Welcome to The Gavel's new podcast series, Behind the Bench. Here you'll find commentary on hot-button issues, updates on campus happenings, and interviews with BC community members. This year's hosts include Gavel sophomores Gabby Levitt and Meghan Keefe. Follow us on Spotify for easy access to each episode!
Gabby Levitt: Hey guys, welcome back! This is Gabby.
Meghan Keefe: This is Meghan, and this is Episode Three of Behind the Bench.
Gabby: The Gavel’s podcast. This week, we’re going to be talking about the removal of tents from Mass & Cass, Liam Conner’s hat tip shoutout, and what’s happening on campus.
Meghan: Stay tuned!
Meghan: So, today we’re going to be talking about the removal of tents from Mass & Cass. And as Gabby and I are not Massachusetts residents, we both had to kind of brush up on what was going on around there.
Gabby: So, Mass and Cass is a tent city that’s around the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard in Downtown Boston.
Meghan: And The Boston Globe called it the “epicenter of homelessness and the opioid addiction in Massachusetts,” so… pretty damning words.
Gabby: And, for a long time, it’s been seen as a threat to the safety and health of the public, seeing as crime rates have increased, diseases are spreading there…
Meghan: Yeah, and there have been multiple attempts to, you know, kind of–not clean this up, but figure out just generally what to do with it, and how you approach such a big problem that if so many, like, systemic issues coming at you from all sides…
Gabby: Yeah, especially where do homeless populations go? You know, we’ve seen these tents come up in other parts of the city, and every time there’s like a sweep-through cleanup, it just disperses into the city, and can really negative consequences for the people that are living there, because they can lose their possessions, or even contact with social service workers who were providing them resources and whatnot.
Meghan: Yeah, and I know… I mean, I think it would be helpful for at least, like, me to kind of, you know, go over the policies of what the old mayor and the new mayor are trying to do now, I mean, I know that former mayor Kim Janey announced plans to remove Mass & Cass encampments by just, like, completely clearing up the area… but when current Mayor Michelle Wu was elected, she halted that order. Which, at first, I think that a lot of people were confused by, but then she kind of introduced her own plan to remove encampments by January 12th. And she says that her difference is that she’s pursuing a “public health” approach.
Gabby: And there’s a lot of controversy surrounding local neighborhoods and business owners about how to deal with the crisis… but so far, I’m liking what I’m seeing from Michelle Wu. There were fliers posted notifying residents’ removal saying that help is available, so they were aware, and the major part of Wu’s approach is that with the removal of the tent encampments, they’re providing temporary transitional housing, and this housing is also low-threshold housing. For those of you who don’t know what that means, sobriety is not required to live in the housing. And with this temporary housing, there’s other services, like substance abuse and mental health counseling, medical and prescription drug use supervision, and in some cases, acute care for those in immediate danger of overdosing.
Meghan: I’m gonna be pessimistic for a second. I’m hoping that those services are there and that they’re continuing, but I am just a bit worried that… yes, they’re taking the tents away, and that is one… that is a good thing, you know? This was kind of creating more problems than it was, you know, helping people, but… I just, I’m not sure how long that those will stay in place.
Gabby: Yeah… and as of January 15th, CBS Boston had reported that over 150 people had found temporary housing, which is about as many people as were estimated to reside in Mass & Cass. But it’s pretty obvious that there’s more than 150 people in Boston that are homeless, so it’s like, how do we get these resources to the rest of the city if this is gonna remain long-term?
Meghan: I don’t think Mass & Cass could have really.., anyone, honestly, just the whole thing could have survived for much longer. It was–doing the research for this was really tough, it was so heartbreaking seeing… there was this Facebook group called “Missing at Mass & Cass,” and all these family members would say, you know, I haven’t seen my son in months, is he there, can you contact me, stuff like that. And you see that over and over in those types of places, you know, you hope that these people are getting help, and that this movement is going to be something to help them. But this temporary housing is only the beginning. And city councilman Frank Barker, his critique was saying that, okay, well, they’re housed, and that is great. But this housing has become in tandem with intervention and treatment. He says that he would prefer intervention and treatment first, and I agree, but I also think getting them out of a space that could be very triggering too–addiction would probably be something that you would want to do, you know, as a parallel.
Gabby: I think Wu’s… the essence of her approach is that she doesn’t just want to sweep through and move Mass & Cass to a different area, and let people disperse. It’s like, you want to fix it, you don’t want to treat the symptoms of this issue, you want to address the root cause so that these people don’t have to continue struggling without any systemic support or resources from the city.
Meghan: Yeah, exactly. I don’t know if anyone knows what PULSE is, but it’s kind of… you take Theology and Philosophy together, but there’s also a service component. And my service happens to be at the hospital Lemuel Chattuck. It is a state-funded hospital, where right now, actually, Mass & Cass temporary housing is being placed, so I can kind of see, you know, what they’re building, who’s there, and how many people they’re allowing in houses. They seem temporary. So it seems kind of that, you know, they are making the effort to house these people, but they do want to emphasize that there is going to be motive and hope to kind of get out into a more permanent sense of housing, which is good.
