Will Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson Close The Homan Square Black Site?

The incoming mayor put closing Homan Square in his platform. Veteran organizers and abolitionists are optimistic he'll follow through. PLUS: Is Chinese diplomacy ending the Yemen war?

Will Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson Close The Homan Square Black Site?
Listen to Lana del Rey. Photo illustration by Sam Thielman

Edited by Sam Thielman

AS A NEW YORKER, I am not going to pretend that I know Chicago politics. But I got to know the first thing about them—Chicago's extensive history of police-enforced racism—in 2015. That's when I began reporting a series of stories about a converted warehouse where the Chicago police have spent the better part of a generation taking thousands of people, mostly black and brown, to detain and interrogate, often brutally, without making records of their detainees’ whereabouts, as is supposed to occur at a regular police station from the inception of detention. It's called Homan Square, at the intersection of South Homan Avenue and West Fillmore Street, and it's in operation while you read this.

Something like a half-dozen attorneys in Chicago told me that the police routinely deny them access to Homan Square to see their clients. Nor will the police even confirm for them that their clients are held within the place. That routinization was so extensive by 2015 that some defense attorneys came to expect that when a family worriedly called them to say a loved one was arrested but hasn't been taken to any police station, their relative was probably locked within Homan Square; and would show up hours or perhaps days later at the nearby 11th district on West Harrison Street and Kedzie Avenue.

There is a term, familiar from the War on Terror, that describes a place where officials acting under the color of law perform incommunicado detentions for purposes including the extraction of intelligence. Activists I spoke to, including Tracy Siska of the Chicago Justice Project, used it to describe Homan Square: a black site.

If you want to read about what it's like for the Chicago police to raid what we in New York would call your bodega and take you to Homan Square, meet John Vergara and Jose Garcia. If you want to place Homan Square in the particular context of Chicago racism, meet Prexy Nesbitt and Pat Hill. If you want to know what police impunity means at Homan Square, meet Angel Perez.

And if you want to know how the Chicago media reacted to all this, read this Columbia Journalism Review story. Spoiler: following the lead of Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Police Department, they ignored it or rationalized it. But the people of Chicago, whom Homan Square menaces, didn't, and in 2016 several of them occupied the lot adjacent to Homan Square for over a month, renaming it Freedom Square. Protests to close Homan Square have continued ever since, notably in 2020.

Homan Square didn't stop Rahm Emanuel from getting re-elected in 2015. It remained open throughout Lori Lightfoot's mayoralty. While, again, I am not anything remotely like an expert on Chicago politics, it's not surprising when the police—one of any city's most powerful, parochial and reactionary political actors—get their way. It's surprising when they don't. And last week, the Chicago Police Department didn't get their way.

BRANDON JOHNSON, a former organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), an emergent power locally and a harbinger of resurgent labor power, beat the cops' preferred candidate in Tuesday's mayoral election. I can't say I followed the race. But Johnson is a movement figure who is now the mayor of the third largest city in the United States, in spite of active measures from Chicago's business elite and the police. Seems like a pretty huge deal.

When Johnson narrowly won—that is, when he and the CTU out-organized a massive amount of money spent on their opponent—I saw local reports indicating that Johnson's platform, at least in its initial version, includes closing Homan Square. At the same time, late in the race and under attack for his skepticism of policing, Johnson said he wouldn't cut the nearly $2 billion annual police budget by "one penny."

Now Johnson has to be mayor of a city that, much like New York, capital and the police consider their birthright. They have plenty of levers to obstruct Johnson's agenda, from capital flight to police resistance. John Catanzara, a notorious figure at Chicago's Fraternal Order of Police, told the New York Times before the election—which the Times framed as the CTU versus the police—that Johnson's victory will mean "blood in the streets." Against these kinds of obstacles to his mayoralty, is Johnson, who is pledging to meet with the police ASAP, going to go through with closing Homan Square?

It's easy to be cynical about the persistence of Homan Square. And, again, I am far from an expert on Chicago politics and would encourage you to read local, reliable Chicago sources. But as I called around to Chicagoans aligned with the movement that elected Johnson, I heard more optimism than I expected. My previous interviews involving Homan Square often involved people telling me well, look, it's Chicago, this is how Chicago is, this is how the Chicago cops are and so forth. This time is different.

"A lot of people who've been organizing for justice for years, including around Homan Square, have been deeply involved in his campaign," says Alex Han, a founder of United Working Families, an organization founded by CTU, SEIU HCII, Action Now and Grassroots Illinois Action to be an electoral expression of movement organizing. He's also the new executive director of progressive, Chicago-based news outlet In These Times.

"I have no doubt [closing Homan Square] is Brandon’s intention," Han says. "His platform was built from years of organizing and struggle. A lot of movement organizers worked on his campaign and will be involved going forward, whether that’s in his administration or outside of it…there isn’t daylight between the campaign and the movement."

AMIKA TENDAJI REMEMBERS the 2020 Freedom Square protests outside Homan Square, where mutual aid work like providing food and clothing occurred while what she estimates as 100 officers stood nearby, collecting overtime. "I think that this is the first time in my career that I'm going to have to fill up my work planner with something other than fighting the mayor. I believe he will close Homan Square," says Tendaji, an organizer with Chicago Black Lives Matter. "I'm excited about the real crime prevention solutions that can come from that black site being closed and with all the money that we can save."

One of the organizers of those 2016 Freedom Square protests was Damon Williams of the #LetUsBreathe Collective. "Freedom Square, we were first using it for a site for protest, but within 48 hours, so many people with first-hand [experience of] or one degree of separation from the space" gathered there to tell their stories, Williams remembers. "For a lot of the city, but specifically for that neighborhood, it's a site of compounded trauma."

