On Oct. 19, Massachusetts Republican Governor Charlie Baker, Democrat Attorney General Maura Healy and Mayor Kim Janey declared a “public health emergency” in Boston. Why?
In order to call out forces of the state to eradicate a tent city with hundreds of structures housing people experiencing homelessness. A day later, the nearest major city, Providence, R.I., announced similar draconian measures, outlawing sleeping in tents.
For months during the pandemic lockdown, a multinational city within the city has developed in Boston’s largest food warehouse district, also known as “Mass. & Cass,” located in the Newmarket neighborhood. The tent city grew up in the shadow of the Boston Food Bank, an AmazonFresh warehouse, meat packing plants, Boston Medical Center, Citizens Bank and the skyscraping Suffolk County House of Correction.
Encampment residents are mostly people who use drugs (PWUD), forced to the fringes by a stigmatizing society, as well as unhoused people forcibly evicted by landlords and people with debilitating health conditions.
The residents of Mass & Cass, many who have earned meager livings on the streets of greater Boston for years, have been pushed into the Newmarket neighborhood by rampant gentrification and their search for medical services as pandemic-era capitalist crises have effectively eliminated housing, health care, even unemployment and food benefits for these workers.
Æzra El, a harm reduction specialist and ACT UP activist who works in the neighborhood, told Workers World: “My people down here have constructed their own housing and sort out their own meals, watch out for each other, clean their own spaces. The Boston Food Bank will beef up security, but you won’t see them setting up a tent to feed people. Local property holders and businesses will fight tooth and nail against supervised consumption sites and transitional housing for PWUD, but still complain about tents and public consumption by PWUD. Developers are building million-dollar condos across the city, but not for my people down here. They’re looking to run them out of town.”
Corporate media has followed the line put out by the Newmarket Business Association, which has an Amazon elephant in its boardroom. The business people charge all who reside in Mass & Cass with being criminals who need to be saved from themselves.
Headlines push “the sheriff’s plan” for mass arrests, “mobile courthouses,” “clean sweeps,” private armed security, surveillance systems and locking up people who have problematic relationships with drugs into “treatment” at the county jail.
In recent weeks, the state erected miles of fencing around the area as its public health response, while ordering police to harass, arrest or involuntarily commit to “treatment” anyone who refuses the city’s woefully inadequate shelter system as an alternative to eviction from the street community.
ACT UP Boston mobilizes
In emergency response to these attacks, the reinvigorated Boston chapter of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) has launched a mass media campaign of flyers, memes and a petition with the following demands:
— Hands off the tent city in Newmarket! Immediately provide sanitation and hygiene resources. No more sweeps!
— Homes, not shelters, not detentions! No exceptions.
— No new police force, no new security, no mass surveillance.
— Free science-backed treatment on demand for problematic relationships to any substances and/or behaviors, now!
— Culturally responsive and expanded access to HIV medication and PrEP, and expanded HIV prevention education, now!
— Supervised consumption spaces in Massachusetts, now!
ACT UP — “a multinational, multigenerational, multigender organization united in anger” — was formed in the 1980s to address systemic inaction in the face of the growing HIV/AIDS crisis. This legacy is ongoing, and ACT UP in Boston and elsewhere continues on the front line of the struggle to support not only people with HIV or at risk of becoming HIV positive, but anyone marginalized by the ruling class and its greed.
The opening of the Oct. 19 statement by ACT UP Boston scathingly critiques the attack on the tent city: “We unequivocally denounce the executive order released by the Janey administration, which essentially reauthorizes and gives a progressive veneer to the same disproven clean-sweep methods carried out under the previous administration.
“The order serves only to embolden the racist, sexist, ableist and poor-hating Boston police department and Suffolk County sheriff to further their programs of harassment, rights violations, incarceration and forced treatment.
“The notion that the woefully inadequate city shelter system is a valid alternative to the encampments ignores the fact that many unhoused neighbors have chosen to risk scorching heat, freezing cold and unsanitary conditions simply to avoid that system.
“The increased police activity outlined in the order is in effect a declaration of war against people experiencing homelessness and people who use drugs. State violence and neglect is the root of this public health emergency; its increase will run antithetically to its resolution. . . .”
Updates and ACT UP’s action plans are available at Linktr.ee/actupboston.
Steve Gillis is an elected officer of USW Local 8751, the Boston School Bus Drivers’ union, whose membership voted unanimously at its Oct. 20 meeting to endorse ACT UP’s petition and demands.