Best of 2021 | One Woman’s Year Protecting George Floyd Square

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S1: Hey, there. Happy holidays. Over the next week or so, the show is going to be bringing you some of our favorite episodes from 2021. We’re going to take you back to the stories and the people that defined our year. One of those people was named Marcia Howard. She lives just a few steps away from where George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, Minnesota. And she was one of the activists who helped establish what they call an autonomous zone around the site of George Floyd’s death. It became known as George Floyd Square in May. Marcia and I talked about her year of activism and stay tuned to the end of the show. We’ll have an update from Marcia. Also quick heads up here, this episode includes some offensive language. A year ago today, George Floyd was murdered precisely 263 steps from Marcia Howard House, Marcia is a high school English teacher, or else she was. Now she’s something else an activist, a caretaker. Even she has trouble coming up with the right word. If George Floyd 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 Marcia Howard 38th 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 day since.

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S1: Instead of reporting to a classroom, Marcia has been reporting to George Floyd Square. She’s part of a volunteer security team that’s 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. Marcia has got her own uniform at this point. You can see it in her TikTok 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 Motherfucker’s B Lion. That’s the process.

S1: That camera has come in handy because to talk to Marcia is to understand that living in George Floyd 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 Marcia from chronicling at all. Her TikTok 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 GFS

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 Marcia posted about a week ago. It shows a white man who’s hopped out of his truck and started swinging an axe at a shelter Marcia built to keep folks warm.

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

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

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S2: You left your acts dumb ass. No justice. No street. Yesterday, to somebody came in with a Blue Lives Matter flag and Carmel dressing on and decided he was going to try to plant a flag. How do you deal with that? Oh, we dealt with it.

S1: Are you ordering him away

S2: at 38th and 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 and 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 somebody’s 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 move 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.

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 in community. But when I told my new coworkers that I was moving a block away from 38th and Chicago, they looked at me askance and they were like, Oh. And I said, Why? They said, Oh, you might be a little sketchy now I’m 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 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 at which I moved.

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

S2: Yup. But 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 Floyd’s 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?

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S2: I, like many other people, were 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 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 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 A-line 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 A-line skirt kitten heels to wearing a GoPro on your chest and walking around your neighborhood hoping 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 had 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 this 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, planting Community Garden, the original fist 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 Floyd died and used them to build flower beds. As the square evolved, Marsh’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 Floyd Square, it became her sole focus. When did you quit your job?

S2: I didn’t quit, huh? I didn’t quit. I just didn’t go back. I call 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 the leave. And so I took a. All my sick days and took a long leave. I’ve been teaching for 23 years. I had a lot of sick days. Hmm. And in that.

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 tock 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.

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

S2: it’s not work? It’s that work. I have to stand on a corner at the age of 48. And say my life matters and still got white, people argue with me. This isn’t work. This is me trying to forge a world that I want my grandchildren to live in. This is work. This is the work, but it isn’t work in a way. I think people outside of. This 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 had 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 Marcia. These organizers have a list of demands. 24 of them in all. They’re all typed up in a document called Resolution 001. 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 violent crime is increased 66 percent in the neighborhood since the blockade went up, but Marcia 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 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, Don’t 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 just as resolution zero zero one. In 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 fish went from a wooden structure to steel. A Green House 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: Well, and 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 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.

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 2020. 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. Ms 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 rings Chambers. Actually make up No. 21 and 22 and 23 of the 24 demands because, you know, that was on June 18 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 the late 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 is repeated. Use of the case of Damien Chambers is the idea that if police were in the neighborhood, it would be safer.

S2: Maybe 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. Hmm. 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 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.

S1: And you worry about your own safety.

S2: No, I’m preparing for the 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 38th and Chicago, a

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S2: survey where people were cattle, shoot it to these options, open the square and this open the square and this open the square and this. Don’t talk to me about this survey, please.

S1: And 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 named Jamar Clark and Philando Castile and George Floyd and Daunte Wright sits in the mouths of people not just across this state, but across the country and around the world. But right now, if it keeps that fixed, 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.

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 Floyd 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 patience. It’s not just sitting at a barricade and singing kumbaya 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 a 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. 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 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. Yep.

S2: Now here’s the thing to recall somebody. It’s actually the voter’s job. We knew that. Here’s the thing. What we sat around a table and asked for. OK, I know y’all can’t 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 their 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,

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S1: he’s not anonymous

S2: anymore. 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.

S1: The Derek Chauvin

S2: trial? Yes. When I go out to my porch, I pulled out the white board and I put a big red check for no one. Recall Mike Freeman.

S1: Because you see that demand as 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 ain’t making 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 to 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 that 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 engaging and standing in front of a guard shack one day and she goes, Marcia, everybody could benefit from this. All the black people should have this. And then I said, Well, give it all up. Don’t just save it for 38th and Chicago, give it to everybody there. 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, we’ll give them the streets and I’ll bring my black asshole.

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. Earlier this month, we caught up with Marcia 38th, and Chicago is now technically open to traffic. But Marcia and her community of activists, they’re still in a tug of war with the city. They’re constantly erecting new monuments and holding events that are shutting the street down. We asked her to explain where the community is on that list of 24 demands. We also wanted to know how she felt about the election earlier this year, when Minneapolis voters decided against a ballot measure to defund the police department.

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S2: She said No justice, no street, and we meant it. We are still here 19 months later. We are at 38th and Chicago, still holding it down in solidarity for the justice resolution zero zero one and twenty four demands. Yup, we’re still in a political occupation. I think it’s the longest one in American history so far. It’s about 12 inches of snow come in the night and we still stand all day every day after the election, when the measure two failed. People were trying to gauge what we felt. We are trying to ideate a world beyond traditional policing, and we’re still working toward that. And what made us absolutely joyful was how much support that measure got in the ballot box. Y’all got to understand this is the Midwest. This is Minneapolis. And look at the amount of votes that it did get Carmel. It’s not that that long from now. It’s not. They better watch out. I mean that what we’re doing at thirty eight in Chicago is nothing short than worldbuilding, that this stands at the epicenter of four neighborhoods, but it also stands in the center of a global social justice movement. And what we are doing in the name of community and mutual aid and working quietly behind closed doors, legislative wise, coalition building, mobilizing and organizing. They didn’t know what they did when they did what they did at 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis. But we know because we still out here, we still stand. No justice, no streets. And we mean that.

S1: And that is our show. This episode of What Next was produced by Mary Wilson Alaina Schwartz, Carmel Delshad Daniel Hewitt and Davis Land. We miss you, Davis. Every day, we are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. I hope you are enjoying the holidays a Mary Harris. We will be back with a brand new episode. January 3rd. Catch it on!