Where Prince lived and George Floyd died — hope, history and heartacheMay 25, 2021
MINNEAPOLIS — Andrea Jenkins used to love talking about the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis, where the Bancroft, Bryant, Central and Powderhorn Park neighborhoods converge. She is proud of the area’s storied history as the heart of one of the city’s once-thriving Black business communities. The late musical icon Prince spent his teen years here, attending school just a few blocks away. Even before she became Minneapolis City Council vice president, Jenkins, a performance artist, dreamed of recapturing the area’s legacy, creating a hub for artists, filled with galleries, music and poetry, her first love.
But the intersection — now known as George Floyd Square — has become a source of heartbreak. Both locals and visitors must navigate barricaded streets and a series of checkpoints manned by activists — their numbers vary day by day — who’ve occupied the streets here since Derek Chauvin killed Floyd outside Cup Foods one year ago. Jenkins now faces contempt from those activists. To them, she’s a traitor because she no longer supports completely defunding the police. Meanwhile, she’s getting death threats for her support of those same activists — the city even had to assign her a security detail. And she’s fielded interview requests from local, national and international media outlets — all asking the same question: What’s next?
She’s dealing with all of this as she’s running for reelection in a battle-weary city whose residents worry not just about racial justice — but about rising violent crime, too, which grew 21 percent in 2020.
“I vacillate between days of feeling utterly defeated and days of feeling super hopeful,” said Jenkins, who just turned 60, on an overcast Friday afternoon at a park across the street from her house, two blocks from where Floyd died. As she walks slowly around the park, leaning on a brass-colored cane with silver etching, she explains the toll of the past year.
Jenkins, the nation’s first Black openly transgender woman elected to public office, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis during her 2017 campaign. But it wasn’t until November that she regularly needed a cane. Although her daughter and three grandkids live in the Minneapolis suburbs, she has barely seen them, thanks to both the pandemic and her bruising work schedule. She has more arguments with her partner of 11 years.
“It’s stressful times,” said Jenkins, dressed for the chilly spring day in a pink cropped leather jacket and a Tiffany heart necklace. She is writing a book of poetry with the working title, “Human Touch Poems for a Pandemic World.”
Technically, Jenkins doesn’t represent the spot where Floyd died, which is in Ward 9. She represents neighboring Ward 8, which includes part of the square and also has been deeply affected by his murder and streets closed by occupying activists. Because Alondra Cano, who represents Ward 9 is retiring, Jenkins is taking the lead in navigating between the lofty demands of activists whose occupation here helped launch a global movement — and other residents, businesses and city leaders who want regular traffic to resume on the once busy thoroughfare in this area, where middle-class newcomers are displacing working-class locals. She counts many of the people on both sides of the debate as her friends.
“Andrea’s lifework over decades focused on that intersection so heavily,” said Robert Lilligren, who hired Jenkins as a staffer when he was elected to represent Ward 8 in 2001. “This is her legacy.”
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said George Floyd Square would be reopened after the anniversary of Floyd’s death today. But activists say that they will keep the intersection closed until all of their demands are met. What happens next has implications far beyond local politics. The racial justice movement borne of Floyd’s death, with its calls for police reform, investment in historically marginalized communities and attention to systemic racism, has reshaped state and federal elections across the U.S.
“You know, 38th and Chicago is the soul of the city,” Jenkins said. “It’s become the soul of the nation.”
“This is the blink of an eye”
The intersection has become something of a pilgrimage site in a country doing a lot of soul searching. In April, Condé Nast Traveler listed George Floyd Square in its Minneapolis travel guide. But not everyone welcomes the attention. Residents and business owners who live and work within the four barricaded blocks say police won’t respond to their 911 calls. It’s a claim the police department denies.
Nerves are frayed.
Reporters walking into Cup Foods, a classic neighborhood bodega filled with snacks, drinks and cigarettes, with an ATM machine and a cashier behind a plexiglass partition, will be met with owner Mike Abumayyaleh, barking “What do you want?” After dozens of interviews already, he’s tired of answering questions, too. Plus, there’s now a petition circulating to shut down the store for fraudulent activity. He’s got someone else handling his public relations now, and it’s clear he has little patience left for the media. It’s also clear the activists in the square weren’t completely prepared for the ramifications that come from starting an international racial justice movement. Reporters aren’t always welcome here. One afternoon, a volunteer yells that the media must immediately identify themselves and then stomps away. Another woman on the square, who locals say suffers from mental illness, threatens to attack a reporter.
