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Officer’s trial could result in the reopening of the intersection where Floyd died.

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Officer's trial could result in the reopening of the intersection where Floyd died.

 

Children roasted marshmallows on a fire pit at a recent meeting at the now-vacant Speedway gas station near where George Floyd died, while adults debated subjects ranging from activism to snow removal.

“Black joy is a form of protest,” one of the group’s organizers, Marcia Howard, said, referring to plans to honor Arctic explorer Matthew Henson during Black History Month.

On this chilly Thursday morning in February, however, the agenda quickly shifted to more pressing concerns: who will pick up skis and broomball sticks for an upcoming event at a nearby park? What about the snow that has accumulated at the site’s greenhouse, which houses plants left in Floyd’s memory?

Such is life at George Floyd Square, where Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, pushed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nine minutes. While many in the community consider the site of the Black man’s death to be sacred, it has also caused problems for the area.

In the days following Floyd’s death, the square grew organically. Community members set up barricades of refrigerators, garbage cans, and wooden pallets to obstruct traffic as people gathered to share their sorrow and indignation, including leaving offers. Concrete barriers were finally installed in their place.

City officials recently promised to reopen the barricaded square after Chauvin’s murder trial, despite fears that it was decimating businesses and making the area less secure at night. The jury selection process begins on Monday, and the trial is scheduled to last until April.

Residents and activists who serve as George Floyd Square’s unofficial representatives and organizers insist they will not leave until the city meets their list of 24 demands. Recalling the county prosecutor, firing the director of the state’s criminal investigation department, and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on projects to create jobs, fight racism, and fund affordable housing are among the proposals. They also want the square to stay closed until the trials of the other three officers involved in Floyd’s murder, which are set to begin in August.

Since the city said it would reopen the square after Chauvin’s trial, the square’s custodians have refused to discuss the reopening talks in detail. The demands that are beyond the city’s reach, according to Jeanelle Austin, a racial justice leadership coach and a lead caretaker of the memorial field, aren’t unreasonable.

“The thing is, a lot of the demands come from different groups, and Black people aren’t monolithic,” Austin, who is Black, said. “As a result, it is incumbent upon our city government to look at the needs behind the requests and to meet those needs.”

A colossal steel sculpture of a raised fist stands in the center of the intersection, replacing the previous wooden sculpture. Murals honoring Floyd or commemorating the fight against discrimination have taken over nearly every vertical surface in the city. Warming homes, as well as hand sanitizer, are accessible at the barricades as a reference to COVID-19 safety measures. Among the facilities available to visitors are a small library, a community clothing closet, and food shelves.

Howard, a 47-year-old former Marine who lives around the corner from the square, was so moved by Floyd’s death that she left her work as a high school English teacher to essentially guard the square. Volunteers have been well-received in the community, according to Howard, with several people preparing meals for them.

Howard was moved to tears when she saw a video on her TikTok account of a resident’s child giving her a cupcake as the family left the square.

She said, “I haven’t had to go grocery shopping in six months.”

However, there isn’t full agreement.

Some of her neighbors have complained about gunshots and the constant sound of police helicopters overhead, according to Andrea Jenkins, one of two City Council members who represents parts of the area.

Jenkins said, “The neighbors deserve a level of comfort that does not include shootings at night, muggings and carjackings, and all the violent crimes we have seen in this city.”

In 2020, violent crime at the intersection and in the blocks surrounding it increased significantly, while crime overall increased. In the year 2020, there were 19 nonfatal and fatal shootings in the city, with 14 of them occurring between May 1 and August 31. In comparison, there were just three killings in all of 2019 and none during the summer.

Last month, Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo denied common descriptions of the square as a “autonomous region,” but cited those views as one of the main reasons it needed to be reopened.

Officers have been met with “protests, resistance, and opposition,” Jenkins said, leading them to avoid policing the region at times. Howard and other officials deny that officers have been hampered by someone in the square.

The fatal shooting of Dameon Chambers in the square, where many people had gathered to celebrate the Juneteenth holiday, was a flashpoint in that debate.

Emergency responders were unable to reach Chambers, according to a city paper, and police “ultimately had to drag Mr. Chambers to a place where the ambulance could enter the area.” The Floyd Square caretakers claim that police were the ones who held up emergency personnel, and they are demanding an investigation into his death.

“To this day, the narrative will be that the people blocked the EMS,” Howard predicted. “Show me the bodycam footage of people blocking emergency vehicles for a dying African-American man. You’re not going to get it because it doesn’t exist.”

The street closure, according to Jenkins and others, is hurting local businesses. She said business occupancy in the region has dropped from more than 90% in March to “possibly less than 50%” nearly a year later, but it’s difficult to say how much of it is due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Speedway is now closed, and other storefronts are abandoned, with a sign that once showed gas prices now displaying a countdown to Chauvin’s trial. Several businesses, including a couple of restaurants, a spa, and a laundromat, are still operating.

Although members of Howard’s community hope Chauvin is found guilty, they say the occupation of the square is about far more than the case against him.

“These streets were closed by injustice, and only justice will reopen them,” Howard said.

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