After landmark policing trial, a debate over reopening George Floyd Square

Jonathan Allen and Nicholas Pfosi
·5-min read
Trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, in Minneapolis

By Jonathan Allen and Nicholas Pfosi

MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - Jay Webb reversed his pickup truck and offloaded mounds of soil into wood-framed flowerbeds in the middle of a Minneapolis intersection that has been transfigured from thoroughfare into sacred ground.

A steel sculpture of a raised Black fist the size of a refrigerator towered over Webb. The fist sits in the path of what had been the Minneapolis area's busiest bus route until George Floyd, handcuffed and prone on the street, was killed by Derek Chauvin, then a policeman, in a violent arrest at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue.

What is now known as George Floyd Square has been barricaded by residents against most vehicular traffic since the murder on May 25, 2020. Signs dotting the intersection declare: "No Justice, No Streets."

It was the venue for a bittersweet street party on Tuesday when a jury found Chauvin, who is white, guilty of murdering Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes.

With the verdict, a rare rebuke of the disproportionate toll of police brutality on Black Americans, comes renewed attention to a sometimes acrimonious dispute over how, if ever, to reopen George Floyd Square.

"We can memorialize George Floyd, we can create flower gardens, sculpture gardens, all kinds of things," said City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins, whose district includes the intersection. An artist and Black transgender activist long before her 2017 election, Jenkins said her desire to build a center dedicated to social justice predates Floyd's death.

"It doesn't have to be in the middle of the street obstructing traffic," she said.

Jenkins cited a survey sent last year to about 4,000 people in the neighborhood that included two city proposals for reopening 38th Street and Chicago Avenue to vehicles. Of the 685 who responded, 41% voted to leave the fist in the intersection; 40% voted to move it to the side.

The square's volunteer caretakers scoff, saying the survey results were meaningless because both options included removing the barricades, and point to the 16% who rejected both options, stating a "desire for justice" before any changes to the square's design happen.

One of the caretakers is Jeanelle Austin, who grew up a few blocks away and now tends to the flowers, signs, candles, stuffed toys and balloons placed at the intersection. She is working with members of the Floyd family to preserve, curate and exhibit the thousands of artifacts left over 11 months.

"I knew that if we kept it looking nice, there wouldn't be a reason for the city to come in and bulldoze it and say: 'No one's taking care of it and so we're just going to get rid of it and open up the streets again,'" Austin said.

Webb, known around George Floyd Square as Jay the gardener, spread out the soil, ready for the "butterfly- and bee-friendly flowers" he had planned. He insisted that if his truck could navigate around the fist, so could a bus if the barricades are lifted.

THE PEOPLE'S WAY

The intersection is dominated by the glowing red sign of the Cup Foods convenience store, where a clerk unwittingly set in motion the deadly arrest last May by telling his manager he believed Floyd had given him a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes. Billy Abumayyaleh, one of the four brothers who own Cup Foods, said the attention his store gets should be directed elsewhere.

"They need to put the memorial right in front of the City Hall so they can all see what they did to George Floyd," he said.

The spot where Floyd was killed is roped off and marked by an angel painted onto the black tarmac.

Police are not welcome inside the barricades. Instead, the community tries to police itself, which can lead to tensions. One afternoon, Selwyn Jones was taking a cellphone picture of a monochrome mural of Floyd's face that gazes out at the square. A man in a van shouted at Jones to stop.

"I'm George Floyd's uncle!" Jones yelled back. The man said he did not care whose uncle he was: no pictures.

After Tuesday's verdict, Mayor Jacob Frey repeated his promise to soon reopen the square in a way that paid tribute to Floyd while allowing construction to begin on a long-planned $25 million upgrade to the bus route along Chicago Avenue.

Frey also noted complaints about violence in the neighborhood, including the shooting death of Imez Wright, a volunteer who helped patrol the area, on March 7, the day before jury selection began in Chauvin's murder trial.

"Bad things occur when police are not around," said Jones, Floyd's uncle, who is campaigning for passage of a federal bill that would make it easier to prosecute violent police officers but questions calls in his nephew's name to defund police departments.

In August, caretakers of the square circulated a list of 24 demands to be met before they would help officials reopen it, including investment in neighborhood businesses and reopening investigations into other men killed by city police officers.

Demand No. 9 called for the prosecution of all four officers involved in Floyd's arrest. The three others, fired with Chauvin the day after the arrest, go on trial in August on charges of aiding and abetting.

Minutes after the guilty verdict in Chauvin's case came down, Marcia Howard, a schoolteacher volunteering at the intersection, sounded ragged with emotion as she addressed crowds in the square.

"One down, three to go!" she cried out. "And we mean it!"

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in Minneapolis; Editing by Donna Bryson and Jonathan Oatis)