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Three months after demonstrators occupied the south Minneapolis intersection where George Floyd was killed, they say they’re not going anywhere until the city meets a long list of demands.

The occupation of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue has posed a conundrum for city officials who are desperate to reopen at least a portion of the street to traffic. They say businesses inside are suffering, gunfire rings out at night and it’s difficult for first responders to enter without the help of the neighbors who guard the barricades.

The city had announced plans to reopen 38th Street last month but backed off, avoiding a confrontation. City Council Member Andrea Jenkins, whose ward includes part of the intersection, said the city and the occupants find themselves “at an impasse.”

“The intersection needs to be reopened. It’s one of the largest transit hubs in the entire city,” Jenkins said. “But there is the reality that there is this deep … reckoning that needs to happen in this country. In this entire country. The intersection at 38th and Chicago is the symbol of what is going on throughout America.”

Concrete barricades surrounding the intersection prevent cars from driving through. Police officers do not enter the space — nor are they welcome. Visitors still trickle in during the day to glance at the memorials spread across the street, as if in a museum. At the northern barricade, a message is written on a wooden board: YOU ARE NOW ENTERING THE FREE STATE OF GEORGE FLOYD.

The people who occupy the space say they have become the caretakers, maintaining the memorials, hosting community events and handling domestic calls and other issues that occur within the zone. Chanting “no justice, no street,” they say the city needs to agree on their calls for this struggling area of south Minneapolis, for Floyd and other victims of police violence.

“They either give in to our demands of justice or they’re going to have to take the street over my dead body,” said Marcia Howard, a high school English teacher who has become a constant presence at the intersection. “I owe it to these kids who are now adults to pour into them something that looks like justice.”

No timeline to open street

Earlier this summer, Howard and other neighborhood leaders asked business owners and residents in the area what changes they would like to see in their neighborhoods.

Among the demands they came up with: spending $400,000 to create jobs for young people, $300,000 in anti-racism training and freezing property tax increases in the zone for the next two years.

The city says it is already working to increase that investment. The area is one of the new “cultural districts” chosen by the city, which would prioritize funding and seek to prevent displacement of residents.

Other demands are specific criminal justice reforms, such as recalling Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who first led the prosecution over Floyd’s death, and firing four leaders of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Another is to keep the intersection closed until after the officers involved in Floyd’s death are tried.

Jenkins described these as “unrealistic demands.”

“People have to come to some kind of realization here,” she said. “That’s like saying, ‘Take me to Mars, or I’m not going to move.’ I can’t take them to Mars.”

She and Council Member Alondra Cano, whose ward also includes the area, want to create a commission “to discuss how we address justice, not only for the area surrounding 38th and Chicago, but for our entire city.” The commission, which will be introduced this month, would consider career, homeownership and after-school opportunities for people of color. The city will also detail how they plan to preserve the art in the intersection.

As of now, there is no timeline for reopening the street.

Jenkins, Cano and Mayor Jacob Frey recently negotiated over the demands with residents at City Hall, including Howard and Jeanelle Austin, lead caretaker of the Floyd memorial. Frey said they would continue to meet with them, adding that they “are starting to get to a more productive place.”

“Many of the demands referenced are beyond the scope of what the city can do alone,” the mayor said. “We are entirely committed to investing heavily in matters of racial justice, in that area and throughout the city.”

Last Monday, Howard sat on the curb and watched as a group of volunteers assembled two barbecue grills by the western barricade. They would use them to grill pizzas for a community celebration later that night, where they would watch “Black Panther” in honor of actor Chadwick Boseman, who had died the previous week.

Marcia Howard led a nightly community meeting at the gas station across from Cup Foods at the George Floyd memorial at 38th Street and S. Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis.
Marcia Howard led a nightly community meeting at the gas station across from Cup Foods at the George Floyd memorial at 38th Street and S. Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis.

Renee Jones Schneider - Star Tribune

Howard, who has taught at Roosevelt High School for 22 years, has not returned this year.

“When I see former students, all it does is emphasize the impact that my calling has had on other human beings,” she said. “And if they’re in this place holding space, it just makes me feel gratitude that they’re willing to join us.”

A shuttered gas station was crowded with people as the sun set. Howard and Austin played double Dutch with two long jump ropes while a DJ spun house records next to them. Children drew with chalk on the pavement. People still continued to visit the memorial in the center of the street.

United around justice

“It feels like we’ve sort of built a community center without the center,” said Madi Ramirez-Tentinger, who was also a part of negotiations with the city. “There’s no building here but all the events are happening.”

These celebrations are spontaneous, Austin said, showing they can all come together “around our belief in justice.”

She said she is still waiting to hear back from the city about their demands.

“The city wants the streets open, but at this point they haven’t demonstrated that they’re willing to actually provide the community with the restitution that it deserves for the injustices and the trauma that it suffered,” Austin said.

Jenkins, who visits the intersection regularly, has seen the same scenes of celebration. She has also seen the makeshift shields and barricades and heard the pleas to reopen the street. “I don’t like seeing my neighborhood like that,” she said.

“There’s these conflicting thoughts,” she continued. “Because I know that people are suffering there. And my job is to help them, as well.”

Miguel Otárola • 612-673-4753