On a rainy night last June, 56-year-old Ross Rhodes saw a man in a car pull into the driveway of his Bernal Heights house.
“The sheriff is coming out this late at night?” he thought to himself.
Rhodes’ home of more than 40 years had been in foreclosure since 2008, so he was nervous about the unexpected evening visit. Being on disability and going through a divorce, he could no longer afford to make payments on his mortgage loan.
To his surprise, the visitor was not the sheriff but Buck Bagot, one of the founders of Occupy Bernal. Bagot had received Rhodes’ address earlier that day and wasted no time in reaching out.
Sixty-one year-old Bagot, short-haired and bespectacled, is not the stereotypical masked conspirator you might expect to lead a local branch of the global Occupy movement. The only hint of his affiliation is a small 99 percent pin on the lapel of his leather jacket.
A product of the white, working-class town of Trenton, N.J., Bagot attended a prep school on scholarship — and was hazed because of his financial aid. He still bears scars on his wrist, and credits the experience with helping him to forge a strong class consciousness and identification with the disenfranchised.
In high school he fought for more financial aid, more minority students, and co-education — along with the right to wear jeans.
At Harvard Bagot joined the Students for a Democratic Society, and recalls being thrown out of school for a year for organizing Vietnam War-related protests.
Drawn to San Francisco in 1976 for its economic and ethnic diversity, Bagot has been a community organizer ever since. He currently works with national nonprofit organizations, training people to lobby members of Congress in their district, and tries to reduce violence in subsidized housing.
Bagot is the founder and former codirector of the long-standing nonprofit Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center, which has more than 600 dues-paying members and has built almost 500 units of affordable housing, provided youth with services and organizing tools, and helped about 125 seniors stay in their homes and live independently.
Occupy Bernal got its start in December of 2011, when Bagot got a phone call from Bernal activists and performance artists Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle. They told him that the home of their neighbor Thomas German, a 72-year-old who has lived in Bernal since the 1960s, was going into foreclosure.
Bagot had been working with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (formerly ACORN) to block evictions and foreclosures in Bayview-Hunters Point, and Stephens and Sprinkle sought his advice.
Unaware that foreclosures were also a problem in his neighborhood, Bagot was eager to help.
They went on to save German’s home, and found that 80 people were in foreclosure in Bernal Heights. Naming themselves Occupy Bernal and working with ACCE, they went door to door and recruited “foreclosure fighters.”
Since the program began, Bagot says, no resident they have worked with has had their home auctioned off, and 10 have received affordable loan modifications.
“We’re not advocates, we are organizers,” he said. “We met our neighbors, helped them overcome the shame of being in foreclosure, helped them understand what had happened to them. They just thought they were all by themselves.”
This was the beginning of Occupy Bernal, which continues to focus on the issue of foreclosures in Bernal Heights. The organization involves as many as 80 people, 75 percent of whom were at one time faced with foreclosure themselves.
Beginning in February 2012, they deluged Wells Fargo with emails and phone calls, and 150 people staged protests, including a demonstration at the home of CEO John Stumpf. They also gained the support of Supervisor David Campos.
Vivian Richardson, an ACCE member, has worked with Occupy Bernal on protests and on email and phone call blasts, “just trying to get the banks and lenders to work with individuals.”
“If our customers are having difficulties in making their mortgage payments, they should contact us to see what options may be available to them,” Ruben Pulido, a Wells Fargo spokesman, responded via email. “When people work with us, we are able to avoid foreclosure 7 out of 10 times. People could also contact a housing counselor approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD-approved counselors can provide assistance free of charge, or for a nominal fee.” Pulido added that a list of counseling agencies can be found at www.hud.gov.
Bagot believes that the Occupy Movement in general has had some successes. “We transformed the political discourse in America in a drastic way,” he said.
Occupy Bernal also helped seed the movement in Noe Valley. “We reached out to some friends in Bernal and they walked us through how they tackled the problem,” said Occupy Noe cofounder Susan McDonnough.
Occupy Noe members went door-to-door, leaving a letter that read, “Is your home at risk?” — a tactic they learned from Occupy Bernal. “We just used the same templates; (there’s) no point in creating new stuff,” said McDonnough.
Bagot and McDonnough see their success as intertwined. “The success is a collective success because there are so many folks … increasingly getting involved,” McDonnough said.
Bagot thinks the movement has not been as fruitful nationally. “The problem is that Occupy around the country hasn’t been able to do what we did,” he said. “We took the politics of Occupy and found an issue in our neighborhood and then embodied them.”
Occupy Bernal, Bagot contends, combines “the best of Occupy with traditional left-wing community organizing.” Some members of the larger Occupy Movement have “embraced disorganization,” he said, not looking to past successful movements for guidelines and inspiration.
“It’s really hard to compare” the two branches of the movement, said Scott Rossi, a member of Occupy SF, explaining that they do “two different things.”
“Occupy SF was really more the social and economic justice, so we were at the meta level, the bigger level,” Rossi said. “Occupy Bernal really specialized in saving their neighborhood.”
Still, Rossi likes the idea of the movement taking on neighborhood-specific issues. “The visible victory will really be won in the neighborhoods. If you want to build a movement, you’ve got to start (there).”
Violence, especially toward the police, hurts the movement, Bagot says. Occupy Bernal is completely nonviolent, he says, and is not affiliated with the anti-police protests that have been held in the Mission.
“Why did I think it was crazy to break windows? Why did I think it was crazy to fight with the police? Because I did it. I made that mistake in the late ’60s and early ’70s, just like them. It hurts us more than it helps us.”
Occupy Bernal’s approach is to engage elected officials rather than demonize them.
“We don’t think that all the elected officials are necessarily the handmaidens of the ruling class,” Bagot said. “We think it’s good to negotiate with the people with power. Because if you don’t get to the negotiating table, you don’t win.”
This kind of negotiation is what helps people like Rhodes, who in less than a month received an affordable loan modification and avoided losing his childhood home.
“I was going through a foreclosure, I was battling them myself and I wasn’t doing too well at all,” Rhodes says, adding that he credits Occupy Bernal and ACCE for helping him keep his home. Now he wants to give back.
“I’m in the fight for others now, just like Buck and all the rest of them are in the fight for their neighbors,” he said. “That’s me now.”
“When God made Buck, he only made one mold. What makes him different is his tenacity to do the right thing.”