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Freedom Square Encampment Enters New Chapter As Chicago Residents Take Control

Forty-one days ago, in the community of Lawndale on the west side of Chicago, the Let Us Breathe Collective launched the Freedom Square occupation. It went up across from the Chicago Police Department’s notorious Homan Square facility. But now organizers from the collective are “pivoting” to “community control of the space.”

In a posted statement, the collective shares, “On August 31, the sleeping tents at Freedom Square, slowly, sadly came down. The first aid canopy came down. The arts and crafts canopy came down. The free clothing store, free library, and pantry still stand, with some produce ready to throw on the grill. The basil is growing strong in the garden.”

However, the collective acknowledges the occupation is not over. It is merely entering a new era because Lawndale community members pitched tents and vow to carry on the encampment.

Bruce has lived in Lawndale since 2005. He is an older black man, who has been a part of the encampment since the occupation’s second day. He has stepped into a leadership role, including managing supply tents with donations.

“I’m learning how to be up front instead of in the background,” Bruce shared. “I’m usually the guy that lifts things and hauls things, and clean this and clean that. But now, I’ve been pushed out front.”

He told Shadowproof it is hard, but it is growing on him. “I’m not used to being interviewed. This is my second interview in the same day.”

Bruce is doing exactly what he thinks others in the Lawndale community should be doing to continue Freedom Square, and he thinks it is “beautiful” that organizers empowered residents to take over the encampment.

“This is they’re community, and they need an active role in they’re own community to know what’s going on,” Bruce declared. “We just don’t need them here just to come and eat. We need you to be an active member. We need your ideas, your savvy, your wit, and to finish this foundation we built.”

He is out of work, and considers what he is doing at Freedom Square to be his job.

“I’m trying to build this community up, feed the homeless, clothe them, give them books to read, have an art school. We have a lady coming back tomorrow to give them haircuts and braid hair. So, we’re getting a lot of support from various organizations,” according to Bruce.

Black Youth Project 100 organizers chained and locked themselves to ladders and shut down the entrance and exit to Homan Square on July 20.The same day, the Freedom Square encampment 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.

Organizers called for the defunding of Homan Square and reinvestment of resources into the Lawndale community; justice for the family of Pierre Loury, who was killed by Chicago police; and a Civilian Police Accountability Council. They also called attention to a proposed “Blue Lives Matter” ordinance, which would make it possible for the city to criminalize protest against police as a hate crime.

As summarized by the collective, “Freedom Square accomplished more beautiful things in each of its 41 days (and counting) than we can name: we built relationships with survivors of Homan Square torture, we fed 200-300 people a day, we taught kids pottery and about Assata Shakur, we chanted, we marched, we roasted marshmallows, and in every moment, we stood for love, no matter how violent or chaotic things became.”

But there also were dark spots. A key reason behind the decision to hand control over to the community stems from the lack of organizers and volunteer support, which is necessary to “safely de-escalate” conflicts.

“Women were silenced and verbally abused,” according to the collective. “So many phones were stolen it’s dizzying. And maybe most tragically, core organizers were so physically and mentally fatigued from multi-day shifts of physical and emotional labor that we failed to successfully value and offer structure to the many contributions of volunteers and fellow organizers.”

“Too many people left Freedom Square feeling dismissed or unheard, when we proclaim to stand for the opposite.”

The collective put the past 41 days into a radical context:

The Freedom Square occupation was a laboratory for the politics of abolition. We were building what we’re in favor of, not protesting what we’re opposed to. Organizers had the opportunity to co-create a new society within the shell of the old, a world where it was easier for people to share their gifts without intimidation. It was a project of liberation and most of the structures that society has taught us are not liberating.

These are all issues the residents of Lawndale, who take over Freedom Square, will have to confront.

Organizers and volunteers struggled with family calling black women “stupid bitches.” They struggled with establishing accountability to prevent unwanted conduct. They struggled with consequences, as they shied away from creating “punitive power structures.” They struggled with stopping teenagers from throwing rocks in a place, where they had probably thrown rocks before. They struggled with banning people from the encampment.

These are all issues, which sound familiar to anyone who spent time organizing encampments as part of the Occupy movement in 2011. This is what it is like to organize life and commendably try to create space for people to feel free and respected in a community, where they feel the brunt of disinvestment and systemic oppression daily.

Asked about the police, Bruce suggested they are “perhaps” necessary, but they are not doing a good job. The streets are filled with chaos. They do not show up until well after crimes are committed. Crime has increased. A record number of murders in Chicago is expected this year.

There is a problem in Lawndale with people feeling disposable. As Bruce describes it, this results in people not “being each other’s brother’s keeper.” Everyone instead is out for themselves.

Drugs run rampant. Crime goes up. The community becomes caught in a “Catch-22,” where they are damned if they do or damned if they don’t.

But Bruce is a resident, who clearly believes all the troubles can be overcome.

“Every time a person comes through here, we tell them what we’re about. We explain to them what we’re here for, what we stand for, and ask for their involvement and support,” Bruce said.

There are Lawndale residents with tents, who sleep overnight. Some of them help around the ground and go out to talk to others in the community. They inform residents of what is happening at Freedom Square and try to get more people involved so the effort to free the community from police repression and help impoverished community members does not end.

*Correction: The co-founders of the Let Us Breathe Collective, are native Chicagoans, and the Freedom Square encampment was solely launched by the Let Us Breathe Collective.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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