Politics

“No Justice, No Street”

Marcia Howard has been patrolling George Floyd Square every day for the past year. And she’s not leaving until the neighborhood’s demands are met.

A woman in a puffy winter coat and a yellow beanie with a GoPro on her chest speaks into a microphone with a crowd behind her in George Floyd Square.
Marcia Howard speaks at a gathering in George Floyd Square following the guilty verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin on April 20. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Listen to What Next:

A year ago today, George Floyd was murdered precisely 263 steps from Marcia Howard’s house. Howard is a high school English teacher—or, at least, she was. Now she’s something else. An activist. A caretaker. But don’t call her the mayor of George Floyd Square. “I don’t run nothing but my mouth,” she told me.

Since Floyd’s death, instead of reporting to a classroom, Howard has been reporting to this square. She’s part of a volunteer security team that organized itself at the intersection of 38th and Chicago, where a steel fist sculpture has sprouted up in the middle of the road, right in front of CUP Foods, and traffic is closed off for a block in any direction.

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Over the past year, what started with an impromptu memorial has become a semi-permanent occupation. Howard and her neighbors have demands they want met before they open this intersection back up. Not everyone is happy with this situation, which hasn’t stopped Howard from chronicling it all. Her TikTok has become a tragicomic newsreel, and she’s cast herself as a happy-go-lucky and often foulmouthed reporter on the scene.

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On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Marcia Howard to understand the fight over this one corner, and what it says about the fight for justice everywhere else. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: When did you first move to the Minneapolis?

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Marcia Howard: I bought this house in 1998, when I was a fresh face 25-year-old high school teacher. I looked on a map and I circled three miles in circumference. I wanted to live within three miles of that school.

Because you were teaching at Roosevelt High School.

Yup. And I believe in community education and I wanted to be in community with the people that I taught. I wanted to bump into them at the corner store. I wanted to see their mom at church. But when I told my new co-workers that I was moving a block away from 38th and Chicago, they looked at me askance, and they said it might be “a little sketchy.” Now, I’m from Arkansas. I didn’t know what they meant, but I found out. As we moved the couch in—Ba-pa-pat. I’m like, “What’s going on?” CUP Foods on the corner of 38th and Chicago was being raided by the feds and that was my introduction to the neighborhood in which I moved.

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CUP Foods, many people know it now because that’s the place where George Floyd was before he was murdered.

Yep. But it’s the corner store. And so I can look upon that square from this window. This autonomous zone isn’t just grandstanding or some vanity project. This is my neighborhood.

So we’re speaking to you because it’s the anniversary of George Floyd’s death. And I’m wondering if you could just go back in time and introduce me to who you were a year ago. What were you doing and how that’s changed over the last year?

I, like many other people, was dealing with the effects of COVID during that time, teaching on my front porch in some makeshift classroom for distance learning.

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But that day, it was Memorial Day. So there was no school. When we heard the hue and cry of a tragedy that occurred on the corner, I didn’t even venture out that night. It wasn’t until the next day when hundreds of people started parking on my block and walking toward the intersection that I went out there, still in my A-line skirt and kitten heels because I dressed for work, even though I was still on my front porch. And so I went out there to see what was what.

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And after being there that first week, after communing with my neighbors and coming up with chat loops in order to defend our street from the ever-present threat of outsiders coming in, the misinformation and disinformation about that. No, there were not Klansman in full regalia marching up Park Avenue. But yes, there were white boys on bikes trying to start fires. Yes, we were there, and we had to defend our block. And that kind of went into defending the square where hundreds, maybe thousands of people would stay in defiance of curfews overnight.

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You described yourself as having an A-line skirt and little kitten heels. But I’ve seen pictures of you now, and you look pretty different than that. How did you go from an A-line skirt and kitten heels to wearing a GoPro on your chest?

I need you to understand I am a teacher, but I’m also a retired United States Marine. I was a noncommissioned officer in the Marine Corps. And so I think for some reason, divine timing or just the privilege of proximity, I have the right skill set to do what I’m doing now. No. 1, I’ve taught half this neighborhood, so I know the brothers that are out there every night. And No. 2, I have situational awareness enough and a skill set that’s uniquely suited for what it was that I was going to do next and what that was was to walk around the zone with all the visitors, all the protesters, all the people standing in solidarity, and I needed to be eyes out, I needed to watch for threats, I needed to respond when people needed help.

