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Woonsocket Mayor leads encampment raid with Governor McKee in tow
The tour group, which was made up of approximately 25 people, made unannounced appearances at three encampments.
Here's what I've pieced together so far, this story is developing and will be updated:
On Friday Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee and unknown members of his staff accepted an invitation from Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt to tour several tent encampments in the city. Members of the Woonsocket City Council, including Council President Christopher Beauchamp, joined the tour. They were accompanied by as many as ten officers from the Woonsocket Police Department. It is unknown if anyone on the tour had any expertise in social work, harm reduction, poverty, or housing issues.
The tour group, which was made up of approximately 25 people, made unannounced appearances at three encampments. At the third encampment, located somewhere in or around Hamlet Bridge, police arrested one or two people after witnessing drugs and guns.
[Edit, October 2nd, 2023: Without mentioning the presence of the Governor or the Mayor, channels 10 and 12 reported over the weekend that the two men arrested were 53-year-old Junior Martinez and 30-year-old Richard Bittner. They “were charged with possession with the intent to deliver a controlled substance, conspiracy, carrying without a license or permit to carry a concealed pistol or revolver (ghost gun), possession of prohibited large-capacity feeding devices, and possession of a firearm while delivering or manufacturing,” and “Martinez was also charged with possession of [a] firearm [by a] person convicted of a violent crime.”]
Council President Beauchamp has told several people I've spoken to that he will talk about his experience of being on the tour at Monday evening's City Council hearing.
Advocates who work in the unhoused and harm reduction field fear that Mayor Baldelli-Hunt will use this incident as an excuse to come down hard on people living in encampments, and some have learned, those these reports are unconfirmed, that police are telling people in as many as 16 separate Woonsocket encampments that they have at most two weeks to vacate.
Sadly, there is no place for them to go. There are not enough shelter beds in Woonsocket, or even statewide, to accommodate the need.
What the Baldelli-Hunt administration hoped to demonstrate with this tour is unknown. The Governor's motivation for taking the Mayor up on the offer of a tour is also unknown. Calls to the Mayor and every member of the Woonsocket City Council were unanswered and no return calls were made at the time of this writing. An email to Governor McKee's communications lead, Matthew Sheaf, has been ignored, as seems to be the policy now.
Given the history of the Governor and the Mayor in dealing with unhoused Rhode Islanders, it isn't easy to imagine that the motives behind the tour were altruistic.
Mayor Baldelli-Hunt has long taken a hardline, not against homelessness, but against unhoused people.
Governor McKee’s actions against people experiencing homelessness have emboldened Mayors in Cranston, Warwick, and Woonsocket to take extreme action against encampments.
While the Governor was touring homeless encampments in Woonsocket, the Providence Police, at his urging, were arresting Michal Nugent for "trespassing" after a televised conversation with right-wing radio and television shock-jock Gene Valicenti.
During the 1880s slum tourism, also known as poverty tourism, ghetto tourism, trauma tourism, or simply "slumming" was a common practice of rich London citizens visiting the impoverished East End. On these visits, the tourists were accompanied by police officers. The motivation for such visits was not to better understand the conditions of the people there or to bring about social change. It was to satisfy a voyeuristic appetite for what some have labeled "poverty porn."
"Slum tourism sparks considerable debate around an uncomfortable moral dilemma," writes Christine Bednarz over at National Geographic. "No matter what you call it—slum tours, reality tours, adventure tourism, poverty tourism—many consider the practice little more than slack-jawed privileged people gawking at those less fortunate."
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