Inside the Now ‘Cop-Free’ Zone Where George Floyd Was Killed

If you want to visit George Floyd Square in Minneapolis these days, you have to walk through barricaded streets and one of four makeshift checkpoints first.
March 12, 2021, 7:16pm
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If you want to visit George Floyd Square in Minneapolis these days, you have to walk through barricaded streets and one of four makeshift checkpoints first. The activists sitting inside the tarped structures, which have plastic windows and propane heaters inside, need to make sure you’re not a cop. 

The cross of four blocks in south Minneapolis where Floyd was killed has been turned into a cop-free “autonomous zone” where people can gather and reflect during the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who kneeled on the 46-year-old Black man’s neck for nearly 9 minutes on May 25 last year. The Black Lives Matter activists and their supporters, who have been there since last June, have set up barbecues and grills for community lunches, and people can take free books and clothes from various booths held together with rope and tape. 

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They’re trying to create a safe and inclusive community for the police reform movement in Minneapolis—and they’re in it for the long haul. They plan to stay until the city implements their demands, like a seat at the table to discuss major changes to the Minneapolis Police Department as well as permanently closing the intersection in front of the store where Floyd was killed. 

“The police officers in Minneapolis do not play with anybody—they don’t care if you’re just holding a pencil, they’re still going to smash you on the ground, they’re still going to yell at you and tase you because they feel threatened,” said organizer Honey Jenkins, who considered Floyd part of her family. “That’s what they did to my uncle, and that’s what hurts me. That’s why we’re here minding our own business.”

Normally, dozens of people come in and out of the area to pause in front of Floyd’s memorial and chat with other community members. Music, either from a speaker or a live performance, also usually plays. But on Thursday, the area was temporarily deserted as a symbol of respect and mourning. 

“The memory of George Floyd is here and you will see the area alive again.”

Last Saturday one of the square’s prominent figures, Imaz Patrick Wright, was shot and killed there. Police said officers were met with some resistance in responding to the scene. Square members brought the victims to the entrance of the zone, but he’d already died. Two arrests have been made in connection with the shooting.

For the next week or two, activists have asked that only immediate community members and family visit the zone, while they work to bring back the same conviviality of the summer. 

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“The George Floyd Square community has been in a prayer and mourning phase since last weekend,” said local organizer Andre Friedman, who plans to protest at the Minneapolis Government Center every day of Chauvin’s trial to document what happens. “They’ve asked for silence and no-nonsense in the area, and the community has responded.” 

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Square organizers have constructed clothing banks in theGeorge Floyd Square in south Minneapolis, like the one pictured above on Thursday, March 11, 2021. They’ve also created a small library cabinet nearby. (Samir Ferdowsi/VICE News)

But even without people, the spirit of the area is still powerful. Declarations like “Hope Lies in Rebellion” and “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance” coat the streets in vibrant chalk. At the center of the square is Cup Foods, the local store where an employee called 911 to report that Floyd had used a counterfeit $20 to pay for cigarettes. The store was temporarily shut down by ownership out of respect, but Jenkins said the community forgives the employees and still considers the shop a go-to in the area. 

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Sun shines down where George Floyd was killed, outside of Cup Foods in south Minneapolis on Thursday, March 11, 2021. The spot is now a memorial of flowers and other items. (Samir Ferdowsi/VICE News)

Now, a memorial dedicated to Floyd sits outside, with hundreds of flowers and more chalk art, mainly hearts. Family members and close friends sit in their cars at the site in silence. Organizers have also installed a massive monument in the middle of the street: a Back Power fist statue with a Pan-African flag hoisted on top. Underneath, there’s a sign that reads “No Justice, No Streets.” 

Across the street, a nearly 10-foot-tall manifesto, hand-painted on plywood, broadcasts demands like city funding of the memorial and financial help to BIPOC businesses in the area. It’s propped against a vacant Speedway gas station, renamed “Peoples’ Way” in spray paint. Tables and chairs are arranged around the filling stations, too. 

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Protesters have written their demands on four pieces of plyboard, nearly 10 feet tall, pictured above in south Minneapolis, on Thursday, March 11, 2021. They say they won’t leave the area until they’re met. (Samir Ferdowsi/VICE News)

The zone is a stark contrast to the rest of the city, especially the downtown area, which has been covered in barbed wire and layers of high-security barricades. Minneapolis spent $645,000 on the fencing to protect the Hennepin County Courthouse, where Chauvin’s trial started on Tuesday, and the city’s five police precincts. Thousands of National Guard troops have also been mobilized to patrol the city for the coming weeks. 

