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"The Past is Never Dead": The George Floyd Memorial

Updated: Sep 23, 2021

Like many white residents of the Twin Cities, for over a year I had avoided the site where George Floyd was murdered by police. On the news, it was depicted, at best, as a scene of great pain and community frustration; at worst, as a place of volatility, violence, and destruction. I had wanted to see it, but didn't want to show up as tourist in someone else's tragedy. Living less than two miles away, I was insulated somewhat from the protests, although I could hear the constant sirens and helicopters those first several nights, could smell the smoke drifting from the burning buildings around town, and even could hear the chants of those who marched to the Governor's Mansion from the across the river. White supremacists were stealing cars and stashing caches of accelerants in the bushes around my block. The National Guard and their tanks rumbled the fancy streets within walking distance of my house. The insulation I experienced was due to my race and class, and I felt that visiting the memorial after the protests was a kind of trespass into a space where the most deeply wounded were working out their pain.

George Floyd Memorial, with traffic barriers painted

Eventually, I found myself passing the memorial as the pandemic appeared to ease, after the murder and Chauvin's conviction faded from the national news. What I saw was not what the media had described for me. Even from my car window, I could see that the memorial site was something quite different from what I'd been told. While the scars of the original crime and the outrage framed the space, a shrine had grown from it. All the decades of study I have of medieval and ancient religious sites initially led me to an intellectual understanding, but when I went to walk the memorial, what I came away with was a better emotional understanding of what a shrine really is: ordinary people transforming a place of loss into a place of comfort, power, and community.

Shrine Surrounding Where Floyd was Killed

From one's car, the overall look of the place may seem messy and chaotic, but it is anything but that. The whole site has a structure, as well-planned as any religious place of pilgrimage. There are cordoned-off areas dedicated to particular local victims of excessive police force. There are murals teaching the history of oppression and protest. There is a space for church services, and a place for people to gather for poetry, music, and planning communal action. There are places to leave offerings, to meditate, and to pray.

When you walk toward the site, from any direction, the first thing you notice is the art: every wall has a mural; the boundaries of the shrine are marked by iron sculptures of the Black Power upraised-fist; the sidewalks and streets carry names and messages.

Say Their Names

This image shows only about half of the names on the street leading to the main intersection. There must be at least fifty, unfurling in rainbow colors, recalling the dead. This reminded me of the AIDS quilt project, decades ago, where the makers wanted to remind observers of the existence and humanity of the victims, making each more than a statistic. The quilt project once covered the entire mall of the Capitol, reminding us of 110,000 people lost. Here, the effect is similar: it's overwhelming that there are so many. The disappeared take up space again in the naming.

Tombstone, Lakewood Cemetery, two miles away

The names written all over the site claimed a commercial space as a kind of hallowed ground. The names are inscribed with ephemeral materials: paint, posters, chalk. All of it could be scoured away in a day, if the city decided to do so. I thought of the difference between the names on the street, and the ones in a nearby prestigious cemetery. The monuments there go back 150 years, bought and claimed, surrounded by trees and grass. An oasis of peace and prestige. The graveyard is a place of history, but so different from the history resting uneasily on 38th Street and Chicago Ave. Everything about that cemetery speaks to enduring memory, status, and protection within its iron gates. The cemetery is a place to worship the past, but the George Floyd Memorial is fighting to keep its history alive and visible.

Patron Saints

As with a medieval religious shrine, the site has images of past leaders to inspire by example. The whole memorial is designed to remember not just martyrs but also the soldiers of the movement for social justice. This mural, visible in an alley one passes when walking in, commemorates Malcolm X, Madame C.J. Walker, Dick Gregory, Marcus Garvey, Huey Newton, and Angela Davis. . The mural depicts these leaders in poses of confidence and engagement, which shares a general tone throughout the memorial, emphasizing resilience instead of tragedy.

Pairing Loss with Resolve

When you arrive at the center of the memorial, what may be most surprising are the gardens. Throughout the main area, and most noticeably in the center of the intersection, one finds gardens, decorated with vibrant portraits of the dead. In the center intersection are flowers, but along Chicago Ave., in front of the burnt and boarded-up gas station which is now a covered place for group events, there is a long run of vegetable gardens: tomatoes, eggplants, squash. Free to be picked, tended by neighbors. Placing the portraits among the flowers and food, accompanied by poetry and votive candles, the message becomes clear that the way to honor the dead is to create and grow.

