We all, every one of us, have heard a roll call of those killed by police. We hear it on the news, we hear it at protests, we may hear it when we talk with friends and family.
However many lives have been named in the roll calls we’ve heard, Memorial Day 2020 may have moved us into another reckoning with the dead. It may also have moved us into a new reckoning with the living.
The memorial is composed of self-authorized acts. These acts announce a community by voicing certain values and challenging others.
In other years, the names called out might vary. But now, it seems, George Floyd’s name leads every list.
You are asked to enter the George Floyd memorial in Minneapolis on foot. You can walk yourself (and your bike, if you’re acting defiantly and not securing it outside the memorial bounds) toward the spot where George Floyd was killed near the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue.
On May 25, 2020, one Minneapolis policeman knelt on the neck of George Floyd. Three policemen stood by. One teenage girl recorded the violence on video.
That video, and the widescale reaction to it, made this part of south Minneapolis into a site of mourning. A heterotopia. A memorial that continues to evolve.
This is a made place. The sticker that renamed Chicago Avenue as George Floyd Avenue appeared as a guerrilla intervention weeks before the City Council approved a commemorative designation of “George Perry Floyd, Jr. Place” on September 18, 2020. A park sign naming this as George Floyd Square looks enough like city signage that many assume it is official — but it, too, is an intervention by anonymous hands.
These contributions, like others at the memorial, are self-authorized acts that announce a community by voicing certain values and traditions, and challenging others. 1
When you enter the George Floyd memorial, you will be asked to wear a mask. You will be offered hand sanitizer. You will, very likely, be offered water. These are gestures of care, and they are part of how people are welcomed here.
You will also be asked if this is your first time visiting the memorial. If the answer is yes, you may be given a printed guide asking you to enter with respect and reverence. In this space, the guide notes, “community members want to decentralize white feelings and prioritize Black pain.”
If you enter from the north, from 37th Street, when you look up the slight hill and away from the person who has greeted you, you will see a roll call of the dead painted before you on the roadbed of Chicago Avenue. The first on the list, near the shoulder of the hill, is George Floyd.
This list of names of people of color who have died at the hands of police in American cities is titled The Mourning Passage Project. An installation by Indigenous artist, educator, and activist Mari Mansfield, it is one of many street murals in the zone now designated as memorial. The names are centered across what were, as recently as mid-afternoon on May 25, 2020, two opposing lanes of traffic. Each is painted in all-capital letters in a single or a drop-shadowed color; the variation in color between names is unexplained. Mansfield has continued to add entries at the request of community members. As of mid-October last year, if you stood at 37th Street, 169 names would lie between you and the two-word preamble to the list, JUSTICE FOR.
The roll call — clearly partial — summons attention through scale and placement. It spans approximately three-quarters of the block and covers most of the width of the avenue. 2 Bike lanes are preserved and serve as a soft border, but in that space, visitors have written in more names — annotations in a ledger of trauma.
Standing there invites reflection and contemplation. Reading in public is an act of intimacy, as Maya Lin made clear nearly 40 years ago in her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The scroll of names belongs, now, to our lexicon for collective mourning.
You might find yourself giving unexpected time to this reading, this contemplation. You might think carefully about where you will step and where you don’t want your foot to fall.
The power of a name is its ability to encapsulate an individual human life. Names are not text. They have more visual and psychological power. If you knew one of the dead, the name might bring back everything that you can remember. And so, as you enter the George Floyd memorial, you enter a collective mood of respect and grief and aggrievement and celebration. This is a place, and like every other place, it has a culture and that culture has customs.
The main rule here is consideration, and the ethics of consideration are layered.
If our own lives hadn’t shown us before, then events of 2020 have emphasized this basic fact: The choices we make are fundamental to individual and collective vitality.
In 2007 and 2008, artist and writer Camille J. Gage and poet Juliet Patterson (no relation) held a series of workshops in Minneapolis, the Whiter and less integrated of the Twin Cities. In their workshops, which were part of their project The Presence of Loss, Gage and Patterson asked participants to sit and think and write and talk about what had they lost, what their communities had lost, what they felt they were losing. Later, Gage and 40 volunteers embroidered the words people had offered in white thread on sheer white fabric, to create and to elicit material recognition of what might be categorized as emotional or psychological emptiness.
What those community members named most often — lost most clearly — was a sense of connection. The emptiness addressed most frequently was the absence of a fundamental declension, a grammar of belonging. What was missing was the genitive “of” — of relationship, of place, of continuity.
As he was vanishing, George Floyd announced a primal belonging.
George Floyd called out for his mother before he died. She was already dead.
