Embodying the Spirit of Change in North Lawndale, Chicago - Pacific Standard

Embodying the Spirit of Change in North Lawndale, Chicago

Exploring the rising tensions between Chicago police and citizens.
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One morning last September, Gary Brown unzipped the front flap of the tent he had been living in for three weeks and stepped into the heat of the day.

Holding a hand above his eyes to block the sun, he surveyed the scene in front of him—a dusty lot in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood—looking to see what had changed since the night before. Not much: Two other sleeper tents were still there next to his on the lot's grassy south edge. The improvised, tarp-roofed kitchen was still standing. So was a small library tent overflowing with donated books and a "store" tent crammed with free clothes and toiletries. People were setting out tables and covering them with back-to-school supplies: backpacks, notebooks, pens, and pencils. A few neighborhood children were cautiously browsing. Others were getting their faces painted at a crafts station.

"Well, OK," Brown said, nodding. At 46, the combination of his speaking style (slow and careful) and glasses (rectangular, black-framed) gives him a faintly professorial air. "I guess we're still here."

Leading me around the lot, he recalled the evening he and his fiancée, Rebecca Thomas, moved in. Out for an evening stroll, the couple spotted the bustling encampment and stopped by, curious to see what the campers were up to. The people he met explained that they were activists, using the vacant lot to embody the spirit of a better North Lawndale—a place of mutual aid and celebratory pride instead of deprivation and police control. They were calling it Freedom Square, and they'd already been there for more than two weeks, sharing stories, serving meals, and talking through the forces—internal and external—that warped justice in the predominantly black and economically impoverished neighborhood.

"We've lived here our entire lives, and we never saw anything like it," Brown said. "Especially right here."

He pointed across the street at a warehouse-like brick structure, its parking lot surrounded by a fence topped with rows of barbed wire. Eighteen months earlier, the Guardian had begun publishing an investigative series about the building, widely referred to as Homan Square, that appeared to confirm many Chicagoans' worst fears about their police department. Officially, it is an evidence-storage facility. But police records obtained by the newspaper revealed that officers were taking suspects there to detain and interrogate them without charging them or providing access to lawyers (in many cases, charges were filed later). In some cases, according to former detainees, these interrogations involved physical abuse. The department denied wrongdoing and later fought civil-rights litigation over its practices at the facility.

"I was never tortured," said Brown, who remembered being held in Homan Square three times. "But I was treated unfairly, denied my rights. And, over the years, have I met people who were tortured, or abused, or whatever you want to call it? Of course. Probably most people in North Lawndale have."

Brown and Thomas liked what they heard that first night. By the next morning, they'd returned and set up a tent. It wasn't just the message. It was also the encampment itself—the sense of community, the pleasure of publicly demanding more from the world while simultaneously taking responsibility for a small piece of it. Plus, the couple was looking for a place to live. Through the summer, they'd been staying with members of Brown's extended family while he looked for work, but the situation had become crowded and tense. Their tent was an upgrade, at least in terms of privacy.

"It felt good," Brown said. "Not easy, but good." His favorite memories might have been the nights when neighborhood children would gather in the lot to watch movies projected from someone's laptop onto a white sheet—the electricity and extension cords supplied by sympathetic neighbors. Or maybe the best moments were the emotional visits from people who had been held and beaten at Homan Square. He couldn't decide.

A version of this story originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

A version of this story originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

Early on, some campers had settled on a practical demand: They would camp until a "Blue Lives Matter" ordinance proposed by a Chicago alderman was withdrawn or defeated. (It would have expanded Chicago's hate-crime laws to cover police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel.) But it was clear, from what Brown and everyone else told me, that the demand meant less to them than the atmosphere of possibility at the camp. People from across the city and beyond stopped by at all hours with donations and messages of support. And when police walking to work from a nearby parking lot stared at the campers, the campers stared back, or reveled in ignoring them. "We're here to imagine a world without police, and to help everyone else imagine it too," the playwright Kristiana Rae Colón said. She tipped her head in the direction of Homan Square. "Even them." Brown didn't quite agree; ultimately, he thought, society needed police. But he still liked being there.

On the day Brown and I met—day 45 of Freedom Square—the project's future was uncertain. The encampment had been started spontaneously, with no advance planning, by a small collective of young Chicago artist-activists called #LetUsBreathe (Colón is a founding member). For weeks, the group's members had been slipping closer to exhaustion as they battled nights of torrential rain, tried to mediate infighting without betraying deeply held ideals about justice and control, and did their best to provide a modicum of round-the-clock security. On day 41, they had posted an announcement online, explaining that they could no longer assume responsibility for the project they'd started.

When I returned to the square the following week, Brown and Thomas were the only people there. Activists were still dropping off supplies, they said. And the kitchen, library, and store were still standing. But without daily upkeep, they were slouching into ruin. "Kids come by and knock stuff over, take stuff," Brown said. "It's sad."

Looking for lunch, we got in my car. Between driving instructions, Brown and Thomas pointed out personal landmarks (churches they'd attended, schools where they'd grown up) or, in some cases, vacant lots where landmarks used to be. In a few, grass was growing up through the cracks in the pavement, stretching five or even six feet tall.

When I stopped by the lot again the following week, Brown and Thomas' tent was gone. When I called Brown, he told me that life in the tent had become too difficult. Now they were living in an unfinished home that he was helping renovate. They had a few weeks to find another place to stay. "When we moved in, it was about feeling free together, as a community," Brown said. "I liked that feeling. I'd like to feel it again, I really would. And I'd like it to last."

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