They arrived before sunrise, working quickly to begin stripping away the barricades that have kept the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue closed for more than a year since George Floyd was murdered by former police officer Derek Chauvin there.
City crews, escorted by members of the Agape Movement, made the first steps towards reopening the intersection, which has been dubbed George Floyd Square.
They added street signs that indicate the intersection will now become a roundabout, erected concrete barricades around some of the art work memorializing Floyd and installed a protected bike lane.
City workers are reopening George Floyd Square without police a little over a year after George Floyd was killed here and activists closed down 38th and Chicago pic.twitter.com/noQrHaZtp4
— Max Nesterak (@maxnesterak) June 3, 2021
But hours later, the intersection remained closed to vehicular traffic, amid pushback from activists and caretakers of George Floyd Square, who lambasted city officials for the early morning effort to address one of the most vexing political challenges since Floyd’s killing.
“Ain’t nothing stopping, we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing,” said Eliza Wesley, a caretaker at George Floyd Square, who was angry at how the reopening was handled. “We’re still going to be here, boots on the ground. We’re going to be like a chain together. If you move one, you’ll have to move all.”
Mayor Jacob Frey, Council Member Andrea Jenkins, who represents the area, as well as Council Member Alondra Cano, whose ward abuts the neighborhood, spoke about their efforts to strike a balance in honoring Floyd’s memory, respecting the community’s wishes for the future of the intersection, while restoring access to businesses near the square.
“This can be a critical location of gathering, not just for our city, but for the entire world,” Frey said during a press conference. “Through a phased reconnection, we can also find a way to provide the necessary social services and city service that has been missing at times over the last year.”
Since Floyd’s May 25, 2020 killing, the square has become an international symbol of police brutality and racial discrimination, but also healing, justice and community.
City crews worked without a police presence, though police were stationed nearby. They were accompanied instead by members of Agape Movement, a local group that has contracts that could pay up to $359,000 for “community building, health and safety services associated with re-opening of 38th and Chicago,” according to a city spokeswoman.
Frey said it was “paramount” to avoid any violent confrontations at the intersection, which is why police were not present during the work.
Steve Floyd, a co-founder of Agape Movement, said his group had approached the city with a plan for moving toward reopening the intersection. He said recent gun violence, including children killed in the crossfire, forced their hand. “We had to approach Black people and say, hey, ‘Black lives matter to us, as well, so we can stop a lot of this shooting that is going on,’” Floyd said. “We knew we were going to get pushback.”
Floyd said the group coordinated with the city, but stressed that they were not being directed by the mayor’s office.
Earlier on Thursday, Agape members spoke about the challenges of defusing tensions as city crews worked.
“We’re just trying to observe what’s going on. It’s kind of heartbreaking, upsetting,” said Derek Armstrong, a member of Agape.
Derek Armstrong with the group Agape says they came down to make sure city workers would be respectful of the place. Others here say they don’t represent the community holding space here and are frustrated they seem to be working with the city pic.twitter.com/49WzT029pg
— Max Nesterak (@maxnesterak) June 3, 2021
For months, reopening the square has been a fraught political challenge. Police pulled back from the area. Some local constituents sought a return to normalcy, including bus service, while others said they were not moving until the city met a list of demands, including more than $150 million in funding for local programs during the next decade.
The square featured community meals, a first aid tent and free library. But some residents said they had grown exhausted with rising crime, including gun fire.
Since last fall, the city has been considering two “interim winter design concepts” for reopening the intersection to traffic. Chicago Avenue will be reopened to southbound traffic only for a block north of the square to preserve the memorial at the site where Floyd died in front of Cup Foods.
The square will become a roundabout with the iconic fist sculpture now synonymous with George Floyd Square staying in the center.
Some activists “holding space” in George Floyd Square said Agape “turned on us” by working with the city to reopen the intersection.
“Who wants to reopen this street?” shouted Bobby Hull, an activist who lives in the area.
“Not me,” a handful of people replied.
“Who wants the police back in here?” Hull shouted.
“Not me,” some replied.
“No justice. No streets,” he shouted.
Wesley, one of the caretakers at George Floyd Square, said that while she was critical of the effort to have Agape facilitate the reopening, she said the divisions within the Black community over the fate of the intersection would be handled between Black people. “I am okay with it because they are Black, and we are Black,” she said.
Floyd also made clear he was not trying to minimize the work of caretakers of the square, calling them “courageous” for all they have done in the past year.
But he said he was also considering the impact the intersection closure was having on Black-owned businesses in the area:“The lockdown has been oppressing the black businesses.”
Although the reopening attempt was peaceful, activists brought back orange traffic cones, a fire pit and a dumpster to again block traffic.
“A full reconnection is not going to happen all at once,” Frey conceded on Thursday. “I acknowledge that it will be a bit touch and go and difficult over the next several days.”
*Clarification: The city responded to a Reformer public records request for its contracts with Agape with just one contract for $25,000 for outreach work with youth affected by violence. A city spokeswoman later said Agape could receive up to $359,000 for its work assisting the city in reopening the intersection around 38th Street and Chicago Avenue but has not provided the contract. As a result, a previous version of this story understated the amount of the contract between the city and Agape. Also, in a previous version of this story, Steve Floyd was not truthful with a Reformer reporter when he said that Agape did not have a contract with the city.