The circumstances and facts of George Floyd’s life and death reflect a loss both individual and collective, communal.
The of, in regard to George Floyd, is multiple.
George Floyd was honored in three funerals. His family chose to have his life and death marked by ceremonies in Minneapolis, in Atlanta, and in Houston.
Proclamations of sympathy and solidarity were posted around the world.
Pop-up shrines appeared and were seen on social media by millions.
Protests proceeded and continue to proceed as expressions of outrage and anger and energized resistance to the persistence and the acceptance of violence against Black bodies, against Blackness.
Each has a context. Each is a response to and from a community.
All these responses, like the reading of a list of names, belong to the contemporary language of public grief. They are recognizable and they are necessary, and they are often understood as stages in a process of coming to terms with loss. They can be healing. They tend to be seen as temporary. Still, the language of public grief is an old one.
Often, for instance, it involves flowers, cut flowers — symbols of the ephemeral.
Many flowers have indeed been brought to this site. Yet the George Floyd memorial along Chicago Avenue is not about the temporary. It is about a longer vision of belonging.
The story here is of a particular community, crafted by the people from this neighborhood in south Minneapolis, along with people from Chicago and New York and St. Louis and St. Paul and Greater Minnesota, and California and the Dakotas and Texas and other places that I won’t now name.
People bring polished skills at healing and building and cooking and gardening and art-making and nursing and project-managing and logistics.
The story here is of community, crafted by the people who bring their polished skills at healing and building and cooking and gardening and art-making and nursing and project-managing and logistics — and their eagerness to develop and refine new skills — to the space around the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue.
Part of what the memorial recognizes — as does the effort to maintain it at the site where George Floyd was killed — is the desire to stave off, to stay, the vanishing: of sorrow, of concern, of attention to the life-or-death experience of Blackness, of consideration for the life-and-death experience of one man on one evening in one city.
Part of the memorial’s mission is to keep these stories in the community, for the community, and of the community.
Jeanelle Austin describes this mission as a “push against the constructs of racism that have historically denied BIPOC communities control of their own narratives.”
Austin is leading a team of 20 caretakers at the memorial. She describes the gifts of flowers and other things placed here as offerings, “expressions of pain and hope.” She says that each item brought to this place bears witness to the energy of those who shaped or chose it; “bears witness to what the people were offering in joy or sadness.” The caretakers collect the bouquets or drawings or other tokens whose ephemerality might threaten their continued presence at the site.
Many of the flowers, both homegrown and from-the-florist, that people brought to the memorial in the first days were placed near the spot where George Floyd died. Early on, some volunteers put spent flowers in the trash. Austin and others sorted through that trash, separating compostables from other offerings and attending to what could be preserved.
Some of the letters that were conserved were given to the Floyd family when they were in Minneapolis.
This group of street conservators has received guidance from folk at the Midwest Arts Conservation Center. Cleaning and stabilization are first priorities: when offerings are in danger from rain or mold or wind or cold or drought (or vandalism), the team gathers and repairs them so that they can remain outdoors — according to Austin, “Each piece is a protest or an offering. So they [ought to] live outside as long as possible.” When something is too fragile for further exposure, the team has a place to store it.
Documentation and archiving are also under way. There’s no consensus on ownership of the offerings, so no photographs or catalogue of the currently stored items (approximately 2,000 of them) was available to the broader public. 3
On October 14, 2020, members of George Floyd’s family and community members announced the formation of the George Floyd Global Memorial, a nonprofit whose mission is to conserve stories of resistance to racial injustice and to curate spaces for all people to grieve, pay respect, and become voices for justice. 4
Once established, the Global Memorial will make available descriptions and images of the archived offerings. Until then, the practice of conservation is guided here, in part, by a concern that some might seize the opportunity to profit from the collection or from images of its contents. “People are more sacred than objects,” Austin reminded me.
Shanene Herbert is the Healing Justice Program Director for American Friends Service Committee, and she authored the guide for White allies in Black spaces of mourning. Herbert told me a few things about what led to the creation of the guide.
In the first week after the killing, while a Black man stood quietly grieving over the place where George Floyd’s life was taken, two (White) people approached. They seemed unconcerned with his presence and his mourning; they didn’t lower their voices as they moved nearer. When he heard them speaking of “such great artwork,” he spoke out: “This isn’t fucking art. This is our life. They are killing us.”
