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Housing rights advocates interrupted an event featuring Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Melvin Watt at the Law School Monday evening to protest Watt’s housing finance policies, prematurely ending the event and prompting questions about security protocol at the school.
The event, organized by Law School professor Hal S. Scott, was intended to be a “fire-side chat” about federal housing policy. Scott said he heard beforehand that activists might protest, and as a result, Harvard University Police Department assigned two plainclothes officers to the event at the request of Law School administrators.
Several minutes into the event, members of City Life—a Boston-area community organization that advocates for tenant rights—stood up and interrupted Watt’s remarks. City Life community organizer M. Antonio Ennis coordinated the protest with advocacy organizations Lynn United for Change and Springfield No One Leaves, and estimated that around 75 of the 85 event attendees were protesters.
The activists—who are not affiliated with the Law School—presented Watt with several demands primarily focused on principal reduction, a policy that reduces mortgage principals for qualifying homeowners. Ennis said City Life members had helped put Watt in office two years ago after Watt promised to make principal reduction a centerpiece of his agenda. Watt has not yet created such a policy.
“If he couldn’t do it, why can’t he tell us—the people who are losing our houses?” City Life volunteer Ramon Sepulveda said.
Representatives from Watt’s office at the Federal Housing Finance Authority declined to comment.
Ennis said that City Life had attempted to reach the Federal Housing Finance Agency director several times unsuccessfully. When he heard from a Law School student who does clinical work for City Life that Watt would be speaking at the school, Ennis saw an opportunity.
“Our objective in coming here was to show him the faces of people who have lost their homes,” Ennis said. “We’re embarrassed to be losing our homes, so we wanted to embarrass him here on his platform at Harvard.”
After protesters interrupted Watt in a manner Scott characterized as “screaming,” Watt attempted to answer their questions, but was unable to talk over activists. Scott said the HUPD officers did not ask protesters to leave, and seeing no way to continue the discussion, Scott escorted Watt from the event.
“An HLS administrator asked the protesters to stop disrupting the event. The event ended shortly thereafter,” HUPD spokesperson Steven G. Catalano wrote in an email. “As a matter of policy we are not going to get into specifics on what our officers did.”
Scott expressed disappointment that Watt was unable to finish the discussion, and raised concerns over security protocol in place at Harvard. Scott said he thinks security should have removed the protesters.
“I would hope Harvard’s policies are that we don’t allow people to come and disrupt events,” he said. “Where do we draw the line? Can these people come into classrooms, and we do nothing?... I was appalled, quite frankly, that security didn’t do more.”
According to the Law School’s official Protest and Dissent Guidelines, “The speaker is entitled to communicate her or his message to the audience during her or his allotted time, and the audience is entitled to hear the message and see the speaker during that time. A dissenter must not substantially interfere with a speaker’s ability to communicate or an audience’s ability to see and hear the speaker.”
After protesters cut the event short, Scott brought Watt to his office to continue the discussion on camera. He said he will make the video available to Law School students online.
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