Friday, January 23, 2015

Michele Swan Arrested by Henry County SWAT Team After Fighting Wrongful Eviction

Michele Swan has been locked in a struggle to gain ownership of her home ever since a contentious divorce from her husband, Triveni Omar Singh, in 2012. Despite being granted ownership of the home in her divorce, Ms. Swan was ignored by Chase bank when trying to transfer ownership, and ultimately the home was foreclosed on; sold on the Henry County Courthouse steps to an investment firm.

American Residential, the group that bought the property, has continually refused to negotiate with Michele despite her efforts to buy back the home. Instead they opted to break into the home and remove all of the items of value; furniture, electronics, clothes, and personal momentous. Michele reported the theft to the local police department and detectives asked for entry to the home to discuss the burglary. Per Henry County detectives Michele’s personal items and everything of value was removed and placed off site by American Residential.

Since the foreclosure Michele has been subject to one difficultly after another in her attempt to regain legal control of her home. After being evicted by WRI Group, a property management firm affiliated with American Residential, Michele reclaimed her home in an attempt to rectify the unjust sale to American Residential.

After occupying the home publicly with support from community members for weeks, and receiving no response from American Residential, Michele and her allies where removed from the home by Henry County Police by over twenty officers. After Michele and supporters complied with an order to leave the property, Michele was arrested for criminal trespass and remains in custody at Henry County Jail, supporters are working towards her release.

Update: Michele has been denied bond and has been charged with criminal trespass, theft by taking, and burglary. This is a sad precedent to set for nonviolent housing justice protesters. Tonight there will be a vigil at the Henry County Jail.

There was a time in this country that women were not recognized as land owners, and claims to property by women were not considered legitimate; that dark chapter in American history is supposed to be closed. It is a cruel irony Michele had a rightful claim to her families home, and has been begging the financial institute that profited from Michele's clear injustice to sell her the home at a more than fair price(FYI Michele's loan has been pre-approved for months); yet tonight she sits in a jail cell with fairly serious charges.

It was just years ago that Wall street and the big banks crashed our economy and over 11 million Americans lost their homes and even more lost all of their wealth and NONE or the architects of the worst fraud in human history face jail time...but there's Michele Swan surrounded by a SWAT team for standing up to a system that continues to stack the deck against regular everyday people.

We also encourage everyone to sign and share Michele's online petition and follow the hashtag #Justice4Michele on twitter and instagram. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Georgia Law Enforcement Reform Package Introduced

Yesterday American Friends Service Committee joined Senator Vincent Fort, The Moral Monday Georgia Movement, the Davis/Bozeman Law Firm, Georgia WAND, Georgia NAACP, and the Coalition for the Peoples Agenda to introduce the Georgia Law EnforcementReform Package.

We believe that all deserve to be treated equally in the eyes of the law. We are troubled that black and brown Georgians continue to experience police brutality, mass incarceration, racial profiling, and excessive police tactics at an alarmingly higher rate than white Georgians.

Just this past year in Habersham, Georgia law enforcement used a “No Knock” warrant to storm an innocent family’s dwelling and in the process tossed a concussion grenade into Baby Bounkham "Bou Bou" Phonesavanh crib. This ended up almost claiming the baby’s life, blowing his face off.

In 2006 police used a “No Knock” warrant to break down the door of 92-yearold Atlanta resident Kathryn Jonhston and fired 39 shots at her, killing her. Later they planted drugs on her to justify the horrendous act.

Our communities don’t need urban tanks and other military equipment that are used to seeing in a war zone. We believe the mere presence and training that come with this unnecessary equipment makes our communities less safe and increases potential for human and civil rights violations. When we use military gear and vehicles in certain communities it makes those communities feel like they are under occupation, when we treat community members like war combatants we move farther away from the Beloved community Dr King spoke of and closer to the nightmare her preached about in 1967 when we articulated what he called the giant triplets of evil; Militarism, Racism, and Poverty.

This legislative session a broad Law Enforcement Reform Package is being introduced by a diverse group of Georgia law makers. We call on members of the Georgia House and Senate to pass all the bills. We believe this package will make Georgians safer, reduce the number of lawsuits for taxpayers, and reduce the amount of unnecessary equipment (like urban tanks) and the cost to taxpayers associated with them. Institutional racism and the troubling trend toward a militarized police state runs deep and will not be solved overnight; we believe these bills are a step in the right direction.

