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Freedom Square Encampment Thrives In One Of Chicago’s Most Neglected Areas

For more than three weeks, an encampment has flourished across from Homan Square, a secretive police compound which has come to symbolize police repression in Chicago. It was launched by the Let Us Breathe Collective, a grassroots organization which formed after black teenager, Mike Brown, was killed by a white Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson.

During the uprising in Ferguson, the collective raised funds to provide the community with “tear gas protection and remedies, medical and hygiene supplies, and water bottles.” Similarly, Freedom Square is about building community by providing meals, books, music, and political education to residents in the North Lawndale area, which is one of the most neglected areas of Chicago.

The occupation of Freedom Square also demands the city invest in black communities, defund violent police systems and incarceration, and work to build “new systems in order to create a less violent society without police and prisons.”

More specifically, the organizers of Freedom Square call for the defunding of Homan Square and reinvestment of resources into the North Lawndale community; justice for the family of Pierre Loury, who was killed by Chicago police; and a Civilian Police Accountability Council. They also pledge to remain in the lot across from Homan Square until a “Blue Lives Matter” ordinance, which could likely be used to criminalize protest against police as a “hate crime,” is fully rejected by city council members.

Joseph Foster, a 55 year-old black man who took on the role of community liaison for the occupation, has a tent near the front of Freedom Square. There are a little more than a dozen tents on site, such as those for food, education, and healing.

Initially, Foster was reluctant to speak too much about the occupation and thought it best to find one of the organizers. However, as a resident of the Lawndale community, they encouraged him to speak to reporters about his experience and tell his story.

He was not at Freedom Square on the first day of protesting against what people call the “American equivalent of Abu Ghraib,” Foster said. The group, which put it together, was on the lot across from Homan for 16 days before he discovered it.

“I stopped by one day, and asked what they were doing in a tent. They told me what it was, and I asked what I could do,” Foster recalled. “And they said you can help us and that we have tents if you want to sleep in and stay overnight.”

It did not take long for Foster to become an active participant. He delegated himself to lead garbage pickup around the block, where Freedom Square is located. He, along with three others, also took on security. They each do three-hour shifts and walk around the camp with a flashlight making certain guests in tents are safe.

Foster keeps track of who arrives and leaves. He greets supporters and donors. He provides tours of Freedom Square. He also looks after vehicles so they are parked properly and not towed or ticketed by police. He looks after cars to prevent vandalism.

What brought Foster to the moment, where he decided to join the occupation, was the realization that if everyone takes a little time to make a contribution then a multiracial community that sets an example for the city and, in fact, the world, can blossom.

“I realize if you all can take your time out, including this interview, if you can take your time out to come here and get our side of the story, to get at the truth and not just the conflict between us and the police, but Freedom Square itself, how it is setup here, the community here,” that is important, Foster said.

“There was a reporter from France that came and did a short interview with us,” Foster explained. “We’ve had fifteen British students and their chaperone come to visit us. There was businessmen from Bangladesh that came to see Freedom Square, and they took a cab from downtown Chicago just to see us, just to come and talk to us, just to see what it was like.”

“And they also said there was a movement in Bangladesh that they patterned after the civil rights movement here in the United States, and they said they’ve made some headway with, and they’ve gotten some legislation passed by copying Dr. [Martin Luther] King and other freedom fighters here in the United States,” Foster said.

Since 1969, Foster has lived in Chicago. He moved here from Shaw, Mississippi, a city which he says is in the Bible Belt right off Highway 61.

From the 1960s, Foster remembers his mother, older brother, and two sisters, along with other family members talking about Dr. King. His mother cried when Dr. King was assassinated. She also cried when President John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. “At that time, black people figured the hope for a better life was through the Kennedys.”

Just over twenty years ago, Foster was in a bar fight. One of the men involved died from an injury he suffered. Prosecutors aggressively punished him for “murder,” when it should have been involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and served time in multiple Illinois penitentiaries.

As a result of two incidents in prison, he was put in solitary confinement for a 6-month stint twice. However, though Foster said the sentence was excessive, he took advantage of what was available while he was in prison to better his life.

“I went to school,” Foster recalled, “And at this time, the state was paying for college classes for all inmates but have since ceased paying for any inmates’ schooling. I went to school for eight years. I have two degrees, an associates in applied science and bachelor of arts, which I got within a 14-year period.”

