No justice, no streets: Among the powerful women who are managing George Floyd Square

By: - September 22, 2020 6:00 am

Madi Ramirez-Tentinger and Marcia Howard (left) talk during a Meet on the Street night meeting recently. The group is “holding space” until the city meets some of their demands. Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

At 8:15 a.m. at George Floyd Square, 16 people — mostly women — are perched on chairs, benches and couches in between the idled pumps at the Speedway, which is covered in graffiti and serves as a gathering space now.

They have met twice a day, every day, since Floyd died on the street under a cop’s knee just steps away. 

Meet on the Street, they call it. 

Neighbors who’d never met before now work together to keep the square safe, autonomous and organized. Their motto: No justice, no streets.

“There’s so many people here, it’s like a village,” says Marcia Howard, a 47-year-old mother who would normally be teaching high school but took a leave this fall to stay in “the zone,” as she calls it. 

“We all have roles to play,” Howard says.  

After Floyd died and protests erupted in Minneapolis, and then spread across the globe, the city put up cement barricades about a block from the scene in every direction to keep mourners safe. It’s proving much more difficult to remove those barricades, however. These community activists are demanding something new after decades of mass incarceration, which followed a century of Jim Crow, which followed centuries more of slavery.

Howard has been in the square about 20 hours a day all summer. This morning at the daily meeting, she’s explaining to the group how they’re going to deal with the city from now on. How “Black and brown people” in the group are going to take the lead, and if anyone doesn’t like it, they can leave. 

Marcia Howard did not go back to school for the first time since 1996 this fall, instead continuing her summer-long vigil at George Floyd Square, along with dozens of others who created a group called Meet on the Street to “hold space” at what has become an autonomous zone. Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Listen to Black people,’ ” she says. “If you aren’t comfortable with Black women leading, step aside. We’ve tried it every other way.” 

The city seems to be looking for a “magical Negro” to help end the conflict, she says. Some in the group have even been offered jobs. “I think they think this is politics as usual,” she says. 

It’s not.

The group has been negotiating with city officials about ceding the intersection of Chicago Avenue and 38th Street, and several blocks surrounding it. 

In early August, city officials told them they were planning to reopen the intersection in phases, starting with 38th Street, and gave the group 24 hours to respond. 

Meet on the Street came back with a long list of demands in a “justice resolution,” which was later revised to include $156 million worth of programs over a decade. The city backed away from reopening. 

While Seattle protesters were making headlines taking over a police precinct and creating the six-block “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone,” or CHOP, people from this south Minneapolis neighborhood were quietly mourning and organizing a more solemn autonomous zone. Police steered clear, so they set up a volunteer security force. A chef coordinates meals for the volunteers “holding space” at the barricades. Two bus stops have been converted into a library and clothing giveaway. Items left at the memorial are carefully gathered up and stored. 

And while Seattle police returned to the CHOP three months ago and dismantled it after a shooting, George Floyd Square continues to be controlled by residents who rarely call the police.

Howard remains unmoved by the city’s desire to reopen the intersection. “It’s not my fault that they did this 270 steps from my house — that they killed a Black man,” Howard says. 

She didn’t go back to school this fall for the first time since 1996, and vows not to leave until the city meets at least some of their demands.

“I am here for the safety of my community. And I’m standing my ground,” she says. “They’re going to have to kill me.”

She’s not joking: She’s already made an appointment with a cremation company and is making arrangements in the event of her death. 

‘A lot of this is pantomime’

The city and the neighborhood are in a standoff while negotiations continue. But Howard doesn’t delude herself: “A lot of this is pantomime,” she says. “If the city wanted to roll us over, they could.” 

Still, the neighbors won’t go down without resistance. They’ve stashed homemade wooden shields behind the barricades and train themselves on defending the space and communicating effectively. If the city should move in to reclaim the intersection without meeting their demands, they will “call for bodies in the square” using an encrypted message service. 

Minneapolis officials are treading lightly, hoping to broker a peaceful compromise. City employees have attended dozens of Meet on the Street meetings since June. On a recent Wednesday, two city employees were at  the morning meeting, one from Metro Transit and the other from public works. 

Their presence didn’t stop Howard from expressing befuddlement  that when “middle-aged white men” talk to city employees, they’re told the intersection will be reopened “before the snow flies” or other dates. Dates she’s never been given.

“They are liars who lie,” she says of some city officials, like those who claim emergency vehicles can’t get into the zone. “They are doing political ploys in public.” 

After the morning meeting, Caylie Dean, an activist/chef who organizes “the people’s pantry,” sits in the middle of 38th Street and talks about how she used to get her food from dumpsters when she was homeless.

Madi Ramirez-Tentinger, a comedian and electrician whose career was derailed by the pandemic chimes in: Aldi dumpsters are never locked, which has gotten them through tough times.

Ramirez-Tentinger, who uses the pronoun “they” and “them,” lives nearby and is a constant presence in the zone, today riding their black, retro bike around, working on outreach. They talk to a neighbor upset about the security at the barricades near his house. He hadn’t talked to Ramirez-Tentinger in a while and just wasn’t feeling heard. 