Simply shutting down Homan Square, he observes, isn't the same thing as accounting for the harm that the police committed there. "The closure has to be [combined with] a pushing for reinvestment in restorative conflict mediation work, and child care and education, and youth work," Williams says—as well as a formal, public acknowledgement of the torture that takes place inside Homan Square. Chicago did this, however incompletely, for survivors of an earlier generation of police torture.

There are also new institutional avenues through which to bring about the closure. Chicago just elected its first representatives to a new oversight body, the police district councils, intended to bring community concerns to police. Perhaps their larger importance comes through nominating people to a seven-member board that has policy and budgetary oversight over the police and helps select—and fire—the superintendent, which is what Chicagoans call the police commissioner. Catanzara's police union spent money to elect their people to the councils. But this WBEZ report suggests that something like 42 of the 66 council seats are going to representatives interested in police accountability.

Closure of any sort won't happen without the movement demanding their leaders close the site. "We've been vocal. We're going to have to continue to be vocal," Tendaji says. "We have to recognize they ran a school-gutting neoliberal monster because they're that against Brandon, and what the movement is going to continue to do. We can't assume that Brandon from his office can bring about all the changes we need completely."

CLOSING HOMAN SQUARE is by no means the central demand of the coalition that elected Johnson. Working people in Chicago have no shortage of challenges to address. The movement also has embraced initiatives to constrain police power that go far beyond Homan Square. One such proposed ordinance is called Treatment Not Trauma, which would fund now-shuttered mental health centers and divert mental-health resources from the police budget. Another is called the Peace Book initiative, whose backers include a youth coalition called Good Kids Mad City, that would fund neighborhood-and-peer-based approaches to deescalating street violence.

"Those two [ordinances] have much more groundwork [built] than closing Homan Square, so there's a wider sprawl that will probably be discussed, hopefully in the first 100 days, but I do believe there's space and momentum to create a process to look into closing Homan Square," says Williams.

Johnson's victory is less than a week old. Some people have cautioned me that the movement behind Johnson has yet to have the sort of collective conversations about priorities and strategy to influence and propel his mayoralty—and hold it accountable to the people who elected him. That includes Homan Square's place in the movement's focus. So keep that in mind when reading this piece.

"The movement organizing and the politics have developed together in a holistic way," says Han. "Brandon’s victory is a symbol of that. Forces for police accountability, for affordable housing and tenants’ rights, the labor movement, are coming together in the creation of a mayor’s office and administration that are led by an organizer who has been in the center of developing a collective fight for the common good. I think a really special thing is happening here."

MY FRIEND SAM MCPHEETERS, whose illustrious career probably tops out with designing the FOREVER WARS logo, has a new Substack newsletter called Reality Breakdown. Its focus is going to be on thinking through the coming AI wave that will decimate our ability to trust anything we encounter digitally. You should subscribe!

RYAN GRIM has a piece at The Intercept about the new Chinese-brokered ceasefire in Yemen that looks like it could actually bring this horrific U.S.-backed war to a conclusion. You'll recall a recent FOREVER WARS edition that talked about why the U.S. Mideast strategy couldn't produce the peace that it appears China might. Grim:

The U.S. always backed Saudi Arabia to the hilt and vociferously opposed the Houthis, who are backed by Iran. Now China has extracted concessions from the Saudis that made the cease-fire talks possible. The Saudis seem like they are fully capitulating to the Houthi demands, which include opening the major port to allow critical supplies into the country, allowing flights into Sana’a, and allowing the government to have access to its currency to pay its workers and stabilize the economy. Reasonable stuff.

U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND carried out an airstrike—surely a drone strike—on April 4 against an ISIS figure in northwestern Syria, far from the eastern portion of Syria where about 900 U.S. troops remain. Sorry to be that guy, and no one likes Daesh, but the U.S. has zero claim under international law to be waging war in Syria. Something I've been thinking about since I got back from Notre Dame is Professor Mary Ellen O'Connell remarking that. starting in the Balkans, the U.S. replaced international law with the Rules-Based International Order.

BILLY WAUGH, a legendary figure in U.S. spy/special-operations history, died last week at the age of 93. His career stretched from the Korean War to the Afghanistan War, as you can read in what I think is his final interview, with the gun-enthusiast magazine Recoil. Waugh is definitely a guy I would definitely fictionalize for a comic book.

IT'S GETTING NICE OUT. The Knicks are the fifth seed in the East and I feel good about our chances against the Cavs in the first round. Baseball is back—as I type this, it's the third inning of the rubber match between the Yankees and the Orioles and Aaron Judge just homered to straightaway center field. If you're a fellow Yankees fan or have one in your life, check out a fun nostalgia trip that YES broadcaster Jack Curry will soon publish called The 1998 Yankees: The Inside Story of The Greatest Baseball Team Ever. I inhaled this short book as soon as an early copy arrived on Friday. Everyone from novices to completists will enjoy it, and enjoy arguing about whether a team that went 125-50 (without a single player hitting 30 home runs! In the steroid era!) is better than, say, the ‘75 or '76 Reds. (Or, for that matter, the '27 or '39 Yankees. Curry makes the argument in the final chapter, agree or disagree.)

Curry has covered the team since long before the 1998 season and his experience yields anecdotes like this one, about Derek Jeter and Scott Brosius:

Brosius and Jeter, as valuable as any position players on the 1998 team, got to know each other while playing Connect 4.
"I would dominate," Jeter said. "Please write that in the book. I would dominate Scott Brosius in Connect 4. Other people would try and come in and play, but it was mainly me and Scott. And I would dominate."

Yeah Jeets! Curry's book is out next month.