Politics

What Should Happen to George Floyd Square?

In Minneapolis, the city says it will move to reopen the intersection that’s been a stronghold of protest and grief for the past year. The people here say they’re not going anywhere.

A fist rising in George Floyd Square.
George Floyd Square. Aymann Ismail

MINNEAPOLIS—Last summer, long before the trial of Derek Chauvin, activists at East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis realized they had some plans to make. It had been months since George Floyd’s murder, on May 25, in plain view of the bustling intersection. Protesters used debris and other large objects to block traffic and prevent the police from reclaiming the space. The city replaced those barricades with huge cinderblocks, and the area became known as George Floyd Square. But the blockades were always meant to be temporary. How long should they stay? And what did the people here want?

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They started with a survey. They asked others in the community—shop owners, elders, kids on the corner—the same question: “What does justice look like?” They compiled the answers and produced a list of 24 demands.

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A year after the murder, Chauvin’s conviction is one of several demands that have already been satisfied. But the morning after the all-night celebrations of the verdict, around a small bonfire at a meeting at the now-abandoned Speedway gas station at the intersection, activists reaffirmed their commitment to continue to occupy the square—until every demand is met.

“My voice is shot. I haven’t had breakfast yet,” Marcia Howard said that morning. Howard, an unofficial shepherd of the square, has been on high alert since the Chauvin trial ended. Mayor Jacob Frey had made several public commitments to reopen the square after the trial was over. (Among the demands of activists in the square is occupation until all the officers’ prosecutions are over; three more will be tried in August.) While everyone who comes to visit the intersection is fixated on the huge memorial for George Floyd, Howard’s focus is on the perimeter. “This is not grandstanding. This ain’t no vanity project. This has been fucking work. And the work continues,” she told me.

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Howard organizes community meetings twice daily, once at 7 a.m. and again at 7 p.m. With her miniature megaphone, she can be heard across the entire intersection. “Y’all think we’ve been here for 11 months and won’t get some of those demands answered?” she admonished the group. “They’re not all done. So when people ask when you leaving, we say we’re going to move at the pace of justice,” she said. “Injustice closed these streets. Only justice should open it.”

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Howard is a former Marine; she’s also a schoolteacher. Floyd’s death coincided with the end of the school year, which made it possible for Howard to maintain a physical presence in the square at all times. And when schools resumed in September, she took leave to continue protesting.

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I asked her if she was really prepared to spend another year here. “We ain’t moving,” she said. “You don’t get to kill a man and turn around and memorialize him like you’re somehow the villain and the hero. We’re not going to reckon what the fuck y’all did. That man was killed on company time. You don’t get to do that. You’re going to be held accountable for real, for real.”

Howard lives inside the zone herself and can see the memorial from four windows in her house. But not everyone in the neighborhood agrees with her that this intersection should stay barricaded. Some are hopeful that things can return to normal soon.

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“This used to be a healing zone. Now it’s a hurting zone,” one resident who lives on Chicago Avenue told me, referring to recent gun violence in the area. “I think this should open back up. There are young brothers who are taking advantage of it. When it first went down, I liked the way they went about everything. But now, that’s gone,” he said. “It’s after the trial now. This is when they said we’re supposed to open it back up. They promised that.”

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In recent weeks, the subject has been hard to avoid, and everyone has different opinions. “I think it should stay closed. Most people here, 60 percent at least, believe that too,” another resident told me. “The city wants people to believe folks are scared to be living in a no-cop zone, but that’s just not true. Look around!” he said, pointing to the many families coming to visit the memorial as we spoke.

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Another resident across the street had more mixed feelings. “There’s been some stuff at night that’s been going on that might have to do with the street being closed, but I don’t know,” he said. “After the trial was supposed to be when the street opens back up, so I’m looking forward to that.”

On my frequent trips to George Floyd Square in the past year, most have been guided by people like Howard, who are committed to the community and justice. But the violence has also been hard to escape. Once, a shooting broke out steps from a barbecue I was attending with locals. On my latest trip this spring, I returned to my rental car near the square to discover a fresh bullet hole in it.

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Two kids hold up a Black Lives Matter sign in George Floyd Square.
Two young people hold up a Black Lives Matter sign. Aymann Ismail

Some business owners in the area are also ready for the square to reopen. On my latest trip, I spoke to Nabil Abumayyaleh, one of the four Abumayyaleh brothers who own and operate CUP Foods, where George Floyd had been before an 18-year-old clerk called 911. (I previously reported on the family’s long history here, and what happened the day of Floyd’s murder.)

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“We want the memorial out there for George Floyd out of respect for how the cops did him. Keep the memorial there. But we want our streets back where we have our customers,” Abumayyaleh told me. “We want the streets to open back up because we want our community back. We want our customers going and coming as they please.”

