38th and Chicago is still closed a year after George Floyd’s death. Where does Minneapolis go from here?
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City leaders in Minneapolis still have not unified around a plan for the future of George Floyd Square, almost a year after citizens in the area closed the intersection.
5 EYEWITNESS NEWS found many of the city’s elected officials do not even want to comment on this issue, despite repeated calls to reopen the streets.
Community members put up barricades to block off 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis several days after George Floyd was killed in May 2020. Memorials started going up almost immediately outside Cup Foods and at the center of the intersection.
But the mayor, police chief and nearby business owners have pushed to reopen the streets, citing concerns over access and public safety. It has become a sensitive and contentious issue, sparking heated debate within the community and among city leaders.
The four blocks surrounding the intersection remain blocked off to this day.
Seeking answers from city officials
So who makes the ultimate decision on whether to reopen 38th and Chicago?
Minneapolis City Attorney Jim Rowader told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS any action to reopen the street would likely need the approval of elected officials, including the city council and the mayor.
You can read the full explanation here:
"With regard to the future of the intersection of 38th and Chicago and the community surrounding it, everyone in city government needs to play a role given the enormity of this context. The Charter, nor any city ordinance, does not decree that one entity, department, officeholder or staff member has the primary or sole authority to mandate a future for 38th and Chicago. To be more specific, the City’s authority over the public right-of-way (ROW) is extensive and broad. Such vast authority is designed to facilitate travel. Without proper authorization (permit), any obstruction of the ROW is illegal. There are several Public Works-ROW ordinances, traffic ordinances, and traffic laws clearly on point. However, given the unique circumstances here, Public Works cannot reasonably be expected to act alone.
"In normal practice, the City Council does not specifically authorize or weigh in on each and every exercise of these powers by a City department. That would not be feasible or warranted in normal circumstances. Enforcement activity related to the ROW is conducted all the time at the discretion of several different City departments, including Public Works, Police, Regulatory Services, and City Attorney (criminal prosecution).
"So, while specific authorization from the City Council is not necessary for most enforcement efforts, the situation at 38th & Chicago is anomalous and is clearly unprecedented. To the extent City action is needed to open and maintain the ROW for its intended purpose (easement in favor of the general public for transit), it will necessarily involve a coordinated effort between multiple departments, including at a minimum, Public Works and Police. In addition, it will potentially require the assistance and intervention of non-City law enforcement, Public Works, or other similar agency partners, all of which may require City Council approval. It is also clearly not a police operation alone, such that the City Council can abdicate any responsibility. City code reflects this broadly delegated authority, but also states that the City Council (primarily in terms of its oversight over Public Works as primary stewards of the ROW) are where this power is rooted.
"As a result, when considering the potential consequences of any decision directly affecting the short term and long term future of 38th and Chicago, City department leadership reasonably feel that they must have the full support of the City, including all elected officials and community, before action is taken here. City enterprise support in this context would be reflective of some sort of voiced consensus among elected official leadership on the City Council and by the Mayor."
5 EYEWITNESS NEWS asked every city council member to respond to the question of whether 38th and Chicago should reopen. Only five of the 13 council members were willing to answer the question.
Jeremiah Ellison, Lisa Goodman, Alondra Cano and Jeremy Schroeder never responded to multiple email requests. Kevin Reich, Steve Fletcher, Phillipe Cunningham and Jamal Osman responded only to say "no comment."
Two council members, Andrew Johnson and Cam Gordon, said they would like to explore options and believe the conversation needs to continue with community support.
Two council members said they believe the intersection should reopen, Linea Palmisano and Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins.
City Council President Lisa Bender also expressed support for reconnecting the street, sharing this statement:
"I support a peaceful transition of 38th and Chicago to a permanent memorial that acknowledges the intersection’s dual role as a local commercial and residential community and a physical center of the fight against the injustices that lead to George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. The Mayor has had a number of press conferences and public announcements about the intersection that have sent confusing mixed messages to the public, including neighbors who are dealing with increased community violence.
"While the Mayor has the authority to make short-term changes he has at times expressed a desire for Council approval. Council action would require a transparent public process so that Council Members can hear the result of hundreds of private conversations and smaller community meetings and allow the public to weigh in on a timeline and next steps, including commitments to community safety and racial justice.
"In February, the Mayor said that he would move to re-open the intersection to car traffic at the conclusion of the trial of Derek Chauvin but that timeline has now passed. In April, I requested that City staff or the Mayor’s office provide an update to the City Council and the Mayor responded that he was working on a plan with Council Members Jenkins and Cano, who represent the area, which he would share with the City Council and public at a future date."