Below are the bills that make up the Georgia Law Enforcement Reform Package:

SB 45 (Fort, 39th) – “Bou Bou’s Law ”

This legislation would restrict no-knock warrants to situations where the affidavit or testimony supporting the warrant establishes by probable cause that if an officer were to knock and announce identity and purpose before entry, such act of knocking and announcing would likely pose a significant and imminent danger to human life or imminent danger of evidence being destroyed.


SB 46 (Fort, 39th) – Police Body Cameras

This legislation would require all police departments’ officers with wearable cameras by 2017.  It would also instruct the Department of Public Safety to create procedures for grants to small or underfunded police departments, subject to funding. 


SB 47 (Fort, 39th) – Hate Crimes

This legislation would increase criminal penalties for crimes committed against an individual intentionally selected because of such individual's race, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or national origin.  Increased penalties would mimic the increased penalties for crimes against senior citizens. 


SB 48 (Fort, 39th) – No Guns for Violent Felons

Prohibit restoration of gun rights to convicted felons who had been convicted of violent crimes, sexual offenses, or crimes involving firearms


SB 49 (Fort, 39th) – Stand Your Ground Repeal

Repeal Georgia’s Stand Your Ground law


SB 50 (Fort, 39th) – Special Prosecutor for Police Cases

This legislation would require the appointment of a special prosecutor for cases when a police officer is the suspect


Pending Bills

*Police demilitarization

*Require police to report civilian deaths to GBI
The Moral Monday Georgia Movement will be mobilizing people from around the state to come together at the Capitol to support the Package, click here for details.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Changing The APD Narrative: Ferguson Protestor Arrests


