Volunteers who help manage George Floyd Square work with the Bloods gang, but not police. Here’s why.

By: - January 11, 2021 6:00 am

“I’m a deep believer in Jesus Christ and a God who cares about the marginalized and oppressed,” said Jeanelle Austin, who is a caretaker of the George Floyd Memorial. Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

Since George Floyd’s death under the knee of Derek Chauvin, a group of volunteers called “Meet on the Street” gather twice daily. They work to preserve, patrol and protect the four-block zone around where he died, while protesting the systemic racism that they say led to Floyd’s killing at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue. 

The area has become sanctified by Floyd’s spirit and the mourners who come to celebrate him, no less so for the parade of gawking tourists who come for the selfies. 

Police have largely withdrawn, out of respect but also fear of confrontation. 

The city continues to negotiate with Meet on the Street about when and how to take down the barricades and open the area to auto and bus traffic. Until then, it’s an experiment in neighborhood autonomy, approximating the goal of activists who seek to “abolish” or “defund” police.  

But an awkward reality has emerged: Members of a notorious street gang are participants in the loosely defined governance of George Floyd Square.  

Jeanelle Austin, a Meet on the Street volunteer, said a variety of community members staff the barricades, including gang members.

“If there are people who historically identify as gang members who decided to sit on a barricade, to protest for justice, for their very life as Black men, I do not apologize for giving them hope to have a better life. If a gang member is sitting on a barricade to protest for justice for Black lives, how is that harming anybody?” she asked.

The area has long been Bloods’ territory. Residents say that after Floyd died and police stepped back, the gang essentially took over protection of the neighborhood. They could hear four-wheelers at night and warning gunshots to outsiders, and assumed it was the Bloods. It made some of them feel safer.

“They’re protecting the community,” Andy Browne said in June. “Right now they’re the only ones… keeping us safe.”

Police have acknowledged they’ve pulled back from the area, as the Reformer reported in July. 

This has some residents concerned about violent crime and who will stop it if not the police.

After a man and woman were shot near Cup Foods two days after Christmas, police said they had trouble getting to the scene, and by the time they got there, the two victims had already been taken to hospitals in private vehicles with gunshot wounds. (The wounds were not life-threatening.) 

KSTP reported the police department sent an email to Minneapolis City Council members Andrea Jenkins and Alondra Cano complaining that police were initially denied entry to the scene and “hostile crowds” destroyed evidence. 

Police searched the area, but couldn’t locate the scene of the crime, police spokesman John Elder said by email. Asked whether the evidence was corrupted by people on scene, Elder said, “We do not have any evidence as we were unable to locate a scene.” Elder said something slightly different to the Star Tribune: “Evidence was removed, and no one would give us the evidence.” 

Meet on the Street volunteer Marcia Howard posted a video on Twitter and Facebook shortly after the shootings as police were trying to get to the scene, in which she said, “I do want to stress one thing: Even though this is a historic site and protest zone, it is still 38th Street. Interpersonal beef over here ain’t new.”

In other words, George Floyd Square may be a sacred site, but gang violence rolls on. 

Jamar Nelson, a former Bloods member-turned-community activist and occasional spokesman for Cup Foods, grew up in the neighborhood. He said the shooting near Cup Foods was gang-related.

“Rival gangs were in that area,” he said.

Jamar Nelson, pictured last summer, grew up in the neighborhood near Cup Foods. He says it’s time for the city to reassert control of George Floyd Square. Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

Austin, the Meet on the Street volunteer, was in the square that night and said the victims were a barbershop owner and his fiancée. She doesn’t know if gang members were involved, or if evidence was removed from the scene. She said police were taken to the scene, and did a cursory investigation before leaving.

“The question becomes how much the Minneapolis Police Department actually cares about the fact that there was a shooting more than they actually care to just try to talk bad about the community at George Floyd Square,” she said.

She said the protesters witnessed an incident earlier in December, when two cops ran into the square chasing a carjacking suspect, and one of the cops injured a bystander who asked what was going on. 

So, when shots rang out later in the month, protesters initially rebuffed officers at the barricades, she said. 