Artist Seitu Ken Jones has been thinking about and working for a collective public for years now. In considering the significance of such work for African-American communities, Jones puts the focus “not [on] when or where it was created, but how it function[s] in its community.” 5
If community is more important than objects, then our reasoning could be clear: If the mysteries of grief and traditions of oblation are, in a profound sense, anti-art; are antithetical to the museological and art-historical practices of identifying artist and collector and provenance (and market value); then there could be a choice in the offing. If our values and understandings allow us to distinguish between the spectacular appreciation of art and artifacts, and the active, on-the-ground works of anonymous hands — if we accept such divisions between art-making and mourning, then every subsequent consideration would be modeled along the same binary.
The community of caretakers at the memorial have considered this, and have sought to disrupt that binary choice. Their collective decision to gather and stabilize and store what is perishable and to protect those offerings for a later time when the possibilities of profit and notoriety are not (it’s hoped) so tempting: This is an example of the wisdom and the subtlety of the community heart/mind.
Caretakers archive offerings brought to the site. But one organizer reminded me, ‘people are more sacred than objects.’
The repeated act of deliberating before making a decision is part of the work at the memorial. It is this consideration that undergirds the presence of greeters or gatekeepers; and the provision of masks and water and sanitizer; and the tent erected weekly for COVID-19 testing; and the care in conserving the flowers and letters and charms; and the donations of art supplies and books and clothing; and the scheduled and the spontaneous gifts of fresh produce and diapers and feminine-hygiene products; and the preparing of hot meals for everyone and anyone, volunteer or visitor.
This level of care in public space is surprising, but I think it might also be familiar. It might be the kind of care we know from our families — blood, adopted, or imagined. The kind of care we can practice providing to our families — blood, adopted, and imagined.
Consideration is a necessary element of a contract. So the signs here state that there is a contract of care.
YOU ARE NOW ENTERING THE FREE STATE OF GEORGE FLOYD reads a sign near 37th Street.
One of the banners strung above 38th Street declares, “All mothers were summoned when George Floyd called out for his.”
Consideration is also a way of showing what you hold in high regard. And so, even as the objects and offerings are sheltered, many people who spoke to me emphasized, as Austin did, that the people are more important than the property.
For some, this principle is expressed as modesty, humility, a preference for anonymity. Two volunteers distributing coffee and breakfast pastries on October 14 were okay with being photographed, but when I asked if I could name them in writing about their service, each said, “Oh” in surprise, then decided they would be happy if I just said they were two of many.
Huda allowed me to mention her first name. She has been at the memorial regularly since May 28. In the first weeks, she served food at the Speedway gas station and market. Those taking part in the food-service project (which is ongoing) call themselves Twin Cities Relief. Huda continues to contribute in many ways, and I wanted to pin that work down.
She told me, “The most valuable and honorable work goes unrecognized. As long as nobody notices or praises you, you know that you are doing it right.”
Mari Mansfield herself was anonymous for a time. Now her name and her face are better known, and her contribution to the memorial is clearly authored.
Artists Anna Barber and Connor White are also known — as the creators of the Say Their Names Cemetery, installed in a grassy hollow one block from the intersection. The hollow is a flood pond, but now, before seasonal rains and snows fill the area, it hosts markers (made of cardboard, plastic, and paper) for Black people who have died at the hands of police.
The Cemetery was built in early June, and originally memorialized 100 lives. Community members requested that other names be added, and now 132 lives are recognized in nineteen rows of seven tombstones each. At the front, in the center, is a marker for George Floyd. Beside his is a marker that bears no name, which allows it to read as a question: How many have there been? How many more must there be? 6
On the night of May 30th, five days after the killing of George Floyd, the National Guard raided the memorial that had already been established at the intersection, displacing the posters and flowers and votive candles.
The police and the city have been variously assigned responsibility for the destruction. But most of the volunteers I spoke to said that determining culpability is less important than the action itself: the very fact that it took place.
The idea of agency is complicated in thought and in practice. Here and elsewhere.
There’s a clear desire to hold to account the man who killed George Floyd — and the other three who had a duty to serve and protect that they did not honor. There’s a loud call to hold the police department and the government accountable for the actions of a man who was, as Austin put it, “a city employee and on the city clock.” There has been a congressional debate (paused, it appears, for now) about standards of policing in America.
State violence is neither ineffable nor uncertain.
A focus on the actions of one policeman — and the apparent inaction (or rather, appalling failure to act) of three others — can individualize what is in fact systemic violence.
My impulse to report on the systemic is shaped by my identity. My most obvious affiliation is with the people who have been named in the roll calls.
I am thinking about being the object of state force; I am writing from that position. I’m choosing, for now, not to focus my attention on the individuals who are leading these attacks. I am striving to consider the grace shown by people who live under the knee of state force.
Readers, grant me the authority to use the passive voice.
Grant me the respect of deciding when and where to announce myself, when and where to announce agency.