Gabby: I’m more so hoping that this is a long-term humanitarian approach, and that we’re treating housing as a human right, because, you know, for a lot of people you are struggling with addiction and homelessness, it’s hard to get sober if you don’t have a warm home to go to…
Meghan: Yes, exactly.
Gabby: …so I’m hoping that we are shifting our perspective into being more… emphasizing on the importance of long-term mechanisms to keep people out of being homeless in the first place. And I’m from Austin, Texas, and just this past year they implemented a really strict and detrimental homeless ban. And honestly, it just… sucks. And it’s so sad, and I’ve seen firsthand really negative consequences in my local communities, so I’m hoping that policies like these are going to spread to other cities if successful, and hopefully, her approach can act as a model for other places that are struggling with large homeless populations, like LA and New York, and how we can successfully implement a way to keep people out of these situations.
Meghan: Yes, so we are going to, you know, keep looking at this, because it is kind of a, you know, developing and recent situation, but with a critical eye.
Gabby: We’re hopeful for policies, but we’re going to be continuing to hold a high standard for how we should be treating people in our city.
Meghan: So today, we’re interviewing Liam Conner! He’s only a freshman, but he’s already written some truly great articles, discussing everything from BC’s academic advising culture to Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch.” He also makes a self-proclaimed mean chocolate chip pancake. Liam, how are you?
Liam Conner: I’m good–thank you so much for having me!
Meghan: Of course! We’re glad you’re here.
Gabby: We’re so happy to have you.
Meghan: Alright, so, would you mind giving us a brief summary of your article?
Gabby: Yeah, what’s the title of your article?
Meghan: So true! …Do you know the title? (laughs)
Liam: I don’t know the title!
Meghan: Okay, so doesn’t know the title, but…
Liam: I don’t know the title… but the gist of it is that it was just recently found, in the middle of December, thanks to ProPublico, which is an investigative journalist firm, essentially… they found that the Boston Police Department was using a lot of hidden funds to finance projects to use spyware technology. And essentially, what the spyware is doing is, it’s acting like a fake cell tower, and it’s tapping into the citizens of Boston’s… it’s tapping into their phones, and kind of tracking their movement. And of course, the intent is–or at least, the stated intent is that it’s used for missing persons or possible suspects and things like that. But really, if you’re using funds that is… these funds are not recorded or monitored by the Boston City Council. There has to be some kind of malicious intent behind that. So that was just recently found, it was about $627,000 used by the Boston Police Department. And this is just one of many cases throughout the country of police departments doing this.
Meghan: Yeah, and you talked about, you know, how it’s funded by civil asset forfeiture. I had to look up what that was, so if you mind giving a little backstory, because I think that could give some context.
Liam: Yeah, so civil asset forfeiture is essentially anything… any asset, like money, or even a home could count, anything that is believed to be part of a crime, say when police officers do something like a drug bust or something like that, any money that they believe associated with the drug trade, they will take that and seize that, and that becomes… enters the fund that we’re talking about, the term is a “slush fund,” essentially. And it’s the same ideas with police officers, as with the district attorney’s office, anything that they acquire–which could be homes, anything that’s believed to be associated and connected with a crime of some sort, is seized by the government and enters these funds. But these funds are not monitored tightly at all.
Gabby: So, what procedures, if any, are in place to monitor this sort of financial seizure?
Liam: So the… I believe the procurement office of the Boston City Council, they monitor how much is in it, and they get a yearly report of how much is in the fund, but besides that, there is really nothing strict in place. There have been some movements by, I think, the Massachusetts State Legislature has passed something that requires reporting on any use of funds by bureaucratic departments like the police department, or like, you know, the district attorney’s office.
Gabby: So inquiring not just how much money they have, but what they’re spending on?
Liam: Yeah, exactly, what they’re using this money for needs to be reported… it says it in my article, it’s maybe about… two out of the 350 local and state police departments were reporting, while the others essentially were like, oh, we didn’t know this was mandatory, we just thought this was suggested. So really, there’s nothing strict in place that’s preventing this.
Meghan: You also talked about, you know, the positive effects of the stingray technology, but do you think that those positive effects kind of have any weight when you talk about the negatives? Do you think this could be rehabilitated at all to be helpful, or…?
Liam: I think it definitely is positive. And technology is extremely helpful, and it has helped in the past to find either missing persons or convicts or suspects in a case, but at the same time, what it does is, especially since it’s being implemented and being bought by a hidden fund, and by something that’s not reported… the message behind that is kind of like, but what exactly is going on? There has to be some kind of malicious intent.
