From left to right: Jacqulyn Hamilton, the CFS wellness coordinator, Essence-Jade Gatheright, a member of the CFS youth leadership board, and Tony Alvarado-Rivera, director of youth programs. Photo by Jermaine W.

Late in the evening of May 30, as unrest swirled across the Loop and River North and reports of violence and looting blared from police scanners, a squad of CPD officers and investigators from the Department of Business and Consumer Protection (BACP) stood in the doorway of the Chicago Freedom School, demanding entry.

The officers said they had received a complaint that the school was illegally preparing and serving food without a retail food establishment license. The investigators, Joseph Sneed and Ira Navarro, inspected the school’s offices and tiny kitchenette and gave school staff a cease-and-desist letter. The letter threatened them with arrest if they were caught serving food again.

Several hours earlier, following protests that devolved into clashes with police, the city had raised bridges over the Chicago River, closed CTA train stations, and hastily declared a curfew. Hundreds were trapped in the Loop. Chicago Freedom School (CFS) opened the doors of its office at State and Polk to young protestors so they could shelter from the mayhem and avoid arrest while arranging rides home. The nonprofit South Loop school, founded in 2007 and inspired by Civil Rights–era freedom schools in Mississippi, offers leadership training and educates youth aged fourteen to twenty-one on social justice movement history. Staff sent word through social media and the school’s community networks that it was a safe haven. Then they ordered pizzas for the hungry arrivals.

Jacqulyn Hamilton, the wellness coordinator at CFS, headed to the school to help. “We have a history of opening up and being a safe space for young people of color downtown,” she said. “In the past we’ve offered our space as a warming center, healing space, bathroom, and place where you can decompress and figure out next steps.”

As she walked down State Street towards the school, Hamilton saw police blocking young people from leaving the Loop at multiple intersections. “You could see police in riot gear and in formation advancing [on] the crowd, essentially pushing them back and forth,” she said. She had trouble reaching the school herself because of the blockades.

Essence-Jade Gatheright, a member of the CFS youth leadership board who had attended the protest earlier in the day, also made her way to the school. Shortly after 6pm, Gatheright tweeted that the school was open and had food, water, and phone chargers for protesters who couldn’t get home. The tweet was shared over 21,900 times. People soon began arriving, and before long, dozens of youth were sheltering there.

Hamilton posted up at the school’s front door to let people in, distributing masks and gloves and reminding them to practice social distancing. She said she lost count of how many eventually took refuge there. Because rideshare services were unavailable, staff sent word through the school’s wide-ranging community network to find people who could give rides home to those stranded there. Community allies came through, and drivers “were dropping people at home and coming back for more young people” all evening, she said.

Around 11pm, at which point the office had been emptied of protesters, the officers showed up. “They said that they were investigators, but they were dressed in riot gear,” Hamilton said. “They looked like police, but the police officer that I was speaking to was insisting he was not a police officer.” A source at the BACP who spoke off the record confirmed that CPD accompanied investigators to the school that night.

A squad car sat by the curb. Despite the fact that windows could be heard shattering up and down the block, the police had a singular mission: getting inside the school. “A couple of the officers started to escalate a little bit,” Hamilton said. “You could tell that they got irritated when I was asking them questions and refusing entry and started to raise their voices, so much so that the guy from the Department of Business had to come in and quell them and quiet them down.” She said that at some points, she was “very sure” that if Sneed had not been there, the police would have physically removed her. 

Tony Alvarado-Rivera, the director of youth programs at CFS, came to the entrance to talk to the police and investigators. “And this was all while people are running [past the office], things are breaking, it’s very chaotic, very hectic,” Alvarado-Rivera said. “And they were not moving from our door. They definitely wanted to gain entry and wanted to see if we were housing protesters.”

Alvarado-Rivera eventually relented, and the police and investigators entered the empty office. They photographed the pizza boxes—which were clearly emblazoned with the logo of the pizzeria—as well as some CFS literature, and inspected the office’s tiny kitchenette, which does not have an oven or stove.

Sneed and Navarro produced a letter that accuses CFS of operating a retail food establishment without a license and orders the school to “CEASE AND DESIST conducting the business or occupation of preparing and serving food on premises not described on license for which a Retail Food Establishment license” is required. The letter, which bears Navarro’s signature, also says the police will arrest any CFS employees found to be “preparing and serving food on premises” without a license. 

“We don’t have the physical capacity to prepare food,” Alvarado-Rivera said. “We barely have a fridge. So, for them to see that [space] and say we are preparing and distributing food commercially is absurd.”

In an email to the Weekly, Tim Delaney, the president and CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits, wrote that certain nonprofits—such as soup kitchens or museums—will likely have permits in place because serving food is part of their mission-related work. “But a nonprofit purchasing some food for an impromptu gathering…likely wouldn’t apply for permits,” he wrote. “And, just as likely, legal authorities would never even think about taking action.”

“If an organization…provided shelter and food to people in need of a safe place off the streets during a curfew—whether in place due to a blizzard or public protesting—then I would think that a city’s leaders and residents would thank that organization,” Delany wrote, “not try to punish it.”

Prentice Butler, the chief of staff for 4th Ward alderman Sophia King, said the alderman had not been aware that BACP investigators cited the school and added that King’s office would look into the matter.

Brendan Shiller, an attorney from whom CFS sought guidance on how to deal with the situation, said the law cited in the order “clearly doesn’t apply” to providing free pizza that was purchased from a restaurant. “This is clear harassment,” Shiller said. 

Gatheright said she felt CPD targeted the school because they found out it was sheltering protesters. A CPD spokesperson declined to comment and said the BACP would do so on their behalf. In an email to the Weekly, Issac Reichman, the BACP Director of Public Information, wrote that CPD had notified BACP that the school “was preparing and serving large quantities of food without the proper retail food establishment license.” When asked by email why investigators had issued the citation even though the school had merely ordered pizzas, Reichman did not immediately respond.

“I definitely feel that it was an attempt to intimidate us and to intimidate young people who were protesting,” Hamilton said. “We work with young Black and Brown people as they figure out how to be change agents in their community… they came specifically looking for ways to intimidate young Black and Brown people, especially in light of the fact that it’s young Black and Brown people in the streets.”

Full disclosure: Jim Daley’s spouse is a former employee of CFS. She was the school’s operations coordinator from September 2017 to May 2019.

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Jim Daley is the Weekly’s politics editor. He last wrote about the aldermanic response to COVID-19. Kiran Misra is a writer for the Weekly who primarily covers criminal justice and policing in Chicago. She last wrote about CPD Superintendent David Brown.

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