Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr.: Hey, just a quick warning before we get started: this episode of Resistance has some strong language and heavy themes. We'll get started right after this short break.
Saidu: So a couple months ago, I went out to this place in Minneapolis called George Floyd Square. I had to walk in from a block away where the taxi dropped me off because there's a concrete barrier at the entrance. There's barriers at all four entrances into the Square. When I walk up, there's a wooden guard shack out front, unmanned. And inside were masks, hand sanitizers and leaflets that say something like, "This is a grieving space, so act accordingly." And on the window of the shack there's a poster that reads, "I don't watch my neighbors, I see them. We make our community safe together." And on the wood panel, there's a message scribbled in white paint. It says, "All cops are pee pee poo poo."
Saidu: This place, George Floyd Square, is a stretch of four city blocks surrounding the spot where George Floyd was killed. For over a year, it's been the site of an activist occupation. Neighbors from all different backgrounds have been a part of the occupation: teachers, doctors, business owners, gang members and people from around the way. They've all taken part in creating and maintaining this autonomous zone. I walk further towards the intersection where the four streets meet, and I see a 10-foot bronze statue of a Black Power fist standing tall and punching straight into the sky. It's surrounded by protest art with the faces of Black people who've been killed by police, as well as the faces of Black people who've fought back. MLK's hopeful eyes next to Tamir Rice's smirk. Sandra Bland's selfie next to John Lewis in his suit and tie—all sticking out of a garden surrounding the fist.
Saidu: And right next to all that is a powder blue chalk outline of a man with angel wings. There's a memorial of offerings around him: hundreds of flowers, hats, notes, gifts from all around the world. And to be so close to the stretch of concrete where George Floyd was last alive, to see the size of the space he took up in this world outlined in chalk, to stare at it and have no words but, "Damn!" I could feel how this place could draw people in and keep them anchored here for more than 12 months.
Saidu: Twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening, almost like a ritual, neighbors show up to this intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue for a meeting. They're right across the street from the memorial, and they greet each other underneath the awning of an old gas station that's been transformed into a kind of town hall they call the People's Way. The people pour hot coffee into styrofoam cups before taking their seats on wooden benches and plastic lawn chairs. And if it's cold—and it's definitely cold today—someone throws a couple logs into a fire pit, and a flame that I'm so thankful for starts to build. Folks go around taking turns introducing themselves. First your name, then the cross streets you live on.
Tim: Tim, 3711.
Jared: Jared, 3513 Fourth Avenue South.
Chantelle: Chantelle. I live on the 3800 block.
Saidu: A Black woman is heading the circle. Her dreadlocks are shoulder-length, tied together by a yellow bandana. Her name's Marcia Howard. Like many of the people here, Marcia lives in the neighborhood, just behind the Square. Marcia has such straight white teeth that whenever she smiles, you feel like you won a prize, and whenever she speaks people seem to lean in just a little bit closer.
Marcia Howard: All right, all right. Before we get started, we should do the assumptions of George Floyd Square and they are as follows: number one, assume that everybody in this Square has COVID. Act accordingly. Mask up or back up. Number two, assume everybody in this Square is armed. Act accordingly. It pays to be patient and polite. Number three, assume that everything you say and everything you do is being recorded. Act accordingly. If you don't want somebody to hear it or see it, don't say it or do it. But if you say something around this circle, make sure you say it with your whole chest. The fourth assumption: assume that somebody in this Square, or even somebody in this circle, does not have your idea of liberation in mind. Act accordingly. There are opps everywhere. And that can be an opportunist, an opponent, opposition. They everywhere. And the fifth assumption is: just assume that everybody in this Square is a little crazy. Because you gotta be coo coo to think you can take on the state
Neil: And win!
Marcia Howard: And win! And win! So let's be gentle with each other so we can be dangerous together.
Saidu: By the time I showed up at George Floyd Square, some variation of this group had been meeting here for over a year. And even before the occupation started, they'd seen it all before: over-policing, gentrification, displacement, homelessness, almost all the ills you can think of that are responsible for destroying Black neighborhoods, they've seen it in their backyard. But when they saw the murder of George Floyd—right here at this intersection—all these neighbors decided that enough was enough.
Marcia Howard: They messed up. They killed the wrong Black man by the wrong Black people, they sure did. They did. They messed up. I don't know what they thought was gonna happen over here. I don't think they counted on this. I don't think they did.
Saidu: That feeling. That feeling of being fed up and pushed to the limit. That feeling that something had finally broken open and couldn't be contained anymore, that was all over the world last year. Most of those protests have ended or at least gotten quieter. There aren't as many marches or demonstrations in the streets these days, but the people at George Floyd Square have somehow managed to keep fighting. And on the day I walked into that Square for the first time, it seemed to me like they were winning. My question was: how? I'm Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr., and this is Resistance, a show about refusing to accept things as they are, even when it looks like you're gonna be at this for a while.
Saidu: Marcia wasn't always the kind of person you'd expect to "take on the state." She says it's always hard for people to define who she is and how she got here. She was born in a small town in Arkansas, then moved to the Southside of Chicago as a kid. She says, "I'm very much 'hood, country and suburban all at once." She tells me about her love for a whole lot of things I had to Google later. Says she can talk all day about Canadian politicians, medievalist literature and something called prog rock. She can describe the process of making knives by hand. And whenever she needs a detour from real life, she puts on an A-line skirt, then skips through an open field while humming something called Vivaldi.