Gabby: If you can’t tell us why, and how… and what you’re using my information for…
Liam: Yeah, and if you’re not reporting it… exactly.
Gabby: And you mentioned that this is happening in cities all over. But if this is happening in an overwhelmingly Democratic city like Boston, do you think–to what extent is this happening elsewhere in the country?
Liam: I think it’s probably happening in every major city. I know… I wrote an article, actually, about a book about essentially the racialization of a Muslim, and the speaker, Sahar Aziz, mentioned in New York, the police department, in 2011, I believe, was running essentially an underground, like, surveillance kind of thing, same kind of thing…
Gabby: Slush funds…
Liam: Yeah! And what they were doing was, they were disproportionately targeting Mosques and Muslim community centers and homes of known Muslims…
Gabby: Blatant profiling.
Liam: Yeah, exactly. So it’s definitely happening in every city, no matter what, and a lot of that can be credited to kind of like, post-9/11 hysteria, and like, the Patriot Act, being one of the most controversial surveillance acts and bills ever passed, the whole kind of thing that allows surveillance to happen… so really, I think it’s happening everywhere.
Gabby: And it’s not really just an isolated incident, it’s more of a systemic issue within our police departments and spending, and the way that we view public safety… so this was a News piece, but… you know, we write in Opinions! (laughs) What are your thoughts on this issue, do you think it’s constitutional, what are your personal qualms and ethical considerations when doing this research?
Liam: Well, I think this is definitely wrong, and I think it exposes a pretty terrible issue within our systems, specifically our policing system, and I think what this calls for is more of a move from… civil asset forfeiture should no go to the bureaucracy that obtains it because it can be used in so many ways. And especially what you’re doing is… a lot of these cases, since a lot of them are like, drug busts and things like that, you’re kinda taking money away from people, who like, their only means of making money is through this illegal trade.
Gabby: So not just about transparency, it’s kind of about dispossession within communities.
Liam: And then, what they’re using this money for is to then find more of those people and take more of that money. And so there has been this massive movement through federal and state governments to kind of make the move to put this in a statewide fund, to fund schools, fund the things that we actually, I believe–I personally believe–should fund, and not focus this much on security and things like that.
Meghan: So, longtime listeners, AKA, you’ve listened to the two episodes we’ve put out, you have seen us interview two people! But, we’re starting a new segment where we ask all of our interviewees, if you could teach a class, what would you teach this class on?
Gabby: And why?
Meghan: Oh yes, and why? Liam, give your thoughts.
Liam: Um… (laughs) I think… see, I want to be a professor, and I’m an English major, so I think…
Meghan: So am I, Liam! (laughs)
Liam: Um… I think I would probably do something on Irish literature.
Liam: Um, that definitely… I don’t know, like James Joyce, and Oscar Wilde, and things like that, that’s… a few of my favorite writers, so I’d probably teach something on that. But maybe… connect it to modern Irish society, and… yeah.
Meghan: I would take your class!
Gabby: Me too.
Gabby: “Professor Connor” has a ring to it.
Gabby: Well, thank you so much for coming in with us, and answering questions.
Meghan: So fun!
Liam: Thank you guys!
Gabby: Our last and final segment of this episode–what’s up in Chestnut Hill? What’s going on on campus?
Meghan: Oh yeah. We’ve got a bird’s eye view. (I actually hated that.) So basically… what is happening is, the Schiller Institute is open! Finally! Waited two years for that bad boy.
Gabby: I have two classes in there, but… the glass windows? Very distracting.
Meghan: Oh, really? I have none. (laughs)
Gabby: I’m just a woman in STEM. (laughs)
Meghan: Okay… the building cost 150 million dollars. So, a lot more than the Million Dollar Stairs. It’s like… 150 million dollar stairs.
Gabby: In other recent news on campus, Mac has been renovated.
Gabby: And it’s awesome, they’ve got grab-and-go smoothies, they’ve got new seating, they’ve got better food, for sure.
Meghan: Yes, they do. They have really good smoothies, too.
Gabby: Yes, the smoothies? So good. Another reminder of how the Class of 2024–Meghan and I–were robbed. Also, second week of school, loving my classes, good to be back, but…
Meghan: See, it is the last day of Add/Drop, as of recording this, and I’m still trying to figure out if I should drop one of my classes or not. It’s just… why don’t we get a syllabus week? I feel like we didn’t even get a break! I’m so tired.
Gabby: We had readings due on the first day of class for our PULSE class.
Meghan: We did!
Gabby: Mhm. That was rough.
Meghan: That was–t’was! (laughs)
Gabby: T’was rough.
Meghan: I’m smarter already.
Gabby: Well, we hope everybody is having a good start to the semester.
Gabby: We are so glad that you tuned in for our third episode. Again, this is Gabby.
Meghan: And this is Meghan. And you’ve been…
Meghan & Gabby: Behind the Bench!