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When did you quit your job?

I didn’t quit. I just didn’t go back. I called my students, or went online, and I said, “Be careful with each other, be socially distant. Finish The Color Purple, but you all have credit as of this moment.” Man, that was a year ago. And then I had to tell my principal that I was taking a leave. And so I took all my sick days and took a long leave. I’ve been teaching for 23 years. I had a lot of sick days.

What’s your daily schedule now?

I actually did a TikTok about what I have to do to prepare to go outside, including just having hand sanitizer on me, a radio, and a GoPro. Then I go outside, and I’m outside or I’m sleep.

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That sounds endless, like you’re always working. How does that not exhaust you?

It’s not work. I have to stand on a corner at the age of 48 and say, “My life matters,” and I still got white people arguing with me. This isn’t work. This is me trying to forge a world that I want my grandchildren to live in. This isn’t work. This is the work, but it isn’t work.

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In a way, I think people outside of this zone can understand the power of protest, the power of the rally of occupying city streets, knowing that that disruption, however minor or major it is, is disrupting the routine of the status quo. The person that’s irritated that they can’t get to where they are going in the normal route, that they have to adjust themselves in order to carry on their day. However irate they are, they’re thinking about why they have to do that, and that’s the point.

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For the past year, the city of Minneapolis has said it plans to reopen George Floyd Square to traffic once more. But it keeps pushing the reopening deadline back, again and again. Part of the reason why is that officials are negotiating with activists. You have this list of demands—24 of them in all. It includes big asks, like an end to qualified immunity for police officers. It also includes smaller, more localized requests: a two-year suspension of property tax increases for residents of the square, funding for a blood bank bus for a local medical team. 

The city has said one of the reasons reopening the square is a priority for them is public safety. They claim that violent crime has increased by 66 percent in the neighborhood since the blockade went up. But you say that’s a red herring, right? Violent crime has gone up all around the city, not just within George Floyd Square.

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That is now a national historic landmark, but what the city wants is the protest zone without the protesters demanding things. They want that fist without a fuss. They want to placate us instead of giving us justice. They want to give us a new name for the intersection. But I’m telling you, that is not what we’ve been on a barricade for for 364 days. We’ve been there for justice. They asked us to leave. We said no. They asked us why we’re staying. We said for justice. Then they asked us this question, which has kept us here for a year: What does justice look like? So we ran up and down the streets, in and out of the businesses, we asked the brothers on the cut. What does justice look like? What do you need? What do you want? What would make you thrive? And they gave us the answers, the residents, the businesses, and the brothers. And that is Justice Resolution 001.

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And the city and the county and the state and even the rank-and-file citizens have been working diligently to meet those demands. But in the meantime, in between time, the fist went from a wooden structure to steel. A greenhouse bloomed in the middle of an intersection. And people started looking at this space as the place where we hold the grief for folks that suffer injustice.

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And you’re saying the space is your power.

Yeah. But not just the space. It’s what it represents, and I need you to understand the city knows that, too. But what they want is to get it back. No muss, no fuss. And this is the problem. We said no justice, no street. Give us justice as it is prescribed by Justice Resolution 001, the 24 demands, and right now they want to take custody of this baby without doing what they need to do. You do not get to get this back without making redress.

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A good example of the disagreement between the city and the square is what happened with Dameon Chambers, who was killed in June of 2020. And the city often brings up his case to explain why they need the streets open again. They say someone was killed within George Floyd Square. Police weren’t able to get in. EMS was delayed. And this shows how the way these blocks are being run can be dangerous. What would you say to that?

The case of Dameon “Murphy Ranks” Chambers actually makes up No. 21, 22, 23 of the 24 demands, because, you know, that was on Juneteenth and this brother was shot three times in his vehicle by someone in his vehicle. And when the police showed up in full riot gear on June 19th, they are the ones that delayed EMS because of the ruckus that they caused in the way in which they were trying to rush into the zone. The argument that any Black person on Juneteenth would impede EMS from getting to a dying Black man is just ridiculous on its face, let alone by the fact that it was hundreds of witnesses. But it makes a really good propaganda spin, if they could say it was hordes of Black folks keeping out the authorities. But I need you to do a little bit of digging. Ask where did the investigation of this murder go. Ask what was put on his death certificate. Ask how many officers this case has been handed off to since then.