By Jim Chambers

January 12, 2015, Atlanta, GA- In the wake of the now notorious decision of a Grand Jury in Ferguson, MO, not to indict Ofc. Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, the nation-at-large has seen a torrent of protests, marches, rallies, and actions of civil disobedience.
In Atlanta, arguably the most significant, and unquestionably most heavily attended such action (estimates in the low thousands) was a 4-hour rally at Underground Atlanta, a shopping area in the heart of downtown, on November 25th, 2014, the day after the non-indictment. The rally was organized by a coalition of civil rights activist groups known as the “Shut It Down ATL Coalition.” In the wake of this rally, a series of spontaneous marches developed, dominantly propelled by young people of color. The marches largely coalesced on Atlanta’s main thoroughfare, Peachtree St., and in the surrounding areas, commencing early that evening and continuing into the next morning. A number of protestors were arrested by the Atlanta Police Dept., all but one of whom were represented in a group of 23 that appeared Wednesday, January 7th, for arraignment at Atlanta Municipal Court. The vast majority of these arrestees were charged with “pedestrian in roadway,” or “impeding traffic.”  Arrests began after dispersal orders had been given, with APD citing instances of property damage as cause to label the marches “illegal.” The genesis of the decision to disperse, and the nature of the arrests/police response are key points, which have heretofore been largely overlooked.
Quite laudably, a coalition of over 20 volunteer attorneys, spearheaded by the Davis-Bozeman Law Firm of Atlanta, appeared on behalf of the protestors; most of these attorneys were not dedicated activist/civil rights attorneys, but rather, had stepped aside from their customary work to assist in representing, pro bono, a group which they felt had been wrongly arrested, and wrongly charged whilst exercising their constitutional rights.  In a statement issued by Davis-Bozeman, it was affirmed that “none of the protestors represented were charged with any acts of vandalism…{and they} maintain their innocence and 1st Amendment right to protest and assemble.” The attorney group was also given furtherance and aid from a collection of local law students and professors.
In order to thoroughly address these cases, a chronology of events that preceded the arrests, accompanied the arrests, and occurred thereafter must be properly examined.
To begin with, law enforcement communities nationwide predictably took measures to prepare for what would inevitably be a significant reaction to the Ferguson decision; protests in Missouri had been ongoing since early August, when Michael Brown’s killing occurred, and it was largely anticipated that regardless of the decision, some kind of national response would be heard. Preparation and response was visibly multifarious amongst law enforcement agencies in different cities, but in Atlanta, given the historical backdrop of civil rights action, measures were taken to foster pre-emptive dialogue between the rally’s organizers and APD. At APD’s behest, members of the Shut It Down Coalition agreed to a sit-down with APD officials, including Chief George Turner, the week before the event. In that meeting, assurances were given by the organizers that the rally, and any associated actions, would remain non-violent. In turn, Law Enforcement officials assured that excessive use of force in response to the rally would not occur, including, but not limited to, pepper spray, teargas, and riot gear; in essence, there was to be no militarized response.
This is the point at which the narrative sharply turns; by Mayor Reed’s account, which was buttressed by that of Chief Turner, a “splinter group of 150 or so” protestors led the post-rally march, and it was this “group’s” alleged complicity in a blockage of the I-75/85 Downtown connector, and property damage (a broken window at Meehan’s Pub, a broken Taxi window, and a handful of toppled objects), which spurned the arrests. In effect, the litany of events provided by Reed/Turner, the latter of whom at one point in the night announced that “We {Atlanta} are better than this,” was that APD was honoring its pledge to stand back, and this only changed once the protestors, rhetorically monolithic, reneged on their pledge of non-violence.
There are a number of major issues with this account. First, had one been in the vicinity of the rally & the marches, as was this author and myriad eyewitnesses, it was clear that there was no such “splinter group.” As stated earlier, the postliminary marches were almost entirely organic, and consisted of the bulk of those who remained at Underground at the original rally’s conclusion. The numbers were well over 150; groups were scattered around downtown, including a handful on the connector, but it’s worth noting that not one of those arraigned Wednesday were amongst that group. The largest culmination of the spontaneous marches was at Peachtree St and Ivan Allen Blvd. There, protestors were met by police clad in full riot gear, and this is where the bulk of the arrests took place.
If one observes the timeline, something does not add up: I myself “splintered off” from the initial rally, gathering a handful of students in need of rides to MARTA, and when I learned that marches were ongoing, I parked, and began to walk back towards downtown from the GSU area, in order to cover further ongoings. En route, at least 10 witnesses, including my fiancĂ©e and I, observed and photographed a staging area of dozens of APD already clad in full riot gear. The officers performed a series of what appeared to be drills, and proceeded to load into at least 3 full sized buses, including a MARTA commuter bus and a GSU student shuttle, headed towards the marches downtown. A small group of us followed the buses, and were actually led towards the bulk of the remaining crowd by them. When we arrived to Peachtree St., we observed a handful of protestors actually replacing those few toppled objects, including a display of Christmas trees and a magazine dispenser. Simultaneously, the first round of reports of property damage began to circulate, and clearly, the two windows broken, which represent the extent of any meaningful damage, had been broken within minutes of our arrival on to Peachtree.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that this author’s photographically documentable timeline is somehow errant by, say, 15 minutes. Let’s give authorities the benefit of the doubt, and say that all militarized response and arrests occurred only upon notification of property damage. If it takes at least 5-10 minutes for an officer to don full riot gear, another 15 minutes of preparation, and another 10 to load a few buses, that’s at least 30 minutes required, notwithstanding orders/organization from above, if not far longer, to mobilize such units to a scene. Other eyewitnesses claimed to have seen such stirring as early as 4pm that day in pockets of the city. Clearly, comprehensive preparation had been in place for hours, if not days, to send riot squad response teams. If APD’s promise had been in earnest, and they had no intent of escalating interactions with protestors, why would this have been the case? The reality is that these units were mobilized and ready well before any alleged breach of commitment had occurred on the parts of protestors, and basic human behavior dictates that if one shows up dressed for hostility, one being whoever was commanding APD’s actions, one is obliquely inciting hostility.
There’s another substantial problem with the APD’s decision to declare the Peachtree march “unlawful,” and to accuse the protestors and organizers en masse of breaking a vow of non-violence; in the midst of a crowd of thousands of mostly young black people, already justifiably agitated by the slayings of other innocent young black people, at the hands of police, and already aware of a looming, ominous police force descending upon them, we’re looking at two broken windows, and a handful of items which were knocked over, and subsequently replaced by protestors, 2 of whom, Sarah Garrett and Corina Cruz, were later arrested. It is this author’s opinion, alluding to Chief Turner, that “we” would be hard-pressed to be much “better than this.” In point of fact, in a metro area that roughly 2 million black people call home, seated in the heart of the South, where race has always been an issue of greater tension, an astonishing level of restraint was shown. What was shown was collective punishment, something that should be quite alien to law enforcement in an advanced democracy.
APD staging riot squads on DeKalb Ave.

