Linda Winn spends her days trying to save lives, using chest compressions, rescue breathing, and the overdose-reversing drug naloxone to care for people on the streets of Boston who struggle — as Winn long has — with drug addiction.
Other times, the 52-year-old vice president of the Boston Users Union hands out sterile syringes, she said, and collects needles discarded near Massachusetts Avenue and Albany Street, where a rally she had organized to demand respect for those seeking addiction services there was held on Saturday.
Cops aren’t all bad, Winn is quick to say, but on these streets at the edge of the South End and Roxbury, interactions with police are often tense.
“They’re always telling us to go on the other side of Mass. Ave. They’re always pushing us around like cattle,” Winn said, her voice catching with emotion. “And they tell us, ‘Go in the shelters, where you belong.’ . . . We go in McDonald’s, and it’s like we’re poison. It hurts.”
On Saturday, more than 100 drug users, medical students in white lab coats, and other supporters marched up Massachusetts Avenue calling for an end to a police crackdown in the area they say has been going on since an Aug. 1 attack on a corrections officer.
For nearly two months since, protesters said, police have continued to use dehumanizing language and tactics, including stop-and-frisk patdowns, to disperse homeless people and those struggling with mental illness and addiction as they increasingly bump elbows with residents who own multimillion-dollar brownstones.
“One incident happened on Aug. 1, and 58 days later they’re still taking it out on us that are still down here, when the people that are here had nothing to do with what went on,” said Ralph, 48, president of the Boston Users Union, which promotes the safety of users.
“The people that [were responsible for] what went on got taken off the street, but it’s continuous stopping, frisking, all that stuff. We don’t want that,” added Ralph, who declined to give his last name.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh did not comment on Saturday’s rally but pointed to an earlier statement in which Walsh, a recovering alcoholic, expressed empathy for those struggling with addiction and called for them “to be treated with dignity.”
“We must continue to balance the need to keep our neighborhoods safe and focus on the quality of life issues that are being impacted, while getting those who need us the most the care and support they need to recover from this disease,” Walsh said.
Saturday’s protesters marched to music performed by the Boston Area Brigade of Activist Musicians and the Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band. They carried signs that read, “Humans aren’t trash,” “#CleanSweep is dirt,” and “Drug user rights are human rights.”
“Addicts are people. It’s that simple. Have compassion,” said Crawford, 28, a Gloucester resident who goes by a single name. “Rounding people up off the streets, throwing away their few personal possessions, putting them in jail for the crime of having nowhere to go — what is that? That’s sick.”
About 15 of the marchers wore white lab coats, most of them medical students from area universities.
Amanda Snow, who studies at Boston University School of Medicine, suggested that the discussion needs to be reframed in a way that treats everyone equally.
“Members of the South End community that don’t have a house or an apartment here are often not treated as part of the community, and as such they don’t have access to the resources that many other members of the community have,” said Snow, 25.
Dr. Dinah Applewhite, an addiction medicine fellow, recalled witnessing an Operation Clean Sweep raid on Aug. 6 and taking a photo that was shared hundreds of times on Twitter, of a city garbage truck crushing a wheelchair.
“It was incredibly devastating, and I almost wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t been there,” said Applewhite, 31. “I saw people sit there and cry as their belongings were thrown away in the back of a garbage truck, and I literally watched as the crusher on the garbage truck came down and smashed the wheelchairs.
“It just captures so much about what’s wrong with Operation Clean Sweep,” she continued, “taking things from such vulnerable people and then afterwards blaming it on them.”