George Floyd Square wants to set a different tone. 

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“We have a very strong, loving community over here,” said square organizer Honey Jenkins, who said she was a close family friend of George Floyd, considering him an uncle and mentor. “Before hate, it’s love. We’re getting all hell out of here.”

But not everyone is thrilled about the zone and what’s happening there. Local officials, including City Council President Lisa Bender, have made continuous attempts to reopen the intersection throughout the year. And Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo has repeatedly said the area is not an autonomous zone. The National Police Association is also pushing the city to close the area, saying the zone “jeopardizes” the neighborhood and that “inevitable rioting” is expected.  

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Signs with portraits of others killed by police, like Breonna Taylor, peek out from the mulch that lines the street of George Floyd Square in south Minneapolis, on Thursday, March 11, 2021. (Samir Ferdowsi/VICE News)

Since the height of the anti-racism protests over the summer, autonomous zones have popped up across the country. In New York City, protestors occupied an area near City Hall for one month before police forced them out. They’d placed and blankets on the ground to sit on and provided refreshments for protestors. In Seattle’s autonomous zone—also known as CHOP, the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, or CHAZ, Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone—clashes between Black Lives Matter protesters and far-right groups broke out, and multiple people, including minors, were shot. 

The autonomous zone in Minneapolis always has medics on duty, according to Jenkins. The group has even assigned bodyguards to help escort families into the square. But in the past few months, there have been isolated instances when people—who Jenkins said are from out of the area and unassociated with the square—come to the barriers and let out a hail of bullets. 

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“A lot of people have passed on top of George up on this block, but we do everything we can to make sure people get home safe,” she said. “But it’s kind of hard when there are so many people angry about George and now another family member has passed. Now it’s double anger, and sometimes people do fly through with guns.”

“It just randomly happens, and that’s why we just need to make sure we’re safe and on our ten because it can be really scary,” Jenkins added.

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A concrete barrier protects one of the four security checkpoints surrounding George Floyd Square in south Minneapolis, on Thursday, March 11, 2021. Community members take turns in the shelter, and monitor who comes in and out of the area. (Samir Ferdowsi/VICE News)

Jenkins said she dragged metal fencing to the entrance of the square herself so she can help act as a gatekeeper. She sits at the eastern checkpoint with Travis Scott playing on her phone and walks out to greet the drivers. Right now, she only moves the fencing if they have a good reason to be in the square. Every time a car passes by, she, like the few other people within the zone, stops what she’s doing and monitors it. The situation is tense, but the community is trying to heal.

“I’m here because I want to see this community stay peaceful and for everyone to keep a smile on their face, and since the barricades came up, that’s when everyone’s smiles went up,” Jenkins said. “I love seeing my friends and family happy, and this is what makes them happy then I’m going to do everything to keep it going. I will take my whole body, literally, as a shield, to protect families who come on this block.” 

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Although the square is quiet for now, neighbors still bring donations and provide meals to checkpoint workers. And the energy is starting to build again with Chauvin’s trial, according to Friedman.

Jury selection started Tuesday, and people’s support for the opposing Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter movements have already played a role in determining who will decide the fate of Chauvin, who’s facing up to 50 years in prison. 

After months of legal wrangling, prosecutors also successfully added another charge—third-degree murder—against the former cop on Thursday. The additional charge gives the jury another pathway to convict him, although prosecutors won’t have an easy time proving it. Arguments are expected to start on March 29 when and last 3-4 weeks. 

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Murals of others affected by police violence decorate George Floyd Square. The face of Paul Castaway, a Denver man shot by police in 2015, hovers above grills and a table for serving food during community meals in south Minneapolis, on Thursday, March 11, 2021. (Samir Ferdowsi/VICE News)

But for local activists, the trial isn’t just about Chauvin and Floyd. Freidman said protesters continue to show support because of Minneapolis’ long history of police brutality. Philando Castile, a 32-year-old local school cafeteria supervisor, was shot and killed by police during a routine traffic stop in 2016 after reaching toward his waistband. A year earlier, 24-year-old Jamar Clark was killed by police after scuffling with officers outside of a friend’s birthday party. 

“The memory of George Floyd is here and you will see the area alive again,” said Friedman. “Everything that is happening in Minneapolis is real—this isn’t a facade. This isn’t for photo ops. A man died, a family is devastated and a community is in mourning. It could be any one of us.”