George Floyd Square, Minneapolis.
Anti-protest news outlets warned that the memorial and autonomous zone on the corner of 38th street and Chicago avenue was a dangerous “no-go zone,” but the hundreds of people who had gathered there on April 20th, 2021 found it to be a safe-haven. Reporters asked Mileesha Smith, a caretaker of the square, “are you ready to tell the story of what’s going on here?” She responded that, “in a story there is a beginning, middle and end. I don’t know what part we’re at… How can we tell you something that we aren’t done experiencing yet?”
Moments later, in the courthouse downtown, Judge Peter Cahill read the verdict that the jury had passed down on George Floyd’s murderer, killer cop Derek Chauvin: Guilty on all three counts, namely second-degree manslaughter, second-degree unintentional murder, and third-degree or “depraved-indifference” murder. Chauvin was placed in handcuffs and escorted out of the courtroom.
According to the version of justice portrayed in television shows and movies, when the bad guy is sent off to jail, the story is over: status quo restored, fade to black. Unfortunately, as the title cards helpfully reveal to us following such a happy ending, “the preceding story is fictional, no actual person or event is depicted.”
The real-life story hasn’t ended yet, it’s only just beginning.
The verdict struck some as a welcome surprise in the context of a criminal justice system that has been so egregiously and openly biased in favor of police who brutalize black people. The verdict struck others as a matter of course, the bare minimum to ask out of an institution that claims to provide justice.
After months of dreading the outcome, people across Minneapolis now wept for joy. Jazz bands formed in the street and jammed. Children held hands and danced. “Gumbo Lady” Shalonda Massey fed everyone dinner. One man brought a bag full of dollar bills and threw them in the air, raining money on the gleeful crowd —symbolizing, he said, how George Floyd was killed following a dispute involving a counterfeit bill. Organizers then gathered the dollars up in the center of the square and set them aside for Floyd’s family, and to fund improvements to George Floyd Square. “This is the starting point for the real memorial,” they said, “this money has to go to the right place.”
Yet, still woven throughout the celebrations was a pervasive awareness that there is more work ahead. Eliza Wesley, a major volunteer better known by her chosen name, The Gatekeeper, called out in her characteristically booming voice, “All the people who have been out here fighting this battle, please don’t fall asleep!”
Local journalist Niko Georgiades from the Unicorn Riot media collective interviewed other attendees at the square, who shared the sentiment:
“It’s another day in the office” one man said, “now we can stop and smell the roses until the next mission, but we have more work to do.”
Other interviewees told Georgiades, “This is a sign that this is possible, but this system has been put in place for much longer than we’ve been alive, so it’s going to take a long-term fight. … This is not a ‘moment’ and this is not a chance to … go and feel comfortable again, go on being complicit.”
“I feel a sense of relief but also a sense of renewed urgency… It’s not just this one cop, it’s not just this one person, it’s an entire system.”
These determined statements reflect a widespread understanding that the problem of police violence doesn’t begin and end with individual officers, but with the system of policing itself, and the politicians that support it. Accountability for individuals is important, but it is distinct from justice. Finding Chauvin guilty is accountability, but justice can only be accomplished through the abolition of policing.
In fact, police couldn’t even make it the length of Chauvin’s trial without killing again. Less than two weeks prior, Minnesota police killed 20 year-old Daunte Wright in a suburb of Minneapolis called Brooklyn Center, in an incident when a police officer claims to have mistaken her heavy metal handgun for her bright yellow taser. In Chicago, police killed Adam Toledo, a 13 year-old boy who was already complying with their instructions. Even at the very same time as the verdict was being broadcast, police in Ohio shot and killed Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16 year-old girl.
When aggressive law enforcement sits at the root of the conflict, and the community has been repeatedly, vocally calling to end policing, one might think that the city would deem it strategic to scale back its police presence, in order to put people at ease. However, since February, the Minnesotan government has actually increased its reliance on armed law enforcement. Through an effort called “Operation Safety Net,” the state mobilized additional police, deployed thousands of National Guard troops, and even declared a “state of emergency” in order to summon hundreds of out-of-state police officers from Ohio, Nebraska and Missouri. Operation Safety Net was founded on the expectation that Chauvin would be found innocent, with the intent to forcibly suppress any civil unrest that outcome would have caused.
The operation intensified in order to suppress the protests that flared back up once the killing of Daunte Wright rubbed salt in an open wound. After Wright was killed, there were state-wide and city-wide curfews. Peaceful protesters were tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets. State troopers targeted members of the press, threw them to the ground and arrested them–while making snide racial comments at the reporters’ expense. It felt very much like a repeat of what had happened the previous summer after George Floyd was murdered.
At George Floyd Square, the National Guard has spent weeks in a petty and unproductive battle to stop mourners from decorating the fence surrounding the square with padlocks bearing the names of loved ones who have died. This is the exact opposite of giving people the space to grieve in a peaceful way. In short, the state has not learned its lesson. That is the uneasy focus remaining in people’s minds beyond the narrow win of Chauvin’s conviction. If the state doesn’t learn its lessons, what’s next?
