Just before dawn on a warm night in early June, a line of city vehicles pulled into a four-block area in South Minneapolis that has come to be known as George Floyd Square. Groups of workers fanned out in the darkness and started removing barricades and other structures that, for nearly a year, had cut off the flow of traffic on two major thoroughfares: Chicago Avenue and East Thirty-eighth Street. The reaction to what looked like a cross between a covert op and a public-works project was immediate; residents of the mixed-income neighborhood began texting and posting a flurry of messages on social media as they streamed out of their homes. Across town, one of those texts reached Jay Webb, a gardener and a caretaker of the Square. He got dressed and hustled out the door. Another observer said in a video on Instagram, “Greetings from G.F.S. They’re coming! They’re coming!”
Since last summer, the barricades had told visitors that, as a hand-painted sign announced, “you are now entering the Free State of George Floyd.” At the center of the area was the intersection outside the Cup Foods grocery store, where Floyd died, on May 25, 2020, after the police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds during an arrest, while three other officers stood by. In the chaotic fury that swept the nation in the days afterward, hundreds of businesses in Minneapolis were vandalized, and a hundred and fifty buildings, including the Third Precinct, where Chauvin worked, were set on fire. There were protests in the intersection, but mourners, activists, tourists, and community members soon turned the area into a sort of shrine, leaving messages, flowers, and candles. A painted silhouette marked the spot where Floyd had died.
One night, a week after his death, law-enforcement officials drove through the makeshift memorial. In response, residents dragged cinder blocks, furniture, and even an old refrigerator into the streets to block traffic. Mayor Jacob Frey, who at one point referred to the area as “sacred ground,” had concrete construction barriers placed at the intersection, ostensibly to protect pedestrians. But the barriers also deepened the sense that George Floyd Square was now a place unto itself. An ad-hoc committee of activists and residents erected and staffed guard shacks at entrances. An abandoned Speedway gas station was repurposed as the People’s Way, and an improvised fire pit, set up between empty pumps, became a gathering place. Webb collected the detritus of the protests—bricks and plywood that had covered windows—and used it to build a roundabout structure in the middle of the intersection. It included a platform where visitors could leave flowers and messages, and a nine-foot-tall steel sculpture of a fist that the artist Jordan Powell Karis had designed, as a replica of an earlier wooden sculpture, and that residents helped assemble. The Square was becoming more than a shrine to Floyd’s life; it was a monument to others who had died in encounters with police, and a headquarters for an emergent movement.
Then, on April 20th of this year, Chauvin was convicted of two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter. On June 25th, Judge Peter Cahill sentenced him to twenty-two and a half years in prison. The three other officers will be tried next year, and federal indictments have been handed down against all four of them. Many Americans saw the verdict as a just resolution to a public tragedy. The Square’s reopening seemed part of a general spirit of relief and a desire to move on from the horror of Floyd’s death and the tensions that had turned Minneapolis into a microcosm of the national debate about race and policing.
But another view, held with at least equal resolve, considered the trial only one concern in a constellation of many that needed to be addressed before there could be anything resembling closure. During the trial, Webb, who stands six feet nine inches tall and looks to be about fifty (though he said that he considers himself just a day old—the day he’s living), told me he was concerned that “when the flowers die, and the helium is gone from the balloons, people will forget the entire case.” The monument that he built was intended to prevent that from happening. “This cannot just be another corner,” he said. His implication was that, although the world saw Floyd’s death as a singular incident of spectacular violence, people in parts of Minneapolis, particularly in the Square, were more likely to connect his death to a long genealogy of events that both preceded and followed it, and which few outside of that community knew much about.
The disparity in the reactions to the Chauvin conviction can be partially explained by the fact that, despite the clear evidence, the verdict was never a given. When I arrived in Minneapolis in April, at the start of the second week of the trial, the downtown was deserted, devoid of the scenes of rage and bedlam that had played out there last summer. Every so often, an almost empty tram slipped into the Government Plaza station, near the Hennepin County courthouse, released two or three passengers, and then departed. Yet a cluster of satellite trucks, military transport vehicles, and National Guard troops stationed at the courthouse entrance suggested that the city was prepared for every contingency.
Early on, though, a consensus emerged: the prosecution was handling its case impressively. The attorneys, led in the courtroom by Jerry Blackwell and Steve Schleicher, elicited mesmerizing testimony from the witnesses, including a nine-year-old girl who had been on her way to Cup Foods just before Floyd’s death; her seventeen-year-old cousin, Darnella Frazier, who shot the video that sparked global outrage at the murder; and Charles McMillian, a sixty-one-year-old man who broke down while recalling his helplessness as Floyd cried out, “Mama, they killing me.”
