For 41 days in 2016, artists and activists camped out on the West Side near Homan Square, one of the city most notorious — and secretive — police sites.
The #LetUsBreathe Collective transformed the vacant lot into their vision for a world where police were obsolete. At Freedom Square, safety was created by food, mental health resources, housing, education, physical wellness and restorative justice practices, all offered for free to the community that formed there.
On July 24, the collective returned to the lot with other Black-led groups to honor the abolitionist vision of Freedom Square and to call for city officials to defund the Chicago Police Department.
The demonstration at Freedom Square again offered free food, clothing, feminine hygiene products, drug addiction resources, family planning, art and mental health resources. When communities have their basic needs met, the social conditions that give birth to violence disappear, organizers said.
Across the street from the vacant lot where the group convened is Homan Square, a secret police “black site.” A 2015 report by The Guardian found that at least 7,000 people were disappeared to the off-the-books interrogation compound, and many were physically and mentally tortured into giving false confessions.
The Guardian investigation also found that those detained at Homan Square were hidden from CPD booking databases, shackled for extended periods of time and weren’t able to contact their families or attorneys.
#LetUsBreathe co-founder Damon Williams said nearly everyone in Lawndale knows a neighbor, friend, or family member who has been hidden away at Homan Square.
“Any system that has a building like this is inherently violent,” Williams said.
Mark Clements said he was just 16 when he was taken to Homan Square. Clements said police tortured him by squeezing and striking his genitals until he confessed to a quadruple murder he didn’t commit.
He was sentenced to life in prison and served 28 years until his conviction was overturned. But even after winning his freedom, he still suffers from PTSD. Clements said the legacy of police violence still lives on in the Homan black site and in the fabric of the Chicago Police.
“What have we seen different from 1981 to 2020? We haven’t seen much difference,” Clements said. “… I’m a torture survivor, but leaving out of prison, I had to beg for a goddamn job.”
Williams said when you create a society “where every person has a place to live” and has the resources they need, violence stops.
Organizer Trina Reynolds-Tyler said police don’t prevent violent crime from happening, pointing to Chicago’s low murder clearance rate. According to a 2019 WBEZ analysis, less than 22 percent of murders of Black victims are solved, compared to 47 percent for white victims. Reynolds said demonstrations like Freedom Square are needed to envision new strategies for safety that don’t rely on violence, incarceration and punitive justice.
“People have to push to create a space where we imagine a world without police,” Reynolds said. “So we don’t have police — what mechanism, what kinds of structures exist so that we can keep people safe without thinking that we need to put them in a cage.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.