The line between opportunism and responding to the reality of public curiosity isn’t always clear. In and around George Floyd Square—the Minneapolis intersection where Floyd was murdered, two years ago this Wednesday—it can be particularly hard to find.
In the days after Floyd’s death, as Minneapolis became the epicenter of a widespread movement, activists and advocates flocked here to offer various forms of aid, ranging from free used clothing to medical care for protesters and area residents. A free community library and a church-basement food pantry were still in operation when Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed Floyd, went on trial about a year later. And every once in a while someone would show up ready to sell passersby something; one vendor had a folding table and socks bearing an image of George Floyd’s face. Today, the area’s a little less busy, a little less flooded with people and their various motives.
Yet it remains the subject of an ongoing debate over how best to memorialize a man whose death jolted some of the nation—at least temporarily—out of complacency.
In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, the area around Chicago Avenue and East 38th Street was barricaded, transforming what had once been an ordinary pair of streets into what some called an “autonomous zone,” a self-ruled site of protest and commemoration, a gathering space to recognize the magnitude of what had happened here: A man had been murdered under a police officer’s knee, as a crowd pleaded for mercy on his behalf and a teenage girl recorded it all, putting the truth about problems with American policing in front of every face willing to look.
After the barricades went up—first hand-painted signs propped against sawhorses and chairs; later, concrete defenses much like the ones stationed outside the White House—most vehicles were barred from the area. At one barricade was a sign that delineated the rules developed by activists who at the time convened nightly in a gas-station parking lot there. Another simply declared to the reader, “YOU ARE NOW ENTERING THE FREE STATE OF GEORGE FLOYD.” On Chicago Avenue, where most of the memorial sits and where Floyd drew his last breath, an artist hand-painted the names of 169 Black, Latino, and Asian people killed in the United States by vigilantes or police. Residents and even city officials have reported that, for a while at least, police kept their distance. In the first year after Floyd’s killing, cruisers were sometimes seen in the surrounding area but would not enter the square, several told TIME. But there was also often a kind of eerie, unstable sense of peace.
In September 2020, nearly a quarter of respondents to a city questionnaire indicated that they wanted “justice” first, before the city began implementing even an interim design for a next phase of George Floyd Square. But the autonomous zone wouldn’t last.
By February 2021, the city announced plans to reopen the area after Chauvin’s trial concluded. A city survey released in the next month found that just 3% of respondents wanted all “barricades, art, and other community installments” removed. Chauvin was convicted April 20, 2021. Then, on June 3, city work crews arrived early in the morning to begin removing concrete barricades from the four corners of the square, eventually placing smaller ones in an irregular semicircle around the offerings left at the spot where Chauvin killed Floyd. A citizen-made roundabout, centered on a nearly two-story-high sculpture of a brown clenched fist, remained. Agape, a community organization that operates one of the city’s violence-interruption teams inside and around the square, helped the city’s public works staff access the area, creating a satellite controversy over their involvement. (Agape leaders said at the time that they would rather play a part than have the city clear the intersection without community involvement). By the end of July, traffic was back to the corner of 38th and Chicago.
Officially, neither the city nor those who work and live in the area want the square to return to what it was before 2020. While there are real people who live, work, and find community at what is now called George Floyd Square, there are activists and concerned people all over the city and the world who have strong opinions about the answer to that question, says Sasha Cotton, director of Minneapolis’ Office of Violence Prevention. That dynamic has left the city with a perplexing challenge.
The city has launched a project meant to “re-envision” the intersection while “[balancing] traditional asset management needs with the intersectionality of justice, healing, placemaking and culture,” and has begun the process of soliciting input from the community. In April, project leaders held their first forums on the subject. Test buses have been sent down both 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, past the square, in what some here see as the first part of a plan to restore service that was in place before Floyd’s killing. At a candlelight vigil this week, official city street signs will be installed denoting the boundaries of George Floyd Square, open to traffic but still regarded by many as a sacred space to reflect on what happened here, what was exposed, what has been lost.
While the idea of making the designation official may sound like an honor for Floyd’s memory, not everyone engaged with the subject sees the city’s efforts as helpful. Jeanelle Austin, for one, who lives in the area and is the executive director and co-founder of the George Floyd Global Memorial, finds deeply objectionable what she sees as an attempt to turn George Floyd Square into a tourist attraction.