Yet it’s the sustained media attention that has allowed activists to be intractable with their demands, which range from the firing of specific state employees to property tax suspension and neighborhood economic investment. As long as public sympathy is on their side, they can afford to wait. “I’ve been Black for 48 years,” said Marcia Howard, a former Marine who is on leave from her teaching job while she keeps the intersection closed. “I’m tired of being tired.”
Howard lives just steps from the square. One of her former students, Darnella Frazier, filmed Floyd’s murder. After Floyd died, Howard organized an around-the-clock watch at the square. She runs twice daily volunteer meetings, at 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., outfitted with a GoPro camera and a yellow headband. On a recent Friday, inside one of the makeshift barricades, she was tending to a 25-year-old woman, who Howard said had been dropped off at the square after being sexually assaulted by her mom’s ex-boyfriend.
“I need people to understand time relatively,” Howard said. “In the span of history, in the arc of justice, this is the blink of an eye.”
“Going to hell in a handbasket”
During the past century, racial covenants pushed Minneapolis’ Black families into a handful of neighborhoods, including one along 38th Street South. In the 1960s, the state built a major interstate that destroyed 50 city blocks and bifurcated Ward 8. In the 1980s, drugs and gangs took over this once middle-class neighborhood of narrow brick bungalows and craftsman style homes with small, neatly trimmed yards. Crime rose and businesses shuttered. The city closed the high school that Prince attended, upsetting longtime Black residents. When Jenkins first started working in City Hall as a staffer in 2001, Latino and white families began moving into the area around 38th and Chicago. Rising property values and heavy policing seemed to be directed at pushing Black residents out, locals say.
Then Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. Jenkins decided to run for City Council.
“If we get ready to go to hell in a handbasket on a burning bus, then I want to be the one driving and I literally said that on the campaign trail,” Jenkins said.
Before Floyd’s murder, Jenkins created a 10-year development plan to transform the area into a Black cultural zone with street festivals and a center for racial healing and provide affordable housing options and jobs to longtime residents. The plan incorporates many of the demands that the occupiers on the square listed out last August, which is why Jenkins has been frustrated that they see her as an enemy. “Those ideas are not new,” Jenkins said, who grew up in Chicago and moved to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota. In March, the city approved plans to develop the cultural district, but excluded George Floyd Square, due to the occupation.
Alicia Smith, executive director of the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization, less than two miles from George Floyd Square, said other activists have been too hard on Jenkins. “She showed up when she was exhausted, when she was hurting and when she was afraid,” said Smith, when we met outside of the Saturday farmer’s market that she organizes next to a police precinct that rioters burned last May.
“It’s part of the complexity of what happens to Black women in leadership,” Smith said. “There’s this unrealistic expectation for a superhuman, superhero complex.”
But square occupiers are mad at Jenkins and other city leaders for saying that they supported defunding the police — Jenkins read a poem at a defund rally last summer — and then reversing course when crime jumped. They want tens of millions of dollars more than the city is proposing in investment.
“She says that she is an ally, and then she voted for more police. The police are what caused this problem,” said Jeanelle Austin, caretaker of items brought to the George Floyd Memorial. “It’s a city employee on city time that killed a man.”
On a Friday morning, Austin was moving a memorial for Dameon Chambers, who was killed trying to break up a fight during last year’s Juneteenth celebration at the square. Completing an investigation into his death is one of the activists’ demands. There is an abandoned gas station in one corner of the intersection. There are makeshift structures and bicycle racks, in addition to barricades the city erected after Floyd’s death about a block in each direction.
Bus stops have been converted to a clothing donation rack and a community information center with handwritten notes and printed flyers. There are murals and installations, including a Black power fist in the center and memorials to other victims of police violence. The spot in front of Cup Foods where Floyd died has been roped off and marked with a blue and white angel painted on the ground. People bring their own art and offerings to the memorial. Someone brought a chunk of ice from Lake Superior to the square during the winter.
Austin describes the intersection, with this merger of art and protest, as a cross between the L.A. riots and the Harlem Renaissance. Immediately after Floyd was murdered there were days of riots. Then grief displaced rage. Last June, two recent University of Pennsylvania graduates constructed a “Say Their Names” cemetery in a grassy flood catchment around the corner from the square. The art installation features more than 100 white headstones in neat rows with the names of Black victims of police violence.
Jay Webb, a general contractor who tends to plants in the square, said he’s making preparations for a sturdier winter greenhouse so he can continue supplying food to volunteers throughout the year. Flowers and plants have become an integral part of the impromptu memorial. They sit in planters around the square and line the Black power fist sculpture in the center. “Flowers have peace,” said Webb, a Black man who is so tall he barely fits into the existing greenhouse, “so why can’t we?”