Later, Howard, Dean, Ramirez-Tentinger and others “hold space” at the west barricade, and they talk about how many of them didn’t even know each other before Floyd’s killing. They were thrust together in an effort to first protect their community — and then strengthen it. 

Although it’s a leaderless movement — Howard says “I don’t run nothin’ but my mouth” — Dean talks about how empowering it is to see women at the forefront of the movement. 

Andy Browne lives about a block away from the intersection and was laid off a month ago, and has since become a “division lead” in charge of builders and winterization in the zone. He’s built benches, preserved significant graffiti murals and converted a bus stop into a community closet.

He’s known around the neighborhood for stepping forward and taking charge, but now is doing more leaning in and listening. “I’m very aware that I’m a white male and the type of justice we’re looking for… needs to be a thoroughly Black-led movement,” he says. 

By day, the square is largely a place of peace and mourning and, sometimes, dancing and smiling. Recently, residents have had taco parties, corn feeds, water gun fights, salsa dancing and drive-in movies. Some say they’ve never felt more safe.

Monica Rojas reads books to children, two of them hers, on a recent day at George Floyd Square. Photos by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

“It’s an occupied square. It’s a protest zone,” Howard says. “But it’s a community before it’s anything else. We maintain community — we forged it and sustain it through holding space, and feeding people and being here. I think we are providing a model for the city, let alone the country, of what it looks like when we put community first. It’s the community that brings a semblance of safety, and justice would guarantee it.”

They’re going to start showing free documentaries, for which Browne was planning to put up a screen Monday at Speedway. He said the space has to be family friendly.

“This can’t become what the CHOP kinda became,” he says, referring to the drug trade that flourished in Seattle’s short-lived experiment. “This has to be a place where I can still take my kids down in the evening and walk around.”

That’s why many members of the group were upset last week when City Council Member Andrea Jenkins — who lives just blocks away — said people are having to pay to get out of alleys due to extortion. Howard says that happened once, early in the summer, when a kid flashed a gun and told someone they had to pay.

Early on in this informal occupation, absent a police presence, the area was at times more dangerous, with gunfire and a noticeable gang presence.

Leneesha Columbus, 27, was killed near the memorial in her SUV after an argument with the father of her unborn child; the child later died, too. Another man was fatally shot a block from the memorial on Juneteenth, after which residents questioned the police response.

But today, at noon, the square is quiet and visitors are few. A girl wearing tie-dyed pastels from sweatshirt to shoes rides up on a pink bike and hands Howard a wad of bills. She made $40 charging $1 for Polaroids of people the night before. At her dad’s suggestion, she says she decided to donate $15 to the people running George Floyd Square and use the rest to buy a toy. Howard says she’ll use the donation for the square’s toy chest.

City Public Works Director Robin Hutcheson recently told the City Council there is no longer a target date for reopening 38th Street. But it’s clear the city does plan to reopen it: When that happens, she said it would take a couple of days to reopen and then the city would turn its attention to Chicago Avenue.

“Thirty-eighth Street gives us the best opportunity to meet some of the principles and goals, creating a little more access, being able to maintain a little better for winter,” she told the council.

Hutcheson told the City Council the city recognizes racial healing and justice must be at the forefront, and the city wants to provide a space for mourning. That will require parking changes. The barricades have been both protective and challenging, since emergency access to the zone is difficult, she said. Meet on the Street members dispute this, saying they allow emergency vehicles into the zone.

‘We’re at an impasse’

Jeanelle Austin lives at 38th and Oakland and has been the lead caretaker of the Floyd memorial, carefully keeping every item left there daily.

“People are coming here because they are grieving,” she says.

Jeanelle Austin lives at 38th and Oakland and has been the lead caretaker of the Floyd memorial, carefully keeping every item left there daily. Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

She’s met with the mayor, too, and he has been kind and listening. But “the actions are insufficient” and the people won’t cede the streets “no matter how kind you are,” Austin says. 

“We’re still at an impasse,” Austin says. “The community has the streets and the city wants the streets open, but they have not provided any kind of response to the demands for justice. … So the streets will remain closed because the people will keep them closed.”

The city needs to provide restitution for the trauma and suffering caused on the streets, she says.

To those who say their demands are unrealistic, she says, “We’re talking about injustices that have systematically impacted this community for decades.”

They’ve also asked for a property tax freeze for homes in the zone.

“We will hold the streets until the city figures out how to get the community the justice it deserves,” Austin says. “We’re not trying to burn down our city.”

Council member Jenkins has said the city is committed to addressing the group’s concerns and a permanent memorial to Floyd at the site, but warned they can’t be achieved overnight. The issues that created these conditions were centuries in the making, she said. 

Jenkins, who is the City Council vice president, said the city is working on how to do a “staged, partial” reopening. 

The Meet on the Street group has made it clear they’re willing to negotiate. When the mayor said no to their demand that the intersection remain closed until after the trials of the four police officers involved in Floyd’s death, Howard says, “You got 23 other ones,” referring to their other demands.  

“We know what our tipping point is,” she says. 

The city has supported the zone with garbage and recycling removal, but police officers still stay out of the barricaded area unless called for emergencies, like the two shootings.

“They surround the area. I liken it to the Velociraptors at the electrified gate in Jurassic Park — they’re testing,” Howard says. “But right now, we hold the barricades.” 

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.