She is also the memorial’s lead curator, meaning she has been the one to organize others willing to help collect and preserve the 5,000-odd offerings that have been left at the place Floyd died, and to protect that memorial from people who have tried to use it as a backdrop for everything from political speeches to commercial pursuits. This year, as a committee planned a multi-day event dubbed “Rise and Remember,” to mark what Austin call’s Floyd’s “angelversary,” the calls started again, she says. People would tell her they wanted to visit the square on a “pilgrimage,” but then reveal plans to bring along a film crew, for example. Politicians want to come too, she says, even ones whose own records on racial justice may be seen as a reminder that, as one area violence interrupter told me, Floyd wasn’t the first Black man hurt by American government here and he wasn’t the last. The physical reminders of some others have simply been removed. (Austin shared with TIME emails between organizers about a potential visit by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, which never panned out; Klobuchar’s staff told TIME that the Senator did not make a request to speak during Rise and Remember, but that she is supportive of efforts to pursue racial justice.)
In thinking about her duty to the square, Austin looks to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.—not the often-sanitized version of his story that is “put on repeat every single year,” but the cautionary tale of how the policies and practices he most wanted to see are not supported by some white Americans who claim to admire King. Words can lose some of their power if vision isn’t translated into action. Or, as King, the pastor, might say, faith without works is dead.
“Last year we put together what we thought was going to be a glorified block party and it became even bigger than that,” says Austin. “This year, George Floyd’s aunt and cousin, who serve as co-directors of our board, were like, ‘We want to do this every year.’ What we want to do is level it up to a national festival. We want this to be a kind of annual gathering that people all across the country can come to, to remember stolen lives and to rise up and pursue racial justice.”
Austin is also one of the main organizers of an exhibit held at Minneapolis’ downtown Orchestra Hall last week, a display of some of the thousands of letters, protest signs, art, candles, beads, and flowers left behind at the spot where Floyd died. Accompanying the exhibit, the Minneapolis Orchestra performed “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” a choral work about three Black men killed by police or vigilantes. Rise and Remember begins on Wednesday.
And official suggestions about ways to “adjust” or alter the memorial keep coming. The mayor, Austin says, suggested that a street art installation—which consists of the names of people of color killed by police or vigilantes, painted on the asphalt—be replaced with memorial bricks akin to Stolpersteine. But the city’s vision, Austin says, isn’t specific enough to the actual content of what people were protesting in the wake of Floyd’s death nor the ugly role race has played in American history. Austin says when she made that point, the mayor quickly agreed.
“I don’t think I nor any individual elected official should dictate the outcome and the feel of George Floyd Square,” Mayor Jacob Frey tells TIME. “We want the ideas and vision very much to come from community—and by the way, [the] community has some dramatically different ideas and perspectives as to what they want to see. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. No community is a monolith and I think George Floyd Square is a prime example of that. But I do see this ultimately as a really beautiful opportunity to honor our Black community and George Floyd’s legacy, to have Black-owned businesses up and down the corridor there which we are working towards right now. Of course, to have a memorial. But that’s not for me to dictate.”
In other words, there may be as many opinions about the future of the square as there are people, and city officials will have to contend with that. And they will also have to be prepared to deal with the sense of righteous indignation that some people who have been thinking about that question for a long time now will feel about any others determining the square’s fate.
“To even develop George Floyd Square is to erase the narrative,” Austin says, “This is not a tourist destination. This is a sacred site. This is a place of protest.”
This year, the George Floyd Global Memorial foundation will begin working to develop a kind of docent entrepreneur program that will allow a set of caretakers to guide groups on scheduled tours of the area for $25 a person fee, with about 10% of those funds going to the foundation. The goal is to help people in the area develop small businesses they control and to help generate the funds to not just maintain the outdoor memorial but also develop a museum that will tell the stories of what Austin calls the “many souls” lost in encounters with police from 1950 forward. Floyd’s space matters because not every family who lost loved ones in similar ways has had the privilege of people holding room for them, Austin says.
The goal, she says, is to ensure that the opportunities that come to Central remain connected to the actual community and the events that happened here. No matter who ends up deciding what the next phase looks like for George Floyd Square, that connection will have to be key.
“That is the hard part about this work of racial justice,” says Austin. “You constantly have to ask the question, what does justice look like? What is the right thing? What is the next step? How do we do this for everybody?”
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