This is the start of a monthlong series looking at how the community has transformed the site of George Floyd’s killing — 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis — and at the people behind its transformation. It is the culmination of reporting over several months, and a partnership with South High School to engage neighborhood youth in telling their community’s story.
Mauri Friestleben’s phone wouldn’t rest. Alert after alert punctuated her morning like little sirens warning of trouble.
She handed it to her husband.
“Will you look at this? I don’t know what this is,” Friestleben asked. “I’ll never forget, he came back in the room and he gave me my phone back and he said, ‘I think I just watched a murder.’”
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That morning, the world was waking up to a video of George Floyd’s life slipping away beneath the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
Friestleben, an educator on the city’s predominantly Black north side, immediately got in her car.
“I said, ‘I have to go, I have to go, I have to go,’ and I just drove straight to 38th and Chicago,” she said. “Nobody was there yet, and I just got on my knees and I just prayed right then. I just prayed and prayed and prayed.”
Hundreds would soon join her, laying a sea of flowers and messages on poster board. And a day of mourning would morph into a night of anger, as crowds marched from the intersection to Lake Street. Their calls for a racial reckoning would reverberate from the smoldering street, to small towns and big cities, all the way to the halls of government and corporate suites.
Six months later, much of that energy has waned, poured into an historic election and diversity initiatives. But at the movement’s epicenter, a protest with deep roots has taken hold.
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‘Something beautiful happened’
Around the corner from where Friestleben sat in prayer that first morning, Marcia Howard and her husband sat guard on their porch each night that first week of protests.
“We heard flashbangs, and the sound of helicopters, and the refrain of ‘white boys on bikes,’ because people were coming into our neighborhood and putting incendiary devices everywhere,” Howard said.
Reports of people aligned with white supremacist organizations coming into the city to stir up trouble spread on social media and through word of mouth.
“And then something beautiful happened,” she said. “We go out on the corner and see brothers, Black men, taking garbage cans, refrigerators, wood and forming barricades. And it didn’t matter if they were old or young, it didn’t matter if they were Bloods or Vice Lords, they were all Black.”
In that moment, they wanted to protect the community and the growing memorial at 38th and Chicago. But the barricades were also the start of a six-month-long exercise in shifting the balance of power.
Howard, who’s Black, said she saw the scales tip when her husband, who’s white, took the trash out one night.
“And a brother questioned him,” she remembered. “I asked him, ‘And how do you feel?’ He said, ‘Great. I fit the description.’”
‘How to conduct protest in the 21st century’
Today, the barricades are still intact and members of the community have claimed the space as their own, calling it “George Floyd’s Square.” The bus shelters hold book and coat donations. Wood and plastic structures house a makeshift health clinic and greenhouse. And an abandoned Speedway gas station — now dubbed the People’s Way — hosts daily community meetings.
What started as a memorial, is now an occupation.
“This is an experiment for how to conduct protest in the 21st century,” said Michael McQuarrie, a sociologist from Arizona State University.
McQuarrie has visited the square several times for research. He sees it as an evolution in activism, as marches and sit-ins become routine and ineffective.
McQuarrie says George Floyd’s Square may look similar to the Occupy Wall Street encampment in a New York park in 2011, or this summer’s autonomous zone in Seattle. But it’s different, he said, because it’s largely driven by neighbors.
“They’re people that live here. They’re people that have businesses here,” McQuarrie said. “It’s a tremendously complicated, urban neighborhood, and the ability to organize it, despite the fact that not everyone shares the same beliefs, they don’t have the same interests, requires extremely sophisticated political intelligence.
“And this community is blessed with a number of people that possess that intelligence,” he said.
‘They owe these neighborhoods’
Howard, who stood watch on her porch with her husband, took a leave of absence from her job as an English teacher at nearby Roosevelt High School this year so she could help coordinate security at the square.
She says her 22 years of teaching provided the perfect training to organize a “ragtag team of young volunteers,” as she put it, and reassure nearby residents who were uncomfortable with the setup.
At the south barricade, for example, a gate made out of a bike rack on casters allows cars to come and go. It’s a block up from 38th Street, so people who live between the barricade and the memorial often have to rely on volunteers like Howard.
The goal is to keep the square closed to traffic and monitor for people who might enter the space to do harm. Some have defaced murals and set fires.
But the barricades are also a bargaining chip.
The city is eager to reopen the streets. When it proposed a partial reopening this summer, the community said no, not without justice.
“The barricade on one of these streets is about 40 steps from my house,” Howard said. “And so if holding down the barricades becomes the leverage in our negotiations with the city, I knew that I had the time, I had the training, and I had the proximity to make that happen.”
People at the square wrote a list of 24 demands they want the city to meet before they’ll give up the streets. They range from firing criminal justice heads to investing in the square’s volunteer clinic. They want the city to make up for what they see as years of disinvestment, and to let the community lead the way.
In total, the activists have asked for about $156 million over 10 years. The city has pledged more than $500,000 so far and is working to ease access to grants that could pour millions more into the neighborhood. Both sides remain apart.
“We’re holding out for hope that somehow the city can show the state, and the state can show the country, and the country can show the world what it looks like when all of these powers that be work together in order to make recompense for something that was demonstrably wrong,” Howard said. “They owe these neighborhoods.”
Survey suggests not all on board
Not everyone agrees that holding the streets is the way to achieve justice. About 65 percent of respondents said in a recent city survey they want the intersection reopened. The survey represents a small fraction of residents in the area.
Some also say the occupied square has limited the ability of police to deter rising crime. But crime is up sharply citywide, and residents in other neighborhoods have also complained that police aren’t responding.
Howard says she’s sympathetic to those concerns, but demonstrating a different way to address society’s problems is the point. And it goes beyond public safety.
“We have an education division, a lumberjack division, food drives, a community kitchen, we have a med tent — 612 MASH, a nonprofit that evolved from this space — where they provide care, not just for people in this community, but people who get dropped off to receive care here,” Howard said.
“I look at this place as proof of concept. If we can manage to do this on four square blocks, then we can reverberate.”
Hunkering down for the long haul
On a recent evening, hundreds gathered in the square like they did in May, only this time it was to celebrate George Floyd’s birthday. Kids ran wild in a bounce-house, everyone ate for free, and people who didn’t know each other six months ago stood together at 38th and Chicago, unafraid, as the sun set.
The city is hopeful it can reopen some of the street this winter. Those at the square are hunkering down, collecting firewood and propane donations.
They’re also working with George Floyd’s family to fundraise for a memorial that would ask others to reenvision community, too.