Foster added, “I read a lot of political material while I was incarcerated. I talked with a few activists that were incarcerated. I had a chance to view how the world actually operates, and I needed to try and do something about the injustice that not only plagued the black community but other communities in the city of Chicago and really around the world. So, when I got released from prison, I started protesting with different groups, anything that I felt was valid and that was going to advance black, white, green, yellow relationships between the masses.”

“And I’ve been doing it for 20 years since being released from prison.”

Foster acknowledged the concern many had on the first day of the occupation that police would rush the encampment, tear it all down, and charge everyone with disorderly conduct. The residents live across from a police fortress, where officers come out and gawk at them. They keep track of identities, no doubt checking to see if any have outstanding warrants to they can intimidate organizers if possible. The officers drive down the street and the alley staring down residents every ten or fifteen minutes. But the people involved, including those from the community, who are treated as disposable human beings, have defied fear to build up the community, something much better than what the city government has had to offer them.

One of the reasons Freedom Square is still standing is because Lawndale is an area that most Chicagoans do not really care about. As Foster noted, “The Lawndale district doesn’t get the amount of funding from the city that it should. Streets lined with potholes. The parks are unkempt. City sidewalks grow grass three feet tall, where it would normally be cut in other areas.”

To Foster, he believes the powers that be simply hope that they stay out of the way in Lawndale and by winter go away so the city never is forced to take any sort of meaningful action.

“We may not be here for a very long time, and what I’ve gathered from the lessons I’ve learned from these freedom fighters and freedom fighters of the past—you want to at least try and raise the consciousness level of the community,” Foster shared. “And I go out talking to all the older guys and try and get them to get up here and bridge the gap between the young generation and my generation.”

“A lot of the guys, they will come up and oftentimes they will come up and say a few things. But I think a lot of people in this neighborhood, they feel what’s the use because nothing is going to change. I try to explain to them that this time things will change. We have a bigger and better plan.”

Foster passionately believes in the vision and community of Freedom Square because generous people from all over the city and its suburbs, like Naperville, Schaumburg, and Westchester, have stopped to contribute to the success of the encampment. It also is a multiracial community that is able to feed 150 people a day, which is a very powerful example to anyone interested in advancing causes of social justice.

“There was an 83-year-old white man from Westchester that said he was with Dr. King on the day that he was actually assassinated and went to the hospital with Dr. King and Reverend Jackson,” Foster shared. “He stayed and talked to me for about an hour. The man was phenomenal. And he had to be there. He knew facts and figures that I didn’t know.”

According to Foster, the elderly man planned to tell a hundred of his friends in Westchester about Freedom Square and something would be delivered to the encampment just about every day from that point onward.

There is much about Freedom Square that evokes memories of the Occupy movement in 2011. More than anything, it reminds one that the tactic of occupying space remains a tactic capable of raising the consciousness of the community to an extent necessary in order to awaken residents and inspire action.

Responding to the fact that Occupy encampments were able to last through the winter months, Foster replied, “I would like to have a permanent encampment here to constantly remind the powers that be that we are watching you like you are watching us. And if we can get anything going along the line of winter supplies, I’m willing to stay as long as is necessary to evoke positive change in the Lawndale community and in society in general.”

He applauds and congratulates the youth of Freedom Square, who have taken the lead and are at the forefront of the occupation.

“The young people that you see milling all around you, they’re going to be the ones to carry the torch and to change things,” Foster concluded. “It’s like a dream come true. You’ve got every race, creed, and color here in the Lawndale community, which is considered to be the worst side of the city of Chicago.”

Foster continued, “It has been spectacular,” and, “There’s a lot of decent, beautiful black people, and white people, and Latino and Mexican people that live here. And it’s through their support that we’ve been able to feed everybody for 25 days, a minimum 150 meals a day.

The same day, Jose Landaverde, a community organizer and priest from Our Lady of Guadalupe Anglican Catholic Church in Little Village, a largely Hispanic area on the south side of Chicago, led a small solidarity march to Freedom Square. He stood outside Homan Square and urged the Latino community to support the occupation.

“The reason why we are here is because we want the Latino community to join this Freedom Square camp and shut down this building because they are investing millions of dollars in police in those buildings, and the city is not investing money in education,” Landaverde declared.

“We have a lot of what we call political prostitution, a lot of aldermen and people who work for the city who prostitute themselves, selling themselves to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, to have our communities in poverty and under police repression.”

Landaverde added, “Then we are here to pray. We give a thank you and applause to all those people out here, all of those who are here in this camp because this is how we are going to get social change.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."