Quietly, gradually, George Floyd Square is open to traffic for the first time since his murder

Activists say the work of honoring Floyd and seeking justice in his name goes on regardless

By: - July 22, 2021 7:21 am

A car drives through George Floyd Square Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

On the morning of June 3, there were about as many journalists in George Floyd Square as city workers who were trying to reopen the four-block area to traffic, over the objections of some protesters and residents.

The neighborhood had evolved into an “autonomous zone,” an expansive memorial and no-go zone for police after Floyd was killed there on Memorial Day last year.

Reporters from The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal descended on the square in early June to see what would happen when the city came to reopen the streets; activists had been saying for a year, “No justice, no street.”

City workers and a nonprofit group of mostly ex-gang members called Agape Movement tried their best to clear the intersection for traffic, but activists put their concrete barriers back in place, effectively thwarting the city. 

Protesters would put the barricades up, and Agape workers would take them down. Over and over. 

The reopening of George Floyd Square was largely deemed a flop, and Mayor Jacob Frey’s prediction that traffic would resume in time was met with some snickers. 

Now, however, the reporters and cameras are gone, and Chicago Avenue and 38th Street has quietly, slowly, reopened to traffic for the first time in more than a year. 

There are still several sculptures and memorials and a makeshift greenhouse growing right into Chicago Avenue, and cars can’t zip through without risk of hitting a mourner or barricade remnants. But if you want to drive through the intersection, you can.

High school teacher Marcia Howard, a south Minneapolis leader of the protest movement, is displeased to see people “use our memorial like a safari park.”

Most people, however, have been respectful, she said. 

“What’s been gratifying to see is that the majority of people in the city still respect the sanctity of the space and do not drive through,” Howard said.

Dwight Alexander, owner of Smoke in the Pit, sits outside his restaurant at George Floyd Square Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

Howard had said in September of last year that she wouldn’t leave the square until the city met at least some of the activists’ 24 demands, which include a $156 million investment in the neighborhood over a decade, and a pledge to keep the square closed until after the trials of the four officers charged in Floyd’s killing.

Even if her rhetoric has cooled some, she remains defiant: “It’s still an occupation,” she said. “A lot of people are shocked that there’s not more resistance to it, but resistance looks like new things. We are still in negotiations.”

As June 3 unfolded, citizens flooded into the square with “pain, anguish, disappointment” that was conveyed across the country, Howard said.

“That disappointment, that sense of solidarity with us, to be honest, the support…  that we received has been so gratifying, so heartening, that it actually imbued us to stand for the 24 demands,” she said.

Did the activists lose their leverage by allowing the streets to reopen?

“Those people may not be aware of what our leverage actually is,” she said.

Dwight Alexander, owner of Smoke in the Pit barbecue restaurant just north of the intersection on Chicago Avenue, was sitting on his outdoor patio Wednesday as cars occasionally drove by. He said business has been down 76% since Floyd’s killing, and he wants the whole street to reopen. He said some days he doesn’t make $300 all day.

“They need to leave the man alone,” he said of George Floyd. “Let him sleep.”

His son, Dwight Alexander Jr., said people are suffering, and it’s time to move on.

“I would love it to get back normal,” he said.

Steve Floyd, a co-founder of Agape Movement (no relation to George Floyd), said what the protesters did for a year was “amazing,” but with police staying away from the zone, crime went up. Agape provided security in the zone until June 3, and acted as a liaison between protesters and police.

“People were dying, people were going to jail, people were being robbed… people would have to pay to get in their garage,” Floyd said. “We had to bring bodies out to the ambulance and to the police.”

Not only did Agape succeed in reopening the intersection, there has been little violence since then, he said.

“I would say we’re winning,” Floyd said. 

Angela Harrelson, George Floyd’ds aunt, talks about the street re-opening to traffic through George Floyd Square Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

He said he hired about 30 gang members from the area after the reopening, getting them to go through training and maybe join Agape later. They had to sign contracts and agree to remain nonviolent, he said.

Agape has fulfilled its $359,000 city contract for the reopening, and its workers are now cleaning up “junk” and “eyesores” in the zone, he said.

Now the group has its eye on other city work, he said.

He accused some activists of profiting off the protest; Howard said they mostly got donations of things like Gatorade and chips, although they did receive a $50,000 grant from the police abolition nonprofit Black Visions/Reclaim the Block, which she dispersed to “the most marginalized, villainized” community members for everything from vehicle tabs to dental work. “I’m not ashamed of my community,” she said.

George Floyd’s aunt, Angela Harrelson, was also at the square recently, and said she’s OK with the intersection reopening, as long as the memorial to her nephew doesn’t move.

“I don’t feel bad about the streets being open,” she said. “This is a gradual process.”

Rashad West, a Black man who owns the Dragon Wok in front of which Floyd parked his SUV on the day he died, has long called for the reopening of the intersection. Looking out the window of his restaurant at the intersection, where people milled about Wednesday, he said “It’s moving,” but, “We’ve still got work to do.”

He’s betting on the future, having recently opened a coffee shop nearby called Tea Street Café.

Howard — who has missed more than a year of teaching to help run the zone — said the protesters still meet twice daily and, “We continue to resist.”

“Thirty-eighth and Chicago is still an area of resistance,” she said. “We are trying to reimagine a world beyond policing and a world beyond anti-Blackness and a world beyond white supremacy.”

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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.