MINNEAPOLIS — Emilie Valenti arrived outside the Hennepin County Courthouse before dawn in 20-degree weather and chained herself to a barbed-wire fence.
The 55-year-old activist had just taken over the spot of another protester, who’d been chained to the fence in downtown Minneapolis throughout Tuesday night. Before that, Kaia Hirt, a local schoolteacher, had locked herself to the fence for nearly 24 hours to demand expansive police reform, like removing qualified immunity for officers who commit crimes. They’re also demanding the passage of police reform bills in the Senate. They’re protesting day and night while the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin takes place a few hundred feet away.
“The demands are there, and we’re not going anywhere,” Valenti, a community engagement worker, told VICE News. “It’s about families supporting families around police violence.”
These protesters have been taking shifts locking themselves to barbed-wire-topped fencing the National Guard placed outside the courthouse where Chauvin is on trial for killing George Floyd last May 25. While the trial is in session, protesters have occupied space outside the courthouse, playing music, chanting, and waving signs. They’ve also written the names of people brutalized by police on bike locks and padlocks that they have locked to the barbed-wire fencing.
The initiative has taken on the name “Locks 4 Stolen Lives,” and community members are invited to clamp their own padlocks onto the fencing encircling the courthouse, which cost the city $645,000. Rifle-wielding National Guard members with armored vehicles have been deployed to the area during the trial.
On Wednesday afternoon, there were hundreds of locks chained to the fence.
According to Valenti, the Guards and police frequently come and cut the padlocks off. But for each lock that’s cut off by cops, she says, more appear.
“The police are getting more and more hostile,” Valenti said. “They’re pulling little maneuvers like this that are ridiculous. They come up with some other reasons for it, but it’s pretty obvious they’re trying to maneuver us out of here. But we don’t plan on going anywhere. The demands are still our demands.”
The protesters want to see Chauvin convicted in the death of George Floyd, and an overhaul of police use-of-force standards. Chauvin is facing up to 65 years for second- and third-degree murder charges, as well as a second-degree manslaughter charge after kneeling on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes. To help voice these demands, Frank Nitty, a national civil rights activist, came from Milwaukee to see the locks for himself and help in the cause.
Nitty said tension with police has been escalating through the first week of the trial. Police have installed more concrete barricades in front of the protesters’ hub, where people can rest, eat donated food, and talk with each other on the street by the courthouse, he said. Protesters also say that guards have blocked parking spaces and forced the group to move essential supplies, like food and water, numerous times. Police at the scene declined to speak to VICE News; a request for comment to the Minneapolis PD was not immediately returned.
“As a Black person in this country, it’s the little things we want changed,” Nitty said. “Of course we want people to go to jail for killing George Floyd, but we want to be treated fairly walking down the street, and it goes beyond. If we were out here protesting for dogs, they wouldn’t have done that. They can sympathize for dogs, but they can’t sympathize for Black people. And that’s a telling part of what’s happening in this country.”
The national organizer said he hopes more people will come out and help occupy the space outside of the courthouse, and bring locks with them. He said it’s a powerful way to show how police violence is plaguing minority communities in Minneapolis and across the country.
“It’s a unique thing: Everywhere you go, you see people doing something different, and all of it represents the same thing,” Nitty said. “It doesn’t really matter that it’s a mass of locks with names on it; it’s what it symbolizes—the fact that they don’t want us to have anything and they cut them down. Anything that shows we want justice, they’ll destroy. All the while they’re keeping monuments that represent slavery and some of the most racist people in the country.”
“We have no way to represent positive change or people that have lost their lives that shouldn’t have due to unjust systems without it being defaced by our own government,” he continued.
Testimony from witnesses in the trial is set to continue throughout the upcoming weeks.