Saidu: At 17, she joined the Marine Corps. At 19, she got married. And at 21, she took an honorable discharge and decided to chase a different dream: becoming a high school English teacher, and building the picture perfect domestic lifestyle she always wanted with her husband.
Marcia Howard: When we got out of the military, one of the reasons why I was keen to come to Minnesota was because there was this show based in Minnesota about a Black family that lived in St. Paul. It was on HBO. And I did my research, and they said this was one of the best places to live if you were a Black person. Like, you got higher education, you got more money. That's what they told me, right? Then I moved here and discovered that Minnesota Nice didn't apply to everybody.
Marcia Howard: When I leave this home and I walk, for instance, down the street, there's always this sort of frisson of discomfort when certain people see me. And it's always this sort of look askance of "Do you belong here?" I could go to a grocery store to look for the prettiest Kalamata olives for a chicken thigh and lemon and olive recipe that I wanted to try out. And every step that I take, there's some hourly employee who has been charged with making sure that they follow me around the store. I can't have enough degrees, make enough zeros, plant enough hydrangeas to not suffer those indignities. It's death by a thousand paper cuts.
Saidu: Marcia's first place was in St. Paul. When she decided to buy a house though, she looked at South Minneapolis. It was historically Black, it's where most of her students lived, and she always wanted to live where she taught—a place where she could bump into her students at the grocery store and sit down next to their parents in church. People kept telling her that the place she was scoping out was in a sketchy part of town, but what Marcia heard them saying was, it's where a lot of Black people live. So she went ahead and did it. She bought a four-bedroom house on a double lot right behind what's now become the occupation of George Floyd Square.
Saidu: When she moved in, Marcia quickly realized that this neighborhood did have a shameful history. Decades ago, in the 1920s and '30s, when this neighborhood was exclusively white, the homeowners here signed contracts called racial covenants, where they pledged not to sell to Black and brown people. She wouldn't have been able to live here back then, and whenever she walked just a few blocks up the road, there was a house that always reminded her of that.
Marcia Howard: In the 1930s, a man named Arthur Lee moved in. And oddly enough, a few blocks further south on 46th and Columbus Avenue, he moved into a white house on the corner.
Saidu: A Black man?
Marcia Howard: A Black man. He and his wife moved there, and it was after the war. He was a United States postal worker, joined the union, bought the house. And when the neighbors, the white neighbors, realized that a Black man had moved in, they lost their minds. They got in their Sunday best and they threw bottles and bricks and epithets toward his house, and they trooped their happy butts into his lawn and occupied it.
Saidu: So this isn't the first time that this neighborhood has experienced an occupation?
Marcia Howard: It is not. It's just the first time it's been done by Black people.
Saidu: About 260 steps. That's how far Marcia's house is from Cup Foods, the corner store where George Floyd was killed. Cup Foods was where she'd go when she needed to grab a ripe avocado or a little bit of sage for something she had cooking on the stove. 260 steps was the perfect distance for her to go and come back without her food getting burned. She counted. Outside the corner store, sometimes she'd see her students or one of their parents, just like she'd always wanted. But after the murder, when she walked that 260, there were thousand of unfamilar faces at the intersection who'd come there to protest. Some were from out of town, out of state, others were neighbors she'd never met before, people who had walked some version of their 260 steps to see what their neighborhood was becoming, how it was quickly turning into the epicenter of all the protests that were happening in Minneapolis.
Saidu: Jeanelle Austin was one of the other neighbors. Jeanelle had grown up a few blocks away from the Square but moved away years ago. She'd gone to college out of state and got a job working in racial justice. The murder happened on Monday. On Wednesday, Jeanelle's family hit her up and told her to come back home and do her work here. It was needed, and also they missed her. By Friday, she packed a few clothes, came back home and jumped straight into the protests.
Jeanelle Austin: Making sure that I had snacks in my backpack. Waters, gloves in my backpack. I had masks, I had cell phone chargers. But more importantly, I had knowledge of the streets because there was a lot of people who weren't from South Minneapolis. Even the people who were from the Northside didn't necessarily know where they were going, and so when they were, like, running from the police, they didn't know how to get back to their cars or back to George Floyd Square. There were people from out of town, and so I found myself in this position of actually, like, helping people to protest safely.
Saidu: She did that for a little while, until a truck almost hit her and some other protesters. After that, Jeanelle figured there had to be a safer way to protest. Between all the marches, protesters and mourners had been dropping off thousands of offerings in the spot where the murder happened. Jeanelle noticed that a lot of the offerings were uncared for, and some were being thrown away. But to her, they were precious. They represented the thousands of people who had made the pilgrimage to this intersection.
Jeanelle Austin: I would just go, start picking up garbage, straightening up flowers, straightening up signs, knowing that tending to a memorial is disruptive, But I didn't know it was going to grow as big as it did. And so I kept working every single day because every day it grew, every day it looked different, every day there was more work. And that's when I made the decision to ship my stuff back from Austin, Texas, to Minneapolis.
