Comedian puts people skills to work at George Floyd's Square

A person gazes to the left with blue sky behind them.
Madi Ramirez-Tentinger leans on a traffic barricade at the north end of George Floyd Square while directing traffic in Minneapolis, Minn., on Nov. 19.
Evan Frost | MPR News

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.

As winter closes in, volunteers at George Floyd’s Square have been crossing items off of a long punch list: winterize the wooden fist sculpture that stands in the intersection, build a greenhouse for the raised garden beds, build warming huts for volunteers. It goes on and on.

Two people stand in front of a small shed.
Adam Wieser, left, and Madi Ramirez-Tentinger discuss the construction of a small warming hut at the north barricade to George Floyd Square in Minneapolis on Nov. 19.
Evan Frost | MPR News

“We’re sort of in a stage of hunkering down for the long haul, because we don’t know how long we’re going to be here,” said Madi Ramírez-Tentinger.

The group of residents and activists plans to hold the intersection until the city agrees to a list of 24 demands as restitution for the police killing of George Floyd. Many are out of work because of the pandemic and have lent their skills to the cause.

Ramírez-Tentinger, who is an apprentice electrician, provides construction know-how. But they’re also a comedian — a profession that, it turns out, prepared them for much more than cracking jokes.

“A lot of comedy is trying to get to the point of something, trying to summarize something in a way that gets to the point really quickly,” they said. “And making fun of people, honestly, it keeps folks humble and cheers them up. It helps release pressure.”

Ramírez-Tentinger lives within the area now blocked off as an autonomous zone. They started coming to the square to help out wherever they could, and quickly learned that humor was a useful tool during the community’s daily meetings, which bring together a lot of different people with different ideas.

Now, Ramírez-Tentinger shows up every day to help build and maintain infrastructure, emcee events, and play a lead role in negotiations with the city.

“In some ways, it is a full-time job, but it doesn’t feel like a job,” they said. “What’s something that we say? ‘Give from your gifts and it never feels like work.’ And I love talking to people, which is a lot of what I do.”

Interactive map: Click to navigate a map of George Floyd’s Square

That talent for engaging with people was on display when, during the interview for this story, a visitor interrupted Ramírez-Tentinger for a turn at the mic. He wanted to talk about how he’s going to college to better his life. But he grew agitated as he spoke about needing to leave Minneapolis because there were too many bad influences on him.

Ramírez-Tentinger was affirming and welcoming, and then eased things to a close by offering the stranger their phone number in case he needed anything.

It’s the kind of exchange that happens regularly at the square, as people from all walks of life stop by to mourn, counter activists or simply take pictures.

Witnessing this exchange, it became clear that Ramírez-Tentinger’s background in comedy isn’t just bringing laughs to the square. There’s an emotional intelligence that comes from observing and commenting on human behavior.

And that’s important at the square, where people bring their pain, not everyone agrees with the autonomous zone, and people are having difficult conversations about race and privilege.

One day it all might inform a comedy set, they said. But for now, Ramírez-Tentinger is just taking in the weight of it all.

“You know the whole, ‘tragedy plus time equals comedy’ thing? I don’t feel like enough time has happened for me to be in a place that’s comfortable writing about it,” they said. “I’m still in it. I’m still living it everyday.”

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