by LHENA Vice President Eric Ortiz
Minneapolis didn’t get here alone. The actions and decisions of many people created the challenges facing the city. Solving them will require the work of many people, too.
But before anything changes, people need to start listening to each other.
Imagine if Derek Chauvin had listened to George Floyd and let him breathe. A 46-year-old man and father of five would not have died. Minneapolis would not have burned. The city would not have had over $1 billion in damage. And communities would not have had to deal with the fallout of the most expensive civil disorder in U.S. history.
After Floyd died in police custody on Memorial Day at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, the site of his death turned into a memorial to honor Floyd’s life. A group of community artists, Cadex Herrera, Greta McLain, and Xena Goldman painted a mural of Floyd outside of Cup Foods, the market where Floyd was killed.
“We wanted to portray him in a positive light, not as a martyr, but as a hero,” said Herrera, an artist, educator and community member. “We wanted to make sure that his name was remembered. It was a terrible thing that happened to him, and it’s devastating, and I hope that at least some peace can come from this to reflect on a life of a human being that was unnecessarily taken away.”
The George Floyd mural at Cup Foods became an iconic symbol of solidarity for protesters against racism, police brutality and injustice. It was one of the hundreds of George Floyd murals that were painted across battered Twin Cities neighborhoods to memorialize Floyd. They expressed every emotion you can imagine: fear, anger, grief, disgust, courage, optimism and love. They had heartbreaking thoughts and uplifting messages that called for justice, equal opportunity, change and peace.
All of the art was born from a terrible tragedy but offered a glimmer of hope — a belief that freedom, justice and equality for all might no longer be an impossible dream. This time, maybe we really could end the systems of exploitation that have oppressed Black people and all people of color for generations. Would this moment be different than other racial watershed moments that happened before? We still don’t know.
But the George Floyd murals provide a roadmap on how we could get to justice. Now, all we need to do is recall those words, listen to them, and figure out how we can work together to put those words into action.
Art helps people heal and helps people unite, and all of this street art had a unifying effect. The murals were more than expressions of what people were feeling. They offered a path to change.
“It’s like all these empty canvases up and down the street that people feel drawn to express themselves on,” said Todd Lawrence, a professor at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul. “It’s not just murals, it’s tags, it’s graffiti, it’s all kinds of different art that’s popping up everywhere, the emotions that people are feeling, pain, anger. You know, like you opened up a book and it just sort of tells you what people are feeling.”
Professors and students at St. Thomas preserved the murals as digital images in the George Floyd Anti-Racist Street Art database. The Floyd database was created out of a COVID-19 database that had morphed from a mapping project of street art in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood. The achievements and work of those on the margins are often overlooked. This was a way of ensuring the uplifting artwork did not fade from memory.
“Street art in a lot of ways has been marginalized. People think of it as not being important, maybe not even worthy of study,” Lawrence said. “But all art has the power to affect culture.”
The visual story of George Floyd is a story that didn’t just need to be told. It needs to be remembered and saved. Beyond just documenting this art history, two Black women are leading an effort to preserve the physical murals painted on storefront plywood boards in the Twin Cities after the civil unrest. The goal is to keep the visual legacy of the racial justice and police accountability movement alive. Kenda Zellner-Smith, 24, and Leesa Kelly, 28, joined forces to form Save the Boards to Memorialize the Movement. They gathered more than 600 panels and created a GoFundMe to raise money to create a public exhibition.
“So often Black history gets whitewashed,” Kelly told Meet Minneapolis. “But this is a raw and honest representation of what we went through the week George Floyd was murdered.”
It sparked growing interest to confront a painful part of Minneapolis history—a history of racism—and rectify wrongs. More than just a city, but a nation started to look at years of oppression in a new way. The epicenter of that awakening was Minneapolis.
“Minnesota has this progressive image, one of the top places to live, parks, lakes, Fortune 500 companies, but that’s only for white people,” said Tina Burnside, the cofounder and cocurator of the African American Heritage Museum and Gallery in Minneapolis. “Because these other lists come out and it’s one of the worst places for Black people. We need to quit ignoring that.”
Many conversations have started since Floyd’s death. Many resolutions have been made. But 400 years of racism, oppression and inequality toward people of color do not get reversed overnight. Since the killing of George Floyd, the area where Floyd took his last breath has turned into a space controlled by the community. The autonomous zone called George Floyd Square (GFS) consists of four city blocks around 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis. It’s a community that is seeking justice (you can read their justice resolution here).
Eliza Wesley, known to the community as “the gatekeeper” of George Floyd Square, is confident that justice will be served. “God allowed this to happen, so life can be changed and people can see what’s going on,” Wesley told The New York Times.
But the area is not without controversy and has been a difficult place to live for residents at times. In March, a man was shot dead near George Floyd Square, the 12th homicide of 2021 in Minneapolis (one month later, that number has risen to 20 homicides in Minneapolis for the year), another dream snatched and another reminder that we have work to do with a both-and leadership approach for transformation that listens to the communities most impacted by injustice.
