MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — It’s only been one year since George Floyd died under the knee of Derek Chauvin outside Cup Foods, but his memorial has the air of permanence.
That’s not just because the city has been unable to regain control over the intersection of 38th St. and Chicago Ave. That battle was lost long ago. It’s not possible at this point to shut down George Floyd Square. It’s growing. I come back once every few months, and there is always some new shrine: another monument to another person killed by another police officer. There are at least 100 names written on the street throughout the four-block autonomous zone. It’s no wonder that it is the national rallying point for police reform.
And it’s not surprising that the square is a lawless place. The neighborhood was Bloods turf before the Floyd incident. And afterward, the influx of activists, journalists, and racial justice tourists made the question of who controls it a complicated one. The Bloods attempt to enforce their rules. But then so do activists and local militias. It doesn’t always work. There have been four murders in and around George Floyd Square since last summer. Needless to say, police don’t dare enter the square — at least not in any official capacity.
George Floyd Square is lawless in another sense, too. There is no single philosophy or ideology sustaining its existence. Sure, everyone wants justice. But the meaning of that word is famously slippery. Oh, and everyone wants to do something about the police. But what exactly? That’s a contentious question, and there’s still no clear answer in Minneapolis.
When I visited George Floyd Square last fall, the day before the presidential election, I spoke with Don Samuels, a former city councilman. Samuels, along with a number of other local leaders, had just sued the city for a lack of police protection during the riots that erupted after Floyd’s death. At the time that we spoke, Samuels was also staring down another fear: that Minneapolis might actually defund the police, leaving his neighborhood with no protection at all.
Still, Samuels told me, the zealotry of some of his younger peers did not deter his own calls for police reform. Along with some other black community leaders in Minneapolis, he was among the first people to protest in George Floyd Square. He and his wife made their own signs and joined the scores of people entering the streets. But as the protests grew in strength, he realized not everyone was on the same page.
“I remember distinctly walking past a car with speakers turned all the way up, blasting ‘F*** tha Police,’ ” he said. “And then I saw signs, one out of five, maybe, calling to defund the police, essentially saying, ‘We hate the police.’ ”
Samuels remembered how his wife, Sondra, turned to him and said that they should go home before the scene turned ugly. Often at a protest, it’s easy to sniff out violence in a crowd hours before anything happens.
And of course she was right. That night rioters burned commercial districts throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul. It took nearly a week before the city, with the help of the National Guard, fully dispersed the mobs. And by that point, in some areas whole buildings had been razed. Even now, a year later, there is only crabgrass growing over those empty lots.
George Floyd Square wasn’t spared in the riots. The Speedway gas station across the street from Cup Foods was ransacked. It has since been commandeered and renamed People’s Way. It’s a sort of outdoor community center and a good gauge of the square’s mood.
That mood was dark on the day in November that I spoke to Samuels. When I entered the square, I sat around a campfire under the gas station and struck up a conversation with a group of activists who had hitchhiked up from Chicago. They told me that it was their mission to burn Minneapolis to the ground if Donald Trump won the election. To make the point clear, one took out a guitar and began screaming a protest anthem. The tune was Alt-J’s “Matilda,” but the words were of his own composition: “F*** 45!”
Eventually another activist, a guy eating cold beans out of a can, told him to shut up. He kicked me out of the campfire circle when I mentioned that I was a journalist.
The rest of the square was just as dismal. Militiamen were patrolling the perimeter. Cup Foods, reopened a few months before, was selling rotten bananas and shriveled limes. And as I crouched down to look at the votive candles placed near the roped-off spot where Floyd died, I saw something that sent a shudder down my spine. Between the standard Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Jude candles was an offering to the hooded skull, Santa Muerte, the demon patroness of MS-13.
A friend outside the square later remarked, “Geez, that place needs an exorcism.”
Since then, I’ve gone back several times. Sometimes, outsiders are not allowed in. The barriers are often moved around. New signs pop up and then disappear. Recently, someone built a library, which is stocked with titles ranging from Brian Jacques’ charming Redwall to Chris Matthews’ cringeworthy Hardball: How Politics Is Played, Told by One Who Knows the Game.
Next to the library are some maps taped to a corkboard poster and marked with all the places from which people have come to see George Floyd Square. At least one person from nearly every county in Minnesota has visited, along with people from 35 states and a handful of European countries. As the coronavirus pandemic recedes further into the past, it is likely that soon all 50 states will be represented.
Little things like these, along with the semi-official signage posted throughout the square, make me suspect that the memorial will last. George Floyd’s death, after all, became an event of national significance. That’s not because what happened between him and Chauvin was exceptional. But Floyd’s death is the death through which every other police incident is now understood.
The constant memory of those deaths is what gives George Floyd Square its staying power. Or so a street preacher named Thomas told me this weekend. I was standing across the street from Cup Foods when he introduced himself as an affiliate of a black evangelical ministry.
Thomas was convinced that the Floyd incident is representative of all human failing. Floyd, he said, was high, disorderly, and trying to pass a fake bill. And Chauvin was in way over his head. You can see it in his eyes in videos. What they had in common, Thomas added, was that on that day both forgot they were in the presence of God. They forgot that he is everywhere, at all times, and will watch out for you if you let him.
Thomas put his hands on my shoulders. He told me that anyone who passes through George Floyd Square — black or white, liberal or conservative — desperately needs prayers. He asked if he could pray with me. Why not let it be so simple? We bowed our heads.
“Lord, give us the clarity to see you,” he said. “Lord, in your mercy, look down on us.”