As the march progressed up Peachtree, towards Ivan Allen Blvd., the visible presence of riot squads steadily grew, and a hefty perimeter was formed around protestors, the weightiest contingency grouped across Ivan Allen, thereby stopping the march in its tracks. At this point, dispersal orders were given from various officers, most notably a diminutive, well-groomed ranking officer with a megaphone. The mantra, “you have destroyed property, this assembly is unlawful, you will be arrested if you do not disperse,” was repeated. At the SW corner of that intersection, a group of 4-5 officers took it upon themselves to forcibly seize what had been a wide banner, supported by wooden posts, which read, “Black Lives Matter” from a group of protestors. The banner was torn, and in a particularly heightened moment, the posts were pointed back at protestors, conjuring an image eerily reminiscent of the famous photo of an American flag being jousted at a young man of color during Boston’s busing riots in the 1960’s. It was immediately after this that arrests began, seemingly randomly; if one happened to be in the front line of marchers, or in the wrong spot along the sidewalk, one was at risk of being apprehended. Indeed, to a man, not one of those arrested had been complicit in any way, shape, or form in the earlier destruction of property, and most were detained arbitrarily, as marchers attempted to re-route away from the blockades.
Aside from being effectively innocent bystanders, as were all of those arraigned Wednesday, a number of arrestees were detained amidst uniquely shabby circumstances, and a few sustained injuries at the hands of police:
Nile Bean was working at the downtown Hyatt hotel, adjacent to the dispersing march. He stepped outside, curious as to what was transpiring, and began to film the scene. As one of his feet flirted with the curb, he was grabbed, slammed to the ground, and arrested. Local photographer Steve Eberhardt was able to document much of this.
A young, interracial couple, Renzo Marches and Natasha Stewart, became alarmed when they saw the presence of militarized police units. They turned away from the main group, and pulled scarves across their faces, anticipating a possible pepper spray/teargas deployment. As soon as they had done so, they were accused of “inciting” and “wearing masks.” Ms. Stewart was pulled, by the scarf, incurring bruising to her neck, and Mr. Marches was thrown to the street; injuries to his leg and face were displayed in photographs at a press conference which followed Wednesday’s arraignment.
Corey Toole, a young black student, was also apprehended at random, and managed to gain access to his phone from the back of a prisoner van; he posted a troubling image of a bloodied, beaten face to Twitter, while the march was still ongoing, and his injuries remain visible to this day.
Corey Toole's photo, tweeted from APD Prisoner Transport Vehicle

Samuel Albanez, a Hispanic male who has worked for some time with local NAACP chapters, sustained injuries excessive enough to keep him at Grady Hospital overnight, resulting in a booking the following day.
The rest of the arrests occurred over the next two hours. Arrestees were released between 3am-8am the following day, and appeared in court that afternoon, November 26th, where arraignment was postponed until January. Two members of the press had also been detained, but per the Mayor’s orders, charges against them were dropped in the morning.
Following Wednesday’s court proceedings, 14 of those initially charged pled not guilty, and await a hearing on January 21st to determine a trial date, presumably to be set for mid-February. Six of the remaining defendants were granted dismissals, due to “ticket discrepancies,” on the part of arresting officers, while one man, a member of CopWatch, had charges dismissed due to video evidence provided to the prosecution amidst court proceedings by Atlanta’s NBC affiliate, 11Alive News. The footage clearly demonstrated that he had been filming the events on the street, and had violated no appreciable laws. Regrettably, another member of CopWatch also appeared in the video in the same capacity, but had already pled not guilty when the video appeared; as such, he will have to re-appear when a trial date is set. One remaining arrestee sought private counsel, and chose to plead no contest for personal reasons, receiving a commuted 2-day sentence and a small fine.
The assemblage of volunteer attorneys have indicated that their aim in this case is to achieve general dismissals, and have expressed vigorous confidence to that end, and no less. Without reserve, it is this author’s unwavering opinion that anything but dismissal would be an odious moment for the City and its administration; this is an opportunity for city officials to concede their own error, unfortunately disproportionate response, or perhaps even more germane to the issue at-large, to retract the narrative of irresponsibility and criminality previously ascribed to a group of well-intentioned, non-violent protestors. It would behoove the mayor, and the courts, to provide a show of magnanimousness, and embrace Atlanta’s Civil Rights legacy in a meaningful way, rather than persisting on a path of punitive chicanery, and politics of fear.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Michele Swan's Bold Fight for Her Family's Home

A quick rundown and update on the #Justice4Michele campaign:

