From ‘schoolmarm’ to sentry: Mpls. teacher responds to George Floyd killing

A woman stands inside a wooden structure.
At the intersection of Chicago Avenue and 39th Street, Marcia Howard stands watch Nov. 28 from inside a shack built by neighborhood residents to guard the south barricade entrance to George Floyd's Square. The barricade also includes a gate made out of a bike rack on casters to allows cars to come and go.
Ben Hovland for 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.

If you want to see how radically the police killing of George Floyd changed teacher Marcia Howard’s life, pull up her Instagram account and scroll back to April.  

“You’ll see me in a vintage 1940s schoolmarm dress, or recipes that I tried,” she said, scrolling through images set amid lilacs, or on a sunlit porch. “There’s a bowl of bread where I made avocado toast. I mean, bougie.”

But the tone changes in May, when police killed George Floyd around the corner from Howard’s house near 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis. She could see the very spot where it happened from her upstairs window. And she learned it was one of her students, Darnella Frazier, who recorded it for the world to see.

“You could see I tried to keep up,” Howard said, still scrolling through her feed. “I made a strawberry rhubarb pie. But then my posts started to be about the corner, because my life started to be about 38th and Chicago.”

In the weeks after the killing, she found herself directing traffic and passing out face masks as mourners and media from around the world flocked to her neighborhood.  

“And I did that, still wearing my dresses and my heels. But at some point, I pulled my hair back in a ponytail, put on some yoga pants and just got out here,” she said, standing near one of the barricades that continue to keep traffic out of the intersection. 

“I couldn’t maintain this fiction that vintage clothing and a good recipe for sourdough bread was going to change my existence as a Black woman in the United States,” Howard continued. “I had to be out here and actually work toward that change.”

A woman sitting on a bench at an abandoned
Marcia Howard (right) leads a morning community meeting Dec. 1 at the abandoned Speedway gas station in George Floyd's Square. Neighbors and other stakeholders meet twice a day every day
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Today, she volunteers daily at the intersection, which neighbors and activists from around the region have been holding as an autonomous zone for nearly seven months. They’re calling for restitution from the city for Floyd’s killing and what they consider neglect of an historically Black neighborhood.

“We said ‘no justice, no streets.’ And part of that is simply taking over the streets and occupying them every single hour of the day,” Howard said. She took a leave of absence from teaching English at nearby Roosevelt High School to do so.

Howard and others are also using the space to demonstrate a different approach to public safety. A former Marine, she helps coordinate round-the-clock coverage of the barricades that functions as a sort of neighborhood watch. 

“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,” Howard said.

The square is also home to the Agape Movement, a nonprofit that trains and hires men in the neighborhood to participate in community patrols and other outreach efforts instead of getting involved with crime. 

Howard said she’d like to see these kinds of community efforts replace the police, and enough resources and jobs that people don’t turn to crime in the first place.

But it’s been a tough sell among some of her neighbors. Violent crime is up citywide and nationally, but the increase is particularly steep — 122 percent — in the city council ward where the intersection is located. 

Howard, who’s lived and taught in the neighborhood for 22 years, said she’s well aware of the risks. 

“I’ve lost six students in this neighborhood. The violence isn’t new,” she said. “Now they have to rely on their neighbors instead of someone in a uniform with a gun, and that is a retraining. That is a cultural retraining that we’re going to have to do in the United States, because the ritualistic slaughter of Black people with impunity is something this country is going to have to get over.”

In recent weeks, Howard has gone back to posting her outfits on Instagram. But instead of vintage, they’re focused on bundling up for warmth, because Howard isn’t going anywhere.

“If anybody wanted to know what radicalized a mild-mannered, 47-year-old English teacher,” she said, “executing people that look like me, that’ll do it.”


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

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