Angela Harrelson, George Floyd's Aunt, Nurse, and Activist

While I was taking all this in, I was trying to be as respectful and inobtrusive as possible. As with my photography of churches, I felt this was a place where I was a visitor, and should not interfere with the lives of the people there who belonged. So, I was taken aback when a gentle voice came from behind me as I was photographing: "I see you're taking a lot of pictures. What do you see here?" The woman who greeted me was Angela Harrelson, George Floyd's aunt. She was welcoming and kind--graciousness personified. We talked for several minutes. She watches over the site and works with others to make the place of her nephew's death a space for many people to unite. My husband asked her what was the most remarkable thing she had witnessed here. She answered that it was the work of the de-escalators. As a nurse, she said, she often has to de-escalate tough situations, but the community organizers who spent time here were amazing in their ability to bring people in pain and anger back into the group to find solutions together.

Charles McMillian, Witness to George Floyd's Arrest

Ms. Harrelson also introduced me to Charles McMillian, the bystander who knew Floyd and Chauvin, and witnessed George's arrest. McMillian spoke to me with intensity and purpose: he wants to speak in classrooms to students, to help them learn from the lessons of the tragedy and the activist community which has sprung from it. He stands there regularly to give testimony, and with Harrelson and others engages the pilgrims (for that is what we've become, who visit here) to inspire them and to teach.

The Heart of the Memorial

Mr. McMillian led me to the heart of the memorial--the place in the street where George Floyd was pinned against a parked car by three officers, handcuffed, and suffocated with the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin, as dozens watched, screaming for mercy. His last words are painted on the street, along with his spirit, in the form of an ascending angel. The space is cordoned off, and surrounded by offerings of visitors: poems, paintings, stuffed animals, flowers, even bottles of whiskey--small comforts languishing after the fact. This is where visitors linger the longest, all in silence. The painting marks what is gone, as shrines do; but, as shrines do, it also marks a place willed into power. Where the man was destroyed, the movement springs up.

Wall behind the Scene of Floyd's Death

The messages around the site focus the energy of those who visit, directing them to examine their grief and express it productively. Next to this graffiti, there is a bus shelter converted into a video booth where people are encouraged to give their responses to the site, and how it inspires them. Across the street, a utility shed has been converted into a community bookshelf, with children's books in baskets on the floor for kids to choose from.

Black Joy

When I visited the site a second time, on a Sunday morning, a preacher was holding service on a vacant lot, retelling the parable of the seeds that had fallen on the stony ground. Shrines are places to commemorate martyrdom, but the martyr traditionally has been noted as performing a miracle on the site after his or her death.

The miracle here may be, as the banner above attests, Black joy. This place, where such pain occurred, and where four policemen chose to flaunt their view of the community's powerlessness in their faces, is one of the most uplifting places I've ever been. The Twin Cities have struggled within ourselves to define this memorial in so many ways--almost all of them negative--but it's clear to me that this is the most powerful and positive place we have. People create here. People mourn and move forward together.

The Wise Build Bridges

The memorial is a monument and a laboratory for Black empowerment, but it is not a segregated space. It marks a specific tragedy that the news cycle is moving into the past, but its focus is on the future.

Charles McMillian and Angela Harrelson with a mural portrait of Emmet Till

Faulkner wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past," and his remark has been a frequent--often conversation-ending--comment on the American legacy of racism. Remembering all the dead can make it seem as though we are drowning in the enormity of this past. But the past doesn't own the future, nor even the present. All the artists and activists who have built the shrine to George Floyd aren't languishing in grief; they're writing our next chapter, and our shared memory is the stony soil from which they'll bloom.

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So interesting to think that the great cathedrals, mosques, synagogues and temples probably did begin thus, as spontaneously well-organized and patterned memory, miracle, monument, celebration. The gardens interest me. Wondering if it's all food justice or something older -- African American yard art and its many axis mundi motifs, including vegetables, trees and plants.

Working on a design for an African-American-founded park in D.C. I went on a garden tour of an AA neighborhood and noticed clean-swept African yard themes within a much more prosperous American setting. I told friends at the paper and they came up with this story.

It quotes, among other things, Grey Gundaker's wonderful book. I'm wondering if in addition to chapel space, AA garden tropes apply…

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