During a group's recent meeting at the now-vacant Speedway gas station near where George Floyd died, children roasted marshmallows on a fire pit while adults discussed topics ranging from activism to snow removal.
“Black joy is a form of protest,” said Marcia Howard, one of the group's organizers, referencing plans for celebrating Arctic explorer Matthew Henson as part of Black History Month.
But the agenda on this chilly Thursday morning in February quickly segued to more immediate concerns: Who would pick up skis and broomball sticks for an event being planned at a nearby park? And what's to be done about the snow piling up at the site's greenhouse that preserves plants left in Floyd's memory?
Such is life at George Floyd Square, the place where former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes. Although many in the community consider the place where the Black man died to be a sacred space, it also has presented some headaches for the city.
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The square sprang up organically in the days after Floyd’s death. As people gathered to express their grief and anger, including leaving offerings, community members set up barricades of refrigerators, trash cans and wooden pallets to block traffic. The city eventually replaced those with concrete barriers.
Amid concerns that the barricaded square was decimating businesses and making the neighborhood less safe at night, city leaders recently pledged to reopen it after Chauvin's murder trial. Jury selection starts Monday, and the trial is expected to stretch into April.
The residents and activists who serve as unofficial leaders and organizers of George Floyd Square say they won't step aside unless the city meets their list of 24 demands. Among them: recall the county prosecutor, fire the head of the state's criminal investigative agency, and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on programs to create jobs, combat racism and support affordable housing. They also are demanding that the square remain closed until the trials scheduled for August of the other three officers charged in Floyd's death.
Since the city asserted it would reopen the square after Chauvin's trial, the caretakers of the space have declined to talk in detail about negotiations to reopen it. Jeanelle Austin, a racial justice leadership coach and a lead caretaker of the memorial area, said the demands that fall within the city's control aren't unreasonable.
“The thing about it is that a lot of the different demands are asks from different people, and Black folks aren’t monolithic,” said Austin, who is Black. “So it’s really incumbent upon our city leadership to really look at the needs behind the asks, and really fulfilling those needs.”
A towering steel sculpture of a raised fist dominates the middle of the intersection, a replacement for the wooden sculpture that first went up. Murals memorializing Floyd or marking the struggle against discrimination have overtaken nearly every vertical surface. Warming houses are available at the barricades, and so is hand sanitizer in a nod to COVID-19 safety precautions. A small library, a community closet for clothing and food shelves are among various services available to visitors.
Howard, a 47-year-old retired Marine who lives around the corner from the square, was so affected by Floyd’s death that she took a leave from her job as a high school English teacher to more or less watch over the square. Howard said the neighborhood has been largely supportive of volunteers, with many residents cooking food for them.
A video on her TikTok account shows a resident’s child giving her a cupcake as the family left the square, bringing Howard to tears.
“I haven’t had to grocery shop in six months,” she said.
But the support isn't total.
Andrea Jenkins, one of two City Council members representing parts of the neighborhood, said some of her constituents have complained about gunshots and the frequent sound of police helicopters overhead.
“The neighbors deserve to have a level of comfort that does not include gunshots every night, and muggings and carjackings, and all the violent crimes we have been witnessing in this community,” Jenkins said.
Violent crime at the intersection and the blocks immediately surrounding it rose dramatically in 2020, though crime also increased citywide. There were 19 nonfatal and fatal shootings in the area in 2020, including 14 shootings from May 1 through Aug. 31. That’s compared with three shootings in all of 2019 and none during the summer months.
Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo last month disputed frequent characterizations of the square as an “autonomous zone” but cited those perceptions as a major reason it must be reopened.
Jenkins said officers have been met with “protests, resistance, opposition” that have sometimes led them to avoid policing the area. Howard and other leaders dispute that anyone in the square has impeded officers.
A flashpoint of that argument was the fatal shooting of Dameon Chambers at the square when many people had gathered to celebrate the Juneteenth holiday.
A city document says emergency services workers were unable to get to Chambers and that police “ultimately had to pull Mr. Chambers to an area where the ambulance could access the area.” The Floyd Square caretakers say it was police who delayed emergency workers, and their demands include an investigation of his death.
“The narrative will be, to this day, that the people blocked the EMS,” Howard said. “Show me the bodycam footage of people blocking emergency services vehicles for a dying Black man. You won’t have it, because it doesn’t exist.”
Jenkins and others also argue that businesses in the area are being hurt by the street closure. She said business occupancy in the area has fallen from more than 90% last March to “probably less than 50%” nearly a year later, although it's difficult to discern the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on those numbers.
The Speedway is now closed, with a sign that once displayed gas prices now showing a countdown to Chauvin's trial, and other storefronts lay vacant. Several businesses do remain open, including a couple of restaurants, a salon and a laundromat.
Members of Howard's group say that while they're hoping Chauvin gets convicted, the occupation of the square is about far more than the case against him.
“Injustice closed these streets, and only justice can open them back up," Howard said.
This story was corrected to reflect that there are three other officers besides Chauvin, not four, who are charged in Floyd’s death.
Mohamed Ibrahim is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.