Housing activists barred the entrance to Boston’s Municipal Court building Thursday, and among those arrested in the protest against homeowner evictions was Mel King, the South End activist and octogenarian who has spent decades fighting for fair housing.
“Thursday is eviction day in housing court across the state, and we block the doors to call for a change in housing policy,” said Maria Christina Blanco, an organizer with City Life/Vida Urbana, a Jamaica Plain housing advocacy group. “We have people who are fighting eviction, condo-ization, or raising rent. . . . We wanted to come and testify with their stories.”
King, who turns 85 this month, was arrested with Denise Zwahlen, 68, a physician’s assistant who works at Codman Square Health Center, and 62-year-old Brookline resident Andrei Joseph. All three were part of a larger protest held by City Life/Vida Urbana.
It was the third time in four weeks that protesters have been arrested outside the Municipal Court building downtown, demonstrating against what are known as no-fault evictions.
Joseph looked at the small group of people, many wearing the organization’s neon yellow shirt, and said it was meaningful to experience the power of the organization propelling their cause. It was equally meaningful, he said, to have stood with King Thursday. “This is a movement for housing as a basic human right; he’s been doing this work almost half a century,” Joseph said.
King is a former state representative who is the only person of color to make it to the final election for mayor of Boston. Pushing to ensure Bostonians have fair and equitable housing has long been one of King’s clarion calls.
In April 1968, he helped families secure housing by leading a sit-in at the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s local site office. Two days after the sit-in, King and several thousand others began the now-famous Tent City demonstration in a parking lot bordered by Dartmouth and Yarmouth streets and Columbus Avenue. “This site was the fact and the symbol of all we had been fighting against for so long,” King wrote in his book, “Chain of Change: Struggles for Black Community Development.”
Today, Tent City is a large mixed-income apartment building across from Back Bay T Station.
On Thursday, he reiterated the call for equitable housing, saying efforts to ensure that people are not pushed out of their homes “is the most significant movement since the Civil Rights Movement.”
This movement and mission, embodies the phrase “love thy neighbor,” King said. “What you see is the power of love. What you have with the banks is a love of power.”
Attorneys for the protesters said tenants living in foreclosed homes have more protection under state law than homeowners whose property faces foreclosure. Tenants cannot be evicted without cause, meaning failure to pay rent or destruction of property, the attorneys said. Instead, they pay rent to the bank that has taken over the loan and are allowed to stay.
That is not the case with homeowners. Publicly owned banks that hold more than half of all mortgages, the group alleges, refuse to refinance loans at current market value instead of the inflated mortgage rate and refuse to accept rent from homeowners.
The arrests happened about 9 a.m. Five hours later, King, his hands and ankles shackled, shuffled into a courtroom to be arraigned.
Joseph and Zwahlen, both wearing neon City Life/Vida Urbana T-shirts, sat next to King as the charges were read.
“They,” said a court officer, “committed the offense of disorderly conduct. This matter and arrest is out of a protest outside of this building where the doors were blocked.”
After the arraignment, the judge and attorneys said, the criminal charges were to be converted to civil charges.
Once the handcuffs were removed and belongings returned, those arrested were joined by a small group of about 10 and held an impromptu strategy session in the hallway outside Courtroom 17.
“What’s the next move?” King asked.
“We have to go to the State House or the city,” responded Steve Meacham, organizing coordinator for the nonprofit City Life.
The group said its next steps must be getting the Boston City Council to draft an ordinance that prohibits no-fault eviction and getting the governor and the Legislature to protect the interests of Bay State residents.