Politicians on both sides, at all levels, have been quick to take advantage of the verdict to serve partisan agendas. Republican politicians and their propagandists have been attempting to invalidate the guilty verdict, since before it was even handed down. Their argument goes that jurors felt “pressured” by the community, that “publicity” might have biased the jury, and that public comments against police brutality by Democratic politicians constituted “political interference.” This narrative conveniently ignores the fact that, during jury selection, every potential juror with even an ounce of awareness about current events was dismissed, and that jurors were prohibited from following any news during the trial.
Derek Chauvin is expected to appeal his case on the basis of this argument. While rare, there is a precedent for letting killer cops off the hook in this way, especially in the 1990s. Judge Cahill even granted that the defense could potentially get the “whole trial overturned” on appeal with this strategy.
On the national level, politicians scrambled to make statements on the event, jockeying for relevance, in spite of their lack of connection to the communities that it affects. Nancy Pelosi provided a particularly repugnant example in a speech: “Thank you George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice. For being there to call out to your mom, how heartbreaking was that?” In other words, thanks for dying and begging for mercy. Libertarian Spike Cohen, responding to Nancy Pelosi’s tone-deaf comment on the verdict, recently tweeted, “George Floyd didn’t ‘sacrifice his life for justice.’ He was murdered. Justice would be if he hadn’t been murdered. Stop making martyrs out of the victims of the police state that you’ve helped create.”
For their part, local Democratic politicians find themselves forced to talk out both sides of their mouths as they promise to simultaneously reform policing and preserve it. They characterize it as a broken system that needs to be fixed, rather than the reality: an inherently inequitable institution that has been working as intended, and upon which their jobs as government officials depend. In one of the most blatantly hypocritical moments, Brooklyn Center mayor Mike Elliott said that the verdict had intensified a conversation that “needed to happen for many years,” before turning around and imposing another curfew from 11pm to 6am. One of the most emblematic areas in which Democratic officials show a disconcerting half-heartedness towards serving the community is on the issue of George Floyd Square itself.
The corner of 38th and Chicago has been blocked off with barricades for nearly a year, so that the square could blossom, traffic-free, into a community center; what some have called a living museum, a labyrinthine art installation with a Raised Fist statue in the center. There, under the awning of a Safeway gas station whose logo has been painted over to read “People’s Way,” neighbors meet to provide one another with hot meals, counseling, childcare, and medical attention. Property and business owners have complained that the lack of traffic has translated into a lack of customers. The organizers of George Floyd Square maintain that people are more important than property.
The City of Minneapolis is currently planning to reopen the street to traffic by force, though they have not set a date for this to occur. In place of the memorial as we know it today, the city is offering to install a roundabout with a raised fist statue on it. Obviously, most viewed this consolation prize as woefully inadequate. When the reopening plan was announced last summer, the community responded with a list of 24 demands pertaining to racial justice. Unless the demands were met, they said, occupiers would never leave the square long enough for it to reopen —“No justice, no streets!”
Now that Derek Chauvin has been convicted, there is fear that the city will prematurely claim that it has provided the “justice” end of the deal, and move to seize the street.
Organizer Marcia Howard spoke on the issue:
“At 38th and Chicago, we use this as proof-of-concept of what it means to live in a world without policing; in a world where we hold each other in love and respect. See, here we go next door, we don’t go “on Nextdoor,” you feel me? We’ll be calling each other instead of 9-1-1; because what we’ve figured out around here … It’s community that keeps us safe.
And they don’t want you to hear that. When you ever hear the propaganda against 38th and Chicago where they try to portray it as a lawless, chaotic hellscape, understand this: they don’t want us to depend on each other.
They don’t want us to go next door. They want us to run to Target. No, I can get my cup of sugar next door, thank you. They don’t want us to look at each other face-to-face, they want us on Facebook.
You need to understand that it’s going to be some trying times ahead, because it’ll be back and forth between: Who is the arbiter of what justice is? Has it been served? Are we at a point that we can capitulate to the powers of the state? To be clear: the city knows what this place is. What they want is the “protest zone” without all these “protesters.” … What they are gonna want, mark my words, is something different than an Autonomous Zone. They’re gonna want you to pay for permits, have guided tours, get off of a plane and go to the Mall of America, the Cherry and the Spoon, and of course, George Floyd Square. But this place is many things at once: Yes, it is a memorial for a man who was killed by the city of Minneapolis; and yes, it is now a protest zone in the furtherance of justice, resolution and the 24 demands; but first and foremost, it is a community. It’s our home. And that, my friends, is what we want to share with the world.”
Volunteers have been at the square almost non-stop since its genesis last summer, “through rain, sleet, snow” and “minus 31-degree weather.” This feels like no time to stop.
Before the verdict, memorial caretaker Mileesha Smith wondered how we could tell a story that wasn’t over yet. After the verdict, she reflected:
“It’s nice to know I’m not crazy … What I’m standing for, or why these barriers are up. We’re not crazy. … I spent this past year thinking that I am mentally unstable, that I am literally crazy. … The verdict just reassures me that I’m not crazy; that what it is that I’m dreaming for, I’m not crazy. What it is that I want, and am striving for, and trying to do, I’m not crazy.”
At the same time, “It doesn’t bring George Floyd back. It doesn’t. What does this change? It changes a lot, but: The military is here. All this is happening. … Look at where we’re living right now, look at what we’re experiencing in life right now. … I want to be happy, but like I was just telling people … this is not even the end of this war that we’re fighting. Now that the verdict is here, we can finally get to business. Now we can talk about why this square is here.”