Steve Floyd looked down on his broken city. From his fifth-floor apartment on East Lake Street, Minneapolis glowed with fire, soot filling the air. The emotions that spurred protests and riots after the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020 felt oddly familiar, and his mind wound back to when another murder involving police turned Minneapolis upside down.
The year was 1992, and the crack epidemic had ignited Minneapolis' gang wars. Steve Floyd, who'd come to Minneapolis in the 1980s and found his calling as a street outreach worker, helped start a new organization to defuse street tensions.
It was an audacious plan: Bring together warring gangs — the Vice Lords and the Gangster Disciples, the Black Souls and the Crips — and broker peace. Minneapolis Police were working directly with gangs, a novel approach to build more personal relationships. But peace ended that September when two Vice Lords walked into a Pizza Shack on Lake Street and executed officer Jerry Haaf with several shots in his back — revenge for police allegedly roughing up a blind man.
Floyd was devastated. All hope evaporated that gangs and police would work together to lower crime. Floyd went from working with police to being questioned by police. His organization, the City, Inc., was a block from the Pizza Shack and a place where gang members often hung out. Their well-intentioned plan blew up, and Floyd and his organization became a scapegoat for Haaf's killing — guilt by gang association.
At his most hopeless, Floyd could think of only one thing to do: He boarded an airplane with his 11-year-old son to visit their ancestral homeland. Maybe in Africa, he thought, he could find answers to what plagued Black men in America.
In Kenya, Floyd went on safari and stayed in a Masai village. "Africa changed me," Floyd says simply. He could never fully understand his own complicated, confusing, rootless identity as a Black man in America without understanding that faraway place his ancestors had been torn away from.
"That was when I began to see: Look at all we missed as a race of people in development," he said. "Look at us now. You can see what all of slavery has done... You see the hate, and hating our own image. It's the production of slaves, turning us against ourselves. And that happened way from the beginning."
The lessons he learned from that trip stick with him today as he works with a new organization, the Agape Movement, that arose from the ashes of George Floyd's murder. The organization tries to, as he puts it, "transform street energy into community energy."
Agape aims to keep the peace near 38th and Chicago. But Floyd knows their goal must be much bigger: to change hearts. He wants them to experience the same personal transformation he did in Africa, when he stepped off the plane in Nairobi, kissed the ground and, weeping, finally felt at home.
A summer evening nearly three decades later. Twenty people circled up in a second-floor conference room in northeast Minneapolis. Most were middle-aged Black men, many of whom had spent long stints in prison. A Nigerian man rhythmically slapped a djembe, a West African drum. Like a generation before, the Minneapolis streets were hot, a new crime wave upending any sense of safety.
And here was Steve Floyd, once again trying to solve it.
Floyd listened quietly as the group spoke of Africa. They discussed negative African stereotypes — "nothing but children starving, monkeys in trees," one said. They spoke of the moment in childhood when they learned they were African. They spoke in awe of this almost unfathomable place: 54 countries, thousands of languages, more than four times the land mass of the United States.
Finally, Floyd spoke up. He was planning his 17th Africa trip for fall 2021. This time, though, he was bringing several men and women from the Agape Movement. In them, Floyd saw a younger version of himself: A Black man searching for his identity in a country that's historically stripped that away. He hoped Africa would awaken a new mind-set, a sense that life doesn't have to be this way.
Since George Floyd's murder, America has undergone a national introspection on race. That is something Steve Floyd — a kid from Chicago's Robert Taylor projects who landed in Minneapolis by happenstance — experienced decades ago.
"Africa taught me to go all the way back to slavery," said Floyd, no relation to George Floyd. "It taught me the traumatization of Black men in America, without having their king and queen in place as a mother and father. Most of us grew up with single parents. The separation of family through slavery runs deep."
Floyd is planning an even bigger African pilgrimage in fall 2022 for 15 or 20 Black Minnesotans, most from the Agape Movement. For them to truly realize life doesn't have to be this way — a feeling of forever being less-than, a world where gang life can feel like the only escape — Floyd knows they must discover Africa for themselves.
After two hours, the men left with homework in hand. Floyd smiled.
"A lot of these guys don't have a formal education," Floyd said. "It's that street mentality we're trying to change."
Floyd's dad was a standout high school basketball player. In Vietnam he earned a Purple Heart — and a stiff prison sentence for shooting and injuring a man who'd hurled a racist insult at him. Floyd's mom was abusive. When she came at him with an extension cord or a belt, Floyd ran. He antagonized her back, stealing her food stamps and handing out food at the park.
At 14 came a big moment: His dad returning from prison. Floyd was angry at him for never being around, so he went out back to shoot hoops. Floyd's dad came out and tearfully apologized for being absent: "I want you to do good," he said. Then he started coaching him, and within 15 minutes he'd taught Floyd to shoot a lefty lay-up. For Floyd, it was a revelation: If he could do this in 15 minutes, what would he do if he'd been here my whole life?
That supportive father never materialized. Angry at the world, his dad disappeared into the bottle. He ended up beaten to death outside a bar.
Like his father, Floyd was a basketball star. Not as good as his best friend, Terry Cummings, who played 18 years in the NBA, and not as good as NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, who nicknamed him "Fly Floyd" at a basketball camp. But Floyd's jump shot was true, and he played at a couple small colleges before becoming an All-American at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis. He studied theology and took a job as gang outreach worker at Park Avenue United Methodist Church. Floyd honed his gift of reaching the unreachable, with hundreds of kids playing pickup hoops on his church blacktop.
