MINNEAPOLIS — Ten months after his death, George Floyd’s face looks out across a city still raw from his death. The intersection where he died under the knee of a police officer. The neighborhood burned and looted over the following days. The fortified courthouse where that former police officer is on trial for murder charges in Floyd’s death.
From the razor wire ringing the courthouse to a smattering of activists occupying the intersection where Derek Chauvin and three officers held Floyd to the ground, this city is still reckoning with the consequences of Floyd’s death.
Although the streets are largely empty of mass protests like last summer, calls for justice and reform echo across the city.
“We will be here every day and every night until we see some justice,” said protester Ashley Dorelus, 26, one of the people who has occupied the plaza outside the Hennepin County Government Center. “This is a revolution, ladies and gentlemen. It is not a parade.”
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Stalemate at George Floyd Square
Mileesha Smith, 30, dips her brush into a bucket and begins painting the curb green while trying to keep her son, Sir’miles, 5, from getting paint all over his shirt and clean sneakers.
Her other son, Mister, 8, is yelling “No Justice, No Streets!” and “Say his name!” into a borrowed megaphone, marching up and down Chicago Avenue at 38th Street amidst the flowers, candles and signs remembering Floyd.
This is where Floyd took his last breath. For 10 months, activists have occupied the area, turning it into a de facto autonomous zone. Security volunteers maintain barricades a block in each direction.
“It’s hard to be both an activist and a mom,” Smith said. “If somebody told me two years ago I’d basically be spending a year fighting for justice, I’d say you were crazy. We would rather be doing something else with our time.
“But sometimes it’s not about what you want to do,” she said. “It’s about doing what you have to do.”
The intersection where Floyd died has become a metaphor for the city as a whole: still grieving, with no consensus on how exactly to move forward. City officials want to reopen the intersection after the trial. Activists worry that would allow Floydto fade away,becoming just one more Black man killed by the cops.
The memorial, which began with flowers and signs in the hours after Floyd’s death, has taken on broader significance. His face and name beam down from signs and murals, but there are others, too: Philando Castile. Breonna Taylor. Freddie Grey. Eric Garner.
City officials understand anger over Floyd’s death could boil over again, whether it’s from residents lashing out or white supremacists instigating trouble. That’s why they’ve spent so much money fortifying the area around the courthouse, and why they’re treading so carefully around George Floyd Square.
Today, the square remains firmly under the control of activists like Smith, who has helped turn trash cans into colorful street art. Some activists picked up trash or sat around a firepit, smoke wafting into the spring air.
A boarded-up Speedway hosts a small library in its parking lot. A food bank is getting going there. Across the street, the Cup Foods store where Floyd bought cigarettes minutes before his death is open again.
‘There’s a lot of pain’
Daily, visitors from around the country make the pilgrimage to the intersection, marked with a large metal fist holding aloft a pan-African flag that matches the red, yellow and green curbs Smith was painting. Flags flutter in the spring sunshine, and dried flower petals scatter across pavement marked with names and slogans.
It’s not all peaceful. On March 6, community member Imaz Wright, 30, was shot outside Cup Foods and died at a nearby hospital. Police say Wright and the man who shot him were in the same gang but on opposite sides of a dispute. Wright’s friends say he was working for a nonprofit that helps at-risk kids.
City officials say reopening the streets will improve public safety. But they’re aware moving too fast could be disrespectful.
“One of the key pillars is individuals being able to express themselves, but to do so peacefully,” said Medaria Arradondo, the police chief. “That is what we hope will occur” when the streets are reopened.
In the square, volunteers like college student Huda Yusuf remain focused on the day-to-day. She helps run an art installation of some of the first items left to memorialize Floyd, from rain-curled signs to graffiti-style artwork.
“Is this your first time in?” Yusuf asked tourists. “Please sign in using the iPad.”
Yusuf, whose family lives nearby, said she worries what will happen when the trial is over and the city comes for the square. Today, she said, it’s a place for healing, for mourning, for community. What will happen if the city tries to remove these symbols?
“There’s a lot of pain,” she said. “A lot of pain.”
City steels itself for unrest at the courthouse where Chauvin stands trial
Wrapped in blankets and chains, high school English teacher Kaia Hirt sat in a folding chair, a cold wind whipping the ribbons and flags attached to the fence to which she’s locked herself.
The fortified government complex loomed over her shoulder. Inside, a jury is hearing the murder case against Chauvin.
Floyd’s death reignited conversations about racism and policing and launched a wave of protests and riots not seen since the Civil Rights era.
“This isn’t about me at all,” Hirt said. “These fences that the city erected are representative of their inability to build a relationship with the community. If I have to sit out here with these silly chains on to get you to listen to me, I will.”
For many Black protesters and police-reform advocates, the razor wire, armored vehicles and camouflaged soldiers with rifles are the ultimate expression of the yawning chasm between the government and the people it is supposed to represent.
That’s not new to Black community leaders in Minneapolis, who say poor education, sparse health care and high unemployment are products of institutional racism. They hope the trial and the city’s $27 million payment to Floyd’s family will provide the necessary push to dismantle those systems.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said he welcomes the urgency of Black activists, which he said has spurred the city to reform policy at every level, including police officers’ use of force and new programs to increase Black property ownership and loan money to Black-owned businesses affected by the riots.
