The place where George Floyd died is a now sacred space and a battleground

First you see the barricades — traffic cones, graffitied concrete Jersey barriers and a metal frame that resembles a bike rack.

Then there’s the makeshift guard shack, with so-called community “Guardians” inside, regulating the comings and goings on the streets.

Finally, a poster declares “Welcome.”

Beyond the barricades, past the guard hut, at the intersection of Chicago Avenue and 38th Street in Minneapolis is the patch of ground where George Floyd took some of his last breaths as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for several excruciating minutes, even after Floyd’s body went limp.

Locals wanted it to be a place of peace, justice, mourning and healing. There is a greenhouse growing plants for the memorial to Floyd and caretakers who make sure the area they now call George Floyd Square is clean.

But the neighborhood is still dealing with old wounds, new conflicts and fresh violence, even as attention on them is renewed with the beginning of the murder trial for the man accused of killing Floyd.

“We are a grieving community,” said resident Jeanelle Austin. She grew up three blocks from the square but had left Minneapolis for college, and made her life with a career in faith and race relations. When Floyd was killed her mother told her to come home, that they needed her, that she had the tools and experience in civil rights to help her community heal.

She bought a one-way ticket from Austin, Texas, and thought she would stay about two weeks, she said. That was nearly 10 months ago.

Austin weeps as she recounts all the messages and gifts she has seen at the memorial, especially those from children who are too young to spell correctly but still understand that something was very wrong.

“By the loss of life in that space, it created it into a sacred space, which is why we call them offerings,” she said.

The grief is fresh, too, not only caused by what happened to Floyd on Memorial Day 2020. Just last weekend a man was shot to death not far from the spot where Floyd once laid motionless. Police did not respond to CNN’s request for comment, but a spokesman told USA Today they faced interference when trying to come into the square that Saturday night. Residents choose when to move the metal gate that completes the street barricade, and this time it was them who took the victim to the hospital before police arrived.

Police and ‘hostages’

Distrust of police by the guardians of the square has remained at peak levels.

Austin said residents were happy to work with emergency medical services, but police were not welcome in what some are calling an “autonomous zone,” though officers have attended several incidents in the area in the 10 months since Floyd’s death. On Friday night, a half dozen police cars came through the square, lights flashing in a slow moving chase. Gang warfare is prevalent here, dating back long before Floyd died.

“The police need to work on themselves. There is a distrust they have not corrected themselves. The police work for some people and not for others,” Austin said.

Some residents and activists have formed their own security team, cleaning crew, and even their own medic unit for the square.

But it’s not a panacea and some locals are frustrated at the go-it-alone attitude, which has not stopped occasional fights, gunfire and a killing.

One neighbor, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisal, said, “There are nights it sounds like a war zone here.”

Another sent a video to CNN from Friday night to prove it. For several minutes, you could hear a barrage of bullets being fired in rapid succession.

“I’m hearing overwhelmingly from community members who, quite frankly, are feeling hostage over there at the situation. And we cannot allow for the violence to continue to happen,” Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said during a news conference.

Sam Willis Jr., a business owner in the neighborhood, told CNN affiliate WCCO, “People don’t feel safe, they are selling their homes, they hear gunshots, they know the police are not coming into the neighborhood.”

Resident Billy Briggs says he does not judge those who have moved out, but he is staying put, even if it’s no longer a place that saw the outpouring of love after Floyd’s death. “There’s a lot of factors happening that are making our square not what it was last summer,” he said.

Briggs, a White man, has lived in this racially mixed neighborhood since the early 1990s and says he loves the community.

He’s part of the volunteer team that tends to the memorial each day. And each day he updates an old gas station sign that used to show prices per gallon to indicate how many days the court has been sitting in the murder trial of former officer Derek Chauvin.

Part battleground, part oasis

On a recent sunny day in the square, there was a child-like joy permeating the space.

Several Black women were determined to play Double Dutch in the middle of the street. They danced and giggled while trying to navigate the two jump ropes being twirled in opposite directions. Briggs was asked if he wanted to join in. He decided to take pictures instead.

“I know what this neighborhood is and can be. I’m not going anywhere. This is home,” he said.

But a battle is brewing.

The city says it intends to reopen the streets to traffic. It was the city that first installed the concrete barriers last May to protect people from traffic as thousands of mourners and protesters descended on the square to pay their respects. Last month officials determined it was time to remove the barricades, and the mayor has said that would likely happen after the Chauvin trial is completed.

It won’t happen without a fight. Some activists, residents and caretakers of the square say they have sent 24 demands to the city they believe would create a pathway to restorative justice and healing if and when the blockade goes. They say not one has been met yet.

Their list included youth centers, long term community investment, integrated health services, among many other items they wanted the city’s help to fund and nurture.

For 10 months Austin has dedicated her days to collecting and preserving every single offering to the memorial in memory of Floyd. There are boxes and boxes of items from cut flowers, to children’s drawings, to a Roberta Flack record. Each is treated as sacred and preserved as a priceless piece of art.

“We are keepers of the stories of the thousands of people who have come through here to actually lay down their offering as a creative expression of pain and hope,” she said. “If you lift those barriers without first providing restorative justice to the community people are going to forget about the harm and trauma caused to the community. The community will never see any kind or form of restorative justice.”

The start of the trial has brought both hope and trepidation.

Some residents are nervous about the outcome and what that might mean to their neighborhood. Business owners starved of drive-through traffic by the barricades and the pandemic want the traffic flow. At the same, they are stressed about more potential unrest.

As jury selection proceeded last week, the square saw mothers with children, White men in suits, and Black couples come to pay their respects all at the same time.

But like the women playing Double Dutch, sometimes it is impossible not to get tangled up. In the south Minneapolis neighborhood where Floyd took his last breaths, the tangle of issues that need to be solved is a microcosm of the situation facing many urban American neighborhoods, long before the world ever heard of George Floyd.

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