The national movement for racial justice has local roots
On a brisk Minneapolis morning with snowflakes in the air and a windchill of 15, Georgio Wright and Kendrick White stand in front of the sprawling George Perry Floyd Memorial at the intersection of East 38th and Chicago streets in the heart of Minneapolis. The area in front is filled with pictures, teddy bears, poems, paintings and a growing list of names of those whose lives have been cut short by police or gun violence.
At the top of the list, just in front of the infamous Cup Noodle grocery store, is the name of George Floyd, the 46-year-old man who the world watched die under the knee of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, as he begged for mercy and called for his mama on May 25, 2020.
Other names include Wright’s older brother, Imez, who was gunned down right where Wright stands; Daunte Wright, who was killed when former Officer Kim Potter pulled him over a few towns over and pulled a gun instead of a taser; and Oscar Grant III, who was killed at the Fruitvale Bart Station in Oakland on Jan. 1, 2009 when former Officer Johannes Mehserlee also pulled a gun instead of a taser.
Even though it has been nearly 1,000 days since George Floyd was killed, community members like White and Wright and a rotation of others are still out day after day, rain, snow or shine to hold down the space, call for change and make sure that the lives of those who were prematurely punctuated aren’t forgotten. In one of the murals at George Floyd Square, angel wings are attached to the George Floyd Memorial, along with the words, “I can breathe now.”
There’s also a community greenhouse, a book exchange hub and an art supply store. This is just across the way from a former Speedway gas station that is now a community gathering space known as People’s Way. There, a campfire burns under an awning emblazoned with the slogan: “Where there’s people, there’s power.”
As a Black man approaching 30, White says he has had his share of run-ins and been on the receiving end of racial profiling. “I’ve been the victim of police brutality. From the time I was 11 until I was 21, I was followed, harassed, pulled over for non reasons,” says White. “I would like for justice to be served with Black families, and I’d like police to stop discriminating against us and doing things they shouldn’t be doing. That’s what drives me to be out here every day, no matter how cold, rainy or snowy it is.”
Wanda Johnson, the mother of the late Oscar Grant, has visited the Minneapolis site multiple times. Even though it has been well over 5,000 days since her son was killed, Johnson points out that the struggle for racial justice in the Bay, in Minneapolis and everywhere in the middle and beyond will never become irrelevant. She says she’s relieved that the George Floyd Memorial is still intact and that it includes Oscar Grant’s name. “I feel like Oscar’s death was the catalyst for what later became known as the Black Lives Matter movement,” says Johnson. “It’s so important to remember that part of the story.”
Johnson says she related strongly with the community in Minnesota in the year that followed the video documentation of George Floyd’s death and bled into the death of Daunte Wright, who died in a way that was eerily similar to the death of her son, Oscar Grant. “The officer seemed overly zealous and pulled her gun instead of her taser. It was complete deja vu,” says Johnson. She has reached out to Wright’s mother in Minnesota. “It doesn’t matter if we’re in Minnesota, Alabama, New York or California. We need to keep our children’s names alive, not become silent and help America know that we are a people of resilience,” she explains.
Just across the street from Cup Noodles, the place where Floyd took his very last breath, is Onyx Coffeehouse, owned and run by Billy Jones. Inside, there are books by local authors, shirts and art emblazoned with images of George Floyd made by local designers and artists, and a full menu of all the coffeeshop classics. Jones recalls being onsite the day Floyd was killed, and now carries the weight of wishing he could’ve done more to change the fate of the man who turned out to be Floyd.
“It really weighed on me. It still does, but on the other hand, nobody’s ever been able to do much to help me when I’ve been in situations like that, so I don’t know what I could’ve done,” Jones says while stirring a latte. “But, still. It’s hard.”
While chatting and making a fresh batch of coffee, Jones calls over a vibrant woman, who turns out to be Angela Harrelson, George Floyd’s aunt and one of his mother’s nine sisters. Harrelson recalls getting a call indicating that her nephew, Perry (the man the rest of the world knows as George Floyd), had been killed and being certain it was a mistake. It took her a few days to realize that the unthinkable news was the truth.
“My brothers and sisters and I kept calling each other, looking for the answer that we wanted to hear,” Harrelson says. “Then I turned on the TV and saw the end, when my nephew was calling out, ‘mama, mama,’ and then he was gone. I was speechless.” Harrelson, who’s now in her early 60s, had made a pledge to her late sister to look out for Floyd, and dealt with her own share of guilt. “I was crying and calling my sisters, and I remember thinking that I should’ve been there—like maybe it would’ve been different if it had been. It was a really hard time,” she recalls.
While describing the traumatizing, heavy experience of losing her nephew when the life was squeezed out of him by Officer Derek Chauvin, Harrelson still smiles and is seemingly at peace. Why?
“It’s because for the first time in my lifetime (and I’m 60), I got a chance to see the outpouring of love overshadow hate. There were thousands of people, who spoke many languages, that came to be with my family,” Harrelson says. “No matter what language they spoke, or what culture they came from, they wanted to show how much they cared and they wanted to fight. And when I looked at all that, that love became my nutrition to feed my strength. And that’s what makes me smile. And that’s what keeps me going.”
Oakland resident Kelechi Ubozoh, a mental health consultant and the author of We’ve Been Too Patient, says that folks in the Bay Area can learn a lot from the sustained struggle and preservation of George Floyd Square. “I remember when so many shops in downtown Oakland boarded up their windows in anticipation of protests because of the murders of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor and so many others. Soon after, arts created powerful murals with faces of (those same people), plus Oscar Grant and others victims of violence, with messages like ‘defend black lives’ and ‘no justice, no peace,’” Ubozoh recalls.
“Eventually, those murals got painted over or the boards got taken down. When I see how the community in Minneapolis is keeping an ongoing vigil (alive), (preserving) a sacred space that is being visited, where flowers are being left, it makes me want a space like that in the Bay Area,” he continues.
Wanda Johnson and the Oscar Grant Foundation share in Ubozoh’s vision of memorializing the legacies of her son, Oscar Grant III, and those who lost their lives before and after him. Even if there’s not yet a permanent memorial, Johnson and her foundation are working tirelessly to make sure people like her son aren’t forgotten.
Each and every year, Johnson gathers at Fruitvale Bart Station with friends, loved ones and community members for the Oscar Grant memorial. Last year, the city of Oakland declared Oscar’s birthday, Feb. 27, “Oscar Grant Day” in the city of Oakland. “This particular year, we’ll be bringing in moms from around the country who have lost their loved ones to police violence (on the weekend of Oscar’s birthday), and then we’ll do something to give back to the community,” Johnson says.
The Oscar Grant Foundation will consider actions ranging from vouchers for a night at a hotel for homeless people to having backpack and school supply drives. Says Johnson, “We want to uplift and take care of our community, while we remember Oscar (and others) and continue fighting for justice one measure at a time.”
For information about the George Floyd Global Memorial, visit Georgefloydglobalmemorial.com. For information about the Oscar Grant Foundation, visit Oscargrantfoundation.com.