One Woman’s Year Protecting George Floyd Square

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S1: Hey, everyone, there’s some spirited, cursing in this episode, beachwear. A year ago today, George Floyd was murdered precisely 263 steps from Marcia Howard’s house Marshes, a high school English teacher, or at least she was. Now she’s something else, an activist, a caretaker. Even she has trouble coming up with the right word if George Floyds Square is kind of like a village. Can you describe your role in the village like are you the mayor?

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S2: I don’t run my mouth.

S1: I guess I would say I don’t know if that’s entirely true, because when I look at, for instance, your social media, your handle is Marsha Howard, 30th Street. Clearly the place is deeply embedded inside of you.

S2: I got to tell you, this is my neighborhood. This is my neighborhood. My own student is the one who filmed the death of George Floyd. I haven’t taught a decent.

S1: Instead of reporting to a classroom, Marcia’s been reporting to George Floyds Square, she’s part of a volunteer security team that’s organized itself at the intersection of 30th and Chicago, where a steel fist sculpture has sprouted up in the middle of the road, right in front of cub foods. And traffic is closed off for a block in any direction. Marcia’s got her own uniform at this point. You can see it and her tick tock videos. She wears a yellow beanie. It’s a yellow headband. In the warmer months, she’s got trademark glasses. And then there’s the GoPro camera strapped to her chest.

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S2: I started wearing a camera, probably May 29th or May 30th.

S1: Did you think you were doing it for your own safety? What was your process?

S2: The process was motherfuckers be lying. That’s the process.

S1: That camera has come in handy because to talk to Marsha is to understand that living in George Floyds Square can make you feel both united in a struggle for justice and under constant siege. Over the last year, what started with an impromptu memorial has become a semi-permanent occupation, Marcia and her neighbors have demands they want met before they open this intersection back up. Not everyone’s happy with the situation, which hasn’t stopped Marsha from chronicling it all. Her Tic-Tac has become a tragicomic newsreel, and she’s cast herself as a Happy-Go-Lucky and often foul mouthed reporter on the scene.

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S2: Greetings from G4S.

S1: She shares the feel good stuff. Pictures from a movie Night in the Square, an impromptu parade. Then there’s the security footage. This is some video Marsia posted about a week ago, it shows a white man who’s hopped out of his truck and started swinging an ax at a shelter Marsia built to keep folks warm.

S2: If you notice, our camera was tracking him the entire time. And I’m like, God, how long is he going to take to do this? He got tired. At one point it was like, Oh, baby, don’t skip cardio day.

S1: Eventually the neighbors start yelling at this guy. Oh, God, he starts to leave. Then Marsha points the camera back at herself.

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S2: You left your acts, dumb ass. No justice, no St.. Yesterday, two, somebody came in with a blue lives matter flag and camo dressing on and decided he was going to try to plant a flag. How do you deal with that? Oh, we deal with it.

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S1: Are you ordering him away

S2: at thirty eighth in Chicago? We walk and talk. We walk and talk. We walk and talk with Nazis. We walk and talk with the guy with the double lightning bolt in the swastika on his calf. But meanwhile, your feet are still moving and you’re walking toward an exit. Turns out. It can be effective. Turns out you don’t need to put your knee on my neck. Go figure.

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S1: Do you feel like you’re being tested?

S2: We’ve been tested for a year. If you think what you’re doing in protest is transformative, is transgressive, then don’t you think you’re worthy of that type of fuck shit of that type of governmental interference? So either what we’re doing is transformational or nobody cares, and they would not even extend the effort to undermine it

S1: today on the show. It’s been one year since George Floyd was killed and the ripple effects of his murder can be felt all over the world. But we’re going to talk about the fight over one corner and what it says about the fight for justice everywhere else. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Marcia Howard first moved to this now infamous corner of Minneapolis back in the late 1990s, she had married a Minnesota native. Even back then, she believed in the importance of local action of investing in the place you live.

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S2: I bought this house in 1998 when I was a fresh face. Twenty five 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.

S1: Because you were teaching at Roosevelt High School?

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S2: Yup. And I, 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 a church. I want it to be a community. But when I told my new co-workers that I was moving a block away from thirty eighth in Chicago, they looked at me askance and they were like, Oh, and I said, why? They said, you might be a little sketchy now from Arkansas. I didn’t know what she meant, but I found out I closed November 12th, moved in, I believe, November 18th and as we moved the couch in Apapa. I’m like, what’s going on? Cub Foods on the corner of 13th in Chicago was being raided by the feds and that was my introduction to the neighborhood in which I moved Cub Foods.