In 2012, Michele Swan of 1012 Grace Marie Ln, in Ellenwood, GA, signed an uncontested divorce agreement, approved by a judge in Henry County; this agreement, which is still valid, and in-hand, specifically stipulated that Ms. Swan, not her now ex-husband, would be given the rights to the family home at the aforementioned address. She thereby inherited the remaining note on the property, which at the time amounted to $140K. Over the 2 years since the divorce, Michele repeatedly & unsuccessfully attempted to speak with Chase Bank, the mortgage holder, in order to have the note transferred into her name. She was fully equipped & capable of making the payments, the family having hitherto made all payments punctually, often in excess of the monthly amounts owed. Chase ignored Ms. Swan completely, stating that they would only speak with her ex-husband, who was equally unresponsive. The situation culminated in Chase moving ahead with foreclosure, in spite of Ms. Swan’s ability to pay, persistence in attempting to do so, and legal right to the note, on Nov. 4, 2014. It was sold at courthouse auction to American Residential Properties (ARP), an investment group based in Scottsdale AZ, at a price of $121K.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    
Ms. Swan and her 3 children were forcibly evicted from the home in mid-December. After she spoke with WRI, a property management group affiliated with ARP, she was assured that for the interim, she could send them a check in the amount of $2K, in order to effectively rent her own home from them. She sent a cashier’s check (from Chase, no less), and retook residence. It was returned 2 days later; WRI did not acknowledge it, or respond to Ms. Swan thereafter. At that point, Occupy Our Homes Atlanta (OOHA) & friends stepped in; we held a press conference on her behalf on Jan. 5, 2015, which was attended by GA State Senator Fort (D), who made a statement on Ms. Swan’s behalf. From that moment, we made a number of efforts to identify and contact those responsible for the eviction, not to accuse, but to foster an engagement between Ms. Swan and the investment group, so that she might purchase her family home of 11 years from them after the illegal foreclosure occurred. WRI initially acknowledged association with the property, & directed us to speak with ARP in Scottsdale. A paralegal with ARP assured us we would receive further info that day. This did not occur. As a result, a group of activists, headed by Jackie Rodriguez of OOHA, together with Ms. Swan, went to the Buckhead office of WRI, armed with a petition of over 2,600 signatures demanding a negotiation. WRI feigned complete ignorance, and claimed to have no further association with the property. They suggested we contact the “owners,” & again, we spoke with a Senior Paralegal with ARP in Scottsdale, who stated that they had “legal, valid title to the property,” which they intended to enforce. She suggested Ms. Swan use her attorney (something many private citizens do not have) to speak with her ex-husband, & indicated that they had no interest in negotiation with Ms. Swan, because they were not selling; they were “in the business of leasing homes.” This struck us as odd, because this very home is now listed as active on MLS at a price of $190K.

Ms. Swan came home today to find all the locks changed, and the garage jammed. She was able to gain access nonetheless, and she will remain, with the support of OOHA, indefinitely. Spread the word. Bring ARP (@amresprop on twitter) to the table, let them have their money back, and let Michele and her family have their home back. That is all anyone is asking for. #Justice4Michele

Jim Chambers
Guest Writer/Activist
Owner of Henry & June Atlanta

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Courage in the Face of Eviction Nightmare

Today long time Ellenwood resident, Michele Swan, with the support of her neighbors and Occupy Our Homes Atlanta, publically reclaimed her home today. Evicted over the holidays by WRI Group, a subsidiary of American Residential Leasing Co., Michele has been locked in a battle with WRI Group to claim the house that has rightfully belonged to her since 2003. Michele won her home in a divorce settlement years ago and WRI has refused to recognize her as the owner since her name isn’t on the original loan. As a result WRI has refused to communicate with her or accept any payment for the house.

Michele, and her support network, has reclaimed her home and will remain there until WRI, and American Residential Leasing Co., is willing to come to the table and negotiate a reasonable solution to this situation. Michele is ready, willing, and able to hold a mortgage and make payments on her home. Her only request is that she, and her children, be able to remain in the home they have been investing in for years. Senator Vincent Fort (D) joined Michele to voice his concern over the situation, and the manner in which Michele and her family was being treated. Speaking "We are calling on WRI to do the right thing; sit down at the table and reason together....We want to send a message to WRI, this is a new year and new day. We are not going to let this family be put out, we are going to stand with [them] for as long as it takes."

Michele and Occupy Our Homes Atlanta have continued efforts to enter into dialogue with WRI and ARL to no avail and have no choice but to bring our fight to WRI. American Friends Service Committee will join Michele and Occupy Our Homes Atlanta tomorrow at WRI’s office to send a clear message that Michele will no longer be ignored, and the community is standing beside her.  Tomorrow at 1pm Michele, Occupy Our Homes Atlanta, and her support network will rally in front of WRI, demanding they make this situation right. Michele will no longer be ignored or bullied, and she is ready to take action to get her home back!

Please sign and share Michele's online petition.