About 60 protesters staged a noisy demonstration at an office of the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office on Wednesday in an unsuccessful effort to stop the sale of some foreclosed properties -- part of a national campaign being waged by grass-roots groups.
The protest came as Minnesota legislators are discussing a bill that would establish a mediation process before people lose their homes and as some sheriffs around the country have at least temporarily halted evictions.
Hy Berman, a professor emeritus of labor history at the University of Minnesota, said Wednesday's local demonstration recalls major protests in Minnesota during the 1930s, when the Farm Holiday Association blocked sheriffs from conducting foreclosure sales, and in the 1980s, when a new movement arose to block foreclosures of family farms.
The latest protest is a sign of the times, he said.
"This is perhaps a harbinger of things to come if things don't improve," Berman said.
Mortgage foreclosures in Hennepin County soared to 7,348 in 2008, a 337 percent increase over 2005, although the sheriff's office noted "a marked decline" during the last three months of last year, which it said could be in part because of a voluntary moratorium by some banks. Statewide, foreclosures climbed to 26,265 in 2008, a 306 percent rise since 2005, according to HomeLine, a local nonprofit agency that provides information on affordable housing.
The national head of ACORN, a grass-roots organization whose Twin Cities affiliate helped organize Wednesday's protest, said in a telephone interview this week that the demonstration was part of a coordinated nationwide effort to get Congress to enact a three-month moratorium on foreclosures to allow time for President Obama to implement his plan to help people facing foreclosure.
"The message is this crisis is real," said Bertha Lewis, CEO and chief organizer for ACORN. "Last year, 2.3 million homes were foreclosed on. Every 13 seconds there is a foreclosure. People don't understand the human toll. What we are saying is 'Stop the train.' There needs to be a national moratorium."
The state Legislature is considering a bill similar to a law passed in the 1980s to help farmers. Before foreclosing a property, a lender would have to notify the debtor of a right to mediation, and if the debtor asked for mediation, both sides would be required to negotiate issues such as adjusting mortgage interest rates and principal and extending the repayment period.
The bill is backed by Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, who said Wednesday that the law had helped farmers during previous economic crises and that "mediation has something of a proven track record."
During Wednesday's protest, deputies removed Cheri Honkala, a leader of the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, from an office as she tried to stop a sale at Minneapolis City Hall. She rejoined the protesters in the corridor, and they marched to Sheriff Rich Stanek's office, also in City Hall, where they demanded to speak with him in person or by phone.
When they were refused, Honkala turned to the protesters and said, "Have a seat, we're moving in here." Some sat down on the floor.
Eventually she and several others met with Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman and Chief Deputy Mike Carlson, who promised to set up a meeting within two weeks that would include Stanek, who was out of town Wednesday.
Dorfman said after reports that other sheriffs in Chicago and Detroit had temporarily stopped evictions there, she and Stanek consulted Hennepin County attorneys to see whether they had any legal authority to stop evictions. She said that Stanek said he did not like evicting people, but they were told he did not have legal authority to halt foreclosures.
"He is not interested in breaking the law, and we are not asking him to break the law," she said.
In a news release issued after the demonstration, Stanek stated, "The sheriff's office does not select which laws to enforce, we enforce Minnesota statutes and court orders. I believe we conduct mortgage foreclosure sales in a professional and compassionate manner." On Monday, he, Dorfman and others announced public workshops to explain how people can avoid foreclosure.
Wednesday's demonstration was sponsored by ACORN, the Peoples Economic Human Rights Campaign, the Twin Cities Industrial Workers of the World, Economic Crisis Action Group and Homes Not Jails.
One protester was Rose Williams, 59, who lives on the 3100 block of Clinton Avenue in Minneapolis. She said she was unable to keep up with her adjustable-rate mortgage payments, which rose from $1,200 to $2,200 a month. She said the house she had been buying had been in her family for 55 years. She is now facing eviction at month's end, she said.
"It's a land grab," she said, and she vowed to fight it.
Staff researchers John Wareham and Sandy Date contributed to this article. Randy Furst • 612-673-7382