“The community members were trying to protect themselves,” she said. “You’re dealing with a traumatized community who are saying ‘No police.’”

Austin said she intervened, and escorted a lieutenant into the square, where police looked around with flashlights, took photos and were escorted out without putting down police tape.

Jenkins, the local council member, has since said she supports a permanent memorial there, but doesn’t condone inhibiting police investigations and wants the space reopened. She held a virtual roundtable discussion on the issue last week. 

Austin said shootings occur all over the city.

“Somehow when interpersonal conflict and violence happen at 38th and Chicago then all of a sudden it’s reason to dismantle an entire protest for Black lives.” 

Calls to reopen the square have intensified since the Dec. 27 shooting and a Nov. 12 Star Tribune story characterized the square as a “gun haven” at night that has been “effectively taken over by gang members,” with gang members using the barricades “to vet who enters the area.” Residents of the area pushed back with an op-ed disputing that characterization.

A literal girl scout extends a hand to gang members

Austin grew up in the neighborhood. She went to Saint Joan of Arc Church, played at Phelps Field Park, rode the bus downtown to work summer jobs and stopped at Cup Foods for popcorn balls. She was literally a Girl Scout who wasn’t allowed to participate in “any kind of gang life,” she said. 

But she’s met all kinds of people from the neighborhood while volunteering in the square, including members of the Bloods gang. 

“I’m a deep believer in Jesus Christ and a God who cares about the marginalized and oppressed,” she said. “Jesus hung out with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus stood by the people who are marginalized and brought them into a better way of life.”

Christ’s inspiration guides her in dealing with others, including gang members, she said. “We are not in the business of holding people’s past against them. People talk about the Bloods as if they’re somehow less human than anybody else when they’re not the only violent people in our community.”

From the standpoint of the protestors, the participation of gang members in the governance of the neighborhood is fitting — Floyd, like generations of Black men, had promise but struggled in a Houston neighborhood infamous for grinding poverty only ameliorated by a violent drug trade.  

What Austin calls “interpersonal conflicts” were happening before the uprising and occupation of the square, and the volunteers have de-escalated a lot of them in the intervening months, she said. 

But if gang members are helping hold the barricades and evidence is being destroyed before cops can get to it, does that mean Meet on the Street is working with the Bloods while stymying police investigations of crimes? 

“Here, the police is a gang,” Austin said. “Those gang members have never pulled a gun on me. The police have. So who am I supposed to fear?”

Youth Prevention Coordinator Sasha Cotton of the city’s Office of Violence Prevention has a team ofviolence interrupters” that cover the neighborhood, and she acknowledged some of the people holding the space may have gang affiliations.

Some of the Bloods want to help preserve the neighborhood, and some are probably taking advantage of the fact that they can do things in the autonomous zone that they couldn’t get away with before, she said.

“Post-George Floyd, that area is definitely different and I think people who wanna take advantage of that for bad are potentially doing that, but I don’t think they’re in charge (of the zone),” Cotton said.

People in similar roles to hers across the country have reported seeing “violent street groups” pop up as protectors of their communities post-Floyd, she said. 

“There are definitely people who make bad choices, but that doesn’t always make them bad people,” she said.

But Nelson, the former gang member-turned activist, thinks well-intentioned volunteers in the zone have become “forced enablers” of the Bloods.

“There is forced camaraderie,” he said. “It’s the exact position Cup (Foods) is in.” Nelson thinks it’s time to take down the barricades and said it’s “idiotic” that the zone occupiers thwarted police after the recent shooting. 

“The city has got to put an end to this,” Nelson said. “It is setting such a bad (expletive) precedent. … It is not a safe area. The city has to put its big boy pants on and decide what they are going to do.”

Austin said the zone can’t survive without neighbors joining together, even those with a gang affiliation. 

“Whether they’re a white neighbor, or a Black gang member, or a Latino brother or sister, we are calling everybody to live to a standard of justice. To do the right thing. And we cannot do that if we do not talk to people,” she said. 

Updated 7:34 p.m. Jan. 17.

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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.