The prosecutors also called Medaria Arradondo, the first Black police chief in the city’s history, to testify. He told the court that Chauvin’s actions were “certainly not part of our ethics or our values.” Richard Zimmerman, the head of the Minneapolis Police Department’s homicide unit, testified that Chauvin’s actions were “totally unnecessary.” Johnny Mercil, a lieutenant who conducts the department’s use-of-force training, said that officers, when using body weight to control a suspect, are instructed to “stay away from the neck when possible.” When he was asked whether placing a knee on the neck of a suspect who is “under control and handcuffed” would be authorized, he replied, “I would say no.”
The recruitment of Blackwell, Schleicher, and two other attorneys, Lola Velazquez-Aguilu and Neal Katyal, all of whom are in private practice, was credited to Keith Ellison, the former congressman who is the first Muslim Attorney General of Minnesota and the first African-American elected to statewide office there. Ellison had taken over the case from the Hennepin County Attorney, Mike Freeman, at the request of Governor Tim Walz, a Democrat. This arrangement was hailed as tactically brilliant—Ellison had credibility among progressives who were skeptical of the system’s ability to handle the case—but it also reflected the fraught circumstances under which the trial took place.
In 2019, Freeman, who is the son of the former governor Orville Freeman and had previously served as a Democratic state senator, oversaw the prosecution in another prominent police shooting. In 2017, Justine Damond, a white Minneapolis resident originally from Australia, called the police to report a possible assault taking place in an alley behind her home. Mohamed Noor, a Black officer of Somali descent, arrived and, mistaking Damond for an assailant, shot her dead. He was convicted and sentenced to twelve and a half years in prison. Yet the case caused consternation because, amid a spate of killings in the area committed by white police, Noor was the only officer found guilty. His conviction fuelled the perception that in Minnesota there were separate legal systems for Blacks and for whites.
A consequence of this belief was that activists, notably Nekima Levy Armstrong, a lawyer and a former president of the Minneapolis N.A.A.C.P., began pushing for the Chauvin prosecution to be handled by outside counsel. “The activists were demanding it,” Ellison, who ran as a progressive reformer and was elected in 2018, told me, but Freeman, whom he described as a friend, had also asked him to take on the case. “It was really the County Attorney asking the A.G. to be involved, and the Governor appointed us at the same time,” he said. Freeman assisted the prosecution team, but Ellison’s presence was reassuring in a system whose legitimacy had come into question.
Last year, Samuel Myers, Jr., a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, published a post on the school’s Web site about what he called the Minnesota Paradox. The state, which typically ranks among the best places to live in the country, has a strong economy (3M, U.S. Bancorp, General Mills, and Cargill are all headquartered there), respected institutions of higher education, affordable homes, abundant natural resources, and a landscape (eleven thousand lakes) that feeds a thriving outdoor-recreation industry. The Twin Cities, in particular, seem to have been granted an exemption from the postindustrial malaise that has defined other Midwestern cities. Moreover, the area’s long liberal political tradition and the presence of resettled Somali and Hmong refugee communities have burnished its reputation as an outpost of progressivism.
But, Myers wrote, “measured by racial gaps in unemployment rates, wage and salary incomes, incarceration rates, arrest rates, home ownership rates, mortgage lending rates, test scores, reported child maltreatment rates, school disciplinary and suspension rates, and even drowning rates, African-Americans are worse off in Minnesota than they are in virtually every other state in the nation.” Blacks constitute just seven per cent of the state’s population (of five and a half million), a number that includes both African-Americans and recently arrived immigrants, such as the Somali refugees. The median-income gap between Black and white Minneapolis families—forty-seven thousand dollars, as of 2018—is among the largest in the nation. Floyd’s death was one of some eighty homicides in Minneapolis last year; the majority of the victims were Black and male. Duchess Harris, a professor of American studies at Macalester College, in St. Paul, told me that Minnesota is “everything anybody would ever want, unless you’re Black.” She echoed a sentiment voiced by Leslie Redmond, another former president of the Minneapolis N.A.A.C.P., that the state is “Wakanda for white people.”