“It’s impossible to course-correct 400 years of systemic oppression in a single policy,” he said. “No one of them has any snappy slogan or hashtag. And that kind of process is the point: This work is hard and it needs to be done every day.”
Frey drew a distinction between activists and the larger Black community, which he said isn’t monolithic. He said the residents he talks to support police reforms underway.
“The message I’ve heard from the Black community has been loud and clear: They want deep change to the police department, they want accountability, and they still want assistance from police officers,” he said.
$1 million spent on security fencing
Yet it’s clear from the security around the courthouse that authorities are scared of what might happen if angry crowds again rampage through the streets.
Authorities have spent an estimated $1 million alone on security fencing and have expressed concern that protesters might attack Chauvin or the jury. Gov. Tim Walz asked state lawmakers to approve a $35 million fund to cover policing costs for the trial and whatever follows. Legislators have not yet agreed on that figure.
Citing the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Frey said officials are worried both about pro-Floyd protests and the potential for white supremacist violence.
During last summer’s riots, the only significant shooting occurred when a self-described member of the far-right, anti-government “Boogaloo Bois” fired 13 rounds from a semiautomatic rifle into the 3rd Precinct police station, according to federal officials.
Police, sheriff’s deputies and about 200 members of the Minnesota National Guard are on high alert, although they’re maintaining a deliberately low-key presence.
Speaking at a press conference to address security concerns, Arradondo said his officers won’t permit the kind of violence and destruction that followed Floyd’s death.
Arradondo said his approach is driven in part by conversations he had with small business owners whose properties were damaged or destroyed in the riots. Some told him they won’t rebuild, he said.
“We cannot allow that to happen again,” Arradondo said.
Activists like Trahern Crews of Black Lives Matter Minnesota are offended by the city’s willingness to pour money into security, including overtime for officers from the very department whose actions are on trial.
Security forces regularly clear away the chalk art on the plaza outside the courthouse and cut off padlocks hung on the fence to memorial Floyd and others. Protesters regularly hang new ones in their place.
“America hasn’t been welcoming to the descendants of slavery since we’ve been in this country, and that’s what this trial is all about,” Crews said. “Will America respect our humanity and give us the justice we deserve, socially, politically and economically?”
Frey rejects the idea that the money for security — much of which comes from the county, not the city — should be used elsewhere.
“As government, you have to be able to be able to do multiple things at once,” Frey said. “Yes, we do need to make sure that city infrastructure is protected. Last summer, we had outside instigators, white supremacist organizations, attempt to come into our city to use the cover of peaceful protest to cause trouble. We can’t tolerate that.”
The overwhelming majority of people who posted on social media and those arrested in the early days of the protests in the Twin Cities lived in the area, according to a USA TODAY review of police records and tweets.
Neighborhood at center of riots struggles to recover
The broken glass has been swept away and the burned-out buildings have been demolished, but scars remain from last summer’s civil unrest that erupted about two miles northeast of the intersection where Floyd died.
The blocks along Lake Street bore the brunt of the destruction. People attacked the 3rd Precinct police station where Chauvin and his colleagues were based, then branched out to liquor stores, pharmacies, and the Target and Cub Foods stores.
Fire destroyed many buildings and singed others. Broken glass littered streets like sand. Desperate residents painted “do not burn,” “people live here,” and “Black-owned business” on their boarded-up properties.
Today, some rebuilding is underway. Target and Cub Foods have reopened, as have most of the liquor stores. But the burned-down Walgreens has been replaced with a temporary pharmacy, and some of that graffiti still pleads to people walking by.
Once a bustling neighborhood where Somali, Latino, Black, Asian and white people shopped at small stores, Lake Street is now struggling under the double burden of the pandemic and the riots.
Authorities say the damage to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area topped $500 million, and there’s little money to rebuild. The Lake Street Council, which supports businesses in the area, says fewer than 5% of damaged or destroyed businesses have reopened.
The Salvation Army has a food bank on Lake Street. Before COVID, many businesses would donate, said manager Major Roberto Viquez. The other week, he said, a business owner who used to donate came in for help herself. She’s not alone.
“My heart breaks down,” Viquez said, “because we can’t help everyone as much as we want.”
During the height of the riots, looters set Elias Usso’s pharmacy on fire and carried off a massive safe containing the most valuable prescription drugs.
Usso had opened the independent, “old school” Seward Pharmacy only a few months earlier in the community he and his wife called home. What wasn’t carried off during the rioting was damaged by smoke or water.
With the help of grants from the Lake Street Council and other organizations, Usso’s pharmacy is now open.
Usso, 42, said he remains anxious that Lake Street will never be rebuilt as it was. But he said he’s willing to have seen his pharmacy destroyed if that’s what it takes to change the course of history.
“That’s the price we pay for justice. I really see it that way. If there wasn’t a cry out for a Black man getting killed on the street, who would have heard us?” he said.
“Something has to be done if we want this to be a better country, to be a great nation,” Usso said. “We are under the world’s microscope. I hope we get this right, for the city and for his family.”