Around 3 p.m. on Saturday in Minneapolis, a small group gathered near George Floyd Square for a barbecue to celebrate a man’s birthday. Many were regulars at the square, at Chicago Avenue and E. 38th Street, the intersection where Floyd was killed. The area, once sealed off in all directions with refrigerators, pallets, and other debris, now has city barricades. Its entrances are guarded by volunteers who staff the square at all hours—mostly as greeters but also as a ragtag defense force to prevent police from entering.
At the backyard celebration, the momentous trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin that begins on Monday was not front of mind. When I brought it up to one woman, she said, “Oh yeah? No wonder there’s been more cameras around here lately.” The mood was light. There was a cake that read “FUCK 12,” a reference to the police. It was chilly; people gathered around a firepit.
Then the gunshots began. First one. Then two more. Then a burst of five. “Someone’s dumping!” someone yelled. People rushed out to help: “Is that coming from the north?” “Do we have medics?” “Probably.”
There was a short pause, then more gunfire. At least seven more shots rang out in quick succession. A truck sped down the alleyway right behind the barbecue. About a dozen people started barreling down the street, shouting at people to get out of the way. I took cover behind a parked car. On the street, several young people appeared to be out for vengeance for the shots just fired. I heard mention of a local gang.
When the gunshots rang out, people at the barbecue acted out of muscle memory. Violent crime has gone up since the intersection closed. In 2019, there was a total of three fatal and nonfatal shootings in the area. In 2020, there were 19. One person I spoke to told me that sometimes, people simply shoot guns in the air, not at anything in particular.
Eventually, I walked toward the street. One woman was in tears; she witnessed the shooting. “I saw blood. It looked like red jelly was spilled,” she said. “I think I saw guts.” One of her friends gave her a hug. An older man, shuffling as he tried to walk as quickly as he could, mumbled under his breath, “two people just got shot over there.” I learned later that one man died.
On Sunday, as the trial inched closer, the air was noticeably different. “The trial heightened the tension at the square,” Toussaint Morrison, a Minneapolis activist and organizer, told me. “It has people in a liminal space. It feels like the environment is holding its breath. The gravity is a little heavier. The sun is a little brighter. The wind blows a little bit harder. The cars move a little bit faster. There’s a sense of urgency for something that nobody can control. The trial is weighing on the entire city, and especially the square.”
Morrison was also nearby when shots rang out on Saturday. He told me he saw a car speed away, hit a street light, and leave its bumper behind in a wreck. “You’ve got to keep your head on a swivel,” he told me about being in the area. “It’s basically the Thunderdome right now.”
The city has already announced that it will be reopening George Floyd Square after the trial. Some activists I talked to in the area believe that if that happens, they’ll lose their ability to keep momentum for reform. “One of the big reasons people still show up is because we can meet in the street. We won’t be able to do that anymore with cars coming in through here,” one person in the square lamented to me.
Morrison said the success of the trial is only one step of many among the local movement’s goals. “Justice is several things happening at the same time: Derek Chauvin going to prison. The Philando Castile omnibus bill being passed.* The Jamar Clark bill being passed.* The end of qualified immunity. The end of arbitration. And the end to the statute of limitations. The fact that you and I are held to a higher standard that cops are is crazy,” he said.
Over the phone, Alicia Smith, a community organizer who lives near the intersection, wondered what relief the trial would bring. “The trial is here, and it still doesn’t feel real. We still have so long to go,” she said. “We’re battling our recodification for a lot of people, and you have a lot of people whose trauma has never subsided. We’ve all been working from that space. We want justice, and we want it swiftly, but also under the assumption that we might not get it. If history is any indication, we may not get justice.”
While I spoke to Smith on the phone on Sunday, I suddenly heard at least 20 rounds fired. I could hear her talking to her sons, calmly instructing them to get down. I was nearby, too, closer to Smith than I had realized and could hear the gunfire coming from a block away. I got on the ground too and laid flat on my belly, and we continued the interview. She told me she hadn’t yet mourned the man who had died the day before. She said she knew the victim well: “Anyone that spends any significant time in the square, everyone knows everyone. You interact, you laugh, you joke; early on, you didn’t know half the people’s names. You know them by their hair, or by their shoes, or by their laugh.”
She knew that man by his smile. “You know people who are the energy for everybody? The bright spot that seems to lighten up the space when they come in? He had a bright smile, long dreads, chocolate skin, just … happy. When he smiles, it changes your whole mood. And he was that for his whole family.”
Smith told me that it’s not unusual to hear gunfire like this in the neighborhood, and that she believes it’s a symptom of poverty, just as in any major city in America. But she conceded that things have been getting worse as the trial looms. “It’s all intricately entangled. It’s like we’ve been sentenced to death because we’re poor,” she said. “We haven’t been allowed to process and to cry and to say things like ‘I’m scared’ without being labeled a punk, or soft or whatever. These people are not monsters. They’re in pain.”
Smith has struggled with whether George Floyd Square has contributed to the violence. “No one in that square wants to see anyone hurt or go without. But you have people on both sides saying, ‘Open it yesterday,’ and you have folks saying, ‘Don’t open it until we get justice. Without justice you don’t get no street.’ It’s a fine line to walk, and we’re all challenged with that question: ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ We’re doing something we’ve never done before.”
She doesn’t know the answer. “It’s hard because we lose great people, people that we see growing in their fight for justice. That makes it hard, because you have to wonder, ‘Was there something we could have done to prevent that?’ I don’t know. I’ve asked myself a million times. I don’t know. Here’s another young man that’s not here for his family.”
The tension inside George Floyd Square is unbearable right now. On Sunday, young people stood by, suspicious of others. Vehicles lingered, despite the intersection still being closed. CUP Foods, the store where Floyd had been before a teenage clerk called the police, was open, but only in the morning and only to sell necessities through a window in the shop’s vestibule. I asked if the mosque downstairs, where I had prayed last summer, was still open. “Not today. Nobody is allowed inside,” one of the cashiers told me. As I exited the vestibule, I heard another round go off, so close it sounded like it came from right above me. A man who had just bought cigarettes turned and said, “They’re still shooting? Can’t believe this shit.” We waited inside for just another moment before we both quickly walked away.
Nearby, I saw a church deacon setting up chairs for a weekly Sunday service. I felt safe enough to linger on the intersection and give him a hand setting up chairs. I asked the deacon if this type of gunfire in the daylight is typical now. He shrugged and said, “Yeah.” “But yesterday was especially bad. We haven’t seen something like that in a while,” he said. When I asked him about the trial, he politely ignored me.
Back across the street, in front of CUP Foods, a small memorial was being set up for the man who lost his life the night before. There was police tape sectioning off the exact spot where the man was shot. It was up against the wall of CUP Foods, just steps from where George Floyd was killed. Mourners left flowers and spelled out his name in candles. There had been an event set to take place in the square later that day, but it was canceled to give room to the people who knew Saturday’s victim to mourn.
Nearby, I noticed one of the brothers who owns CUP Foods, who I had interviewed several times in the past. I went to speak to him, but this time, he respectfully but firmly told me it wasn’t safe, and that I should leave. I listened.
Correction, March 8, 2021: This article originally misspelled the last names of Philando Castile and Jamar Clark.