“It’s not that Minnesota is not a liberal state,” Ellison said. “It’s just it’s not only a liberal state.” For most of the twentieth century, a limit of that liberalism could be found at the edge of the Northside, where the historic Black community was relegated, owing to restrictive housing covenants and redlining. By the nineteen-thirties, St. Paul had a thriving Black middle-class neighborhood, called Rondo, but in the sixties it was, as with many such enclaves in American cities, partly demolished to make way for an interstate highway.
The Black population of Minneapolis grew significantly during the eighties and nineties, as residents of struggling communities in Detroit, Chicago, and Gary, Indiana, sought opportunities there. Ellison, who is fifty-six, grew up in Detroit and attended law school at the University of Minnesota, and he recalls the disdain that some white Minnesotans expressed. “When I first got here, people moving from Gary were being told, ‘We’ll give you a one-way ticket back.’ ” Those new arrivals also entered a climate in which relations with the police were becoming increasingly antagonistic—a situation that intensified in recent years with a couple of high-profile cases.
In November, 2015, officers responding to a call about a dispute at a party fatally shot Jamar Clark in the head while attempting to arrest him. The officers maintained that Clark, who was twenty-four, had tried to take a gun from one of them. Some witnesses disputed that account, saying that Clark was already in handcuffs when he was shot. (Freeman, the Hennepin County Attorney, did not file charges in the case.) The Clark shooting, which occurred a year after the national wave of protests over the killing of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, galvanized the Black Lives Matter affiliate in Minneapolis and led to an eighteen-day occupation of the grounds of the Fourth Precinct. A week into the occupation, Allen Scarsella, a twenty-three-year-old white man, fired a gun in the direction of the protesters. It was later discovered that he was friends with a Minnesota police officer who testified during Scarsella’s trial that the two had frequently exchanged racist messages.
The following summer, the police officer Jeronimo Yanez fatally shot Philando Castile, a thirty-two-year-old school-cafeteria worker, during a traffic stop in a St. Paul suburb, as he sat in his car with his girlfriend and her young daughter. Castile, who was a licensed gun owner, had told Yanez, as he complied with the officer’s request to retrieve his driver’s license, that he had a weapon in his possession. Yanez was charged with second-degree manslaughter and was acquitted, in 2017. In the midst of these conflicts, the B.L.M. affiliate disbanded. Under the glare of national attention, and with scant funding, the group “burned out,” in the words of Kandace Montgomery, one of its organizers.
That year, which marked the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the M.P.D.’s founding, a coalition of activists calling themselves MPD150 produced a report titled “Enough Is Enough.” It concluded, among other things, that the department’s core function is to protect the wealthy, and that “racialized violence” has always been part of that imperative. Communities United Against Police Brutality, a grassroots organization that documents and investigates incidents of excessive police force, has compiled data from the city’s Office of Police Conduct Review. The group found that, of nearly twenty-eight hundred civilian complaints lodged during the eight years before Floyd’s death, the department ruled that only thirteen were warranted.
This history helps explain why, locally, people tended to view Floyd’s killing not as an anomaly but as part of an enduring narrative. “Police have killed other people,” Steve Floyd, a sixty-two-year-old gang-outreach worker in Minneapolis, told me. “Not only Philando and Clark—all the other people who have been killed at the hands of the police.” (The Star Tribune has recorded two hundred and nine such incidents statewide since 2000.) Floyd, who is originally from Chicago, and is not related to George Floyd, advises the Agape Movement, a violence-intervention organization created in 2020. The group has enlisted former gang members to defuse community conflicts and has coördinated patrols of the Square. For the past nine months, it has been housed in a building two doors down from Cup Foods.
As Floyd knows from experience, another element of life in the Square that went largely unnoticed in the tumult and debate of the past year was the level of internecine violence. Chicago Avenue between East Thirty-seventh and East Thirty-eighth Streets is tattooed with graffiti featuring the names of people of color, most of whom died in interactions with the police. But there is also graffiti identifying the block as a redoubt of the Rolling 30s Bloods gang, which has operated in the area for decades. In the Twin Cities during the mid-nineties, the growth of gangs associated with other cities, such as the Chicago-based Vice Lords and the Los Angeles-born Bloods, gave rise to a police task force. Murder rates in Minneapolis have declined since then, as they have across the nation, but, according to the Star Tribune, a significant number of the forty-eight homicides that occurred there in 2019 are thought to be gang-related.
On March 6th, as jury selection for the Chauvin trial was about to begin, a thirty-year-old man named Imez Wright was standing near Cup Foods when another man jumped out of an S.U.V. and shot him several times in the chest. Wright, who had two young children, died just feet away from where George Floyd was killed. Prosecutors attributed the homicide to a conflict within the Rolling 30s Bloods. A suspect, identified as a member of the gang, has been arrested; according to court documents, he will argue that he was acting in self-defense.