Saidu: Jeanelle says as offerings continued to pile up, people in the neighborhood would ask, "Hey, what do I do with this?" And someone would point to her and say, "Go ask that girl. That's the flower girl." And it was true, because sometimes she would be gently taking flowers out of plastic so they don't mold as quickly, or repotting plants into fresh soil to allow them to thrive and live longer than when she'd found them. One day, somebody called her "Caretaker"—a name that stuck. Whatever they called her: flower girl, that girl, caretaker, Jeanelle believed that what she was doing was central to the protest.
Jeanelle Austin: And as long as the memorial stayed tended to, people would come and bear witness to it. The moment it looked neglected, it would give people permission to clean everything up and go back to business as usual. Caretaking, preservation is my form of protest, because protest exists to disrupt business as usual, to signal that there is something wrong that still needs to be addressed. By tending to the memorial day after day after day, it was an ongoing signal that there's still something wrong that still needs to be addressed.
Saidu: The memorial's location at the intersection of 38th and Chicago gave it a 360° view of all four streets. All the people coming to the Square would pass by it. The protesters with their signs twisted and mangled after running away from cops all day, the mourners with their heads bowed staring at the memorial, then the hustlers setting up shop to sell their George Floyd T-shirts, then the well-meaning white people who'd bused down from the suburbs to help clean, the pop-up food vendors supplying free meals, like the Icey man who would pour a little something special in yours if you asked nicely. Jeanelle says most of the marches throughout Minneapolis started and ended here at the Square.
Jeanelle Austin: George Floyd Square was like home base. You know, like, when you're kids and you're playing tag and you run around crazy, which you get—you tag home base and they can't touch you? It really was about community and people loving on each other and taking care of each other and sustaining the protests for as long as possible.
Marcia Howard: When I first saw Jeanelle, I was like, "Who is this weirdo, and where did she come from?" [laughs] Honestly! I liked her locks. And she wore this, like, natty blue sweater thing. And I would just see her what I thought was muttering as she picked up flowers and rearranged them.
Saidu: But you didn't feel inspired to help.
Marcia Howard: No that was not my—that was not my ministry. That was not my calling. It wasn't. It was not.
Saidu: Jeanelle took care of the flowers, Marcia took care of the people. Over the last 20 years, she says she's taught high school English to so many kids in the neighborhood that she knows damn near everybody in the Square, from 14 to 42. So her ministry became talking to everybody at the Square: drunk, high or grieving—sometimes all three—a person screaming in the middle of the Square was a person Marcia would walk up to. It was natural for her. She was the neighborhood Ms. Frizzle. Marcia and Jeanelle watched each other work, realized they were both deeply dedicated to this place and the people in it. They were aligned in that they both wanted justice. And that's how they started working together.
Saidu: In those early days, a white neighbor suggested the community start doing these meetings called "Meet on the streets." Meet on the streets was a chance for the neighbors to come together and talk about what was happening within the Square. If someone was walking around with big feet in the Square, it was noticeable—it was only four blocks. So they needed a place to air out grievances, but also a place to check in on each and share anxieties about how all this would end.
Saidu: Marcia gave structure to those meetings with guidelines like the five assumptions. And her sermons on the historical importance of what they were doing here, who they were doing it for. George Floyd, of course, but also for all the other people memorialized at the Square, and ultimately for each other. Neighbors were genuinely coming together for the first time to build a better version of these streets—without the city. Community members would hang up donated clothes in the empty bus shelter, and that would become the people's closet. Chefs would donate their time to cook entire meals for people at the Square, and that was considered the people's kitchen. Carpenters built sheds, artists tagged the walls, gardeners grew food, medics responded to emergencies. Members of the community put up makeshift barricades to block off the streets, and eventually the city added to them with concrete jersey barriers. This is how a neighborhood became an autonomous zone.
Marcia Howard: We've spent our entire lives reading post-apocalyptic literature where we would have to world-build or rebuild the way in which society is run. And we had an opportunity at GFS to do that. How do things get done? How do people get fed? How do people get clothed? How do people who are having a seizure get medical attention? Ambulances would not come through. We literally were carting people in field medic style on a cot to meet them three blocks away so that an ambulance would take them.
Saidu: On Juneteenth last year, a local musician named Dameon Chambers, who went by Murphy Ranks, was shot and killed in the Square. Apparently, he was trying to break up an altercation when he was killed. Neighbors say when ambulances tried to get into the Square, the cops crowded the barricades, making it harder for EMTs to reach Murphy in time to save him.
Marcia Howard: They had basically started what I like to call Operation How You Like Them Apples? And what that meant was, "Y'all don't want police? You part of the faction that wants to defund police? Well, how you like these apples? Somebody shoots through your window, we're not comin'. Somebody's got a compound fracture? Too bad, we're not coming. You got a white supremacist that just threw bricks at mourners at this makeshift memorial? We're not coming." And we realized we were alone, and the only ones who could save us was us. And so we went about the business of doing just that.
