Jay Webb surveys the garden in the middle of George Floyd Square as city workers reopen the intersection. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

It was pitch dark at 4:00 a.m. on Thursday morning, when dozens of city workers, clad in yellow hi-vis vests, entered George Floyd Square. They were accompanied by members of the Agape Movement, a community security organization that operates out of a house on Chicago Avenue. 

The workers swiftly set about dismantling the barricades that stood at the entrances to 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, an intersection that has been closed to traffic since George Floyd was killed by police last May. 

The teams of municipal workers placed concrete barriers around sections of the remaining memorial and drilled plastic traffic bollards into the street. Workers loaded up the plywood guard shacks, reminiscent of ice-fishing houses, that had stood at each entrance to the square. Soon after, semi trucks hauled them away. 

By 8:00 a.m., the intersection had been reopened and the city workers had left.

For the past year, community members and activists had kept the streets closed to protest the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The space has served as a memorial and community plaza, but it has also been mired in controversy, with ongoing complaints of crime and gang activity.

For months, activists at 38th and Chicago maintained that they would keep the street closed to vehicle traffic, despite consistent announcements from the city that the barriers would come down and traffic would return. The morning’s events, and the involvement of Agape in place of city police, stirred anger and dismay among activists and some neighbors. 

The intersection has been a central part of citywide discussions around public safety and “defunding” the Minneapolis Police Department. A handful of highly publicized crimes have occurred at the intersection and police have generally avoided the area.

The space has also served as a place of gathering and celebration. When the guilty verdict came in against Derek Chauvin, the officer who murdered Floyd, hundreds gathered in the square to dance and share food. George Floyd Square has been central to mutual-aid efforts to spread supplies and medical care to nearby homeless communities.

A candlelight vigil is held at George Floyd Square the night before Chauvin’s murder trial begins on March 28, 2021. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

In the evening, volunteer caretakers regularly light candles around the spot where Floyd died. In the morning, they collect offerings left by visitors, to be preserved for public memory. The closed-off streets had the feel of a pedestrian mall, similar to the Loring Greenway in downtown Minneapolis or West 7th Place in St. Paul. 

Activists had called for 24 demands to be met before reopening the intersection. The demands include recalling Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, investing in BIPOC communities around the square, and reforming accountability measures for police. 

The city reopened the square without meeting those demands. 

Early Thursday afternoon, Mayor Jacob Frey and members of the City Council discussed the clearance operation and the issues facing the area. 

“I know over the last year, maybe more than anybody, that there have been a number of opposing viewpoints on what should happen at George Floyd Square,” said Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins. “The city’s plan is to work with the community to develop an appropriate memorial for that space.”

Frey promised the city will engage with neighbors in that process. “This intersection will forever be changed, and we need to be investing in that transformation,” Frey said. He described efforts that will include “everything from Black-owned business to Black-owned property on that corridor, facade improvements, creativity directly from our Black community, art, and of course, the memorial itself. We will be putting our money where our mouth is.”

‘Be careful with their stuff’

Sahan Journal obtained a printed copy of an email sent by Mike Colestock, the city’s Public Works field support manager. It was acquired by Mileesha Smith, a community caretaker in George Floyd Square, after she approached a city worker earlier in the morning for information about the operation. 

The message, sent Wednesday afternoon to a list of city employees, contains instructions for how the city planned to conduct morning operation at 38th and Chicago. And it lays out a careful strategy to minimize the visibility of police.

The email includes directives to treat the items at the memorial with respect: “This includes artwork, any flowers (dead or alive), candles, stuffed animals, pictures, cards, etc. This will go a lot smoother for everyone if we make an effort to be careful with their stuff.” 

A city truck holds debris as Minneapolis city workers open the intersection at 38th and Chicago. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

It also defines the role for the Agape Movement. The city plan put Agape at the front of the clearing operation. But the note makes clear that while Minneapolis Police would not be visible during the operation (“you won’t see them”), an incident command center had been stationed in a church parking lot nearby.

The letter accounted for the possibility of conflict: “You should immediately report to the IC shots fired, people who are armed, and the crowds of people approaching your crew or vehicle who appear upset.” 

The note continues, “That said, if someone wants to be a dope and lay in the street or something, give Agape and MPD a chance to fix the problem before we bail out.”

A city spokesperson described the email to Sahan Journal as a “safety briefing for our team leads.” 

Unpaid security volunteers or city contractors? 

