DOWNTOWN — Last weekend, as thousands of protesters gathered Downtown, the Chicago Freedom School sprung into action, working to feed and transport those stuck in the Loop — but a surprise inspection by the city has the nonprofit worried about its future.
The Chicago Freedom School, 719 S. State St., provides training to primarily Black and Brown youth to learn the fundamentals of community organizing. School leaders knew their members were out on the front lines, confronted with pepper spray and potentially trapped Downtown as curfew approached, bridges were lifted and CTA service halted May 30.
The school offered a refuge. Two aldermen and other frontline organizers tweeted to let protesters know to head to the Freedom School if they needed free food, or just to charge their phones and drink some water.
The school was also organizing rides home for protesters stranded due to the curfew and CTA stoppage.
But just before 11 p.m. May 30, the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection “demanded entry” to the school, staffers said, and issued a cease and desist order for “preparing and serving large quantities of food without the proper retail food establishment license” after an “investigative walkthrough” accompanied by police officers.
Executive Director Keisha Farmer-Smith said the citation is bogus: The school had ordered pizzas from a place nearby and was giving it away.
“They did come up to the space, and even though the space is very small, they walked through the space … for at least 30 minutes taking pictures and looking through areas,” Farmer-Smith said. “My staff were never given a warrant, and when they asked if there was a warrant they were told ‘this is an inspector, that’s not a requirement.'”
The cease and desist order doesn’t carry a fine, but Farmer-Smith said, “We have been threatened with arrest and immediate shutdown should they return and find food on the premises … at any time.”
The school’s staff are consulting with attorneys to learn their rights and clear their name, she said.
Farmer-Smith said responding officers and city officials would only say “they received a complaint” about the school.
Over the course of May 30, 50-60 young protesters were in the building to grab a snack, charge their phones or wait for a ride out of the Loop, Farmer-Smith said. But she said there were never that many people in the building at one time and strict safety measures were taken to combat the spread of coronavirus.
“Every effort was taken to be safe, including masks, hand sanitizer, gloves … you had to get a glove if you were getting a piece of pizza,” she said. “You know, I don’t know what else we could have done differently.”
By the time the inspection began, Farmer-Smith said no youth were in the building after adult staff were able to coordinate rides home for everyone who needed one.
Luis Agostini, assistant director of communications for the Police Department, told Block Club an officer patrolling the area Saturday made the observation there was a “large congregation” of people at the school and initiated a “premise check” at 10:55 p.m.
“CPD did not and does not target individual businesses when it comes to enforcement and safety of city residents,” Agostini said.
Isaac Reichman, a spokesman for the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, said the “cease and desist” was given but no fine was associated with the order.
“On Saturday, [Business Affairs] was notified by the Chicago Police Department of an establishment that was preparing and serving large quantities of food without the proper retail food establishment license,” Reichman said in a statement. “This license is required as a public health measure to ensure that any establishment that prepares or serves food does so in a safe manner, and [Business Affairs] conducts thousands of these types of investigations each year. As is standard protocol, the Department took appropriate action by issuing them a Cease and Desist Order for this activity.”
Farmer-Smith said the citation doesn’t match reality.
“We do not serve food commercially. We never have,” she said. “The closest thing we come to cooking food is giving out fruits and vegetables.”
As the hours-long protest gave way to confrontations between protesters and police, the Freedom School offered a safe respite to youth protesters and funds were raised to provide trips home via ride-share. Many on social-media, including aldermen, encouraged protesters to retreat to the building.
The group is worried because they were not given a chance to challenge the citation, their landlord was given notice and they fear another inspection.
“I just want the Freedom School’s good name,” Farmer-Smith said. “We have worked hard to build a positive track record in our community. We stand with Black and Brown youth and we want to remain in good [standing]. We don’t want any problems with our 501(c)(3) status.”
Since the incident, donations have flowed in to the school to coordinate ride shares and support protesters. Farmer-Smith said she’s “thankful” to everyone who donated.
“Once we filled up with our supplies, we started sharing them with some other organizations,” including Brave Space Alliance and Assata’s Daughters, she said.
As they consult with attorneys to learn their legal options, the school will continue to work with youth activists.
“Unless the state or municipal government tells us otherwise, the Freedom School is open and we will serve young people during the hours that are allowed by law. If it’s 9 [p.m.], if it’s 8 [p.m.], whatever the curfew is, we will be serving young people,” Farmer-Smith said. “That’s what we do. We’ve done it since 2007.”
The city’s 9 p.m. curfew was lifted Sunday.
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