The place where George Floyd was killed is hallowed ground

By: - June 1, 2020 2:39 pm

Nyagach Kueth speaks to a crowd of demonstrators outside the Cup Foods near where George Floyd was killed. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

As protests, looting and fires have swept across Minneapolis and cities across the country the past five days, the one place untouched by rioting is the place that set them off: 38th Street and Chicago Avenue.

The intersection is blocked off with a circle of flowers, where a week before George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed when a police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, according to video that set off protests and riots across Minneapolis and in cities across the country.

“My family is a peaceful family,” Terrance Floyd, the brother of George Floyd, said Monday while visiting the site. “I understand y’all are upset, but I doubt y’all are half as upset as I am. So if I’m not here wilin’ out, if I’m not out here blowin’ up stuff, if I’m not out here messin’ up my community, then what are y’all doin’?”

Just blocks away, buildings were burned out and smouldering, but the area around Cup Foods was boarded up but otherwise unscathed.

“This is sacred ground right here because this is where they took him from us,” said Paris Anding, a Black Minneapolis resident who came to the site on Sunday. “This is a different vibe over here, a different feeling for everybody … You got every color of person out here … together … and we’re all for the cause.”

People knelt to pray amid flowers laid throughout the intersection. People chalked notes to Floyd on the street while reggae rang out from speakers on one side of the intersection and demonstrators shouted chants of “George Floyd” on another side.

The intersection where George Floyd was killed at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue has been among the most peaceful places in Minneapolis as riots have swept through the city. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Outside Cup Food, people piled donated food, water and clothes on folding tables for Minnesotans who may have had their own grocery store looted or are still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic that has left tens of thousands in the Twin Cities jobless.

“It’s like a celebration but it’s also a mourning,” said Frankie Nesbitt, who sat on a lawn chair on a nearby front lawn. “It’s what we do as Black people — celebrate the life. And we’re also grieving and mourning in our own way … That’s that soberness feeling that you’re feeling here.”

Nesbitt drove into Minneapolis with her white roommate from Brooklyn Park, a northern suburb. They arrived in the morning, planning to leave before the nightly curfew at 8 p.m., when on previous nights violence and destruction has coincided with peaceful protests throughout the city.

“The rioting and the looting is the disturbing part, but I understand it,” Nesbitt said. “There’s no rule book on how to protest. If we protest in a peaceful manner, we’ll get the acceptance of the Anglo-Saxon, European. We don’t owe you any apologies and we don’t need your permission to protest in the way that we feel.”

The police have been largely absent from the site of Floyd’s death — at least visibly — which many pointed to as the reason it stayed peaceful while other sites in the city erupted in violence and looting. Demonstrators also regulated themselves, even during the night, to keep the peace. When a fight broke out, others rushed to stop it. When someone tried to break into the corner gas station, others rushed to stop it.

“We’ve been here for the past few days and we haven’t seen one police car,” said Brandi Freeman, who handed out food and water with Youthset, a Minneapolis non-profit that runs youth programming. “I think if they did come it would get less peaceful.”

The one exception was Saturday night. A WCCO reporter was speaking live about how peaceful the space was when law enforcement arrived on two sides and seemingly unprovoked fired rubber bullets at demonstrators. (See video beginning around minute 11).

Murals honoring Floyd were painted on the brick walls of businesses in several directions. In front of the Cup Foods, a crowd listened as one by one people came forward to speak into a megaphone.

“They can arrest thousands of people after the curfew but all you need to do is arrest three,” Nyagach Kueth, a 15-year-old Black Minneapolis resident, shouted into the megaphone.

That statement proved prescient as the police would arrest more than a hundred protesters Sunday night as the state ramped up efforts for a second night to restore peace and order to the city.

While Derek Chauvin, the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck, was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter on Friday, three other former officers involved in the incident have not.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who until Sunday had jurisdiction over charging the officers, said he was waiting for a more thorough investigation before bringing charges. Gov. Tim Walz appointed Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison to take over the prosecution of Chauvin on Sunday.

The site also drew elected officials and prominent activists over the past few days including the father of Michael Brown Jr., the Black teenager who in 2014 was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, setting off days of protests and riots.

“These things are happening because we aren’t standing together unified,” Michael Brown Sr. said. “I’m not upset with rioting. I’m not upset with none of this because everybody has their own way of speaking our truth.”

Justin Herberg drove from St. Cloud, Minn., to hand out free water to people at the site where George Floyd was killed. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

While videos show people of all races in skirmishes with police and looting businesses, the widespread arson on the city’s southside appears to be more coordinated, according to Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington. During a Sunday press conference, Harrington said police are finding caches of incendiaries all over the metro area and greater Minnesota — some of them adjacent to spots where fires have been set.

The nation is now engaged in a high-stakes political debate about whether the arsonists are right wing, white supremacists, left wing anti-government extremists or apolitical hooligans.

The picture is frustratingly unclear as city residents try to understand the past five days that will leave a lasting scar across south Minneapolis.

As always, people can be hard to neatly categorize. A white Trump-supporter from St. Cloud who fits the profile of the so-called “outside agitator” came in a beat-up pickup truck with a pallet of bottled water to hand out for free.

“Overall I am (a Trump supporter) but it’s a damn shame what he said the other day ‘When the looting starts the shooting starts,’” Justin Herberg said.

Herberg said watching the video of Floyd’s death as well as two other high-profile police killings — of Philando Castile, a Black man who was killed in a traffic stop in 2016, and Justine Ruszycyck Damond, a white woman in 2017 — changed his views of racism in policing in America.

“It took me until now to understand the nutshell of black lives matter. Technically, all lives matter, but black lives is where the attention is needed most right now,” Herberg said.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.