Saidu: The people of George Floyd Square were already making efforts to meet each other's most basic needs: food, clothes, emergency response, governing themselves in any and every way they knew how. So they figured they'd have to provide their own security too. One group that wanted to help with safety was the gang. 38th and Chicago is home to the Rolling 30s Bloods, and a piece of art in the Square that read: "Gang Lives Matter," let me know that the Rolling 30s are just as much a part of this neighborhood as anyone else. And early on, a man named Steve Floyd—no relation to George Floyd—became the spokesperson for their new security team. Steve told me he'd been around a lot of the fellas in the gang since they were kids. Steve was like a mentor. Back then, he'd made a name for himself as the guy who could win trust with young people in gangs.
Steve Floyd: They would be, you know, like a gang meeting, maybe strategizing to go do something. I'll be walking down the street and they'll say, "Oh, here comes Steve." And they'll shut up. And then when I walk up to them, I wasn't trying to find out what they were talking about. You know, I say something like, "Hey, see you brothers are into something. So I'll talk to y'all later."
Saidu: Think of any Black male figure in any of the most famous high school sports movies and you have an Image of Steve. Older guy, clean-shaven, walks around in athletic gear. He looks like he'd say something like, "All right now, don't let me catch you getting into trouble," knowing damn well you're gonna do what you're gonna do, but you appreciate him for expressing concern anyway. Steve was like a Minneapolis Coach Carter. His mentorship program back in the day was called Champions of Agape. But it'd been years since Agape was active. Now after George Floyd's death, the little kids he'd looked out for when they were growing up were big homies in the gang, and they wanted to leave that life behind and start something new. They wanted to bring Agape back as a security team, but they needed their big homie's blessing, Steve.
Steve Floyd: One of the big homies came up to me and says, "Big homie!" He says, "Man, you helped all of us. You watched us all grow up." And I, you know, "Yeah, yeah." And he say, "We starting a security team and we want to call it Agape. Can we call it Agape?" And I say, "Well, I mean, that sounds legit. Y'all want to call it Agape? Well, let me tell you this. Y'all do—I am opposed of y'all doing y'all security in the daytime and they y'all be bullshitting at night. You know, that's not Agape." And so they said, "Well, why don't you run it? Why don't you come back and run it for us, and help us develop it?" And that's what I did, only with the fact that I would bring credibility, you know, and let these brothers who are organizing. That was a good, positive thing to see brothers doing that and looking at a favor in their community instead of terrorizing it and bringing fear, now they want to heal it and support it.
Saidu: With Steve's buy-in, the fellas started running their own security team. One of the things they did was marshal people out of the Square—whether it was people slinging George Floyd t-shirts or people trying to raise money for their Black business start-ups, Agape members knew a hustle when they saw one. It didn't sit right with them that other people were parachuting into their community to profit off their trauma.
Steve Floyd: And so once we established that, and then we just started doing the work, started speaking positive in the community, in the George Floyd Square. Clearing people out who came there to sell products and wouldn't give money to the community or to George Floyd Square.
Saidu: Agape was just one of the security teams in the Square. Marcia and some other leaders had created one too: the Community Defense Team. Together, they dealt with white supremacists who tried to vandalize or antagonize people at the Square, and they intervened when it seemed like spats between folks at the Square were getting out of hand. I heard multiple stories of people calmly disarming folks in tense situations without anyone getting hurt. By August, the day one community members had gotten into a groove. Everyone knew their role at the Square, and they moved accordingly. At the morning and evening meetings, people would discuss okay, what's our actual leverage here? Like, what real power do we have to make something happen? The memorial was one. It was a sacred site that meant something to the world. Maybe they should march out from the Square to other cities and bring attention to what was happening here, and all the ways the city had failed them. They could call it something like, "From Floydtown to your town."
Saidu: But it wasn't until somebody called attention to the fact that there was a brand new, multi-million dollar bus route planned for the street they occupied that it hit them: the streets. The streets were their leverage, Chicago Avenue in particular. It's where the memorial sat, and it's where the bus route was supposed to go. Their leverage was right underneath their feet the whole time. All they had to do was stay put for as long as humanly possible and they would delay business as usual, and they'd hold all the cards. But as they realized that power, it seemed like the city did too. That's after the break.
Saidu: It felt like the world was open to Black people last year in a way that it hadn't been opened before. Open ears, opened minds, opened wallets. Like, everybody from companies to politicians to organizations, were grieving over the death of George Floyd and pledging to do their part to support Black folks. There was an obvious value in expressing support for racial justice issues, the way there was an obvious value in expressing patriotism after 9/11. Last year, it was estimated that corporations pledged $50-billion to social justice causes. And shit, we were even getting random Venmo payments from our guilt-ridden white friends.
Saidu: And with all that came a strange sense of power for Black folks, a window into what was possible if we were actually listened to. A window I saw open in my own life. Like, with this show for example. We pitched the idea for this show a week or two after the murder. By the next week, it was on its way through a pilot, and a few weeks after that it was greenlit. Don't get me wrong, the team that makes this show is extremely talented, and we've worked our asses off to successfully launch this podcast during a pandemic. But it's not lost on me that a process that usually takes months, sometimes years, happened in a matter of weeks. I don't know if that would've been possible any other time before May 25th of last year. And I've never stopped thinking about how a Black man had to die for that window to open. Last year was a really good time for Black people to ask for things. So why not justice? That's what the people at George Floyd Square were asking for.