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S1: Many people know it now because that’s the place where Floyd allegedly tried to use counterfeit money. And, of course, he was murdered in front of Court Foods.

S2: Yep. But it it’s the corner store. And so I can look upon that square from this window. This autonomous zone isn’t just like grandstanding or some vanity project. This is my neighborhood.

S1: So we’re speaking to you because it’s the anniversary of George Floyds death, and I wonder if you could just go back in time and introduce me to who you were a year ago, like, what were you doing and how that’s changed over the last year?

S2: I like many other people, we’re dealing with the effects of covid during that time, me teaching on my front porch in some makeshift classroom for distance learning. 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 Eilleen skirts and kitten heels because I dress for work, even though I was still on my front porch. And so I went out there to see what was what. 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 Klansmen 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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S1: You described yourself as having an alien skirt and in little kitten heels. But I’ve seen pictures of you now. And you look pretty different than that. How did you go from Aileen’s skirt kitten heels to wearing a GoPro on your chest and walking around your neighborhood helping to keep it safe?

S2: Well, I need you to understand, I am a teacher, but I’m also a retired United States Marine. I was a non-commissioned 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. Number one, I’ve taught half this neighborhood, so I know the brothers that are out there every night. And number two, 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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S1: over the next few months. Marcia watched her neighborhood change. She saw people come together, plant and community garden, the original sculpture at the center of the square. It was made of wood, but it got replaced by a steel structure that was made to last. A guy named Jay took rubble from the riots that happened on nearby Lake Street after George Flay died and use them to build flower beds. As the square evolved, Marcia’s role in it did, too. She volunteered to run security and then started patrolling the streets to keep an eye out for trouble, George played where it became her sole focus. When did you quit your job?

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S2: I didn’t quit. Huh? 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. And that.

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S1: What’s your daily schedule now, like you wake up, do you go right outside, do you like. Suit up, do you have a routine?

S2: I actually did a tick tac about what I have to do to prepare to go outside, including just having hand sanitizer on me, a radio, and I would go pro. Then I go outside and I’m outside or I’m sleep.

S1: That sounds. Endless, like you’re always working. How does that not exhaust

S2: is not work? It’s not work. I have to stand on a corner at the age of forty eight. And say, my life matters and 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 in a way. I think people outside of. This is old 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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S1: When we come back, the demands protesters are making and whether the city of Minneapolis is ready to meet any of them. For the last 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 like Marsha. These organizers have a list of demands, 24 of them in all. They’re all typed up in a document called Resolution zero zero one. It includes big acts 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 violent crime has increased 66 percent in the neighborhood since the blockade went up. But Marsia says that’s actually a red herring. Violent crime has been going up all around the city, not just at George Floyd Square.

S2: 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 three hundred and sixty four 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 owned cut, what does justice look like, what 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 zero zero one. And the city and the county and the state and even the the rank and file citizens have been working diligently to meet those demands. But in the meantime, in between time, the fists 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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S1: when you’re saying you’re saying the space is your power. Yeah.

S2: But not just not just the space is 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 zero zero one, the twenty four 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.

S1: I mean, a good example of this back and forth and disagreement between the city and the square is what happened with Damien Chambers, who was killed in June of twenty twenty. And the city often brings up his case to explain why they need the streets open again and they say someone was killed within George Floyd Square, police weren’t able to get in. EMS was delayed. And this just shows how the way these blocks are being run can be dangerous. What would you say to that?

S2: The case of Damien Murphy Rink’s chambers. Actually make up number twenty one and twenty two and twenty three of the twenty four demands because, you know that was on June 18th and this brother was shot three times in his vehicle by someone in his vehicle. Witnessed and when the police showed up in full riot gear. On June 19, they are the ones that delayed E.M.S. 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 MS 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 hoards of of black folks keeping out the authorities. But I need you to do a little bit of digging, ask where that 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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S1: They’re not the police aren’t making this argument, but I guess implicit in the city’s repeated use of the case of Damian Chambers is the idea that if police were in the neighborhood, it would be safer

S2: than they were. 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. They were right there. And funnily enough, they seem to always be right there when something pops off. Riddle me that. Hmmm, I’m telling you, if we are doing something transformative, then we’re doing something worthy of interference and undermining. If we are doing something that’s relevant, then what you’re trying to say is that 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 aunt. 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.