The most impacted have good ideas. So do the George Floyd mural artists. Their voices need to be heard. The powers that be need to start listening to the whole community and investing in ideas that can work for everyone. We are all in this together, and we need to work together to find solutions to all of the conditions that led to the protest in Minneapolis in 2020.
Many of those same feelings continue in 2021. They are the same simmering feelings of grief, anger and hopelessness that many people have had for years.
“These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention,” said Martin Luther King in 1966. “A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
So when will Minneapolis lawmakers and policymakers who can effect change — and all American lawmakers and policymakers who can effect change — start listening? Burning and looting and riots might get people’s attention, but history has proved that the destruction of communities hurts communities. As the Foundation for Economic Education reports, riots can leave a lasting shadow on a city that haunts its economy for decades. Whether that city is Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Los Angeles or Minneapolis.
The man in the video above was from the 1992 Los Angeles riots. His name is Art Washington, and he became a national hero after his pest control business got looted, and he called out the looters.
It’s not RIGHT what you’re doing!
I came from the ghetto too!
Why destroy MY business?
I tried to make it!
Can’t y’all SEE it?
Washington’s anguish was broadcast on network TV news shows while Los Angeles was burning, the Los Angeles Times reported. When the riots ended, hundreds of people from around the country wrote Washington letters of support and sent him tens of thousands of dollars to help rebuild his business.
“It’s changed my whole attitude about people,” said Washington, the son of a Mississippi sharecropper, six months after the Los Angeles riots in 1992. “Especially white people. I was real negative about white people because it seemed all my life they were trying to keep me down.”
We can rekindle that spirit of hope in Minneapolis. It’s time to start caring about all people and create a community of caring for everyone. We still have two Americas — one for the haves and one for the have nots—just like Martin Luther King talked about 50 years ago. We still have to create economic equality for all people. That is how we can help all people heal.
The journey toward healing has begun, and it will continue. “Healing is an art. It takes time. It takes practice. It takes love,” writes poet Pavana Reddy, who goes by the pen name Maza Dohta. We have to keep fighting the good fight to transform systems of injustice, and never waver from kindness, empathy and love.
So we can be the change we need, and see these words of Martin Luther King come true: “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
At the same time, we have to remember the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, the civil rights icon and voting rights pioneer, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired, and we want a change.” Hamer said those words in 1964.
Four years later, in 1968, she said words that still ring true today:
“The flag is drenched with our blood because so many of our ancestors was killed because we have never accepted slavery. We had to live on it, but we’ve never wanted it. So we know that this flag is drenched with our blood. So what the young people are saying now is, ‘Give us a chance to be young men, respected as a man, as we know this country was built on the black backs of black people across this country, and if we don’t have it, you ain’t gonna have it either. Cause we gonna tear it up.’ That’s what they saying. And people ought to understand that. I don’t see why they don’t understand it. They know what they’ve done to us. All across this country. They know what they’ve done to us. This country is desperately sick, and man is on the critical list. I really don’t know where we go from here.”
Where do we go from here?
Bad things can happen when people don’t listen. But just as bad things can happen when people don’t listen, good things can happen when they do. The days ahead in Minneapolis call for good listening and fair negotiations.
Imagine a circle of compassion, and no one standing outside that circle. It’s not us vs. them. It’s just us. That’s how we get to justice.
Pay attention to community leaders who are calling for justice through peace, unity and reconciliation. We need to build bridges, not put up walls. Compromise is how we will move forward and make things better for every community in Minneapolis. This does not have to be a zero-sum game, where gains for one side mean losses for another.
“We need to move from either/or decision-making to both/and,” wrote Jeffrey Bolognese in a 2016 blog post for the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers, when explaining both/and leadership. And it applies to Minneapolis today.
“Either/or pits people and ideas against each other.
Either/or means there has to be a winner and a loser.
Either/or starts from a belief that resources must be limited (a ‘scarcity mindset’) even if they aren’t.
Either/or limits options and by doing so limits the true breadth of possibilities.
There is another option, though. Instead of the two choices offered by either/or, we have a third way. We can choose both/and.
Both/and focuses on the big-picture goals that can accommodate multiple voices and opinions. It’s inclusive rather than exclusive.
Both/and doesn’t place artificial limits on our decision space.
Both/and starts without worrying about resource limitations: an ‘abundance mindset.’
Both/and can produce true ‘win/win’ solutions.”
No matter what the verdict is in the Derek Chauvin trial, we will have work to do to achieve justice for all. The advances of society have not brought us there yet.
Opportunity knocks, but how do we stop preparing for war and start preparing for peace? How do we create better systems for everyone in society? How do we get to where we need to be?
Wise people in the community have the answer. The streets are speaking to us. They know the way.
We need to listen.