Lawyers Journal

Radical roots

Art Johnson still fights the good fight in a post-
modern world

Immorality has never enjoyed much latitude around Art Johnson. He's always tried to stamp it out anytime he encounters it, by every means necessary. Whether that meant being arrested side by side with Senator John Kerry in a Vietnam War protest in 1971* or fighting lower-profile yet equally important battles today, Johnson remains a tireless social activist.
"I'd say I'm a product of the '60s," concedes Johnson, 55, a senior clinical instructor for Harvard Law School's Community Enterprise Project (CEP) who also has a private practice in Jamaica Plain.
"I suppose I was always a left-progressive type. I was radicalized by the Vietnam War. When I got out of the Navy, I was one of the organizers for Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
"The war was immoral, and I concluded that in the service. They were going to send me back in '69, I said I didn't want to go and they discharged me. After that, I started (protesting)."
Johnson, who spent 12 months on a destroyer in the Tonkin Gulf as part of a two-year tour of duty as a naval officer (1968-70), doesn't recount his radical roots like some boastful war story. It was an era of raw emotion.
The son of a decorated World War II veteran, Johnson painfully had to reject what he knew by rote for what he felt was right.
Johnson is far more content these days making an impact in the more integrated, less counterculture arena of law. But those tumultuous times 30 years ago tempered his resolve and forged his future as a catalyst for reform.
"You know, authority and I have not gotten along well over the years," he says with a chuckle. "I'm still actively anti-war. I still do a lot of work with veterans. I've always represented veterans in my practice. I also work closely with Veterans Benefits Clearinghouse [a Roxbury-based social services organization targeting the minority veteran's community]. I've been responsible for staffing the legal tent [offering legal assistance and
referrals] at their annual veterans' service fair for the last 10 years. I call it guerrilla lawyering."
Some of the most important grassroots work Johnson does, however, is in the classroom at Harvard Law School. A founding faculty member of the first transaction-based clinical program at the school, Johnson instructs and supervises law students in a nine-year-old program with a broad mission. The clinical focus of the CEP is to strengthen the social and economic infrastructure of Boston's poor urban neighborhoods by providing affordable, transactional legal services to community development corporations, nonprofits and small business.
"I like clinical teaching a lot," he says. "The dirty little secret of American legal education is that most law school grads don't know a thing about practice when they graduate. We try to expose them to transferable practice skills, since a lot of these (Harvard) kids will go on to big firms when they graduate."
Johnson's community-economic-development resume reads like the fine print of JFK's "New Frontier" doctrine. He was an important policy architect in the early days of Greater Boston Community Development, Inc. (now The Community Builders). He is beginning his 16th year as board chairperson of Commonwealth Land and Trust, Inc., a non-profit consortium providing permanently affordable low- and moderate-income
housing. And he's in his 25th year as director of the Neighborhood Development Corporation (NDC) of Jamaica Plain.
"Art is the go-to person at the [Hale and Dorr, LLP] legal services center on community-development corporations (CDCs)," says Vin McCarthy, a senior partner at Hale and Dorr, LLP, founding director of Lawyers Clearinghouse on Affordable Housing and Homelessness and also a CEP professor. "He has a long track record representing the community-based CDCs as well as ethnic-based CDCs like VietAID, which is devoted to Vietnamese immigrants.
"I think (the latter is) part of his personal healing process rising out of his service in the Vietnam War," said McCarthy. "He's a great lawyer. He's rare: A general practitioner who understands lots of vagaries of law and still tries cases. A gentleman, very humble, a pleasure to work with, a great human being and a great American."
"It's very satisfying to have been involved in so many projects that have provided access to housing and jobs to low- and moderate-income residents," says Johnson, who has shepherded Jamaica Plain's NDC from a one-person endeavor to a CDC giant, boasting a $2.3 million budget and 25 staffers.
"Jamiaca Plain has gentrified alot over the years," he said, "and the opportunities for those people have decreased dramatically. There isn't any single battle I reflect on. My work in this area is a continuation of a
process that I've been involved with for years."
Even though Johnson's considerable contributions and ongoing activism hasn't required him to don handcuffs since the early '70s, he believes the war against immorality is being lost, despite the many battles won.
"I'm not that optimistic, to be honest," he says. "We're in a much worse position [vis-‡-vis] social conditions than we were when I started - almost every new affordable-housing dollar is being spent fixing the mistakes of the past and there are large, growing numbers of people who can't function economically in this society. We're not providing jobs for them, we're not providing housing for them, and all anybody wants to talk about is tax cuts. I don't see it getting any better."
Immorality shouldn't get too comfortable. It remains in Art Johnson's crosshairs.
Inside the office of … Attorney: Arthur L. Johnson
Age: 55
Years in practice: 27
Born: Toledo, Ohio
Current location: Jamaica Plain, Mass.
Firm: Law Office of Arthur L. JohnsonLaw School: Northeastern University Law School
(J.D., 1974)
Undergraduate Studies: College of the Holy Cross (BA,
Diploma: St. Francis de Sales High (Ohio)
Specialty: Community Economic Development/
Family: Daughter, Nora, 22.

*Note: Johnson's arrest with Kerry is catalogued in the documentary film "Unfinished Symphony," which won the Best Picture Award at 2001 Boston Film Festival. Produced by Johnson's friend and colleague
Bester Cram, the film traces the course of a 1971 Memorial Day Weekend veterans' protest, in which demonstrators marched backward along the Freedom Trail. Johnson and Kerry helped coordinate the march,
working out of Harvard Square office space donated by MassPAX (now CPPAX, Citizens for Participation in Politics). Called "Operation POW," the march was disrupted when the Town of Lexington refused to let vets camp on the Lexington Green. The group camped anyway and Town Selectmen sent in the police, resulting in the largest mass-arrest in state history.

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