‘Right now, it is the soul of this nation’: What’s next for George Floyd Square

People celebrate outside.
A crowd of people celebrates the guilty verdicts in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer convicted of murder and manslaughter in the killing of George Floyd, in front of the Peoples' Way at George Floyd Square in south Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

As Tuesday’s verdict boomed through a Bluetooth speaker, hundreds of people at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue cheered and embraced one another. Though the decision was announced in a courtroom more than 3 miles away, the intersection has symbolized a movement that many credit for putting Derek Chauvin on trial there in the first place.

Shortly after the verdict, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey recognized the role 38th and Chicago, now commonly referred to as George Floyd Square, has played this past year, calling it “a critical and important location of racial justice and healing.”

But its future remains a source of tension between city leaders and the activists who have held the intersection in protest for nearly a year. And as National Guard troops return home and fortifications come down around Minneapolis, people at the square are organizing a different kind of defense. The city said it would reopen the streets there after the trial. Activists say it’s too soon.

At the same press conference Tuesday, Frey said a segment of a rapid bus line is planned for the area and needs to move forward.

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“It is also true that neighbors surrounding that intersection have been subjected to far too much crime and violence over the last seven or eight months,” Frey said. “There will be a reopening of the intersection, but it is not a going back to normal.”

The city plans to narrow a portion of Chicago Avenue to accommodate a permanent memorial to Floyd and preserve a fist sculpture the community built. It has also pledged funding to help Black business owners in the area buy instead of rent their storefronts.

But activists who maintain the space say that plan and Chauvin’s murder and manslaughter convictions aren’t enough. They want the intersection closed through the trial of the three other former officers involved in Floyd’s killing. That’s set for August. And they want the city to invest significantly more into the historically Black neighborhood.

Eliza Wesley, whom activists call the Gatekeeper, has welcomed visitors to the square and helped secure its barricades since the beginning.

“If you can pay money to bring police from another state, it’s not expensive to do what we need them to do here,” Wesley said.

She’s talking about Operation Safety Net, which brought 3,000 National Guard troops and more than 100 state troopers from Ohio and Nebraska to the Twin Cities to quell anticipated unrest after the trial. The state Senate this week approved $9 million to cover the tab, though the governor initially wanted a $35 million fund for the operation and future emergencies.

The activists’ demands, which range from job training to helping homeowners pay their property taxes, would cost about $150 million over a decade. The city has already named a section of Chicago Avenue after Floyd, earmarked $500,000 for the intersection and is working to make the community aware of existing programs that address activists’ concerns.

Neal Baxter, another volunteer, said he misses the bus route that passed through the intersection before it was closed. But he’s standing firm.

“We want our demands answered and, before that, we don’t have any reason to leave. And our demands aren’t that radical. We get the demands, we vacate the streets,” Baxter said.

He is joined by more than 1,000 residents throughout the metro who have picked up yard signs that read “No Justice, No Streets.” Hundreds have also signed up for a text alert that would call protesters to the square should city crews try to reopen it.

A storefront with colorful art painted at the front.
A mural outside Smoke In The Pit, a barbecue restaurant inside the protest zone at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue reads, “Wise men build bridges, foolish men build barriers,” in reference to the barricades that have kept the area closed for nearly a year. Neighboring businesses have posted signs in support of keeping the area closed.
Megan Burks | MPR News

But there are also hundreds of nearby residents who said in a city survey last fall that they want the streets reopened. There have been multiple shootings in the area over the past year. Neighbors say bullets have hit houses. Minneapolis police data show crime has risen citywide.

A city spokesperson said there isn’t a reopening timeline yet.

“City leaders continue to meet with community stakeholders to discuss the best path forward for the future of the intersection, understanding this is a very important gathering space for healing and reflection,” said Sarah McKenzie in an email. “The safety and security of the neighborhood and community surrounding the intersection continues to be a top priority as those plans are developed.”

She added that the city is working with Floyd’s family and community members to “peacefully commemorate the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder at this intersection.”

On Tuesday, Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins, who represents the area, offered this vision:

I have long coined the intersection of 38th and Chicago the soul of this city. I think I can rightfully say that right now, it is the soul of this nation,” Jenkins said. “And so let’s begin to rebuild our community in and around 38th and Chicago. Let’s make it a beacon of social justice known to all throughout the world.”