MINNEAPOLIS (NewsNation) — Minneapolis leaders say they’ll reopen a barricaded intersection known as George Floyd Square after the murder trial of the former police officer accused of killing him. But the activists who serve as unofficial leaders and organizers of the area have issued 24 demands before they’ll step aside, even calling for a recall of the county prosecutor.
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.
The memorial, now called an autonomous zone, was set up by protesters and supporters at the now-vacant Speedway station. It’s very tense near the memorial and a militant-style group has closed off several blocks with barricades. They don’t allow the police inside.
“The situation at the memorial, from what I understand, is its kind of volatile,” said Kim Griffin, a Minneapolis resident. “People that want to go and support doesn’t feel a sense of inclusion. There is more of a like militant type atmosphere over and a sense of fear.”
Griffin supports police reform and protested Floyd’s death outside the courthouse Tuesday. But she doesn’t agree with what’s happening at the memorial. Her nephew, who she identified to NewsNation as Imez Wright, was shot and killed at the memorial over the weekend.
“Police were not allowed to get into that area; he was carried out outside of the zone of George Floyd Square,” Griffin explained. “It was made clear law enforcement was not welcome to penetrate that zone, which is an atrocity because his life was taken, and I mean who knows whether or not he would have survived had things been different.”
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.
During a group’s recent meeting at the memorial last month, 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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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 former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death David Chauvin’s murder trial. Jury selection for the trial began Tuesday, so far three jurors have been selected.
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.
Although many in the community say it has presented some headaches for the city, some consider it a sacred space.
Such is life at George Floyd Square, the place where the Black man died after Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes.
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.