About a week before the canopy and tents at Freedom Square were taken down last month, we visited the vacant plot turned protest site in North Lawndale, which is located across the street from the Chicago Police Department’s controversial Homan Square facility, and spoke to Damon Williams, 23, who was a fixture at the site for most of the 41 days it was active.
Williams is a member of Black Youth Project 100 and a co-founder of the Let Us Breathe Collective, the organization that maintained Freedom Square since it was pitched in the wake of a demonstration in July protesting the alleged police abuse and illegal detention of Chicago residents at the Homan Square site.
How did all of this come about?
This came about organically and collectively. Everything you see has been donated and is the work of people who have identified as part of our collective. We have all type of people who here consistently. Young people have been here almost every day, all day.
Food comes from people all over the city and country and we’ve been able to feed people every day. We’ve probably fed over 1,000 people this month. We’ve also been giving away clothes and books.
We don’t have a bank account. Everything you see is from the world and country supporting what we’re doing. That’s a powerful lesson in itself. This is organizing black liberation and what this proved to me is that the world believes in it, because they’ve supported us. We didn’t buy one canopy or tent or plate.
How have the police been treating you all?
I think after the day of the protest, the police made some PR blunders in trying to get people to leave without any legal basis, but it feels like they’ve been ordered to not engage us. Taking [Freedom Square] down means they have to talk about what happens in that building.
Mainstream, institutionalized Chicago media has avoided it, but the police engaging this in an antagonistic way would force the media to talk about the fact of illegal detention and torture.
Do you know, or ever encounter, anyone who claims to have been sent to Homan Square?
All the time. We have survivors who were here, who are parents of the kids. There are so many everywhere. I may take an Uber or Lyft from here and the driver may have been held in that building. I want to start recording their stories. We’re still working and developing a team around that.
How did you become involved in activism?
My sister and I are performing artists. The Ferguson moment was what activated me. From a young age I’ve been doing a lot of advocacy and teaching around financial empowerment and wealth building, so I always had a consciousness around inequality through racial, economic and a somewhat political lens.
As I was finishing school, I studied racism and social movements. I graduated from Grinnell College in Iowa in 2014. In August, Mike Brown was killed. The state started tear gassing and shooting people with rubber bullets.
Let Us Breathe was birthed from supply trips to [Ferguson] to help them build their camp site, where they camped out for 50 days demanding that Officer Darren Wilson get indicted.
From that moment, we tried helping people from Ferguson come and speak at events we organized here in Chicago. So, we became accidental organizers. Since then, we’ve done a lot of partner work with BYP 100 and Let Us Breathe.
What’s the purpose of Freedom Square?
Every day we talk about freedom, about creating a world without police and what that means. We’re trying to build systems and protocols and practices of how to engage with each other in more loving and less violent ways. We want to figure out new ways to deal with harm and to prevent harm, because we want a world without police. But in order to make that happen, we have to be unified and we have to have solutions on how we deal with violence and harm. We need to be less violent.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that we, as in black people, are the source of the violence. Black people are the victims of structural and militaristic violence that far exceeds what you hear in a drill song. I want to make sure that that narrative is not being reinforced — that we’re the violent ones.
The effect of the trauma of being tortured, of having our schools and jobs taken away for generations, of cheap guns and drugs being continuously funneled into our community with such high efficiency—that creates real trauma and real pain and as a result we’ve also internalized the harm of this society and inflicted it within our community.
So we have to figure out real solutions to how to deal with each other in more harmonious ways, because we want to get rid of this militaristic, white supremacist, racist, sexist occupation of police that’s been happening in America for the last 200 years.
We’re just continuing the struggle of the Black Power and Civil Rights movements and the leftist radical movements of the 1920s. That means addressing and being honest in a way that America is not about what this society is and working towards organizing people in the name of power to change what’s going on.
Policing and state sanctioned militarism and violence is an entry point, but it’s not just about cops. It’s not about good cops and bad cops. It’s not just about police killings. This is about the entire system, this is about banking, this is about the dollar, it’s about our two- party system.
Basically every institution works together to uphold a status quo that is drenched in racist, violent history. We’re trying to be intersectional and as widespread as possible, but also trying to have specific focuses that are tangible in order to create a liberated society for black people, and in turn, for everybody. We’re trying to create a new, better world. We’re not just yelling.