George Floyd Square is split between City Council Wards 8 and 9. Jenkins, who represents Ward 8, provided this response to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS:
"I do believe that we should re-connect GFS and begin the important work designing a worthy memorial to broadly honor Social Justice and those who have died at the hands of the state, and specifically George Floyd," she said. "This work includes employment training, developing affordable housing, and supporting Black and Brown owned small businesses. This work needs to happen in conjunction with community as soon as possible."
The Mayor Jacob Frey’s Office gave us this statement:
“Mayor Frey continues to favor a phased reconnection of the intersection. The Mayor along with the Council Members who represent the intersection — Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins and Council Member Alondra Cano — and City leadership continue to convene regular meetings with community partners to advance a shared plan.”
Timeline surrounding 38th and Chicago
- May 30, 2020: The community group manning the barricades at 38th and Chicago said they blocked the streets after National Guard vehicles drove through the memorial space.
- July 13, 2020: Internal emails obtained by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS show police initially planned to reopen the square by the end of July, "if not earlier."
- Aug. 7, 2020: Leaders inside the George Floyd Square Zone submit a list of 24 demands, noting they "will not allow the intersection to open up without concrete actions of justice taken by the City in response to the murder of George Floyd." The Justice Resolution demands include recalling Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, firing several Bureau of Criminal Apprehension leaders, reopening investigations into a number of officer-involved deaths, suspending property tax increases for people who live inside the zone and gifting the group a bus to care for memorial visitors during the winter months. The letter states if action is not taken by the city to meet the demands, the group is "prepared to maintain street barricades and take the protest of 38th Street East and Chicago Avenue South into the heart of every significant neighborhood that is unbothered by the death of George Floyd or the spirit of anti-blackness involved in his death and that of many others."
- Nov. 9, 2020: Mayor Jacob Frey sends a letter to people leading the effort inside the George Floyd Square Zone outlining the actions and investments the city made in response to the group’s demands. The letter also asks the group to work with the city to reconnect the streets before winter so city services like clearing snow could restart.
- Jan. 19, 2021: City Council President Lisa Bender publicly criticizes the mayor on Twitter, saying it is "well past time" to have a plan. She ended by saying, "Either the Mayor uses his authority he already possesses to reopen 38th and Chicago as he sees fit, or the Council begins the normal, legislative process of making this decision for him."
- Feb. 12, 2021: In a news conference, the mayor states the square would remain closed to traffic until the end of Derek Chauvin’s trial.
- April 20, 2021: The night of the Chauvin verdict, the mayor states: "There will be a reopening of the intersection but it is not going back to normal."
- May 26, 2021: As of the air date of this story, 38th and Chicago remains closed.
Competing perspectives in the community
Jay Webb said he is the architect of the memorial gardens surrounding the now-famous fist at the center of the square.
"This place is about people depositing what they can no longer hold on to anymore," Webb said. "This is the paradigm shift. We the people of peace, we the people of prosperity, we the people of power."
Webb said the city’s proposal to reopen the intersection as a roundabout, with the fist sculpture at the center, would hinder visitors from walking up to the memorial and interacting with it.
He said it is critical the intersection remain closed so people can appropriately reflect on what happened to George Floyd there.
"I will do all I can to dissuade the city or any government or any organization from removing this from the rest of the world," Webb said.
But nearby businesses owners see the situation differently, saying sales are down 75% due to lack of access.
"We are suffering. We are really suffering in this area," said Sam Willis, Jr.
Willis owns Just Turkey, which is located inside the barricades, and is part of a group known as the 38th Street Collective.
Business owners who make up the collective have united to call for the streets to reopen.
"They shouldn’t have ever let it close. Period," Willis said. "The deconstruction of this area is putting a strain on our business and it’s generating a lot of lawlessness."
The George Floyd Square Zone operates with multiple gatekeepers at the barricades and others who work security near the memorials.
5 EYEWITNESS NEWS spoke with a security watchman inside the zone named Leon Lyons, who said the group does not plan to allow a reopening until their 24 demands are met.
"The 24 demands that we have going forward for the city are still in place and we’re still standing our ground until we get these demands. These demands are literally going to change the world," Lyons said.
5 EYEWITNESS NEWS asked Lyons what would happen if the city tried to reopen the intersection.
"Whose streets? Our street. No justice, no street," Lyons said. "We’re not going anywhere until the 24 demands are met. I don’t have to go into any tactical responses with you because the city already knows where we stand. They already know the power that’s behind this. They know it’s three phone calls made and we’ve literally got thousands of people right out back in the street like we did last summer within an hour, so that’s what happens."