amounts, and, often, losing their homes in foreclosure, Inez kept the atmosphere from slipping into the self-pity that could have been the end of the story. Instead of self-pity, the participants correctly placed the blame—the deception of the lenders. They focussed on the damage done to the neighborhood.

It was a remarkable presentation, made even more remarkable when, from the back of the room, a man with a big grin, dressed like a shark wearing big chunky gold jewelry came down the aisle, carrying a basket of money.

OK, reader, you stickler for truth, it was play money, but it looked real, and the shark, who was clearly having a blast in his fuzzy shark suit, peering out from the big teeth under a set of beady eyes, was passing hundred dollar bills out to the audience members who, with noise and gusto, threw them back. When the shark got close to Inez, she lept up and went after him yelling something like, “Get outta here, you shark!” and she chased him out of the room.

Inez’s group, Cleveland’s East Side Organizing Project, or ESOP, had been fighting predatory lending since 1998, so they had some experience with sharks. ESOP was first founded in 1993 by low-income and minority people working to make their schools and neighborhoods safer and more effective, and then realized that the unfair lenders were destroying the neighborhoods from the inside out.

Understand that Cleveland was one of the industrial powerhouses first ruined by the loss of manufacturing jobs, which left residents feeling disenfranchised and powerless. Low-income people were especially hard-hit and depressed but ESOP’s strategies, which include bits of street theatre, direct action, meetings with policy makers, and serious negotiation, make action fun, reasonable, and accessible to all kinds of people.

Like other neighborhood groups working with NPA, ESOP invites the bad guys to meetings and, if the bullies don’t show up, sends members to find them. This can include visiting offices with swank addresses, or dropping in on residences in plush neighborhoods. NPA doesn’t mess around with the guys who might say they are just doing their jobs. The point is to find the top dog, who can make or affect a decision.

Arriving in ancient schoolbuses, NPA protestors are orderly and quiet as they follow their designated leaders to the front doors of the rich and powerful. NPA leaders, with bullhorns, ring door bells and wait for an answer, then try again to set up a visit with the tyrants. Often, a front yard full of dozens, or hundreds, of protestors, is more persuasive than a phone call from a little office. East Side Organizing Project? Who’s that? Put them on hold.

Doesn’t work if there’s a yard full of folks carrying signs and waving banners.

And the leaflets. The “Wanted” posters. Amazing what an impact you can have when you leaflet a neighborhood with lists of the bad things the big cheese did to the folks that came in the school bus. And ESOP, to add some fun to the party, gave protesters dozens of little plastic sharks to sprinkle around the tidy lawns and flower beds of the neighborhood’s biggest bully.

“Look what you’ve done,” said one bully to a group leader, “You’ve scared my children.” Nothing compared to what this guy had done to entire neighborhoods. But that’s another story for another time.

Scattering little plastic sharks is a gentle prank. Compare it to the damage done to the houses in ESOP’s neighborhood when they are foreclosed upon, their occupants evicted, entire blocks abandoned and left to deteriorate. According to Adam Geller from the AP, “shredded curtains flap from holes where windows used to be. The silver fringes of insulation hang from walls where aluminum siding has been stripped for resale.” If he had gone inside, Geller probably would have found walls trashed by scavengers looking for copper wiring and pipe.

NPA’s national conference is April 12-14, and neighborhood groups from several states will gather in Washington, D.C., to confront the bullies. On the docket are subjects ranging from housing justice, health care, education, worker justice, human rights, immigration and corporate accountability. The names and addresses of the big cheeses invited to meet with the conference have not been released, and nobody but the leadership knows who has accepted the invitation.

For those that decide it’s not worth their effort to meet with NPA, the buses will roll.

For more information see or phone 312-243-3038

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2008

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