Memorial or no-go zone? The Minneapolis intersection where George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed last summer by a white police officer has become a bit of both.
“George Floyd Square” is a public shrine, a focal point for debate and a canvas for artistic expression denouncing racial injustice and police brutality.
Surrounded by concrete barricades and patrolled by self-appointed “guardians,” the intersection at 38th and Chicago has also been the scene of several shootings, at least one of them fatal.
Bouquets, candles and hand-written messages mark the spot where the handcuffed Floyd died, his neck pinned to the ground by police officer Derek Chauvin‘s knee.
Jeanelle Austin, a 36-year-old woman who grew up in the neighborhood, describes herself as the “lead caretaker” of the George Floyd global memorial.
“I started caretaking for my own well-being,” Austin told AFP, carefully preserving and archiving the tributes left by visitors.
“People who remember me say, ‘You held each flower as if it was precious gold,'” Austin said.
“At first we were just tending to the space, to keep it clean and tidy,” she said. Now, “we are part of the fight to rehumanize Black people.”
“The stories that we are conserving emerge out of Black narrative,” she added.
“Our job is to be keeper of this story.”
‘Celebrate Black culture’
The Floyd family has pledged $500,000 from a $27-million “wrongful death” settlement with the city of Minneapolis to help improve the historically Black neighborhood.
“When people come to 38th and Chicago, they will witness a marker of a turning point in civil rights,” said Ben Crump, a lawyer for the Floyd family.
“They will learn more about Black history,” Crump said. “They will support the thriving Black businesses that were able to survive, not only Covid, but this terrible tragedy where George Floyd was killed.
“And they will be able to celebrate Black culture.”
Access to the square has been restricted by the “guardians” since a 30-year-old man was shot dead there on the evening of March 6.
The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office announced on Monday that a 31-year-old man had been charged with murder in connection with the shooting, which it said stemmed from an internal dispute in the “Rolling 30’s Bloods” gang.
Checkpoints have been set up at entry points, and a banner hangs at one of them proclaiming the site the “Independent State of George Floyd.”
“You are not safe here,” a “security guard” told a group of visitors during a recent visit to the area before asking them to leave to “let the community mourn.”
A day of silent prayer had been scheduled last week to mark the start of Chauvin’s trial but was called off.
The neighborhood around 38th and Chicago has been tense since Floyd’s May 25 death. Gunshots can be heard most nights.
An Uber driver recounted to AFP how he recently drove away a bleeding man who did not want to wait for an ambulance.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said the area has “two truths associated with it.”
“There are certainly times that it’s a beautiful community gathering space,” Frey said. “And I think that needs to be honored and respected.
“And there have been times where it has been absolutely unsafe.”
Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arradondo said the situation cannot continue forever.
“I’m hearing overwhelmingly from community members who, quite frankly, are feeling hostage over there,” Arradondo said. “We cannot allow for the violence to continue to happen.”
An elderly man who has lived in the area for 45 years said he had been leaving his house every afternoon for weeks to sleep at his sister’s place.
He said the area has become a “magnet for people who don’t have houses or jobs.”
The authorities have drawn up plans to reopen the streets to traffic following the end of Chauvin’s murder and manslaughter trial, expected to be sometime in late April.
But the volunteer activists who control the area do not plan to back down until they receive guarantees of police reforms and future memorial plans.
“No justice, no streets,” they say.