Saturday, November 17, 2007

Homeless Civil Rights Project, 1990-1991

I'm in Boston this weekend to give a talk at First Church Cambridge, which was a center of Boston homeless activism in the late eighties and early 90's. I'm here to give their annual Mitch Snyder Lecture, which feels like a huge honor, even though Jim Stewart, the long-time shelter director here, would be the first to lower expectations in that regard. He said I could dis anyone I wanted, so long as I don't swear.

Why does everyone always feel like they need to tell me that?

Jim Stewart was a Mitch Snyder lieutenant in this region and took me under his wing during my boiled potatoes and shoplifted cheese period that ensued after college. I worked three or four overnights a week at the shelter, and this paid enough to keep things together while I was doing Street Magazine and learning to be a homeless activist. After a year of this, I had enough street level organizing under my belt to be a credible candidate for a paid activist gig at Boston Jobs with Peace.

I was hired as Executive Director, but, being the only staff person there, that was a bit of a joke. There were no benefits. I saw my first dentist in twenty years in around 1997, when the years of neglect drove me to the free clinic at Yesler Terrace for some extensive work.

But in 1987, $18k seemed like a fortune, and benefits just weren't expected. My job was to make the organization look much bigger than it was, and that I knew how to do. This morning, I was able to scan the JwP photos that remain from that period into my laptop. The above was my favorite.

This was taken at a press conference we held at Au Bon Pain to announce some protocols they'd developed after the Homeless Civil Rights Project I'd organized targeted them for sometimes refusing to serve homeless people. Au Bon Pain was sort of like a proto Starbucks on the east coast, but with croissants.

The agreement was a bit of a slam dunk piece of organizing. Burger King was a lot harder. We also got an asshole — known by the homeless as RoboCop — who terrorized folks on the Boston Common transferred to a desk job. That was harder still. The HCRP was in the news a lot in those days.

The guy I hired to be the Director of the project had been a leader in the Walpole prison uprising while he was in for bank robbery. Jack McCambridge was a jail house lawyer, a natural organizer, an exceptional tactician, and had plenty of charisma, whether he'd been drinking or not.

I fired him. Three times. When the last one stuck, he mobilized every ally he had and put me through the wringer.

I was hanging out at Spare Change today talking with James Shearer, one of the co-founders of that paper (which I organized after the HCRP in 1992), and Macy Delong, who I knew from homeless organizing even before I started at First Church. It's kind of cool that these people are still around doing the work. We've all grown.

We got to talking about Jack. Macy told me Jack had been out of prison for two years. He killed Dick Doyle, the man who had been his closest friend in the organization. For awhile, they were actually co-directors. Emily, the new ED at Spare Change was there and hadn't heard the story. She got it in three part harmony. It was fun watching her eyes get big.

The first I heard was when Jim called me at home with a heads up that The Boston Globe would be calling for comment. I turned on the TV and there it was.

A Bread & Jams van was spotted by police weaving down I-128. This was a homeless-run outreach organization based in Cambridge. Dick had become one of their drivers. When the police went to pull them over, the van sped up. A chase ended with the van going off the road and rolling. Dick was thrown and crushed. Jack was pinned behind the steering wheel, unconscious.

When Dick's body came into Boston Hospital, they realized he'd died before the crash of a gunshot to the head. The gun was on Jack.

I said something to the Globe about my shock and surprise, and that Jack was a kind and gentle man. I've always regretted that quote.

After Jack was fired, his next six months were spent in a haze of hard booze and coke. His behavior had become increasingly threatening. No one really knew what went on between Jack and Dick. There had been an incident a few days prior involving a baseball bat and a car. Jack was out of control.

Whatever happened on the night Dick died, there were no witnesses.

Dick, a middle-aged working class guy from Southey who had beat his own alcohol problem, was beloved. Lots of people came to the funeral. Most were crying.

During the trial, Jack fired his lawyer and went pro se. A murder trial. The media loved it. The Boston Herald did anyway. High profile homeless activist kills homeless activist and fires his lawyers. What's not to like?

His defense was two-pronged. A.) I was in a blackout and remember nothing, and B.) Dick was a child molester. This last part was a bizarre twist, and there wasn't any supporting evidence.

I didn't get it. Eventually the logic dawned. Jack was a guy who did better in prison than on the outside. He stayed relatively sober and he knew the rules. Behind those walls, he rose to the top of the food chain. Child molesters were at the bottom.

He'd shrewdly combined his defense with his re-entry strategy. Jack was sentenced to eight years. Amazing. The absence of witnesses got the charge bargained down to manslaughter.

Even more amazing: last year, he was asking around the homeless scene in Cambridge to see if anyone was hiring. The answer was no.


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