Freedom House: 1969
Freedom House was a short-lived safe spot for predominantly white suburban teens, including runaways at 4927 Cordell Avenue in Bethesda, Md for a six-month period in 1968-69.

It was run by Compeers, a social action group made up of former Peace Corps and VISTA volunteers and headed by activist J. Brinton Dillingham, then 25 years old.

Initially, the Montgomery County Student Alliance with chapters in 18 high schools and over 1,000 members set up its headquarters at Freedom House.

But Freedom House quickly ran afoul of police who waged an ongoing campaign of harassment against the young people who gathered there.

The house was set up in late December 1968 and by April there was a flyer calling on the Montgomery County Council to halt the “growing pattern of police harassment.”

The flyer urged repeal of the county’s anti-loitering law and an end to “the criminal conspiracy between the pigs and the schools.”

The flyer charged that “the cops intimidate and bribe students into informing on fellow students;” urged the abolition of the County’s juvenile courts “as they now stand;” and “abolition of training schools which serve to reinforce the dehumanization fostered by the pigs and the courts.”

When a group of about 30 young people went to the County Council meeting, paintings, ash trays and other objects were removed from the hearing chamber and hallways. The building was sealed off by police, and detectives photographed those who came to the meeting.

Lee Hellmann, a student at John F. Kennedy High School later said, “We came to talk to the Council, not to see what kind of riot equipment the police have. We presume they have all the equipment they need.”

When the young people came to another hearing in May Edward Shaner of the right-wing Montgomery County Citizens League photographed them instead of the police taking pictures.

At that hearing, the young people presented testimony on numerous arrests and searches.

Stewart Klepper, a student at Walt Whitman High School told how six county police officers searched Freedom House in February without a warrant.

“When we later objected to this, I was told that if I ever trespassed on neighborhood properties I would be shot. The police also told us that if they ever brought a warrant to Freedom House they would kick the door in.”

Kevin Bronfin, 18, of Bethesda told the Washington Post that he had not been arrested, “but I’ve been spot-checked—they stop you in your car and ask to see your license and everything—four times since last Friday. Maybe it’d be my hair or they recognize my car from Freedom House. I don’t know why they stop me, but I haven’t been speeding; I haven’t gotten any tickets.”

Police claimed they were invited in to Freedom House on the occasions that they entered and that they were simply enforcing the laws.

On one occasion, this was true. Dillingham invited several ministers and the police to search Freedom House for drugs fearing that they had been planted there in order to close the place down. No drugs were found.

A motion was later made on the Council to investigate police harassment, but was defeated 5-3 on a party line vote with Republicans in the majority.

While this was going on Dillingham was arrested for obscenity (see ) and sentenced to six months in jail for selling a copy of the Washington Free Press that contained a cartoon of Montgomery County judge James Pugh masturbating at the bench with instruments of torture hanging from the dais.

By June nearly daily confrontations with police occurred with numerous arrests of young people. Dillingham, free on $5,000 bond, was arrested on three different occasions and charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct, creating a public nuisance and making excessive noise and failure to move.

If anything, the petty harassment of Dillingham raised his status among young people.

“Bruce Lovelett, 17, told the Post that Dillingham “doesn’t run away from things when they look like they’ll get bad.”

“Yeah, he’s kind of hero, but he’s not really a leader. He doesn’t push anybody, but he’s there. A lot of people will stick by kids when it’ll look good politically or something, but not like him,” Jean Meyer said.”

Police urged the landlord to evict Compeers and a Montgomery County People’s Court judge ruled that they must vacate, despite the fact that evictions were handled by a different court.

By the end of June Freedom House died after a little less than six months of existence.

Most charges against the young people were dropped or they were given probation before verdict.

Dillingham’s obscenity charge was later overturned on appeal and in the process gutted Maryland’s McCarthy-era “Ober Law” on subversion.

What was Freedom House’s legacy?

Norman Solomon, the head of the Montgomery County Student Alliance, later wrote:

“Freedom House was a shack...but draped in dignity--blankets over the windows, a record player cajoled form the trunk of a [U.S.] Senator’s daughter, humble pictures on the wall: Ho Chi Minh, Eldridge Cleaver, Welcome here, Jefferson Airplane.”

Another young person, Vaille Walders, described Freedom House during its existence to the Washington Post, “A lot of people are unhappy at home and Freedom House is a nice place to go to get away, spend the night maybe. It’s not really running away—more like getting out of the home scene for a while.”
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