On a recent Wednesday afternoon in “Freedom Square,” pedestrians take refuge from the scorching heat in a hospitality tent stocked with campaign petitions, snacks, and a cooler of bottled water. A few kids dabble in watercolor painting, while adults empty trash and slice meat and vegetables for grilling. Curious community members approach to ask what has compelled these activists to brave the summer elements as long as they have.
For nearly three weeks, protesters and their supporters have encamped on this vacant west-side lot, across the street from the Chicago Police Department’s Homan Square facility. An investigation by the Guardian last fall revealed that police had “disappeared” more than 7,000 people at the site, conducting off-the-books investigations and allegedly torturing and abusing detainees. Organizers describe Freedom Square as “a community block party and occupation to imagine a world without police.” The occupation will continue indefinitely, they say, until city officials meet their demands—including shutting down Homan Square, revoking a proposed “Blue Lives Matter” ordinance, and releasing reports about the death of 16-year-old Pierre Loury, who was fatally shot by police in April.
“It’s important for activists to take their ideologies out of the meeting room and into the block,” says Kristiana Colón from within the hospitality tent. Colón is codirector of the #LetUsBreathe Collective, which is leading the occupation. “Part of being out here is having the autonomy to construct a village where we live our values every day and have the courage to resolve conflict without calling police,” she says.
A passerby on the sidewalk catches Colón’s eye. “Would you like a bottle of water?” she asks, launching an exchange that ultimately wins another supporter for the occupation and its demands. Her attention frequently shifts from coordinating volunteers and accepting donations to tidying up the area and sharing lighter moments with kids at play.
Colón and her brother, Damon Williams, drew inspiration for Freedom Square and their collective from the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri. They traveled to Ferguson two years ago this month (a journey detailed in the Reader‘s April 7 cover story, “Daughters of the Revolution“) and watched as the Ferguson group Lost Voices vowed to occupy a protest area near Ferguson police department headquarters until officer Darren Wilson was arrested for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. Colón and Williams dedicated crowdsourced funds to ensuring that the camp remained livable and sustainable. On the 47th day, police officers forcibly ended the occupation. (A grand jury chose not to indict Wilson for the shooting.)
—Activist Kristiana Colón
On July 20, Chicago-based Black Youth Project 100 staged a human blockade of Homan Square, during which 13 demonstrators were arrested, according to legal observers. Earlier that day, before leading a march in support of the action, #LetUsBreathe pitched seven tents on what’s now the occupation site. The tents were originally meant to create a visual spectacle, Colón explains, and to represent seven vital areas where resources could be redirected away from policing: restorative justice, education, employment, mental health, housing, arts, and nutrition. (They later added an eighth area, addiction treatment, after input from North Lawndale residents.)
But on the night of the march, children from the neighborhood suggested another use for the tents.
“They asked, ‘Are you all staying here? We want to camp with you,” Colón says. “That was the first sign of a desire for that kind of consistent engagement from the community.” After hearing from the kids, organizers went home that night pondering what would come next.
In the conversations that followed, they drew inspiration from a few other concurrent events. Some of the Ferguson protesters would soon arrive to attend a final rehearsal of Colón’s play reimagining their experiences, Florissant & Canfield, named for a Ferguson intersection near where Brown was killed. That same weekend, groups in North Lawndale commemorated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Chicago Freedom Movement, which rallied for open housing, quality education, and economic opportunities. These events sparked what organizers describe as an “overnight decision” to plan a longer occupation of the site.
Freedom Square now feeds more than 200 people each day, fueled by the labor of organizers and volunteers, as well as in-kind donations. At any given time, well-wishers drop off packs of bottled water, meat for grilling, fresh fruits and vegetables, first aid kits, and other supplies to keep the grounds stocked. Organizers send daily alerts over social media detailing the donations they need.
The space is also an extension of the collective’s Breathing Room programming, which offers free food and clothing, books, performances, and other vital resources, all of which are donated or exchanged. More than 20 children from North Lawndale—some of whom joined the occupation with family members—show up daily to paint and draw in the arts and crafts space, play basketball, and attend educational workshops.
Ferguson activists have also stuck around to help.
“Even though I’m not from here, the support and energy has been overwhelming,” says 25-year-old Dante Carter. “Everyone has embraced me and shown me more love than I ever expected. . . . We’re here to help the community, to feed people, to smile, and to give the kids new experiences too.”
As of publication, the occupation is on day 19. The lot’s owners have yet to show up. Police haven’t attempted to remove the activists, though Colón says some officers occasionally pull up, rolling down their windows to taunt or berate them. (CPD did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)
“We never imagined we’d be able to hold off police interference for this long,” Colón says. “And when people ask about how long we’ll be out here, we say, ‘As long as we need to be, and as long as we can.'” v