George Floyd's Square offers an alternative to police — though not all neighbors want one

Painted barricades block a city road.
Barricades block traffic from passing through George Floyd's Square at 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis on Nov. 19.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

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 Dec. 4, Minneapolis police officers chased an alleged, armed carjacking suspect into the south Minneapolis intersection that residents and activists have been holding as an autonomous zone called George Floyd’s Square. 

Several people gathered around the officers, yelling for them to be less rough with the suspect. The officers called for backup and 12 squad cars arrived, according to people who were there. Officers arrested one of the bystanders for obstructing justice.

The incident illustrates a tension that’s been simmering in the neighborhood and citywide as elected officials and community members try to reform public safety amid a sharp increase in violent crime.

The people holding the intersection say the show of force that night was excessive and an example of why police need to be reined in, or replaced altogether.  It was traumatizing, they say, for a community that has watched police brutalize people of color — up close with the killing of George Floyd, but also in countless other cases locally and nationwide, year after year.

But others in the neighborhood say the incident is a perfect example of why the autonomous zone is a problem. Brazen carjackings and other crimes are on the rise, and police need to be able to do their jobs. Some believe people have used the square to evade arrest, since officers are not welcome there.

Whether the autonomous zone has had an effect on crime is unclear. Police data from May 26, when people first began gathering there, through November of this year show overall crime is up 16 percent in Ward 8, where the intersection is located, from the same time last year. Citywide, it’s up 3 percent. 

But if you compare Ward 8 to Ward 5 in North Minneapolis, where residents are also complaining about an uptick in crime, Ward 5’s increase is sharper at 33 percent. 

The picture changes if you look at only violent crime, which includes carjackings. Those are up 122 percent in Ward 8, compared to 30 percent in Ward 5 and 34 percent citywide. Ward 5, however, still saw nearly four times as many violent crimes than Ward 8.

Full Interview: Minneapolis City Councilmember Andrea Jenkins on George Floyd's Square

“If George Floyd’s Square was the only reason for the increase in crime, then every place else in the city and in the country would have stable crime rates, and that is not the case,” said Ward 8 City Councilmember Andrea Jenkins.

The Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan research organization, says homicides increased an average of 53 percent this year in 20 U.S. cities.

Jenkins said she thinks a combination of things are causing crime to rise in her ward, including growing desperation as the pandemic fuels unemployment, and what she called “lawlessness” at the top rungs of government.

Across the country and in Minneapolis, experts say the pandemic has hindered outreach efforts that typically deter crime. They’ve also kept people out of jobs and classrooms, which are effective diversions. 

Residents and activists at the square also say they’re working to keep the area safe. The zone has a team of volunteers who guard the barricades that block traffic from the square, and it is home to the Agape Movement offices. The nonprofit works to “bridge the gap between the community and law enforcement.” It engages people who may be drawn to crime and provides security in the neighborhood.

“We have community members who will testify that they feel safe because they are given an update when they hear gunshots from blocks away and they have someone on this barricade saying, ‘That was five blocks south. All clear on Chicago Avenue.’ And they can go to bed,” said Marcia Howard, who works security at the square. 

“On the contrary, you have people since the uprising who don’t feel as safe because they got so used to having the long arm of the law be an extension of their own power,” she continued. “Now they have to rely on their neighbors, and that is a retraining.”

Some residents in the area, who won’t go on the record with specific complaints, have told MPR News and other outlets that they don’t feel welcome at the square and believe it’s a dangerous way to force change.

Similar disagreement played out citywide this week, as the City Council cut nearly $8 million from the police department’s $179 million budget. It was a victory for some, and anxiety-inducing for others.

Councilmember Jenkins said both camps need to come together.

“And coming together is going to have to be the ugly word that a lot of people don’t want to hear. It means compromise,” she said. “That’s where we’re going to have to move in order to move our community forward and begin to heal, and create the kind of fair, equitable and just society that we all want and deserve.”

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

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