S1: And you worry about your own safety.

S2: No, I’m preparing for that eventuality.

S1: That’s dark.

S2: I’m a black person in America trying to get liberty. What happens to us?

S1: The city did do a survey asking residents what they wanted to happen at the intersection of 30th in Chicago,

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S2: a survey where people are cattle, shoot it to these options, open the square and this open the square and this opened the square. And this don’t talk to me about that survey place.

S1: You just don’t think it’s legitimate. It just didn’t ask the right questions.

S2: That’s precisely what I think.

S1: I mean, 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 said she wants to open the streets back up again. What are your conversations like with her,

S2: 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.

S1: What does the city get from keeping it closed?

S2: 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 name Jamar Clark and for Landal Castillo and George Floyd and Dante. Right. Sits 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 FOID Square. The city knows what it’s sitting on now.

S1: So what you’re talking about here. Is a kind of. Political chess, where the city. In your telling. Creates a narrative of people want the streets opened, people want George Floyds Square to go back to the way it was, and they keep not doing it. And it. 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.

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S2: I don’t worry about it because I have patients, it’s not just sitting at a barricade and singing Kumbayah around a fire, we’re actually have working groups that are contacting congressmen and holding secret meetings with with our elected officials in order to to move the needle with qualified immunity. And we’re finding culturally competent mental health care workers in order to meet the other man of integrated health that needs to get funded through this justice resolution. Frankly, if you all want to know when we’re going to leave, all you got to do is know that we’re 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 settle for. With each demand, I’ll give you an example, let me give you one. Number one, recall Mike Freeman.

S1: Mike Freeman is the prosecutor for Hennepin County.

S2: Yep, now here’s the thing, to recall somebody, it’s actually the voter’s job. We know that. Here’s the thing. What we sat around a table and asked for. OK, I know you can get them to be fired, he might not want to quit, but can somebody around here denounce him? Because I read an article where he said something to the effect of most people want recognition for their work here. Anonymity serves me. If I do get on the ballot, no one will know who I am. And I said to that group around that table, which included the mayor and members of city council, could one of you agree to denounce him? Full throated denouncement. So then when it’s time for him to be on a recall ballot, he’s

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S1: not anonymous anymore,

S2: it’s not anonymous and guess what, first or second round of negotiations, they agreed to do it. And then several weeks later, the judge pulled him off the case and said it was because he did sloppy work and he was not fit to be on that case, which is when. Listen to the Derek Chauvin trial. Yes. When I go out to my porch, I pulled out the whiteboard and I put a big red check for number one recall, Mike Freeman.

S1: Because you see that demand is met,

S2: I see it as met as well as it can be.

S1: Listening to you. You’re being practical. You’re like, all right, this would take 100000 signatures, we got him off the case, I’m going to put a check next to this.

S2: I’m not no. Remember, we brought it to the community first. And by that I mean the people who asked for it that meet twice a day, every day for an entire year. And we said, is this good enough? I don’t run no my mouth, I make no decisions, so when we came to an agreement like, OK, and yet there are people in that square that are still working to get him recall that are still working for him. They even decide to just don’t run again, maybe quit and ride off into the sunset. However much they feel about that, it’s up to those people who put the order in on this menu to figure out what they’re going to settle for. But to be clear, we’re not zealots, we’re not unreasonable. These are negotiations. They asked us, what does justice look like those twenty four demands to a lot of people aren’t even exhaustive enough. Oh my God, that just relates to those four blocks or that neighborhood. Or frankly, Andrew Jenkins standing in front of a guard shack one day and she goes Barshop. Everybody could benefit from this. All the black people should have this. And then I said, well, give it to them. Don’t just save it for thirty eight days, you guys will give it to everybody then if you think everybody deserves this. Hmm.

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S1: Are you going to run for anything? No.

S2: 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 two hundred and sixty three 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, will give them the streets, and I’ll bring my black ass home.

S1: Marcia, I’m really grateful for your time. Thanks for all the work you’re doing.

S2: Thank you. Thank you very much.

S1: Marcia Howard is a security volunteer and a teacher who lives in George Floyd Square, and that’s the show What Next is produced by Davis Land, Daniel Hewitt, Alan Schwartz, Mary Wilson and Carmel Dilshad. We are led by Allison Benedikt, Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can go track me down on Twitter if you want. I’m at Mary’s desk, but no matter what, I’ll catch you back in this feed tomorrow.