imagining a world
In Summer 2016, the #LetUsBreathe Collective launched Freedom Square, a 41-day overnight occupation, protest encampment, and block party opposing Homan Square, the CPD 'black site' where thousands of Chicagoans have been illegally detained and tortured. Initially, the Collective launched the occupation at the corner of Homan & Filmore on Chicago's West Side in support of BYP100's civil disobedience blockade which shut down police traffic in and out of the facility on July 20th. We relaunched on July 22nd in support of the #BluestLie Collaborative, a coalition of activists opposing a proposed "Blue Lives Matter" city ordinance which would expand hate crimes protections to police officers.
However, the encampment grew into a community laboratory for police abolition and divestment, providing free clothes, free books, free meals, free arts programming for the children of North Lawndale, and free sleeping tents for community members, protestors, and neighborhood residents experiencing homelessness. We believe that police do not keep us safe, that American policing is an inherently violent system, and that investing in that system escalates rather than heals intra-community violence. Freedom Square was built on the principle that the resources necessary to keep communities safe are: restorative justice, education, employment, housing, mental health & physical wellness, addiction treatment, access to nutritional food, and art. The model for Freedom Square grew out of our Breathing Room event series and our #FreeDay and #RememberingRekia actions in Douglas Park. The final reflection below shares some of the challenges of the occupation and our experience with putting our bodies on the line to embody an abolitionist politic and imagine a world without police.
Freedom Square Phases Out Overnight Occupancy after 41 Days of Loving Lawndale & Imagining a World Without Police
CHICAGO, September 1, 2016 - On August 31, the sleeping tents at Freedom Square, slowly, sadly came down. The first aid canopy came down. The arts & 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.
Across from Homan Square, the tent city occupation was a spontaneous decision born out of a spectacle of civil disobedience on July 20th. We at the #LetUsBreathe Collective had only six small tents, a grill, a will to love Lawndale beyond shutting down traffic for a couple of hours in front of the notorious CPD black site, and a vision for a world without police. We had no meetings, no budget, no dedicated staff, just a handful of people who were willing to camp out. We didn’t know if we’d hold it through the night, but hoped the goal of opposing ‘Blue Lives Matter’ legislation, calling out the illegal detention and torture happening across the street, and building consciousness for abolitionist politics would garner support. We figured however long we could hold the space, we’d use it as a tool to give out free clothes, free books, free food, and cold water to the community.
What we failed to do early on was implement tangible accountability protocols for ourselves and the community members that came through the space. We posted our Brave Space Agreements, and used them as guidelines for how we treat the space and each other, but we had no concrete mechanism beyond peace circles for handling conflict. And when the children of Freedom Square began asking their parents to camp with us, we welcomed an opportunity to build a village on tenets of political education and artmaking, but we had no structured childcare for what became a 24-hour youth engagement center. Still, a diverse array of workshops —from rumba to zine-making to screenprinting to science to journalism, and so much more— kept them engaged for blocks of time, but the moment to moment cleaning, building, and maintenance of the space stretched organizer capacity to our limits, and we simply could not give kids structured attention every moment of the day.
What we also failed to do was maintain collective vision about the values and operation of the space. We wanted to empower everyone to take ownership of and claim leadership in the space, so folks with all levels of organizing backgrounds (or not) and intersectional analyses (or not) positioned themselves as leaders. #LetUsBreathe values were not always embodied by folks running things, and that strained our relationships with volunteers and community members. And often, it was unclear whether our collective values were really collective at all, because we were all so physically stretched in maintaining the 24-hour occupation that it seemed impossible to get everyone in a circle to meet, talk, refine ideas, and strategize.
How do you hold your cousin accountable when he’s calling Black women who come volunteer on the grill ‘stupid bitches’? After you’ve had all the ‘accountability talks,’ when the behavior doesn’t change, how do you enforce consequences without replicating the punitive power structures you’re there to oppose? How do you keep teenage boys from throwing rocks on what used to be a vacant lot where they always threw rocks before you got there? How do you ban someone from a space you don’t own? How do you send a child home when their family has locked them out?
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 Freedom Square also hurt a lot of people. Women were silenced and verbally abused. 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.
What we faced in these past 41 days is in large part due to the fact that building a world without police is hard work.
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.
The occupation did not end because we ran out of energy or we were overwhelmed by the logistics of the site. It ended because it illustrated the tension between the world as it is and the world as we imagine it to be.
Organizer capacity and volunteer support has dwindled to a level that cannot safely de-escalate the conflicts of the space, so we’ve downsized our operation, packed up some tents, and asked folks not to camp overnight. But as we write this, Lawndale community members are pitching their own tents and vowing to carry into a new era of Freedom Square. And while the founding organizers of Freedom Square have maxed out their physical capacity to be responsible for the safety of the space 24 hours a day, we look forward to tomorrow’s free hair braiding and fade exchange and Sunday’s big Back to School Block Party. As autumn approaches and young people return to school, #LetUsBreathe will turn its attention toward finishing the rehab of a building on the south side that will become our headquarters, toward continuing the fight to shut down the CPD Homan Square facility, and toward healing the relationships that Freedom Square has harmed. Meanwhile, on Homan & Fillmore, we continue to stand for love, fight for freedom, and build community.
As we pivot into local self-determination and community control of the space we reflect on all that's transpired and agree that the vision of an abolitionist future has never seemed more possible. We have left a day’s supply of food and water at the campsite -- we invite everyone to bring their grills, their time + labor, and their love to the Lawndale community.