Mental Health Movement organizer Ronald Jackson decried alderman Willie Cochran's plan to remove the "Healing Village" from an empty lot in Woodlawn. Credit: Maya Dukmasova

A week after indicted 20th Ward alderman Willie Cochran joked about being a “gangster” at an Aldermanic Black Caucus fund-raiser, constituents are pushing back against his plan to evict a pop-up mental health services project from a vacant lot in Woodlawn.

Advocates from Black Lives Matter Chicago, the #LetUsBreathe Collective, and Southside Together Organizing for Power’s Mental Health Movement said at a press conference Thursday that earlier this year Cochran gave artist, art therapist, and SAIC instructor Leah Gipson permission to create an installation centered on mental health on a vacant stretch of city land along 63rd Street, between Woodlawn and Greenwood. Gipson (who is out of town and couldn’t attend the press conference) was allowed to use the space between June and October, they told reporters.

Gipson organized community members to create the “Healing Village,” where people could attend to their mental health. Yoga instructors, gardeners, social workers, and counselors have donated their skills and time to offer free classes and talk therapy sessions on the site since early July. Project Fielding—an organizations that teaches women and gender nonconforming people to use power tools and design structures—built a couple of plywood sheds for storage and meetings. Over the last several weeks the “village” took on the air of #LetUsBreathe Collective’s Freedom Square encampment, which offered free food, social services, and activities for kids in the Lawndale community during the summer of 2016. The organizers of the Healing Village brought tents, provided food and water, pitched a small vegetable and herb garden. The vacant lot has become a friendly space to gather and process both personal and collective struggles.

But Cochran—who didn’t return calls for comment—apparently doesn’t approve of the project. At the press conference, Mental Health Movement organizer Amika Tendaji said the alderman was moving to evict the encampment if it’s not gone by Sunday. She said that after driving by the Healing Village at its official launch in early July Cochran told Gipson the space would need to be cleared by August 5 at the latest and that she’d need a $1 million insurance policy for the structures in the meantime. Though organizers have raised enough money to buy insurance for the site, Cochran hasn’t budged from his eviction plan, Tendaji said.

The “Healing Village” has become a rallying point for those who’ve lost loved ones to police and street violenceCredit: Maya Dukmasova

Nortasha Stingley, whose 19-year-old daughter Marissa Boyd-Stingley was shot and killed in 2013, said she’d been enjoying the empty lot as a place to pray and walk in the mornings since moving to Woodlawn in February. The arrival of the Healing Village made the lot even more important for her. “I feel that this lot should be for parents who have suffered loss to gun violence,” she said. “We need a space where we can come, we can meditate, we can be creative and we can have peace . . . throughout the city, with so much violence going on, we need some type of comfort.” 

Woodlawn’s only public mental health clinic was among those shut down by the city in 2012. At the time, Mental Health Movement members and other organizers chained themselves to the doors of the clinic in protest; nearly two dozen were arrested.

“My point of view is he’s trying to shut it down because there’s no money involved in this for him,” said Dorothy Holmes, whose son, Ronald “Ronnieman” Johnson III, was killed by Chicago police officer George Hernandez just eight days before officer Jason Van Dyke killed Laquan McDonald in 2014.

“The healing space takes a lot of stress off of me when I come here,” Holmes continued. “We’re not here trying to start no riot or no crime or anything like that.” Immediately after its launch, the Healing Village served as a rallying point and decompression space for activists who clashed with police in the wake of the July 14 shooting of Harith Augustus in South Shore. There’s a string of colorful triangular flags bearing the names of others killed by CPD officers that hangs between two trees on the lot

Though the organizers claim Cochran flip-flopped on his support of Gipson’s work once he saw that she wasn’t just painting a mural on the site, WBBM Radio has reported that Cochran—a retired police officer—denies ever approve of Gipson’s use of the city land. He also claimed the encampment doesn’t have community support and that the land—which has been vacant for more than a decade—is currently open for development proposals.

The “Healing Village” has become a rallying point for those who’ve lost loved ones to police and street violenceCredit: Maya Dukmasova

is something that’s good in the community, the community has thrived off of it, embraced it.”

The organizers made it clear they wouldn’t be forced out without a fight. “Probably Sunday we could expect bulldozers,” Tendaji said, but they plan to stand their ground. “There will be a corps of us here who are determined to resist and stay…people will be here trying to hold the space.”