Preserving George Floyd's memorial: 'Allow these pieces to continue to protest'
This is part 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.
On a recent night, Jeanelle Austin had gone to bed wondering how the flowers, artwork and trinkets people laid in honor of George Floyd at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue would fare in the early season snow forecast to fall overnight.
In the morning, she woke up to a group text message saying something she didn’t see coming: Someone had apparently tried to light the memorial on fire.
A fist-sized hole in the glass side of a defunct Metro Transit bus shelter showed where the flames ignited. The structure is directly adjacent to the spot where three Minneapolis Police officers pinned Floyd down on May 25 before he died. It now functions as a storage closet for the memorial and props up a large painted portrait of Floyd.
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“Well, I guess this is what community looks like,” Austin said, finding a silver lining as neighbors navigated shards of glass and slushy, sooty snow while cleaning up.
Volunteers who had stayed there overnight put the fire out before it spread, but signs and letters to Floyd that mourners had fastened to the bus shelter were now fragments. Austin made sure to collect every bit.
“It’s not trash. It’s just offerings that continue to tell the story of protest,” she said. “And part of protesting is facing counter protests, and these offerings faced a counter protest, so we will tell that story.”
Interactive map: Click to navigate a map of George Floyd’s Square
Preserving the offerings
The burnt bits and pieces are taken a few blocks down the street to the Pillsbury House and Theatre. There, Austin works with trained art conservators from the Midwest Art Conservation Center to clean and archive everything, in the hopes of creating a permanent remembrance and travelling exhibit.
It’s part of the ongoing effort to claim 38th Street and Chicago Avenue — its story and the physical space — for the community. Residents and activists have held the intersection as an autonomous zone for six months.
“We want the people to be able to forever tell their own story and allow these pieces to continue to protest against injustice by inspiring people to do the work in their own communities,” Austin said.
The conservators estimate they’ve processed and stored more than 2,000 pieces, with hundreds, maybe thousands, more still at the intersection and more being added everyday.
“For the thousands of people who have laid things there, for them to know that someone is caring for what they offered, I think that’s important,” Austin said. “It’s an extension of caring for them and their grief, and pain, and hope.”
Preserving the offerings requires artistic and scientific skill, but Austin’s expertise is in the pain and hope.
She went to school for theology and earned two master’s degrees. That’s why, when south Minneapolis convulsed with anger and grief in the days following Floyd’s killing, her mom asked her to return to the family home a few blocks from where it happened.
“I thought I was going to be here for two weeks,” Austin said. “It turned out I moved back.”
In those early days, she’d clean up around the memorial as a way to cope with what was happening. Now, Austin leads a team of 16 volunteers who maintain the memorial, and is working alongside Floyd’s aunt and cousin to plan a permanent one. She said she didn’t expect to get so involved, but now considers her homecoming a “divine appointment.”
“I made the connection when one of my caretakers, when I was onboarding him, he said, ‘I’m not really spiritual, but it sounds like caretaking is like a priesthood,’ Austin said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, it kind of is, because we carry everything as sacred.’”
Just as the art conservators she works with lend their skills, Austin has used hers to drive the ethos that a note to Floyd scrawled on notebook paper is as significant as a mural painted over the course of several days. That outlook, along with her ability to rouse a crowd like a good preacher would, once earned her the title “street theologian.”
“We all bring the best of ourselves to the movement,” she said. “I don’t think my training in theology is anything more special than anybody else’s training. What I do think is that we all have been called to this moment.”
As the conservators sorted through the offerings that survived the fire, they paused on a piece that must have been left by a child. Despite the damage, you could still make out the beans and macaroni.
“We preserved and saved what we could,” Austin said, continuing to sort. “The rest, we say, are just burnt offerings, which has so much theological meaning.”
As soon as the words left her mouth, she picked up the next scrap. You could still make out one word.
Austin says burnt offerings have a special meaning in nearly every religion. Whatever their meaning is here, she’s committed to sharing it.