Marcia Howard: They would always say, "You know the barricades got to leave. You know, they got to leave. At some point, they have to be removed. They're gonna have to get removed for the business, for the people, for the traffic, for the buses, for the elderly, for the disabled. They got to get moved." And we would say, "No justice, no streets." What happened to George Floyd wasn't just about George Floyd. We live in South Minneapolis. We lived through gang task force. We lived through Operation Blood Drive. We lived through all of that. And we knew that we had this moment to work toward demanding a change that would impact future generations. If we settled for things going back to normal, then there would be another George Floyd. Perhaps on the same street corner.
Saidu: The longer the occupation went on, the more city officials started to get worried about the whole thing. After Murphy Ranks was killed, there were other shootings near 38th and Chicago. Eventually, two more people were killed, and city council members, cops, the mayor, they all started getting more vocal about wanting to see the Square open up. They saw that as a way to stop the violence. But some people who've lived in this community for years didn't see the violence as anything particularly new. They told me that, even before last year, there was always gun violence in this neighborhood. It's just a tragic standard they've learned to live with in an underserved community. The only difference they saw was that now they were protesting the conditions that made things this way. Now people were paying attention. Jeanelle told me throughout the summer, she got a good amount of that new attention from the city.
Jeanelle Austin: Public Works had been approaching me all summer long because the memorial was in the street, and they wanted the street. And they tried dangling, like, $100,000 in front of my face to get us to move the memorial. And I remember she said, "Is this the space that you all have to grieve?" I looked at her and I was like, "We didn't choose the location. Y'all did." I could—I couldn't believe. And she caught herself. She's like, "Oh, my gosh, that sounds like a stupid white person, white thing to say." I'm like, "Absolutely it was."
Saidu: The Public Works Department wanted to move the memorial, but Jeanelle didn't think she was the right person to make that call. She thought George Floyd's family should be the ones to decide. She had scoured the internet and found contact information for one of George Floyd's aunts, a woman named Angela Harrelson. She asked her, "It's customary for the family to decide what should happen to the memorial. What do you think we should do?" Angela told her this is where Perry chose to make a life for himself, so this is where the memorial should stay. The two of them, along with George Floyd's cousin, decided to form a non-profit organization to figure out next steps on the family's terms. But soon after, Jeanelle says Public Works came back to the Square, this time with a different approach.
Jeanelle Austin: They sent their Black employees. That's such a white institution thing to do, to send your Black employees into a Black protest. Like, y'all only got three of them, because you just—you want to appear sensitive to Black people. So they organized this meeting: myself, some neighborhood organization leaders, a couple protest leaders, a business owner or two. And we were gathering at the fist in the center of the intersection. This brother comes in, tall Black guy, and says, like, with a very solemn tone and a sad face, and he said, "I'm just here to inform you that, like, I know this is hard and I know this is difficult, and this is a lot of grief and pain, but we just want to be able to prepare people that the streets are gonna reopen again on August 17." I literally started laughing out loud. [laughs] Like, I did! I did! And I was like, "Bruh, like, you can really stop it. Like, stop the theatrics. Like, you don't need to come with all of that. Like, just say it to us straight. We already knew it. You're just giving us the date. But let's just be clear, you think the streets are gonna reopen on August 17."
Saidu: I spoke to a leader of one of the neighborhood organizations who told me the city did not come correct that day. She says they were more concerned with returning the streets back to normal than they were with the needs of the community. They didn't seem prepared to address the trauma they caused here. It felt like the city just wanted to move on. But Marcia says the people in the Square were not ready for that.
Marcia Howard: You don't get to say we done. Like, wait, what? You cause an injury and then you try to tell me that I don't feel the pain, that I'm healed now, go on about my business? No. We said we weren't moving.
Saidu: Then one morning in early August, Marcia and Jeanelle were called into a meeting with a bunch of community leaders. And two city council members from their district were present. They'd come down to discuss the planned reopening. Marcia and Jeanelle reiterated their stance, "No justice, no streets." But then one of the city council members asked them, "Well, what does justice look like?" And there it was. This was a question a lot of neighbors had been discussing amongst themselves at the community meetings for a while, and now it was being asked by a person in a position of power. This was their chance to actually bring the demands of the community to the table. Jeanelle and Marcia looked at each other, then back at the council member. They knew they couldn't answer this question alone, that everyone should get a say. Marcia said, "We'll get back to you."
Saidu: That same day, the two women and other leaders in the Square went around with a pencil and piece of paper and talked to as many people as possible.
Marcia Howard: What does justice look like? That's what they asked us. And so we ran up and down those streets asking people. And I mean, we were asking the brothers on the block, "What do you want? What do you need to thrive?" We asked. And some of them were so not used to being asked that they couldn't even come up with something for themselves, Ah, we—I just want them kids to have something to do so they—they won't—" "Bruh, what do you need for yourself, though? What would you need to thrive?" And a man, young man, relatively, he goes—I remember he just stood there, he was scratching his chest. He was like, "I want to—I want to be able to afford to live in this neighborhood." What I discovered was that a lot of the fellas that are on that block grew up over here, but in the 2000s, everybody's mamas and the daddies and the grandmas started losing their homes. A lot of people are here based on this nostalgia for a neighborhood that no longer belongs to them.
