National Columnist Suzette Hackney is in Minneapolis for the trial of Derek Chauvin, reporting on the people, the scene and the mood.
MINNEAPOLIS — No justice, no streets.
That’s the mantra of community members who have claimed the neighborhood where George Floyd died as their own. Until there is justice for Floyd’s death, the area where a former Minneapolis police officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck while he struggled to breathe and cried for his mother, belongs to the people.
Police officers, in particular, are not welcome. Some here call it an autonomous zone.
Ten months after Floyd died in police custody, opening statements began Monday in the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin who was captured on video kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. He is charged with second-and third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death.
The intersection at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue — now called George Floyd Square — has been blocked off by concrete barricades and makeshift checkpoints since Floyd died while in police custody in May. Those who live in the neighborhood are free to come and go, once they are cleared by activists and volunteers who sometimes sit in weatherproof stalls erected to aid in monitoring traffic.
The four-block area on the south side of Minneapolis has become a memorial to Floyd, adorned with balloons and brightly colored signs, paintings, murals and stuffed animals. An abandoned Speedway gas station — dubbed the People’s Way — serves as a trial day countdown, updated on the signage that used to advertise the prices for petroleum. Cup Foods, where Floyd was accused of trying to pass a counterfeit $20, which led to that fateful police response, is open and serves as a convenience store for residents who file in and out each day.
Roughly three miles from the Hennepin County Government Center where the trial will proceed, folks in George Floyd Square are holding it down, just as the National Guard is providing additional security in downtown Minneapolis. It’s a complicated juxtaposition, one marked by smoldering tension between law enforcement and the community. I don’t know how a compromise can be reached, particularly as emotions heat up for Chauvin’s trial, which is expected to last four weeks.
Hoping against history for justice
Some residents, particular older ones, are desperate to again see police patrols and other reliable city services. But activists have pledged to keep the area closed until city leaders meet 24 social justice demands, including recalling Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman; investments in housing and jobs programs; ending qualified immunity for police; and providing accountability and transparency in other cases where police misconduct has been alleged.
“Injustice closed these streets; only justice should open them,” high school teacher and activist Marcia Howard told me. “Only justice.”
Howard, 47, is one of a handful of organizers leading the stand-their-ground movement. They know who is in the square at all times and they film everything that happens there. She calls claims by city officials that the area has become a crime den a “propaganda campaign.” And while they want to see Chauvin convicted, history has shown that the criminal justice system fails them when Black people are killed at the hands of police.
“They want to shut down the square just to shut down protesters,” Howard said, wearing a GoPro video camera strapped to her coat. “They definitely want us gone before that miscarriage of justice happens.”
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According to Minneapolis Police Department statistics, violent crime in the area where Floyd died increased by 66% last year and continues to soar in 2021. There is little police presence, though officials say officers answer emergency runs.
“People are hurting,” Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said during a news conference on March 18. “They need that intersection reopened. The best public safety remedy right now is to open up and get that intersection flowing again.”
I have been in Minneapolis since jury selection began on March 9. During the past three weeks, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Arradondo have held weekly news conferences to discuss updates on security and safety during the trial. They say neighbors have become increasingly frustrated with the closures around George Floyd Square. Initially the area was not to be reopen before or during the trial. That timeline may change.
“We are not going to let the trial dictate when it’s the right time to safely reopen that intersection, so the plans I present to Mayor Frey will not be based on the trial timeline, it’s going to be based on public safety need,” Arradondo said.
I try to visit George Floyd Square as frequently as possible. I talk to activists. I talk to residents. I talk to journalists. There’s an apprehension about the possibility of clashes if (or when) city officials decide to force the neighborhood to reconnect. And there are no easy answers.
Sacred space, reverberating impact
On a recent Friday, Tania Mitchell and her 3-year-old daughter, Ellison Hans, greeted neighbors as they walked back home from the square. Ellison, on a scooter and wearing a dinosaur coat, seemed at peace looking for sticks and enjoying the sunshine.
Mitchell, 46, moved to Minneapolis in August 2012 to accept a position as a professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. She was intentional in where she wanted to live. She wanted her family to reside in a diverse area. And since Floyd’s death, she has also been intentional in spending time at the memorial.
“It is really important to me as person raising a Black child here that my kids not be afraid of where we live,” Mitchell told me. “This was our community and it will continue to be our community.
“The idea that the community has been able to hold this space sacred feels really profound, and I think speaks to the significance of Mr. Floyd’s death and the reverberating impacts of it,” she continued. “That’s really powerful to me.”
Bryan Page, 35, moved from Oklahoma to the neighborhood where Floyd was killed in the fall. He’s helped cook for volunteers and protesters in the square, and finds the sense of community “really awesome.” He talks with pride about the snow removal teams who activated during the winter because city crews offered limited services. He embraces the diversity of the residents and their commitment to change.
When I asked Page if it was time to reconnect the community to the city, he didn’t hesitate to answer.
“Has there been justice? No justice, no streets,” said Page, who is white. “I listen to people of color in this community. They say ‘no justice, no streets,’ I stand behind them.”