Think before you ask me to name bad actors. Think before you ask me to name the individual volunteers and bringers of offerings who form the communities of care at the George Floyd memorial. Show me the respect of first considering that I have thought about these matters, that I am thinking about these matters.
Consideration is key.
What happened after that raid on May 30th is still happening.
The response of many in the neighborhood and in the larger community has been an insistence that they are still grieving. The response is also a call for a dedicated and curated space where people can consider the struggle for racial justice.
The people set up greeting stations; crafted beds for flowers and vegetables; developed a system for food delivery; established an info hub.
Between May 30th and Juneteenth, the people — or the city, according to some sources — put up barricades and bollards at the intersections east and west and south and north. They established a physical space to support the community that was forming around what is now called George Floyd Square.
The people crafted beds for herbs and flowers and vegetables. Jay, a community member, arranged the offerings of potted plants into a circle, making a roundabout for pedestrians now that cars rarely traveled through.
The people transformed bus-stop windbreaks into art-resource-and-supply sheds.
Someone installed a wood-sculpted fist, a symbol of solidarity at the center of the intersection. That fist holds the Pan-African flag. Nearby is another sculpted fist. This one, a wooden stela, flanks a bus shelter that has been repurposed as a community info hub.
The people developed a system for food donation and delivery. The people brought portable grills and fixings to barbecue and share. The people set up greeting stations at each entrance, and volunteers agreed to staff those stations, welcoming visitors, advising them to wear masks, offering the water and sanitizer. The people produced and handed out the pamphlet offering guidance for White allies entering a space of Black mourning.
When the city announced that it would reopen the intersection beginning on Monday, August 17, the barricades were bolstered by people who had not finished grieving. The flowers and tomato plants found more attendants. Greeters took to their stations as sentries or guardians.
Jeanelle Austin characterized interactions with the city this way: “You asked what does justice look like, and we responded, and then you wanted to end the conversation and go back to normal, and that’s disrespectful.”
What strikes me most about local response to the killing of George Floyd is this effort to balance trauma with broad and tangible efforts toward care. Perhaps the memorial began as an outpouring of anger and grief. As it approaches its ninth month, it is certainly about love. Love in action.
Love for the neighborhood and the people who make their homes here.
Love for the goal of racial justice.
The street medics who offer their skills and compassion here rotate shifts. They respond to scrapes and bumps, and in the hot weather did first-phase diagnoses for fainting, dehydration, and heat stroke. Now, as the weather cools, glucose checks and circulation concerns persist, and hypothermia is a new factor. The backgrounds and training vary, Griz the Medic told me. “Some are nurses. Some are newly trained. Some have focused on athletic training and sports injuries.” A lot of their work, Griz said, is community outreach, connecting the people to services they need.
The medics are organized as 612 MASH (Minneapolis All Shall Heal), founded by Kia Bible, and some are dedicated exclusively to the memorial site. Others, like the volunteer called Splinter, also work in other areas of the city and with encampments of people in the parks. Many of the medics are from other places — Chicago, New York, St. Louis. Some are doing a third or a fourth rotation here.
Griz is one of these. Griz lives in another state, but, in mid-October, started doing a third rotation at George Floyd square. Usually a rotation runs for ten days or two weeks, but in this case the third rotation came sooner than planned; Griz came back after less than two weeks at home because, on October 7, someone burned the med tent.
Kimberly the Medic put it like this: “It is not just about meeting the primary and emergent medical needs of the community. We’re also focused on bridging the gaps. Trying to link visitors and residents to needed resources. When you cross the barricades, you are part of our community.”
Security is another aspect of the caretaking, and a volunteer called Rubber Duck attends to this as well as assisting with food distribution. Security is also a focus for Derek Armstrong. He works with the Agape Movement now, a nonprofit advocacy and community-support organization that patrols the memorial, offers job training for men in the community, and serves as a bridge to needed daily resources in concert with other community partners. Armstrong grew up in the neighborhood. He lives there now.
Over the past months, some of the security challenges have centered on vandalism. The blue mural of George Floyd on 38th Street has been defaced twice. The first time was August 18; the second was October 3. The artist team who painted it returned to restore the mural the week of October 5. Their skillful work makes it difficult to see the damage.
On October 21, a fire was set inside a bus shelter on Chicago Avenue. The offerings inside were destroyed.
The black-and-white mural of George Floyd installed on the street side of the shelter was not harmed.
So the memorial is a self-transforming monument. It is a testament to one remarkable act (and smaller reenactments) of violence, and a testament to resistance and resilience on the part of intersecting communities. These communities span major demographics of race and ethnicity and age and orientation, of income and occupation and entitlement.