Saidu: They spent all day having conversations like this with people at the Square, asking them to define what it would look like if they could get something out of this occupation. By the end of the night, Jeanelle and Marcia and a few other people sorted through all the responses then formalized it into a list of 24 demands—a document they called "Justice Resolution 001."
Saidu: The 24 demands ranged from restorative justice, to accountability to financial support, to community safety, even a path to home ownership for folks who couldn't afford to live in the neighborhood anymore. Some of the demands were already well on their way to being met, like demand number nine: hold the trial of all four officers charged with the murder of George Floyd. Others were specific to the Square. like demands number 10 and 17, which called on the city to invest into the neighborhood by financially supporting the Black businesses and the Black youth in the Square. Demands one and two and eight were more ambitious. They called for the firing of high-ranking officials who oversee criminal investigations and prosecutions in Minneapolis, as well as an end to qualified immunity. Demand 18 called for more support for Agape, the community-led security team.
Saidu: The last demand, number 24, was to keep the Square closed until after the trial of all four officers charged with the murder of George Floyd. The next day, Jeanelle and Marcia took the demands to the morning meeting to workshop them one last time, and then they sent it out to as many people as they could in city hall.
Jeanelle Austin: Like, I think they were expecting a list of what does justice look like. But to get a resolution of what justice looks like? I think that was the shocker. And, like, I remember asking council members, I said, "Well, what do you do when you get other resolutions?" She looked at me and said, "We don't. Only the council drafts resolutions." And I was like, "Huh. Interesting. And us." [laughs]
Saidu: August 17, that ominous date that was supposed to be the Square's reopening, the 17th came and went and nothing happened. The barricades were still up, the Square was still closed, the occupation was still going. Over the next few months, Jeanelle and Marcia and a few other activists started having conversations with the city—including with the mayor—to see how they could meet the 24 demands. September passed. October, November, December, the Square stayed closed.
Saidu: But there were people in the Square who didn't want it to stay closed. People who, for months now, had been advocating for the streets to reopen. It wasn't a secret. Everyone knew that there were lots of different groups at the Square with separate goals, and sometimes those goals were totally opposite from each other.
Jeanelle Austin: Nobody's ever been completely unified in the Square. That's what makes George Floyd Square George Floyd Square is that there's always been fractions.
Saidu: Tell me about that.
Jeanelle Austin: People have always had different feelings about what should happen in that space, how the space should move, who should be in charge, who should have authority, who is in charge, who isn't in charge, what should happen, when should the streets open or whether the streets should be closed? Like, there was always disagreement. So the neighborhood organizations differed in opinion from neighbors who differed in opinion from business owners who differed in opinion from gang members who differed in opinion from protesters who differed in opinion from the church on the corner. Like, everybody had different opinions always.
Saidu: Smoke in the Pit is one of the Black-owned businesses inside the Square. It's a barbecue joint that uses smoke to cook meat. When you bite into it, there's no burnt charcoal or gas taste, just slow-cooked meat falling apart on your tongue. It's owned by Dwight and Ivy Alexander, a mom and pop business. They told me at the beginning of the occupation, they got a huge influx of new customers, which was great for their books. But when the crowds started to thin, their revenue went down too. They said even their most loyal customers had stopped coming. And I spoke to one of their customers. He told me he used to come here all the time, but since the occupation, he'd heard about the shootings and the barricades, and it didn't feel worth it for him to come down here and have to look over his shoulder, no matter how good the ribs were.
Saidu: Talking to Dwight and Ivy was interesting because, in all the conversations about what people are trying to get out of this moment, Dwight and Ivy feel like they've been working towards their dreams for a while now. A successful business is what they want. Like, if a huge part of the 24 demands is to make material changes in people's lives at the Square, give them jobs, opportunities and paths towards providing for themselves, they already had that in their restaurant. And building generational wealth for their family has been their form of protest for years now.
Saidu: They tell me they had a cousin killed by cops some years back, so they recognize the need for changes in the way the world treats Black folks. But over time, the occupation frustrated them because their first priority is to protect their legacy for their children. Dwight and Ivy made their opinions clear to everyone. On the outside walls of their restaurant—the part that's facing the Square—they had a mural put up that read, "In times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers." A quote from Black Panther.
Saidu: To some people, the ending of the occupation felt inevitable. Like, you only have to look at other occupations that have happened in the last decade to see how this kind of protest usually goes. Back in 2011, Occupy Wall Street radicalized a ton of people, and they empowered a generation of folks to fight against economic inequality. They sowed the seeds for things like a $15 minimum wage, which we now have in a lot of states. But after two months of Occupy, the government didn't concede anything, they just cleared out the protesters.
Saidu: In 2015, here in Minneapolis, protesters held a demonstration that was sort of like an occupation. After the killing of Jamar Clark, they camped out at the Fourth Police Precinct for 18 days, then the cops just started arresting people. And just last year, protesters occupied six city blocks in Seattle after George Floyd's murder. The cops cleared out the occupation after about a month.