While Austin speaks, a white man wearing a camo vest sits down at an upright piano by a gas pump, playing Beethoven’s Für Elise. By noon, the square is full of a multiracial contingent of visitors, but the atmosphere remains hushed. Crystal Olivarez, who is in the square with her parents visiting from Colorado and her 11-year-old son, said she was thinking about the daughter she lost in 2016. Jean Martin, an Iowa college student, said he was here because “being a Black man means paying your respects to a brother who lost his life.” Jerome and Stephanie Thigpen, who are Black and live in Chicago, brought more than a dozen family members, from their kids to their kids’ kids, because they wanted them to understand their country.
Faith James, who now lives in Naples, Fla., teared up behind her leopard-print sunglasses. “The rage is gone,” she said. “I am just out of my mind with grief.”
Austin is already fielding requests from youth and student group organizers, researchers and others who are planning visits for next summer. “We’re at a critical point in this protest,” Austin said. “What does it mean to be an institution born out of a movement?”
Ask Austin what it will take for the occupiers to remove the barricades, and she bristles. The question misses her point.
“By trying to go back to kind of business as usual, we face the danger of participating in the acts of colonization, where you erase the story of marginalized people,” she answers. She worries that if the barricades are lifted the world will forget Floyd — and nothing will change for Black Minneapolis.
But to some people who live near the intersection, to some of the businesses there, the autonomous zone is problematic.
Residents are annoyed that quiet streets where their kids used to play are now heavy with rerouted traffic. Black business owners in the square say revenue is down around 75 percent. Crime has increased — there were 18 nonfatal gunshot victims in the area last year, up from three in 2019. Robberies and assaults are up nearly 400 percent. On one March Saturday, at around 6 p.m., Imez Wright, a 30-year-old father of two, was fatally shot outside of Cup Foods while he was patrolling the area.
“A city government designed for anarchy”
In Minneapolis, the structure of the city government created the current stalemate over what to do next, according to Lawrence Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota.
“You have a city government designed for anarchy,” he said. The mayor appoints the police chief, but most of the city power is dispersed between its 13 council members. This November, Minneapolis voters may have the choice between competing visions of city government — and criminal justice reform. One ballot proposal would create a department of public safety overseen by the City Council, centralizing different programs in the city. Another measure would give the mayor more authority over city decision-making. But, for now, most city decisions require consensus, which is lacking in Minneapolis.
“This past year, in a lot of ways, it felt almost like, engineered in a lab to exhaust the hell out of everybody,” council member Jeremiah Ellison said over Saturday morning coffee in the trendy North Loop neighborhood where Floyd’s picture hangs in the window. Ellison’s father, Keith, is Minnesota’s attorney general who oversaw the prosecution of Chauvin. For years, activists have deeply distrusted the Minneapolis police department, which has a long history of violence against Black residents. Ellison said that lack of trust has been transferred to elected officials this past year.
When activists first barricaded the intersection of 38th and Chicago, Mayor Frey and other city leaders attempted to quickly find a way to meet their demands. They weren’t prepared for a yearlong occupation. Ellison credits Jenkins with being one of the officials who has prevented the city from forcibly removing barricades so far. But a year later, it’s clear the activists have no intention of leaving willingly anytime soon. Jenkins’ patience is wearing thin, too.
Jenkins agrees with protesters that fundamentally the city systems are unfair against Black people, but she said their tactics are now bordering on “extortion.” Many Black residents and business owners don’t even support their demands to dismantle the police department. Sondra Samuels, a Black North Minneapolis resident, is among a group of people suing the city over police staffing shortages and rising crime. And there is a limit to what one city councilperson can do. “Now what I can’t solve is racism,” she said.
At a time when other city leaders, both in Minneapolis and around the country, are retiring, Jenkins is seeking a second term. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced she wouldn’t run for reelection, partly because of the pressure of trying to reform policing while crime rises.
Jenkins said she wants to prove that her win four years ago — when she garnered 73 percent of the vote — wasn’t a fluke. But mostly, she said, she believes Minneapolis is finally starting to address its problems with racial equity and policing. She wants to be a part of that change.
In March, the city paid Floyd’s family $27 million in a settlement, which includes about $500,000 for the neighborhood. Chauvin has been convicted of murder. (Three other ex-officers charged with Floyd’s death are scheduled to go to trial in March 2022.) Chokeholds have been banned and the use-of-force guidelines have been overhauled. The city also approved a budget that moved nearly $8 million from the police department to violence-prevention programs. Everyone, it seems, agrees there’s a need for a permanent George Floyd memorial.
Change, Jenkins said, is happening. Slowly. But it’s happening.
She wants to see the city’s transformation through.
“Call me crazy,” she said. “But I just feel like I can maybe have a positive impact.”