On June 1st, a week after the killing of George Floyd sparked a national uprising that touched every state, convulsed major cities, activated the National Guard, and sent President Donald Trump into a secure bunker underneath the White House, Terrence Floyd, George’s younger brother, visited the intersection in South Minneapolis where his sibling had died. During the previous seven days, Thirty-eighth Street and Chicago Avenue had become the site of an uninterrupted public vigil, designated by signs and banners as “sacred ground.” Barricades around the four surrounding blocks impeded traffic and law enforcement. The sidewalk outside the Cup Foods grocery store—where an employee had called the police after suspecting George Floyd of using a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill—was buried under bouquets, mementos, and homemade cards. Activists delivered speeches between the gas pumps at a filling station; messages in chalk—“fight back,” “Stay Woke”—covered the street. Volunteers passed out food and water; there was barbecue, music, tailgating. A wide ring of flowers and candles circumscribed the intersection, delineating a kind of magic circle. Later that day, within the circle, a group of indigenous women would perform the Jingle Dress Dance—a healing ritual created by members of the Ojibwe tribe during the influenza pandemic of 1918.
Terrence Floyd, who lives in New York City, arrived with a security entourage in the afternoon. As he approached the entrance to Cup Foods, guided by supporters and swarmed by an international mob of photographers and camera crews, he paused to admire a vibrant mural: his brother’s face, set inside a giant sunflower. In the background were the names of more than two dozen other black victims of police violence, including Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray. At the base of the mural, among cardboard signs, stood jugs of milk, which is used to alleviate the effects of tear gas. A couple of nights earlier, the police had conducted a raid at the site, clearing out people in violation of a citywide curfew.
Eventually, Terrence reached the curb where two officers had pinned down George’s back and legs and where a third officer, Derek Chauvin, had pressed his knee into George’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds while George repeated “I can’t breathe” at least sixteen times before his eyes closed and his pulse stopped. Terrence sat down on the pavement where someone had painted the white silhouette of a prostrate body, its hands manacled behind its back and angelic wings spreading from its shoulders. Bowing his head, he let out an anguished cry. He remained there for several minutes, then stood to address the crowd.
“I understand y’all upset,” he said, using a megaphone. “But I doubt y’all half as upset as I am. So if I’m not over here wilding out—if I’m not over here blowing up stuff, if I’m not over here messing up my community—then what are y’all doing? What are y’all doing?” He went on, “Let’s do this another way. Let’s stop thinking that our voice don’t matter, and vote. . . . That’s how we’re gonna hit ’em. . . . Let’s switch it up, y’all. . . . Do this peacefully. Please.”
Terrence fell silent. Or almost silent. The megaphone amplified his exhalations. A reverend, standing at his side, rubbed Terrence’s back, leaned over, and whispered in his ear, “Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.”
The protests that have proliferated across the country for the past two weeks have been both intimately specific and sweepingly ambitious, honoring a single human life while indicting a national history. In Minneapolis, they have also been about a city. The relationship between Minneapolis’s law-enforcement officials and its communities of color, though always plagued, deteriorated dramatically in the five years before Floyd’s death. In 2015, a white officer shot and killed a twenty-four-year-old unarmed African-American man, Jamar Clark, in North Minneapolis. (Another officer on the scene claimed that Clark had tried to take his gun; witnesses said that Clark was already in handcuffs.) Activists from Black Lives Matter camped out in front of a precinct house for eighteen days, in snow and frigid temperatures. One night, a white man opened fire on them, wounding five. His trial, which ended with his conviction, revealed that he had a history of making racist comments. The police forcibly tore down the encampment, evicting the protesters and arresting eight of them; in the end, no charges were brought against the officer who killed Clark.
A year later, in a suburb of Saint Paul, a thirty-two-year-old black man named Philando Castile was shot by a policeman during a traffic stop for a broken tail-light, after stating that he was in possession of a firearm. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her infant daughter were in the car. Reynolds live-streamed the immediate aftermath of the shooting on Facebook. In the video, Castile, who was licensed to carry, sits at the wheel, blood spreading through his T-shirt, while Reynolds cries “Stay with me” and the officer continues to aim his gun through the window. Castile died on film; Reynolds was handcuffed and detained; the officer, Jeronimo Yanez, was charged with manslaughter but acquitted.
In 2018, in North Minneapolis, Thurman Blevins, a black father of three, was killed by two white officers. A body camera worn by one of them captured Blevins running away—apparently with a gun—while calling over his shoulder, “Please, don’t shoot me! Leave me alone! Leave me alone!” Blevins was shot multiple times. The county prosecutor found “no basis to issue criminal charges against either officer.”
Thirty-eighth and Chicago is on the Southside of Minneapolis. African-Americans have been concentrated there and across town, on the Northside, ever since anti-black housing covenants, in the early twentieth century, prohibited them from buying homes elsewhere in the city. Subsequent infrastructure projects and redlining policies entrenched this de-facto segregation, diverting resources from the Northside and the Southside while perpetuating poverty by inhibiting African-Americans from obtaining mortgages and business loans. At the same time, predominantly white neighborhoods have grown progressively more affluent. Today, Minneapolis appears on lists of the “best places to live” even as its racial disparities rank among the worst in the country. The median annual income of black residents in the Twin Cities is less than half that of whites, and, though about seventy-five per cent of white families own their homes, only about a quarter of black families do. Unemployment is more than twice as high for black residents as it is for white residents.
Many people in Minneapolis believe that the police department both reflects and enforces these inequalities. In 1999, a law requiring officers to live within the city limits was repealed, allowing suburbanites to join the force; now most officers are white, and few live in or come from the neighborhoods they police. (Chauvin lived in Oakdale, twenty miles from where he killed Floyd.) The black community makes up about a fifth of the city’s population; nevertheless, when officers there physically subdue people—for instance, by hitting or Tasing them—sixty per cent of the time the subjects are black. A 2015 investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union found that black people in Minneapolis were nearly nine times more likely than whites to be arrested for low-level offenses such as trespassing or public consumption of intoxicants. That year, the city finally did away with ordinances against “lurking” and “spitting,” which had been disproportionately applied against black residents. In 2007, five high-ranking black officers sued the department, alleging pervasive institutional racism, including death threats, signed “KKK,” that were sent to every black officer, through the departmental mail system. The city settled the lawsuit out of court.