Saidu: These other occupations didn't have the same kind of power and leverage that GFS does, like the sacredness of a memorial at the center of it all, the backdrop of a morally-bankrupt city government whose officers murdered a man on camera. The fact that the occupation is made up of mostly neighbors and not outsiders. The leverage at GFS is unique in ways that kept the protesters going for almost a year at this point. But how long would that last?
Saidu: Steve Floyd from Agape, Steve felt like he already knew the answer.
Steve Floyd: They were coming in there to do like they did Ferguson, like they did Seattle, like they did Portland, like they did Plymouth, Minneapolis, when Clark was killed by the police. And they're in front of the police, and then after a couple, few weeks, they just came through with bulldozers and just cleared everything out. So they was coming here. And we said we don't want that because this is a precious place, and we don't want that.
Saidu: Steve thought there was a different way to work with the city. Soon after George Floyd was killed, Agape had gotten a $25,000 grant from the Office of Violence Prevention in Minneapolis to do security in the Square. During that time, he said he saw firsthand how dangerous things could be, said he even had guns pulled out on him. He thought opening the Square up would make people safer. Agape had worked with the city before. They wanted to strike a deal with the city to open things up, so Steve made his best case to Jeanelle and Marcia.
Steve Floyd: I said, "The mayor is not gonna sit up there and lie to us in an election year that he's trying to win. He gave us the power. Let's go to the table and demonstrate and do what Black people have the right to do now." George Floyd has passed. We had a great celebration, we had a great anniversary. Now let's celebrate his life. Forget the murder. Let's be a Black people and use the power that we got that we never have a chance to get.
Saidu: Jeanelle and Marcia weren't trying to hear all that. They and other protesters did not want to concede anything to the city, the mayor, the government. Not when those institutions had failed the community so miserably in the past. Like, it didn't make sense to Marcia that the city would kill a Black man, then pay Black people to fix the problems the city caused. The only way forward for the protesters were the 24 demands. So Steve and Agape went ahead without them. They signed a contract with the city worth up to $359,000. That money would go towards paying 30 to 40 ex-gang members to help clean and maintain the space. And it would also mean that Agape was gonna work with the city to move the barricades and open up George Floyd Square for the first time in over a year.
Marcia Howard: A little birdie was like, "Marcia, I heard they going to do it, they gonna hire some people and they gonna do it." And I said, "When?" "I don't know. It's coming soon, it's coming soon."
Saidu: A few months ago, on the first week of June, Marcia and a couple of neighbors started setting an alarm at 3:00 a.m. to wake up and stake out the Square every morning. They patrolled the barricades, keeping an eye out for any signs of city workers.
Marcia Howard: Like, Monday night. We're out there. Dun dun dun dun. Nothing. And oddly enough, a member of Agape showed up too, and he looked a little like, you know, "Hey, how y'all doing?" And I'm like, "Okay." Nothing. The next day, nothing.
Saidu: Then on Thursday, Marcia is up early in the morning looking out the window from her house.
Marcia Howard: And I see people in the Square at an ungodly hour in the morning. I'm like, "Okay, this is it." I call Jeanelle. I'm on the phone with her, and I said, "I'm gonna sneak around." She stays on the phone with me as I walk all the way down Little Crow, and then I sneak around the Bahá'í. I'm north of GFS, and then I literally hide in a bush.
[INSTAGRAM CLIP: Greetings from GFS. They're coming. They're coming.]
Marcia Howard: I went on my social media platforms and I said, "The city is here. They're here, they're here." And sure enough, out of the darkness, beep, beep, beep! There were park police there and hundreds of city workers.
Saidu: Marcia watched as city workers moved the barricades. This thing that had played such a major role in their community for over a year was being done away with in a matter of minutes. And for some reason, she just couldn't help but smile.
Marcia Howard: It was so ruthlessly efficient that I couldn't even really get mad. It was impressive. Yeah, that had been planned. And I'm gonna say this for the record, to say that that neighborhood organization called those shots? The powers that be gave them the equivalent of an unplugged video game controller. They really thought they was doing something.
Marcia Howard: Our ask for the 24 demands amounts to $156-million, and in October of 2020, the city council, when the mayor said, "We're in COVID, we don't have the funds." It's 2021, and we're sitting on a $1.6-billion surplus with ARP funds that are in the untold millions. And you opened up the streets for $350,000? And I'll still show up every day for you. Not gonna say I'm not frustrated, but I understand.
Saidu: I've heard some version of this "But I understand" from a lot of people at the Square: other activists, the business owners, even one of the members of Agape. It's like when they're disappointed by each other in some way, they're all meeting that disappointment with a calm acceptance. Like, "This sucks, but it is what it is. I expected this. We move." And it always throws me off because I've seen movement spaces start to fall apart when people no longer understand each other. People in the group will start to get ostracized or kicked out of the community entirely. But GFS seems to get ahead of that in a way I've never seen before. Different factions are actively taking different paths, but are still coexisting right next to each other. Nobody's getting kicked out, and nobody's surprised when they're let down by someone else.
