One week from now, protesters will swarm a major Philadelphia bank to spotlight another sad story of the foreclosure crisis.
The victim? A Lansdale woman who suffers from lupus, cares for a disabled child, and panics about losing her hard-earned suburban life.
The organizer of what will surely become a media spectacle? Cheri Honkala, the agitator who made her name in this gritty city.
Honkala is back in Philadelphia after years of self-imposed exile. The woman known for squatting in vacant rowhouses and getting arrested at political conventions giggles at the thought of once again spending the holidays making powerful people feel uncomfortable.
"People," she acknowledges, "either love me or hate me."
We need rabble-rousers. Nobody works a bullhorn like Honkala.
Cheri 2.0 still sports exquisitely manicured nails, but she has expanded her mission since the days of leading welfare moms on meandering marches. Honkala now presides over the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign (www.ppehrc.org), a national coalition teaching "foreclosure defense" courses to people slipping out of the middle class.
"Last summer, we planted flowers and vegetables in a patch in Kensington. This spring, we're going to seize a field and build a farm," she shares. "It's not just about housing anymore. We need to find ways to feed our people."
Help for newly homeless
After more than 10 years of nonstop media stunts - breaking into abandoned churches to protest a lack of affordable housing, accepting donations from mobster Joey Merlino - the exotic dancer-turned-demonstrator seemed to vanish.
Honkala and I caught up again Tuesday at Chili's, across from the Criminal Justice Center.
"When the Republicans decided to have their 2008 convention in my hometown of Minneapolis," she explains, "the organization decided it was important I go back and lead one of our largest marches ever."
The joy of spending time with family was short-lived when Honkala learned that her sister was in "pre-foreclosure" on the house she and her laid-off husband had called home for 20 years. So were four other middle-class neighbors.
Suddenly Honkala found herself advising and organizing people who'd never been poor before, creating "a support system while you're falling that knows intimately what that fall is like."
Back in the thick of it
"I'm a grandmother!" Honkala offers while we wait for lunch. "Mark lives in Los Angeles now and has 2-year-old Isaac."
Mark would be the actor Mark Webber, her 30-year-old son. Perhaps you saw him in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World? Or starring with Bill Murray in Broken Flowers?
"His goal," she says, beaming, "is to use his talent to hit the lottery and give money to this process."
For now, Honkala funds the Poor People's campaign by bartending. She and her son Guillermo, 8, live on a bleak block next to three abandoned houses and one crack den.
"Words can't describe the inhumane conditions I found coming back to Kensington," she tells me. "Things were always bad, but it's like the bottom has fallen out."
Last month, the reenergized rebel helped sisters - one the wife of an Army soldier heading to Iraq - camp out in their Olney home to fight a pending foreclosure. Media attention led an anonymous donor to settle the women's $9,100 debt.
This month, demonstrators protested working and waiting conditions at a Department of Welfare outpost in North Philadelphia. Next, they'll target that unnamed bank. After that? Look out.
"Something positive is going to come out of this recession," Honkala says, refreshingly optimistic. "The dam is going to break. People are becoming involved in ways they hadn't before. It's not so much us vs. them anymore, it's we. Numbers creates power, and power forces change."