In coming decades, Floyd was omnipresent on the streets. He did night outreach for City Inc. He worked at a drop-in center for neighborhood kids. He worked for Amy Klobuchar when she was Hennepin County attorney; Floyd consoled families at homicide scenes. For Black Minneapolis, Floyd was a connector.
Then he started feeling sick. In the late 1990s, his kidneys started failing. By the mid-2010s, Floyd was doing his own dialysis at his apartment. By 2019, Floyd was near death: "I was at the threshold, ready to cross over."
On Sept. 3, 2019, Floyd got a phone call. He'd be getting a kidney transplant from an anonymous donor. It was a renewal on life.
"This is what I was put here to do," Floyd said. "I never chased money. I wanted to live a life free of everything and feel happy about the results and help people to get to a new way of life."
Seven months later, everything changed.
Floyd was not surprised at George Floyd's murder. But he was stunned how quickly protests and riots erupted.
Two days later, he took his camera to 38th and Chicago. Marquis Bowie was there as well, in the neighborhood where he grew up. The Family Dollar, where Bowie had worked since his release from prison on gang conspiracy charges, was boarded up. Bowie did the only thing he could think of: He directed traffic.
Bowie came back the next day, and the next, after Family Dollar burned down. He stood with old friends — Reggie Ferguson and Alfonzo Williams, fellow ex-gang members — and collected donations. They put up barricades. The intersection became George Floyd Square.
For some, that intersection was a no-go zone, an area of anarchy. For others, it was a memorial and a hub of grassroots activism. For Bowie, his old neighborhood became his new calling. He and his friends did security in areas police avoided. They walked the neighborhood, believing their presence encouraged unity and deterred crime.
They wanted to formalize their group, so Williams contacted the guy who could give them structure and credibility: Steve Floyd. "If y'all out here doing security during the day" and making trouble at night, "hell naw — you'll destroy what you created," Floyd told them. They became the Agape Movement, signing a contract with the city to help young people at risk of joining gang life or becoming victims of it.
"They know what they've done in their community over the years, just terrorizing it — crime, the fights, the shootings — and there's the guilt they feel," Floyd said. "But they want to change."
A hot summer afternoon at George Floyd Square. Inside Agape's air-conditioned storefront, a jar of dollar bills sat on a desk: Use a swear word, put in a buck.
"Let's roll, y'all!" Bowie shouted.
Floyd and Bowie and a half-dozen others walked toward Lake Street, pausing to chat with neighbors. Floyd let Bowie lead. Part of their quest for identity, Floyd knows, is ownership in their community. It was difficult to quantify success — how can you judge violence interrupters? — but to Floyd that was almost beside the point. Their presence was the point.
"It's comforting to people," Floyd said. "They know what we are about. They feel safe. When somebody does something negative, our guys deflect. That's what interrupting violence is about."
They ordered from a taco truck on Lake Street. As they waited, they talked with three guys who seemed strung out.
"Hey, those tacos I ordered?" Bowie shouted toward the truck. "Just give them to him." He motioned toward one of the strung-out guys.
Agape's mission isn't always welcome. A 20-something white man spotted Bowie's Agape T-shirt. The man, who wouldn't give his name, wore big earrings and baggy pants. He didn't appreciate Agape taking city money, and didn't appreciate Agape helping return vehicle traffic to George Floyd Square. He called them sellouts.
"How can you be part of the liberation when you take money from the police?" the man said.
"Where'd you hear that?" Bowie said. "We're the alternative [to the police]."
Floyd watched. Bowie stayed calm.
"Why's Agape getting rid of everything at George Floyd Square?" the white man said. "Nobody invited you to the square."
"Agape made the square," Bowie said. "We put our cars out there."
"I hope you guys really know what you're doing for the liberation movement!"
"You're a white dude, telling us about freedom," Bowie said. "How's that sound?"
The white man stormed off.
Bowie shook his head: "A white dude talking to us about liberation — ha! It's hard not to take that to heart. It might hurt our pride a little bit. But that's all right. He wanted to get that off his chest."
Floyd and Bowie dapped fists. Nearby, a drunk guy wet himself. Police sirens wailed in the distance.
When he was a teenager, Floyd had his "sit-down moment." He was drifting toward gang life when, one day, a bullet grazed his head. That moment made Floyd reexamine life.
Bowie's sit-down moment came in prison. He read. He wrote about his neglected childhood. When his mother died, he re-committed to making amends for his past.
Now, he plans to join Floyd in Africa this fall.
Floyd's hope for the Africa trip mirrors his hope for the Agape Movement: That in doing something positive — learning African culture, serving as a constructive neighborhood force — they'll discover something about themselves.
"I can see the value in who I am and who we are as Black people," Floyd said. "There's always been this lost feeling: 'Where do I belong?' It's like a plant taken out of its original soil and then all the sudden you bring it back and it grows better. It's a rejuvenation."
In the two years since George Floyd's murder, the Agape Movement has hosted barbecues, walked the neighborhood, connected with high school kids. Meanwhile, Steve Floyd has seen people challenging their own assumptions about what it means to be a Black man in Minneapolis and in the United States.
But it is one thing to experience this quest for identity while in America. It's quite another, Floyd believes, to experience that in Africa.
"How do you explain the confidence you have of finally being of value when you never before felt valued?" Floyd said. "They will understand why I act the way I act, how we were taught to hate each other. Those things become much clearer."
"It's easy for [white people] to move on ... You don't know the struggle, how you're not accepted and not wanted in a place — and what it means to finally find that pure identity."