Saidu: And I think a big part of what makes this acceptance of disappointment possible is the five assumptions of George Floyd Square, those guidelines Marcia came up with at the morning meetings. Specifically, assumption number four: assume that somebody in this Square does not have your idea of liberation in mind. Marcia's been repeating that at the Square twice a day for over a year—in the mornings when people wake up, and in the evenings before people go to bed. It's a constant reminder that this thing that they're after, liberation, it has to be big enough to hold everyone's ideas for what it should look like. For the activists, it can look like restorative justice. For Agape, it can look like creating jobs for former gang members. For businesses like Smoke in The Pit, liberation can look like running a successful restaurant so you can leave a legacy behind for your family. But everyone who's listened to Marcia at the Square knows that there's also second half to assumption number four: assume that there are ops everywhere. That can mean opponents, oppositions, or opportunists. So act accordingly.
Marcia Howard: See, what we understand about that intersection in all the talks about it opening or the moving things and rearranging the memorial, we know they want the memorial. We know that the memorial in some way, shape or fashion is going to stand. Not when you get on a plane and pull out a Condé Nast Traveler and they say, "What to do in Minneapolis? Go visit George Floyd Square." Right? "Lay an offering down." Oh, they not gonna give that up. But see, they want that fist without this fuss. They want the protest zone without the protesters. They want the flavor of resistance without the actual people resisting. And they want to co-opt the entire narrative of what Minneapolis in and of itself did for Black folk, not what we took, what we demanded and what we accomplished on our own. So if they can get that done, and get aided and abetted by people who—God bless them—think that they're acting in their own volition, because their idea of liberation looks a little bit different, then yet again, the state will win.
Saidu: Marcia and the rest of the protesters are still negotiating the 24 demands with the city. Some of them have been met, but they tell me they're still at the table fighting for the rest. After my first visit to the Square, I went back and the barricades were gone. Cars were now rolling through the intersection slowly. Smoke in the Pit had a brand new outdoor patio where people sat and ate their ribs. It was a really hot day, and volunteer medics were caring for a woman who'd passed out on the street. Members of Agape were picking up trash and welcoming folks to the Square.
Saidu: Marcia was still leading the morning and evening meetings. Jeanelle had a whole team of caretakers—they were watering plants throughout the Square. The giant fist was still smack in the middle of the intersection. People still stopped at the stretch of concrete with the powder blue chalk outline of a man with angel wings, to consider what happened there. The memorial to George Floyd was still in the street, untouched by the city, tended to by caretakers.
Saidu: What is the worst version of what this Square can become, and what is the best version of what the Square can become?
Marcia Howard: The worst picture of 38th and Chicago is the one that I already think is going to happen because of whiteness. You're gonna see little blonde kids riding their bikes down 38th and Chicago, when 20 years ago you never saw white folks just walking they dog and shit down these streets, right? They're gonna stop and they're gonna tuck in real quick to get a quick gelato. They're gonna crook their head, and in the periphery of their eye they'll see the fist, and they'll be able to bop into a gift shop and maybe get a miniature fist keychain. And there may be a mural or two or three as they continue to meander down George Perry Floyd Jr. Place, the renamed 38th and Chicago, otherwise known as George Floyd Square. And there will be a high-speed transit bus barreling down the street. And the only Black folks you'll really see are tourists who come from all points of the country—Louisiana—and they look, and maybe they'll feel a little disappointed, or maybe they'll feel happy that it's in a cultural corridor and it's ostensibly Black themed. And maybe they'll be assuaged by the fact that a Black developer or two had a hand in building or remodeling a building. That maybe a couple of Black owners still retain ownership of a couple of buildings, because they don't own much in the Square now.
Marcia Howard: But you asked me what's the worst vision. I don't put it on a spectrum of best to worst. I'm putting it on the spectrum of most likely. The least likely vision is the reason we've survived in this fucking Godforsaken nation for as long as we have. The least likely vision is the one that's hopeful.
Saidu: Thanks so much for listening. Part two of my reporting from George Floyd Square will be out in two weeks. Resistance is produced by Aaron Randle, Bethel Habte and Salifu Sesay Mack. And hosted by me—Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr.
Saidu: Our supervising producer is Sarah McVeigh. We were edited by the amazing Lynn Levy, Brendan Klinkenberg, Lydia Polgreen and W.J. Sunday.
Saidu: Mixing, scoring and magic by Haley Shaw. Additional scoring and theme by Bobby Lord. Our music supervisor is Liz Fulton. Original compositions by Drea the Vibe Dealer and Teiji Mack.
Saidu: Fact checking is by Rosemarie Ho. Our show art is by Darien Birks of The Stuyvesants. Credits music—what you're listening to right now—is "Universal Law" by Drea the Vibe Dealer. Good lookin, homie.
Saidu: Special thanks to Mel Reeves of the Minnesota Spokesman Recorder, Tabitha Montgomery of the Powderhorn Neighborhood Association, Madi Ramirez-Tentinger, King, Popeye, Ira and Jay the Gardner, and everybody in the morning and evening meetings. And a huge shoutout to Lucy Geach for inviting me to 38th and Chicago.
Saidu: And if you enjoyed this episode, tell a friend about it. You can find me on Twitter at @saiduttj. And you can follow us on IG @resistancepodcast. Resistance is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production.
Saidu: All right. See y'all in two weeks.