Following the plan, work crews got started while most neighbors slept. But by 6:30 a.m., dozens of community members had arrived at the scene to document and protest the city’s move. 

Jay Webb, who tends the garden around an iconic sculpture of a raised fist, argued with city workers as they attempted to remove the plants from the makeshift roundabout in the middle of the intersection. 

The workers eventually let the existing garden remain untouched.

As the morning progressed, the atmosphere was tense as more people filtered into the square. Dozens gathered under the abandoned Speedway gas station awning (now dubbed “The People’s Way”), for the morning meeting—a daily routine at the square. 

The city installed concrete barriers directly abutting George Floyd’s memorial. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Members of Agape, wearing matching black shirts, spoke out against protesters who “only came to the square when they felt like it.” Other community members argued in defense of keeping the streets closed. 

“What happened this morning was to help reconnect the community through reopening the streets to allow for EMS and Metro [Transit] services to access local businesses and residents,” said Bridgette Stewart, a public relations consultant for Agape Movement. 

Sahan Journal asked if Agape had been paid for their part in the reopening operation. Stewart answered that they had not, and that there was no contract with the city for Agape’s morning involvement at the square.

However, a public records request by Sahan Journal shows that Agape has a contract with the City of Minneapolis that is valid throughout 2021. The agreement tasks the group with violence prevention outreach and engagement efforts for young people in south Minneapolis. 

The contract includes up to $25,000 in compensation from the city, which includes $40 an hour for 500 hours of outreach and engagement work, plus $5,000 toward supplies. (Reporting in the The New York Times described related contracts with Agape Movement for up to $359,000.)

John Elder, spokesperson for the Minneapolis Police Department, minimized the role of law enforcement in the operation. “This was a community-led initiative and there was not a need for the police to be there,” Elder said.

‘They’re desecrating something—people’s pain, people’s hope’

Not everyone supported Agape’s collaboration with the city’s reopening operation. When Jeanelle Austin, a volunteer caretaker at George Floyd’s memorial, received notice that the city had moved into the intersection, she rushed to the square. 

“But when I came in, Agape tried to stop me from entering the square,” she told Sahan Journal. She walked in anyway and immediately confronted the city workers who were clearing parts of the memorial. “They’re desecrating something—people’s pain, people’s hope—removing it so that they can open the streets.”

Jeanelle Austin speaks with a city worker as Minneapolis Public Works reopens the intersection at George Floyd’s memorial. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Austin continued, “Despite what people are hearing in the news from Agape, just recognize the people who have been protesting and holding space here have been deeply violated to the core of our beings and souls.”

Marcia Howard, another community resident and activist at the square, was also skeptical of Agape’s role. “There are ways in which the state can suborn people in a community to do their bidding,” Howard said. “But if you look behind the curtain, you’ll see contracts signed and money changing hands.”

“The reality is, it’s cheaper to pay somebody a contract than it is to actually give something that looks like justice to our four-corners community.”

A tense year, an uncertain future

For months now, city leaders have announced their intention to reopen the intersection to vehicle traffic. Mayor Jacob Frey has repeatedly said that the space contains “two truths”: as an important healing space and also as an area that has been unsafe for the public.

On the morning of the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s murder, gunshots rang out near 38th Street and Chicago Avenue. Earlier this year, Imez Wright, a member of the Agape Movement, was shot and killed in the square. The Bloods gang has reportedly worked security alongside community members in the square, as Minneapolis police have allegedly refused to respond to calls within the barricades.

Some neighbors have called for the square to be reopened amid conflicts with the activists holding the space. Organizers who’ve supported the closed square point to increased crime in other parts of Minneapolis to suggest that the street closure hasn’t been the main cause for recent violence.

But still, activists held space at the square through the afternoon while makeshift barricades–composed of traffic cones, wood pallets and trash containers–once again blocked traffic from entering the intersection. 

With the square functionally closed again, local activists held press conferences. “The fight does not stop,” said Austin. “The point of protest is to disrupt business as usual to signal that there is something wrong. What is wrong has not been rectified by the city.”

*Update: This story has been updated with additional reporting.

Ben Hovland is a Korean Adoptee and is the multimedia producer for Sahan Journal. His photo and video reporting has appeared in The Washington Post, Agence France-Presse, BBC, and Minnesota Public Radio.

JD Duggan

JD Duggan is a Twin Cities-based freelance reporter, covering criminal justice and protest movements. His past work has appeared in The Intercept, Daily Beast, Star Tribune, and Pioneer Press.