Four years ago, James Brooks helped lead a half-dozen disability activists who chained their wheelchairs together on Beacon Street, blocking traffic in front of the State House to protest steep fare increases for The Ride, which provides door-to-door service for the disabled.
Having made their point and drawn media attention, he urged protesters a half-hour later to move off the street as police arrived to cut their metal chains. “This is on our terms, folks,” Mr. Brooks reminded the others in wheelchairs as they rolled to the sidewalk. “I know right now it doesn’t look like it, but this is on our terms.”
Using a wheelchair to get around, and relying on his unfettered spirit to bring him beyond barriers that block the way of those who can’t walk, Mr. Brooks lived on his own terms as he worked for decades to expand access to the disabled in Greater Boston.
His health failing, he died April 25 in St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton, when he was no longer able to take fluids or food. He was 70 and in his final days friends made sure his room was filled with recordings of jazz that had given him musical sustenance through the years.
Mr. Brooks left no family and those close to him held off seeking public coverage of his death for a few weeks until they could notify his extended circle of friends, some of whom, because of their disabilities, don’t own computers.
A former head of Boston’s disabilities commission, Mr. Brooks was a founder in the late 1970s of the Disabled Peoples Liberation Front, an advocacy organization. His politics didn’t stop at his wheelchair, however. Mr. Brooks also participated in other advocacy groups and demonstrated on behalf of rights for women and for the LGBTQ community.
“Jim was a determined crusader for social justice,” said Steve Meacham, an organizer with the housing advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana. “He never lost his grass-roots impetus and grass-roots orientation.”
Friends say Mr. Brooks helped shape the intellectual conscience of a generation of Boston advocacy organizations. “He had a big influence on me in terms of not only disability politics but politics in general,” said Brian Shea, a disability civil rights activist. “He’s one of the most widely-read people I’ve ever known.”
Interested as much in raising awareness as he was in specific protests, Mr. Brooks was “very soft-spoken and a very gentle person, but he had very strong opinions about political issues,” said Karen Schneiderman, an activist and friend who was the health proxy for Mr. Brooks.
“Sure, we all went to marches and yelled and all that, but conversations were more Jim’s style – trying to educate people and learn himself,” she said. “Generations will remember him because of his dignified and yet passionate style about the rights of all people.”
Mr. Brooks “had that rare combination of charisma and humility,” Meacham said. “He never sought the limelight for himself in any way, and yet he often had the limelight.”
Meacham added that “in addition to his nitty-gritty work, trying to stop evictions and build the movement, he was also a political strategist and a radical theoretician. He was well read and had a broad perspective, and he implemented that perspective in a sensitive way. On the one hand he wasn’t lost in verbiage, and on the other hand he didn’t get lost in individual cases.”
Born in Chicago, Mr. Brooks had used a wheelchair nearly all his life.
“His father died when he was 3 and he was raised by a single mother and he was an only child and things were difficult,” Schneiderman said. “It was the projects of Chicago and not an easy life. He managed to get through it. He didn’t like to talk about it too much.”
Moving to Boston, Mr. Brooks found work at a law center that assisted those with disabilities, and had also been a part-time staffer and volunteer at City Life/Vida Urbana. “He got paid a few hours a week and he worked three times that much,” Meacham said. “He was here all the time.”
Mr. Brooks found his way into the news in the late 1970s and early-’80s when he helped lead protests advocating for access to all movie houses in the Sack theaters chain. “We have been fighting the Sack theaters for two years,” he told the Globe in 1980 as he and other protesters greeted celebrities at the world premiere of the film “Raise the Titanic” with chants of “raise ramps, not the Titanic.”
After the theater chain installed a ramp at its Beacon Hill location, Mr. Brooks noted that access to all parts of the building was essential. “Getting in is fine, except if you want to go to the bathroom,” he said.
In more recent years, Mr. Brooks staffed the phones in the City Life/Vida Urbana offices, and on occasion chained himself to the railings of houses to try to prevent landlords from evicting tenants. “Up until he died he was defending people from being thrown out of their houses,” Shea said.
At City Life’s mass meetings on Tuesdays, Mr. Brooks reminded all who arrived that all were welcome.
“Jim would say, ‘Leave your shame at the door, there’s no room for it here. This is where you come to get your voice back,’ and people would get their voices back,” Meacham said.
For more than 35 years, Mr. Brooks was joined in his advocacy by his companion, Jean Wassell, whose activist resume was as deep as his in her support of housing, disability, and LGBTQ rights – often through civil disobedience demonstrations. Wassell, who died in 2012, and Mr. Brooks also were devoted fans of the Red Sox and Celtics.
Friends of Mr. Brooks will hold a memorial service for Jim Brooks at 3 p.m. July 24 in the SEIU 32BJ offices on West Street in downtown Boston, a site that is wheelchair accessible.
When housing advocates met regularly several years ago to try to prevent foreclosures, Mr. Brooks would lead the dozens present at each gathering in a chant.
“He would ask the crowd, ‘What do you do when the banks attack?’ And the answer was supposed to be, ‘Stand up, fight back,’ and when you said ‘stand up,’ you were supposed to stand up,” Meacham said.
If the crowd’s chant was too soft, or if they stood without much enthusiasm, Mr. Brooks “would say, ‘Oh, no, you can’t get away with that,’ and he’d make them do it again,” Meacham recalled. “He’d say, ‘I’ll tell you what, if you do this right, I’ll get out of my wheelchair and do it with you, but you’ll have to look really fast.’ ”