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The police aren’t making this argument, but I guess implicit in the city’s repeated use of the case of Dameon Chambers is the idea that if police were in the neighborhood, it would be safer.

They were at Phelps Park a block away the entire time. They were already staged there. Their cars were right there. They were less than 80 yards away the entire time the party was going on. And funnily enough, they seem to always be right there when something pops off. Riddle me that.

I’m telling you if we are doing something transformative, then we’re doing something worthy of interference and undermining. Black people taking over four city blocks for an entire year, is it worthy of interference by the CIA or the FBI or anybody else? You think they left us alone? Really? When you think about the history of civil rights and movements and you think about the lives lost, then you’ll understand why I went right on over to the cremation society and put down money for my urn. Because I didn’t save any oxygen for the swim back to shore. I know what we’re doing is transformational, and I know that that is a threat to the system.

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And you worry about your own safety.

No, I’m preparing for eventuality.

That’s dark.

I’m a Black person in America trying to get liberty. What happens to us?

The city did do a survey asking residents what they wanted to happen as the intersection of 38th and Chicago.

A survey where people are cattle chuted to these options: open the square and this, open the square and this, open the square and this. Don’t talk to me about that survey, please.

And you just don’t think it’s legitimate if you didn’t ask the right questions?

That’s precisely what I think.

I know you go to City Council meetings and you represent the square and one of the council members who represents the area, Andrea Jenkins, she’s says she wants to open the streets back up again. What are your conversations like with her?

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I’ll say this I truly don’t believe they want to fully open it. I don’t. But I don’t think they can actually say that out loud, at least before this election cycle.

What does the city get from keeping it closed?

Right now, the city of Minneapolis is on the cusp of attempting to redeem itself, because Minnesota has now become the byword for abject police brutality. I live in a state that used to be known for Minnesota Nice and now the names Jamar Clark and Philando Castile and George Floyd and Daunte Wright sit in the mouths of people not just across the state, but across the country and around the world. But right now, if it keeps that fist, it can say now we are the Mecca for racial justice and healing. You get off a plane during your layover, and where do you want to see? You want to either see Mall of America, the cherry in the spoon, or George Floyd Square. The city knows what it’s sitting on now.

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So what you’re talking about here is a kind of political chess, where the city, in your telling, creates a narrative that people want the streets opened, and they keep not doing it. And it allows them to have a moment where they say, “We’re going to give these people the square,” but in a way, the square isn’t what you want— the square is a symbol for a list of other demands that you want. And so you worry that the city might give you the space when you want something more radical than that.

I don’t worry about it because I have patience. It’s not just sitting at a barricade and singing “Kumbaya” around a fire. We actually have working groups that are contacting congressmen and holding secret meetings with our elected officials in order to move the needle with qualified immunity. And we’re finding culturally competent mental health care workers in order to meet the other demand of integrated health that needs to get funded through this justice resolution.

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Frankly, if you all want to know when we’re going to leave, all you got to do is know that we’re moving at the pace of justice. The city knows precisely what we got. They know what we’ve negotiated. They know what we have settled for. We’re not zealots. We’re not unreasonable. These are negotiations. They asked us: What does justice look like? Those 24 demands, to a lot of people, aren’t even exhaustive enough.

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Are you going to run for anything?

No.

Why?

I am just a teacher. I am just a Black woman. I am just a protester. And that is why we could be here for a year, because I got to tell you and make this extremely clear to anybody who is listening to the sound of my voice. This is not a vanity project. This is not grandstanding for a leap into a new career. This is not anything for my ego.

They killed a man 263 steps from my front door, filmed by one of my former students, leading to the occupation of blocks surrounding my home. Trying to seek redress for injustices done to my people. I am here for the safety of this community and our pursuit of justice, and I’m unwilling to trade one for the other. That’s all I’m here for. They give us the demands, we’ll give them the streets, and I’ll bring my Black ass home.

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