Still, they come – from all over the country and beyond. From New Mexico, Texas, Massachusetts. From Africa and Europe. One man even said he walked a thousand miles, all the way from Alabama, just to be in Minneapolis.
“They are coming to feel the energy and pay tribute,” said Bianca Dawkins, 28, a local resident who has met many of the visitors.
Two months after the police killing of George Floyd, the four-block area of South Minneapolis where he gasped his last breaths remains a sacred space, a no-go zone for officers. There is a neatly trimmed garden, anchored by a sculpture of a raised fist. There are colorful murals and the words “I can’t breathe” painted across the pavement, as well as the names of dozens of other Black people killed by the police.
At night, though, the space is increasingly a battleground, with shootings and drug overdoses. The area has had an uptick in gun violence similar to what other cities have seen in the wake of protests.
At all times, the neighborhood brims with emotion. In its totality, it feels like the raw center of America’s reckoning with racial injustice.
The chaos at night has presented city officials with the challenge of how to reassert control of the space without setting off new waves of anger, all while maintaining it as a solemn place to honor Floyd. In Ferguson, Missouri, where the police killing of Michael Brown set off protests in 2014, tensions were reignited when officers moved to clear out a memorial.
But in Minneapolis, at least for now, the city is moving cautiously.
“Opening up too quickly will have a devastating effect on people still mourning,” said Angela Conley, a Hennepin County commissioner, who has been leading community discussions about the future of the area where Floyd was killed.
Even so, elected officials are fielding a growing number of calls from residents concerned about the violence and loud noise at night in the area, where, among several incidents, a pregnant woman was recently killed.
“What people aren’t recognizing is that people who live there are having a very, very challenging time from the unlawfulness that is occurring after the sun goes down,” said Andrea Jenkins, a member of the City Council whose district includes the memorial space. “There are constant gunshots every night. Emergency vehicles can’t get in. Disabled people are not able to access their medications, their appointments, their food deliveries, et cetera. It’s a very challenging situation.”
Jenkins, who noted that the area has historically been plagued by gang violence, has also been taking a leading role in discussions over how to memorialize Floyd’s killing. One proposal suggests making the garden permanent. Other ideas include a civil rights museum and renaming Chicago Avenue in honor of Floyd. Activists are finding ways to preserve the street art that was painted over the plywood boards that went up to protect businesses during the protests.
From Baltimore to Ferguson to New York, organic memorials to mark where Black men have been killed by the police have taken shape in recent years.
But time has also worn many of them away. On Staten Island, New York, there is a plaque where Eric Garner was killed by police in 2014, but a memorial with flowers and candles was set on fire a year after his death. In Baltimore, where Freddie Gray’s death in a police van sparked protests, a graffiti mural in honor of him was destroyed when the housing project where he lived was torn down this year. In Ferguson last year, on the fifth anniversary of Brown’s death, a memorial that had been taken down was rebuilt.
Even before the killing of Floyd, Jenkins and other activists in South Minneapolis said they had hoped to build a site to recognize the history of racial injustice in the city. “I’ve been talking about a museum for the last three years,” Jenkins said. “My top priority is to build a center for racial healing in the city of Minneapolis because Black people have been in pain for hundreds of years.”
The conversation over what to do with the space comes as many activists in the city are fighting to defund the Police Department and reimagine public safety. But that push for reform happening amid a rise in violence. Many Black residents of South Minneapolis, especially those who live near Cup Foods, the convenience store where Floyd was accused of using a fake $20 bill to buy cigarettes before he was killed, say they are caught between two emotions: anger at the police but fearful for their safety now that officers have pulled back from the area.
Dawkins lives a few doors down from Cup Foods, and on a recent afternoon was selling candy and drinks and promoting a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to avoid foreclosure. When the pandemic hit, she was furloughed from her job at Nordstrom, and her fiancé is also out of work.
But financial worries are only one thing on her mind. She has two children, including a 6-week-old baby. She says the daytime is fine, and she has met many people who have traveled to pay their respects to Floyd.
“But when the other crowd comes at night, I can’t call the police, and that scares the hell out of me,” she said. Dawkins pointed to a gunshot in the windshield of her car, a gold sedan.
“We have kids in this home, so I do want police to protect families,” she said. “It’s a hard balance. I’m happy this incident brought change, but I want to feel safe.”
As the protests gained momentum in late May, Dr. Jackie Kawiecki set up a medic station near Cup Foods, administering first aid to injured protesters. Since then, she has maintained a group of medics who treat minor ailments like abrasions and heat exhaustion during the daytime.
Sunset to sunrise is very different from sunrise to sunset, she said. “My nighttime world, after sunset, I have taken care of double gunshot wounds, drug overdoses.” One night a man wounded by gunfire drove a bicycle past the barricades, she said, before collapsing outside her tent and yelling: “I’m shot! I’m shot!”
After the pregnant woman was killed nearby in early July, and having dodged gunfire herself, Kawiecki limited the hours of her medic station from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
But residents say that nothing happening at night diminishes the atmosphere that prevails in daylight. The other day, Anna Raeker, 25, was greeting visitors to the space and directing people to a pamphlet taped to a table: “This is a space community members want to decentralize white feelings and prioritize Black pain.”
“I think it’s important that white people are intentional with the ways they are using this space,” said Raeker, who is white.
Nearby, next to a large mural of Floyd, a local rapper, Jordan Wallingford, was taking a break from filming a music video. Wallingford, who performs under the name Haphduzn, said he at least wanted to see the garden, roundabout and raised fist sculpture stay permanently. “Because that was the spark that changed the world,” he said.
Deborah Straub, who for weeks has been handing out snacks to children from the neighborhood – “free candy, free chips, free popcorn, free hot dogs,” she said – said the area should be preserved.
“Leave everything the way it is,” she said.
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