On the west side of the street from the place where the arson occurred, there’s a memorial within the George Floyd memorial. Painted on the street is a shrine for Dreu, a caretaker who died there in early October, in a hit-and-run incident. Dreu is survived by her son, a boy under ten, and by her mother, another caretaker, who is often stationed a few yards from where Dreu died.
Security is a concern here partly because George Floyd Square functions without the usual reliance on state and municipal authority, including the police. Crime is up citywide from May 26 through November 2020, according to reports of police data — and up in the city ward around the memorial. On December 27, two people were reportedly shot near the intersection of Chicago Avenue and 38th Street; the man and the woman were treated for their injuries at local hospitals. The shooting has energized the debate over reopening the area streets.
For three months, geneticist Jaana Hull, another native of the neighborhood, flew here every week from Los Angeles to educate the community, her community, about COVID-19, offering free virus testing at a tent just below the Mourning Passage Project. She recently moved from California to Texas, but still flies here on weekends. Ashley McGinness and other volunteers work with Hull to offer the free testing; McGinness’s employer, Total Compliance Solutions, is the lab that processes the tests. These folk distribute masks too, printed with a quote from the late U.S. Representative John Lewis. “Good Trouble” is the message they offer.
A geneticist is still flying in each week from her home in another state to offer free virus testing.
They are still offering testing on Sundays, though the testing location has shifted from the tent to a nearby building. When the weather is bearable, there’s a person at George Floyd square (and sometimes a tent) to direct people to the indoor site.
A caretaker named Charge has been greeting people at the memorial’s west entrance, on 38th Street, daily since June. I asked when or if Charge might need a break. “I don’t need a break. We’ll get our break when this isn’t necessary. I am fully committed to being here, to doing this work — with my body, my spirit, my energy. This place, this work, these people: They give me energy.” On Saturday, October 10, Charge was looking forward to joining a dance class being taught by a community member at the memorial.
Prophet is another neighbor and greeter who started in June. Prophet and Charge have a similar view on the work they are doing here. Among the energy sources Prophet named were the Tuesday film screenings on the history and struggle for justice and the subsequent discussions.
Eliza Wesley is also a greeter; some call her the gatekeeper. She’s often at the entrance on 37th Street. One morning, I watched her call out to a young man standing across the street. He was stepping into and out of the marked space, hovering along (or testing) the threshold. After a few minutes, Wesley asked him if he had a mask. He wasn’t wearing one, and wasn’t sporting one around his neck as many people do before they cross into the memorial. The young man answered that he was just rambling. Wesley told him he couldn’t ramble without a mask. He came over to the tent, received a mask and hand sanitizer, and rambled on.
Eliza Wesley is warm and welcoming, like the other greeters I saw or spoke with. She is not anonymous; local journalists, print and television, have featured her. On her first visit, she recognized a need to direct car traffic at the site, and acted then to meet that need, and she has been doing this and more ever since. October 12 was her 145th consecutive day at the memorial. She wasn’t wearing her safety vest that day, but a car was waiting at the barricade. So Wesley spoke to the driver and then moved a sign, making a lane for the car to enter. A few minutes later, there was another car. Again, I saw her speak to the driver and move the sign. I followed the cars until they parked by the Speedway gas station and market. There I watched community members unload the donations of groceries that these cars had brought.
On Sunday, October 18, I stood near the Speedway again. I noticed that the “Speed” had been covered over; in the last 72 hours, the building had been renamed. The letters on the cornice now spelled out People’s Way.
I made many visits to the memorial that week, because I faced a deadline for this essay; because October 14 is George Floyd’s birthday; and because there was a rumor that the city would act to reopen the streets on October 15.
An area resident told me, ‘What community members are doing is a form of protest, holding the ground sacred.’
The city did not reopen the streets the day after George Floyd’s birthday — some members of the community told me that the optics would have been bad — and they haven’t yet taken overt action to do so. But for many who are committed to the memorial and the community formed here, the threat of city action is still felt.
Another node in the network of caretakers is the building group, and as the weather changes, they have been particularly active. After the first snow fell in Minneapolis on October 17, they began to construct a greenhouse for the plants (many annuals, some perennials). A few days before, they had roughed out a shelter for the medics.
While I visited on October 18, I was asked whether I would slide across an ice rink if one were created here. Flowers and painted streets won’t be visible under the snow. The community is considering what else can be offered, in the coming season, to commemorate the life-ending event that gave rise in this place to a vital project of remembrance and restitution and liberation.
Area resident Shara Marquez sees it this way: “What the community members are doing right now on Chicago and 38th is a form of protest, holding the ground sacred, not giving it back to the city.”