CHICAGO — The Chicago Freedom School is suing the city after organizers say they were unfairly targeted with a cease-and-desist order for feeding protestors trapped downtown during massive protests against police brutality.
On May 30, the school at 719 S. State St., which teaches primarily Black and Brown youth the fundamentals of community organizing, acted as a refuge to protesters who were trapped downtown as curfew approached. School leaders knew their members were out on the front lines, confronted with pepper spray and potentially trapped as bridges were lifted and CTA service halted.
Two aldermen and other organizers tweeted to let protesters know to head to the Freedom School if they needed free food or water. The school was also organizing rides home for protesters.
But just before 11 p.m. May 30, the city’s 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.
Then-interim Executive Director Keisha Farmer-Smith said the citation is bogus: The school had ordered pizzas from a place nearby and was giving pizza and water away.
On Thursday, the school filed a lawsuit in federal court against the City of Chicago, Chicago Police Supt. David Brown, three investigators with the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection and unnamed police officers.
The Freedom School, led by new Executive Director Tony Alvarado-Rivera and Wellness Coordinator Jacqulyn Hamilton, are seeking injunctive relief against further retaliation stemming from the cease-and-desist order and unspecified monetary damages.
During her interaction with police and investigators, Hamilton “tried to talk with the [CPD officers] and explain the services provided by CFS and ask why they needed to search the CFS’s premises,” according to the lawsuit.
As the officers “grew increasingly aggressive, repeatedly demanding to enter the building,” Business Affairs and Consumer Protection investigator Joseph Sneed told the officers to “calm down and that he would handle this,” according to the lawsuit.
As Hamilton and Sneed spoke, the lawsuit alleges an officer “attempted to lunge at” Hamilton. Eventually, the Chicago Police officers and city officials entered the building and searched the premises, including taking pictures of “all the pictures on the wall.”
Despite finding no evidence of any food preparation, the cease-and-desist order was issued and an investigator warned Alvarado-Rivera and Hamilton if investigators returned and found food on the premises they would be arrested.
“Their aggressive behavior, illegal search, threats of future arrest and shutting down CFS alarmed, frightened and intimidated” the Chicago Freedom School organizers and protesters, the lawsuit alleges.
The 10-count lawsuit alleges the victims’ constitutional right to free speech and freedom from “unreasonable illegal search” were violated.
The plaintiffs allege the “illegal raid” was “in retaliation for CFS’ support of the young people who, on that day, were protesting the unrelenting police violence, anti-Black racism and white supremacy in Chicago and throughout the U.S.”
They seek a trial by jury and no date has been set for the next court date.
The cease and desist order didn’t lead to a fine, but the order directs Police Supt. Brown to “arrest any and all agents, and employees of the CFS if found engaging in the business or occupation of preparing and serving food on premises…,” according to the lawsuit.
“I believe we were targeted because we support Black and Brown young people who are politically active in this city,” Hamilton said at a press conference announcing the lawsuit. “I believe that the whole search was an act of intimidation and an attempt to repress the voices of young Black and Brown people in this city.”
Joey Mogul, a partner at the People’s Law Office, is representing the School with Sheila Bedi of the Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic at Northwestern School of Law. Mogul said the school sent a letter to Business Affairs and Consumer Protection commissioner Rosa Escareno asking for the citation to be rescinded, but never received a response, prompting the lawsuit.
“It was completely and wholly unnecessary to show up at 11 o’clock, demand entry with police officers in riot gear to intimidate and threaten the Chicago Freedom School staff and young people,” Mogul said.
Chicago Police and the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection referred all questions about the lawsuit to the city’s Law Department.
Kathy Fieweger, director of public affairs for the Department of Law, said the city is “reviewing the lawsuit but do not have additional comment at this time.”
Earlier in June, Luis Agostini, assistant director of communications for the Police Department, told Block Club an officer patrolling the area that night saw 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.
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