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Right now, it’s hard to imagine the space as anything other than a barricaded autonomous zone that has stood for nearly a year. Inside, there’s a huge raised-fist sculpture made of metal, surrounded by a delicate flower garden. On the ground where Floyd was killed, a massive collection of candles, posters, flowers, and stuffed animals still rest on the ground. Just behind that is a medium-size greenhouse, right in the street where cars are typically parked, with a gardener inside who tends to tropical plants in one of the coldest states in America. On the other side, there is another garden with fresh vegetables and herbs, available to be picked by anyone hungry. All of this would need to be cleared out to resume regular vehicular traffic.

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The square’s gardener is Jay Webb. He told me he wouldn’t tolerate the street being reopened. He hopes the square can become permanently pedestrianized, like parts of Times Square in New York. Since last summer, he’s been regularly bringing more dirt and plants to the intersection and growing flowers and food. “You see all these seeds here? We’re growing organic food. We’re going George Washington Carver. We’re going to build another greenhouse,” he said as he tended to his plants.

The thought anyone would try to take this away only a year after Floyd’s murder infuriates Webb. “He lost his life over this bullshit,” he said. “Fuck them. If they don’t give us the land, we’ll take air,” he said. “We’ll take the air out of your vote, your taxes, your all.”

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Andrea Jenkins, a Minneapolis city councilwoman who represents the area where George Floyd Square stands, said she doesn’t know when exactly the intersection will be reopened—but she believes it’s got to happen soon.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” she said over the phone. “I’m African American. I’m Black. I didn’t just start hanging out at 38th and Chicago. I’ve been hanging there for 20-plus years, and I know all of the business owners. They want that street reopened.” She lives near the closed-off intersection and told me reopening the square is also a matter of public safety, access to emergency services, and restoring the 5 bus route, Minneapolis’ longest, which cuts through Chicago Avenue.

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“The barricades out there to me represents an open wound,” she said. “It’s time to rebuild our community. 38th and Chicago is the soul of this city, and it has become the soul of this nation. And we can’t rebuild and begin the healing process while we still have an open wound.” She said the last thing she wants is a confrontation, but when I asked her how exactly she expects the square to be reopened, she was firm: “no comment.”

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Still, Jenkins noted that there’s been no move to reopen the square forcefully. It’s typically the city’s public works director’s responsibility to oversee street logistics, but because of the complexity of the issue, the plan is to make the decision in conjunction with the City Council and the mayor.

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Jenkins argued it’s possible to support the reopening of the square and the unheeded demands of its inhabitants at the same time. She told me she’s been working on many of the 24 demands for years, long before Floyd died. “On my city website, you will see a plan for everything that they’re talking about they want that I’ve been working on for the past three years,” she said. “I’m committed to those issues of justice not because of some injustice that occurred on May 25, but because of injustices that have been occurring in our culture and society for hundreds of years. So, there is no disconnect as far as I’m concerned.”

Jenkins sounded more than a little frustrated by activists like Howard. “The people standing out there in the square think they’ve made some kind of meaning in their lives by occupying 38th and Chicago. And in my mind, it’s completely unnecessary to meet the justice goals that people say they have,” she told me. “We don’t even really need to have negotiations. People are literally breaking the law. It’s against the law to build structures in the middle of any street in America,” she said.

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“Demands have been met,” she continued, pointing to the freeing of Myon Burrell, an investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department, and other priorities put forth by activists in the square. “I’m doing the work that I asked my neighbors and residents to allow me to do three and a half years ago. So yes, I’m doing the work, and that work coincides with the justice demands, and I am looking at the 24 demands specifically and working towards those.”

Back at the intersection, Howard continued to plan for the long haul but has her sights set higher than just local justice. “We’ve been in open negotiations with City Council, county commissioner, the attorney general, the governor, since the beginning—for 11 months straight,” she told me. “We’re meeting with senators and corporations and other people. Ilhan Omar, we secretly met up there,” Howard said, pointing to the roof of one of the buildings at the intersection.

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“We’ll give Minneapolis the credit. They have been working on the low quietly,” she said. “It’s like dating a closeted lover. I don’t get to talk about them sliding into my DMs on the daily.

“I do understand,” Howard said. “Maybe this needs to be off the record. The fear is that if the world truly saw that this worked, what’s to stop other Black folk from taking over city streets? What’s to stop anybody from taking Rodeo Drive or Madison Avenue?”

But Howard said what’s happening in George Floyd Square can’t fully be replicated—not really. “We had the privilege of proximity. This is our neighborhood,” she said.

“They killed the wrong n––– by the wrong n–––s. We’re not going nowhere,” Howard said. “We said no justice, no street. We live that. I’m either in this street, or I’m asleep.”

For more on Marcia Howard’s experience of a year in George Floyd Square, listen to this episode of What Next.

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