Occupy the Strip!

The Occupy movement finds its footing in the foreclosure capital of America.

Protesters affiliated with the Occupy Las Vegas movement march on the Las Vegas Strip

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

LAS VEGAS—On Wednesday, Jerry Mann watched the house next to his get sold at a foreclosure auction. On Thursday, he was a proud participant in Occupy Las Vegas.

“It’s a shame about that house,” says Mann, a former small-town mayor from Michigan who retired to Vegas. “It changed hands a few times, and the last people who were in it—real nice people—they got left holding the bag. The value just went whoooosh.” He then tells his own housing history. In 1999 Mann bought a home for $209,000. He added a pool. The value peaked at $666,000 in 2007. It collapsed to $194,000. It’s only now crept back up to the original value. He’s lucky. He’s not underwater.

There aren’t enough lucky people living in Las Vegas. Unemployment here has fallen recently, but it’s still about 14 percent. In August, according to CNN, one out of every 118 homes in the Las Vegas area got a foreclosure filing. Online, you can find foreclosed homes with four or five bedrooms selling for less than $200,000.

And so we have Occupy Las Vegas. This offshoot of the still-evolving national movement began with a 1,200-person rally on the Strip on Oct. 6, right in front of the micro-Statue of Liberty at the New York-New York casino. On Tuesday and Thursday, the Occupiers held two more rallies, both fairly small, both attracting a little local media attention. The Tuesday rally, right next to the place where Republican presidential candidates were debating, even crashed a live CNN broadcast.

“We’re the fifth or sixth biggest group in the movement right now,” says Jet West, an inordinately cheery middle-age man sporting new red-and-black Occupy Las Vegas stickers. “That’s according to what I’ve seen on the Internet.”

The group is polite. They listen to cops, get permits, stay where they’re told to stay, and return to their less-valuable-than-they-used-to-be homes when the rally is over. They’ve delegated a few leaders to negotiate with the city for some permanent place to camp out. Which park do they want? It’s a secret.

“We tried to hold one rally in a lot that hadn’t been rented for six years,” explains Leroy Smith, one of the organizers. (He’s a self-described student and small-business man. On Thursday, he tells me that he’s launching a new iPhone app and has to fly to Denver soon to build up a medical marijuana combine.) When the group announced it, he says, “someone put in a bid.” He suspects casino shenanigans.

“Anyway,” says Smith, “information about the permanent location is on a need-to-know basis.”

“I may not be there all the time,” says West. “But I’ll put up a tent!”

Tuesday’s crowd was a mixture: retirees, union members, young-and-pierced twentysomethings. (Some members of the last group wear Guy Fawkes masks but occasionally take them off to talk.) The union members wear SEIU purple or TWU orange and don’t take any kind of organizing role. They cheer on drivers who honk their horns and chant slogans they’ve heard from YouTube-ed rallies in New York.

They might have it tougher than the New Yorkers. Pete Ostapow, who retired from the real estate business after the crash, recalls the role he played.

“When somebody had bad credit, they couldn’t get a good loan,” he says. “So we put them in what we called a subprime loan. It was good for two or three years. We’d tell them: Clean up your credit, come back, and you can refinance into a better loan.”

“Then the values went down,” says his wife, Judy. “They didn’t have the equity they needed. That thing they say—Oh, people bought houses they couldn’t have afforded!—that wasn’t true! They were making the payments they could, but the banks wouldn’t freeze the rates!”

“That would have solved the whole problem,” says Pete.

On Thursday, I drive off the Strip, through downtown Las Vegas, through some suburbs, to the neighborhood Jerry Mann lives in. In some places you’d have to drive blind to miss the blight. Bright white stucco strip malls are half occupied, half empty. New-looking homes, not at all run-down, are for sale at auction. I stop for a Coke in northeast Las Vegas, after passing by a Mobius strip of payday-loan houses, diners, and taco joints.

“What do you call this part of town?” I ask the cashier.

“Trashy,” she says. Better than north Las Vegas, though, where “the gangs are coming in from Los Angeles.”

Rally at Caesars Palace.
Rally at Caesars Palace.

Photo by David Weigel.

I head back to the strip for the Thursday rally. It’s right outside Caesars Palace, which gives TWU Local 172 reason to talk about how the casino wants to cheat dealers out of their tips. Why have the rallies on the Strip and not downtown? The answer I get is that the landmarks make for better photos, and the tourists make for better gawkers or converts.

This rally is louder. Unlike the people Occupying Wall Street, these people are allowed to use megaphones, so they do, allowing extremely unfocused people a chance to fill the air. A young guy in shorts and a white T-shirt, bouncing up and down on his heels, tells the crowd he “loves humanity” and wants it to “get rid of possessions, stop being slaves!” An Italian tourist grabs the megaphone and offers the Continental perspective. “I want to love America, but I hate America right now,” she says. She can see some people wincing. “But I love America!”

The rally is saved when one organizer grabs a two-page statement of principles developed at Occupy Wall Street. It reads faster through a megaphone than through the repeat-after-me “people’s microphone” the New Yorkers use.

“They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process,” he says, reading, “despite not having the original mortgage. They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.”

Paul Ruth, a teacher who lives nearby, likes that the list is coming from New York. “I’ve been giving money to those guys,” he says. He thinks the crisis could be resolved, at least a little, with a biblical-style jubilee that forgave some debt. Also: He can’t stand that President Obama compared this to the Tea Party. “He’s gutless. When he compares the Tea Party to this movement, you know all you need to know. The Tea Party was funded by billionaires. These guys, you know, they’re taking our donations.”

The march begins at 4:15 p.m. Occupy Las Vegas has permission to march up and down the strip, taking up the traffic lanes next to the sidewalks; they will walk this path for two hours. The movement is famous enough by now that some of the gawkers grab cameras and take pictures of themselves, with the march in the background. The organizer who read the Occupy Wall Street demands leads two chants that he’s written down on a Post-it note.

“Unemployment! Foreclosure! Occupy until it’s over!”

“Republican or Democrat! All bought out by Goldman Sachs!”

They pass the Bellagio, cross the street, and head down toward the Mardi Gras-themed Harrah’s. Ray Dearborn, a businessman from California who’s in town for a manufacturers’ conference, watches them from the sidewalk—beverage in hand, Bluetooth headset in ear. He argues with the sign-holders.

“People over profit?” he says. “If I don’t make a profit, how do I pay my 52 employees?”

“We’re on your side!” yells the sign-holder.

Dearborn’s just having fun, he says. “I’m a Republican, but I’ll be honest—I don’t like the choices we’ve got,” he says. “The special interests have too much influence with both of them, and that’s why you see things like General Electric not paying any taxes. They can write rules that allow that. I’m not a big enough person to become one of the rule-writers.”