BY ELAINE KLAASSEN
On Thursday morning, June 3, my neighbor texted me. She said they were opening up the streets at George Floyd Square!! And Agape guys were helping them.
I already knew that Agape, a community organization committed to the well-being of young Black men and made up of many former gang members, had approached the city about opening up the square. Agape, whose office is at George Floyd Square, had gone door to door in the blocks surrounding GFS and found that about 90% of the neighbors wanted the streets opened—they wanted it done safely. Since Agape had been providing security for GFS, they wanted to provide security in this situation too. Two other reasons Agape thought the square should be opened up was to give struggling Black businesses a better chance, and to put on notice those interlopers up to no good who appeared in the square at night causing problems. I knew why Agape wanted the streets opened up, but I didn’t know when it would be.
My neighbor was very upset that the people who have met twice a day in the square for the past year—the people who form the autonomous zone; who have created a community of kindness, healing and safety; who have been begging the city for a year to pay attention to the needs of the people; who have created a memorial to victims of police brutality unlike anything in the world—hadn’t been informed of the date and time. No one knew it was going to happen.
When the city came with its machinery, parts of the memorial were ripped out and concrete barriers were put up so no one could get in to walk among the artifacts or water the flowers. The women who are often named as the driving force behind the autonomous zone were in shock and disbelief. I knew that Agape had urged the city workers to treat the area with utmost respect, but apparently they were unheeded.
I went to GFS on Sunday to see how people felt about the new reality. Members of the GFS community had parked cars and dragged debris to form makeshift barriers, so it was clear they wanted to keep the square closed, as it had been for a year-plus. Also, three new fists had been added—at 38th and Elliot, 38th and Columbus and at 37th and Chicago. Cars could get through but not easily. People walked in the streets, myself included, just as they had before, oblivious to cars.
Jenny Jones, a committed member of the GFS community, with whom I spoke on Tuesday evening, said she doesn’t see how there won’t be traffic fatalities. She has already seen cars barreling through “without respect or reverence.”
Since we talked, I have learned that city crews tried to open the streets again on Tuesday morning, June 8 (we didn’t talk about that in our conversation) but were not successful. The community is determined to hang on to its mission.
What is its mission?
Jones, who has lived three blocks from GFS for nine years now, says the 24 demands protesters have made to the city are central to the existence of the blocked-off area. If the demands are not met, community members (protesters) will hold the area.
In the days after George Floyd was murdered, she explained, people poured into the intersection of 38th and Chicago, placing flowers and expressing their grief and solidarity. Immediately the cops drove through the area at high speeds, desecrating the memorials. Agape got old refrigerators and fenceposts and whatever they could find to close off the streets and protect the area, which the city then replaced with concrete barricades. Since the city believed it had shut down the streets, it believed it therefore had the power to reopen them, which it planned to do in August. By that time, the people of the square had been meeting twice a day and they said to the city: “We want justice first.” The city asked, “What does justice look like? Let us know in 48 hours.”
The people at the square went to churches, businesses, to the guys born and raised in the neighborhood who hung out on the corner, to Agape, to 612 M*A*S*H, and from that input wrote up the 24 demands. Those 24 demands still stand. Six have been fulfilled, four are in progress, and the rest haven’t been met sufficiently but are really doable, according to Jones. The mayor has said the last one is non-negotiable: “Continue the closure of the intersection of 38th Street East and Chicago Avenue South until after the trial of the four former officers charged for the murder of George Floyd.” The mayor is saying it’s up to the city to decide when the intersection is open and when it’s closed. The GFS community says, “As the city meets our demands for justice, the barricades can be negotiated for removal. If action is not taken by the City to meet our demands for justice, members of the community that live in the George Floyd Square Zone are prepared to maintain street barricades and take the protest of 38th Street East and Chicago Avenue South into the heart of every significant neighborhood that is unbothered by the death of George Floyd, or the spirit of anti-blackness involved in his death and that of many others.” (Four hundred people have died in Minnesota incarcerated or in police custody since the year 2000, either from abuse or medical neglect. Four hundred.)
For the past year, Jones has worked specifically on demands No. 13 and No. 8. Thirteen says, “Allocate funds for integrative health services to support residents of the GFS Zone.” This would provide trauma healing, mental health services and alternative health care such as acupuncture. It’s a little different than 612 M*A*S*H, which covers basic first aid and preventive health care. (Demand No. 19 [unfulfilled] asks for support for 612 M*A*S*H’s facilities.) Eight says, “End qualified immunity.” (End protected police impunity.) In the square, one man was saying, “Police shouldn’t be allowed to do crimes nobody else is allowed to do.”
Basically, at GFS there is a group of people looking for safety, well-being and hope for the future. They believe that government “of, by and for” the people isn’t happening in this country or this state or this city, in particular. At GFS they are making it happen. It’s a radical thing: a place where people are taken care of, valued, respected, etc. There is mutual aid, preventive health care, housing for the unsheltered. They say the George Floyd Memorial is “first and foremost a place of protest, not commissioned by the City but by the people against the City.”
A young woman at the square said, “We want a free world. We want a free state that will spread out to the whole world, owned by the people and run on their own power.”
The majority of the people at the square want the streets to stay closed. Agape helped to open them up because they believed it was the best thing to do.
One man from the neighborhood said this is something that neighbors need to resolve amongst themselves. Or something like that. He said, “We are all human. What humans do is come to an agreement about their basic goals.”
What are their basic goals? Stop police brutality. Never forget the brutality of George Floyd’s death. Make sure that Black lives matter. Support the healing space of GFS. Keep the people from being crushed by powerful entities like the state or large corporations.