05/11/2021

Honoring George Floyd with a vision for the future

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When you think of George Floyd Square—if you are even aware of this memorial—you may consider it a place to honor the dead, a center of protest or a symbol of a painful struggle against police brutality. It is all of those things, but today it is also a place where people gather to create change.

three people, Fed Ingram, Marcia Howard, and Randi Weingarten stand in George Floyd Square

The AFT is gathering with them.

Each day since George Floyd died with a knee on his neck in front of the Cup Foods market in Minneapolis, local activists have held space for grief. But in the year since that tragedy unfolded, they have also made room for hope. They have created community in an autonomous zone where they coordinate shared food and run a rudimentary health clinic, a system of mental health referrals, a network to help unhoused people, a free library/bookshop and a clothing closet. They take care of art installations that honor those killed by police violence, including the dozens of cemetery stones erected as a prompt for visitors to walk through and “say their names.” On May Day, they hosted a worker’s fair with local unions providing information about apprenticeships and jobs.

And they have made concrete plans to create a world where commemorative street art and memorials to Black people killed by police brutality are no longer necessary. They are working to change the system.

Most specifically, they have submitted 24 demands that will begin to address the injustices in this community—injustices that are reflected in the nation at large.

“We ran up and down the street and we asked business owners, we asked residents, what does justice look like?” says Marcia Howard, a high school English teacher. Education Minnesota member and local resident who has been on the square  since Floyd’s murder. “What they said turned into Justice Resolution 001: 24 demands of the city and the county and the state and the country.” She says the list—which includes things like accountability for police murders and funding for neighborhood businesses—would just be “the start” of a more just world for her students, neighbors and community.

Howard, who lives steps away from where Floyd lost his life, recognized the young woman who filmed his death as one of her former students. “This idea of me as a teacher holding space and demanding justice with thousands of people throughout this city, I didn’t question it, it’s just something that we had to do,” she says. But her work goes far beyond the Floyd case.

“Y’all need to understand that 38th and Chicago and this block of Minneapolis has always been beleaguered, has always been besieged by forces that would have us be second-class citizens,” she told AFT President Randi Weingarten, Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram and others who visited the square this winter. “Understand that it’s going to take even more than an occupation” to create lasting change.

The Justice Resolution ranges from specific demands to hold trials for the four former officers charged in the murder of George Floyd, recall the county attorney, fire several Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension employees and provide transparency regarding at least 10 cases of death at the hands of law enforcement agencies; to more general calls to end qualified immunity, which protects law officers in such a way that they are often not held accountable for their crimes. It also demands investment in the community, including $400,000 for new jobs in the George Floyd Square Zone, $300,000 for anti-racism training, funds for integrative health services, a moratorium on property tax increases and more rent-to-own options.

“We want everybody to have the same opportunities and the same freedoms and the same sense of justice,” says Howard. “Not just justice in the legal system but in housing, at a hospital, all of it, it’s all connected. That’s the fight. The 24 demands address all of that.”

The participants realize that Minneapolis may eventually try to shut them down, but their answer is simple: “No justice, no streets.” They will not leave the area until their demands are met.

Howard calls the effort a “microcosm” that concerns just the neighborhood, but like a pebble in the water, it has ripple effects. “If we can get it right here, there is hope for every single community in America,” says the AFT’s Ingram. “If we can get it right here, we can multiply it everywhere.”

Meanwhile, each morning during the community’s daily check-in, Howard looks out and sees her union standing with her, even in bitter cold winter, a “ministry of presence,” as one AFT staffer described it. On some days, they are just available to listen to visitors and neighbors, taking in the litany of injustices this community has faced for decades, or educating those who are unaware; on others, they have organized the free library collection or hauled a port-a-potty from one end of the square to the other.

“Our purpose was not to lead or take charge in any way,” says Debby Pope, a retired teacher from Chicago who spent a week at the square. “Our mission was to be there as witnesses and supporters.”

Pope continues: “What we saw was something quite remarkable. A group of area residents has forged a unique and visionary community.”

[Virginia Myers]

Watch this moving video of the community in George Floyd Square