Amuladat Ajasa, The Guardian, March 27, 2021
The sign on a barricade on a once-unassuming street in Minneapolis reads: “You’re now entering the free state of George Floyd.”
A small rectangle of city blocks features murals, flowers, candles and tributes in the place where Floyd, a Black man, died under the knee of a white police officer last May, sparking the biggest US civil rights uprising since the 1960s.
On maps, it’s the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue. To activists and community members, it’s George Floyd Square.
But as one of the most significant police trials in US history gets fully under way, of former officer Derek Chauvin, with opening arguments on Monday, the future of the square is also in the balance.
Outside Cup Foods store, where the world watched as a bystander videotaped the eight minutes, 46 seconds that George Floyd pleaded for his life, one mural depicts a prone body with angel’s wings and some of Floyd’s dying words: “I can’t breathe.”
The area has grown from a makeshift shrine and focus of protests to a semi-autonomous, pedestrian territory symbolizing community resistance.
Nearby is a disused Speedway gas station now dubbed People’s Way. At a circle of benches with a bonfire pit in the middle, community representatives meet every morning, and activist events are often held there.
There’s a community bookshelf, free donated clothing and toys. Some Saturdays, the local church distributes groceries.
“It’s for the people,” said Willie Frazier, the owner of Finish Touch Boutique, an adjacent Black Lives Matter clothing store. “It’s for everybody in the world that wants to come here.”
And what started as a free clinic in a tent, known as 612Mash (the telephone area code and Minneapolis All Shall Heal), is in the process of becoming a clinic in a building, co-founded by Joelle Zaviska, a nurse.
She brings her eight-year-old son to the square. “As a white woman, this is a great opportunity to show him why we’re here, [that] this can’t happen. None of these things can [be allowed to] happen, like George Floyd.”
Smith described the space as: “Black centered – but it’s not a ‘Black square’.”
The Minneapolis mayor, Jacob Frey, wants to have the barricades down after the trial. The city originally put them up to protect those mourning and protesting from traffic.
The authorities cite an uptick in gun violence and shooting deaths in the square in the last 10 months, with Frey insisting this is causing more pain in the city.
George Floyd Square falls between Minneapolis’ eighth and ninth wards, represented respectively by city council member Alondra Cano and council vice-president Andrea Jenkins.
Cano believes reopening the area will reduce a spate of deaths and said: “Crime has increased since the intersection has been blocked off, that’s a fact … gang activity has grown over time” taking advantage of “the sacred space people have tried to create there”.
She speaks of elderly Black residents “feeling unsafe and sleeping in their bathtubs at night because they don’t want to get shot … who have to endure the triggering of trauma and PTSD day after day”.
Zaviska, the nurse, said she had never felt unsafe within the square.
“Any of the things that happen around here happen in every city, all the time. It’s not special to the space. This is a big community, and everybody here has everyone’s back,” she said.