Wright had joined the gang in his youth, but he sought to leave that life, and expressed a desire to help young people avoid the mistakes he’d made. Steve Floyd had helped supervise him at another organization, where Wright mentored schoolchildren. Floyd cited his story as an example of the dangers that continue to plague the neighborhood. “That’s what we deal with all the time,” he told me.
The community patrols have stepped up in recent months, in response to a spike in neighborhood crime. In March, Arradondo, the police chief, reported that in 2019 there were three victims of nonfatal shootings in the vicinity of Thirty-eighth and Chicago; last year, that number rose to eighteen. The city’s shot-spotter technology, which detects the sound signature of gunfire, logged thirty-three shots fired in the area in 2019, and seven hundred in 2020. But crime has increased throughout Minneapolis and in cities across the country. Steve Floyd added that a common misconception that the police were staying out of the Square had also made it vulnerable to crimes of opportunity. (A spokesperson for the M.P.D. said that it “patrols all areas of the city—bar none.”) Three people had committed robbery and assault at a pizzeria just outside the Square, Floyd said, and then had run past the barricades into the area, thinking that they’d be less likely to be caught there. It appears to have worked.
The city first announced last August that it planned to reopen the Square. Some people who had become regulars there set out to draft a response. One of the leaders of the group was Marcia Howard, a former marine in her late forties who teaches English at the nearby Roosevelt High School. (Imez Wright and Darnella Frazier had both been her students.) When I met her one morning in April, she bounded across the Square, despite the fact that she had been on guard duty since 3 a.m.—and that it had started to sleet. She called out, “The late, great Prince said, ‘Sometimes it snows in April.’ ” Howard has lived a block away from the spot where George Floyd died since 1998. (The day she moved in, she told me, there was a drug raid on her street.) Shocked by the murder, she found herself drawn into the activist network, took a leave from teaching, and spent nearly every day in the Square. Her front porch was crammed with boxes of goggles, hand sanitizer, and Gatorade, which supporters across the country had sent through an Amazon wish list. “Welcome to the quartermaster’s office for the movement,” she said.
Howard and others canvassed residents, and in August they released “Justice Resolution 001,” a list of twenty-four demands that needed to be met before they would agree to a reopening. The list included the immediate recall of County Attorney Freeman, millions of dollars in investment in businesses in and around the Square, and information on or investigations into ten police-related deaths, dating back to 2002.
But, over time, there was disagreement about the Square. In March of this year, the city conducted its own survey, asking about four thousand residents and business owners for input on its proposals for the future of the Square. Most of the respondents supported retaining some aspect of the memorial, but in a way that allowed for reopening the streets to traffic. Andrea Jenkins is a city-council member whose district includes most of the Square. In 2017, she ran on a progressive platform and became the first openly trans Black woman elected to political office in the country. We spoke by phone after Chauvin was convicted, and she told me that most of the community favored the reopening. “We hear from a small number of people who are occupying this space, and those are the people who are saying that the trial wasn’t justice and there needs to be more,” she said. “It’s almost like they’re asking the city of Minneapolis to atone for the four hundred years of oppression that America has brought on African-Americans.” She paused for a moment, then added, “That’s not to say that Minneapolis has not contributed mightily to it.”
The near-unanimity of the law-enforcement opposition to Chauvin on the stand heartened people, but it also raised other concerns: if officers’ testimony made the difference between acquittal and conviction in this case, it suggested that their reluctance to testify in previous cases may have been a causal factor in failures to convict. More profoundly, it suggested that the police are still the arbiters of good judgment, even in cases which call that presumption into question.
The officers on the stand could not have appeared more unlike the ex-officer on trial—and that, perhaps, was the point. Chauvin was a bad cop, and the rest are not. Yet the distinctions don’t entirely hold up. The M.P.D. fired Chauvin a day after Floyd’s death, but a police association funded his defense. He worked for the department for nineteen years, including as a field-training officer. That fact weakened the argument that he was fundamentally different from the men who said that his actions were “uncalled for” and contrary to his training. Chauvin was employed, promoted, and rewarded by the same system whose representatives now condemned his actions from the stand. In that sense, the jury—and the public—was being good-copped. And all parties were acutely aware that Minneapolis and many other cities would likely explode if Chauvin went free.