December 29, 2015
BERKELEY — Homeless since 2011, frail, underweight and suffering from respiratory issues, Mike Zint has found a place and purpose leading a protest movement that has raised the visibility of the city’s disenfranchised.
The headquarters of the movement is a tarp-covered shack on the steps of the downtown Berkeley post office, where Zint, 49, and a rotating roster of associates have conducted an occupation since November 2014 that stalled the sale of the landmark building to private developers.
That protest has now taken on another cause. Zint wants to “jump-start the Occupy movement,” and one way to do it, he said, is to occupy city halls in cities with “unjust laws.” That includes Berkeley.
“If all these groups take over city halls all over the state, someone has to listen,” he said. “We need to get the city people to understand that they’re torturing the people out there — with apathy.”
Earlier this month, Berkeley police arrested Zint for “disorderly conduct — lodging without consent” at “Liberty City,” a cluster of about two dozen tents pitched in front of Berkeley’s Old City Hall to protest new city regulations on sidewalk behavior that Zint and other advocates consider an attack on homeless people. He was released the next day.
Squatting barefoot in his tent inside the shack, a wool cap over his shoulder-length hair, Zint was pondering his next moves the other day as people dropped by, bringing food and clothes, or just to chat.
The shack is “the perfect metaphor” for what Zint is doing, said Dan McMullan, a formerly homeless activist who writes for the Street Spirit newspaper.
“It has become a focus for people to get food and clothing and get some kind of help,” McMullan said. “People like me, who work with people that are homeless but we now live indoors, we can go to Mike and work with him, and he can get people to show up at a meeting.
“He’s a bridge between the people that are indoors and the people that are outdoors.”
When it comes to getting fliers distributed in the community, McMullan said, “My first stop is right there.”
Zint has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, the result, he said, of exposure to toxic substances at a manufacturing job in Detroit in the 1990s.
In 2005, Zint applied for Social Security disability benefits, and after a protracted process that lasted four years, was denied because of “poly-substance abuse.”
“I was taking medical marijuana to keep up my weight,” he said.
He is 6 feet 2 and weighs a little over 100 pounds, he said. “I’m skinny — police profile me as a drug addict,” he quipped.
By 2011, Zint was homeless in San Francisco.
“Then came the Occupy movement.”
He was one of the leaders of the occupation of the Federal Reserve at 101 Market St. from Feb 28, 2012 to Thanksgiving 2012.
These days Zint conducts his advocacy under the name “First They came for the Homeless,” administrating the group and its Facebook page from his shack in front of the post office, his only equipment a 12-volt rechargeable gel battery and two cell phones.
The allusion to the Nazi-era poem, “First they came …” by Martin Niemöller, is deliberate. It starts with “the Socialists,” then the trade unionists, then the Jews, ending with, “Then they came for me …” Zint credits Sarah Menefee, a San Francisco poet, for coming up with the name.
Zint was born in San Diego and grew up a “military brat.” He attended junior high school on Okinawa and high school in Virginia Beach but dropped out, and got his GED some years later. He has two daughters, 18 and 20, in Virginia.
Dave Welsh of the group Berkeley Post Office Defenders said he gained a lot of respect for Zint during the battle to stop the sale of the post office.
“I think that he is a very strong fighter,” Welsh said. “Mike has a kind of unique combination of qualities: he’s very patient with people — not arrogant at all. He listens. All kinds of people talk to Mike and he will lend them a sympathetic ear. He’s a unifying person.”
Zint wants to bring back Liberty City, which he said is as much an idea as a physical presence. While it lasted in front of the Old City Hall, it was based on “self-rule,” he said
Rules included no drugs or alcohol, and an 11 p.m. noise curfew — “part of developing community standards that let people know how to act.”
As for his role, Zint said, “I don’t want to be a leader; just a coordinator.”
“What’s going on here is a social experiment,” Zint said. “The natural progress of a small group developing into a community.”
Contact Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760. Follow him at Twitter.com/tomlochner.
Claim to fame: Activist, leader of group First They Came for the Homeless.
Quote: “We need to get the city people to understand that they’re torturing the people out there — with apathy.”
When a human gets pushed around enough, fear gets replaced by anger. Anger is a great motivator. My experience being homeless did not break my spirit, it strengthened it. Now, I fight back.
A small group of determined individuals can make a difference.