Not long after George Floyd was killed, Aesthetics Conash left her home in the Bay Area of California to come to Minneapolis, ultimately to stand sentry over the trial of Derek Chauvin in the outdoor plaza of the Hennepin County Government Center over the last two weeks and counting. Conash is a committed and passionate activist (or “bad ass,” as her friend Amira Boller enthused Monday afternoon) who these days is but one of a number of activists and vendors who are making community out of tragedy toward social and racial justice in downtown Minneapolis.
Monday afternoon, a white MinnPost reporter asked Conash what has inspired her over the last three weeks to get out of bed every morning, to hustle down to the government center to stand watch, bear witness, testify, protest, yell at the police?
“I’m Black,” she said, noting my freshly purchased George Floyd/BLM swag from Darnell Squire’s merch table across the street. “Just because you could wear a shirt that says ‘Black Lives Matter’ or a mask that says ‘Black Lives Matter,’ I actually know my life matters, and I know George’s life matters. So I’m out here because when the Floyd family comes out here and sees us out here, they know that his life mattered, and that it wasn’t just the trend.”
Then Conash went back to trying to figure out how to hook up a P.A. to her laptop in order to broadcast the trial livestream to the gathered dozens across the Government Center plaza, which Monday was dotted with protesters, activists, vendors, and media, most of whom seemed both indifferent to and keenly aware of the fact that the eyes of the world are on what’s going on inside 300 S. 6th Street in downtown Minneapolis.
“The world is watching, right?” said Lisa Avant, a St. Paulite via Los Angeles, who lived through the Rodney King verdict and unrest 29 years ago this month and who now is a regular vigil-keeper outside the government center. “We don’t want to die and have our kids fighting all this. We want all to be free, but right now, we need a fair verdict, and we need all four [cops] to go to jail.”
As the third week of the Chauvin trial got under way Monday, to the eerie sound of light rail brakes, chatter and chants, music and hissing traffic, and to a bleak backdrop of fresh graffiti, murals, and life-during-wartime walls of fencing and concrete barricades — all of which is guarded by National Guardsmen with military vehicles — MinnPost surveyed the scene, in interviews and photos:
Rhea Smykalski: “We’ve been getting a lot of honks. A lot of businesses, too: FedEx, UPS, even Hennepin County folks in their cars.”
Chaz Neal: “For me it’s important to be here, just to see justice. We need so much change, and this conviction would be a start of change for the better for everybody. There’s so much hate going on in the world and just to see that an officer finally once … I mean, there’s so many names; 420 names (of people killed by police), no convictions. It’d be great to see just one.
Smykalski: “As a resident of Minnesota and Minneapolis proper, there’s too many names. I don’t want to say another goddamn name. Thurman Blevins, Jamar Clark, Dolal Idd, there’s too many goddamn names. Native folks and Black folks, they’re under attack way more than white folks but they’re also killing white people, and they’re gonna come after anybody because it’s a white supremacist system, rooted and built in white supremacy.
“So we’re here to say we’ve had enough. We’re not gonna let this continue anymore; 2020 was a banner year and we’re gonna keep going. We’re gonna keep pushing, we’re not gonna let this happen again. No more names.”
Consuelo Taylor: “I’m from Media, Pennsylvania. I came to protest for George Floyd, for Black people, for equality. We’re protesting against police brutality, you know, the police badge is to be worn to protect and to serve, not to scare, murder, and maim. Things have to change and I want a better future for my kids who are Black. I want a better future for this whole nation, and for the whole world. And what we witnessed with George Floyd’s murder is shameful. It’s horrifying. It’s disgusting.
“I have been a part of protests for years, and participating in politics, the best way that I can. I started protesting in Baltimore with the death of Freddie Gray, and it’s just the same thing over and over and over and over and nobody’s listening, and nobody cares, and it’s gotten to the point where we have to get in America’s face and say, this is not acceptable. We’re humans, and for some reason the feeling I get is that people do not believe that we’re humans because they treat us like we’re not humans.
“I think the George Floyd murder is different and more significant, because it has been televised worldwide. It is on the internet. It is in America’s face, it’s in the world’s face, and we’re trying to, for those of us who are awake, we’re trying to awaken other people and say, ‘Hey come out of denial, this is real, this is happening, and this is happening to human beings.’ But I think the video is what made the difference. Now how successful and how much change and growth is going to come out of this I don’t know, but they are no longer getting a pass on a silver platter. No more excuses.”
Clifford Dodd: “I’m from St. Paul. My company is Sweet Inspirations. I don’t know who the artist is, but I’ve been selling these for $60 since about Christmas. This painting is about positivity, but we can’t act like racism isn’t there, that’s been our problem, and now we have to deal with it. We have to deal with the hatred, we got to deal with racial inequities. We’ve can’t act like it isn’t there.
“The election showed us something. Trump made reference to how he still got 74 million votes. [Biden is president], but 74 million people voted for Trump and we have to deal with that, and we have to deal with that people still believe Trump won, and that is false. And we can’t act like that’s a little drop in the bucket. No, that’s some people that really need some prayer, because we’re very, very limited with hate. We’re very, very limited. You know what, there’s a lot we can do with positivity. That’s what most everybody in this picture (Nelson Mandela, Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Colin Kaepernick, Barack Obama, George Floyd ) is — a representative of something positive.”
The Rev. John Stewart: “I’m an ordained pastor. Personally, I know about Derek Chauvin because I’ve been arrested by him in the past. He targeted Blacks, disabled, you name it, and if he can, if he can get away with it, he’ll do it. He arrested me because I was trying to get across the street. He tried to say I was jaywalking. And I know I wasn’t because I know the [traffic] lights.
“I believe he’s crooked as the day is long. There’s not a day in my life that I don’t pray that him and his colleagues get the equal maximum sentence that they deserve. My family is mixed, and I have Black friends, and I am standing very strongly for Black Lives Matter, and a lot of people can’t stand me for it. People don’t like me for who I am or for the way I stand, but that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. Chauvin is a crook. He’s a no-good crooked cop, and I thank God he ain’t a cop no more. He needs to hang.”
Aesthetics Conash: “I’m from California, the Bay area. I left my house May 29, 2020, and I haven’t been back since. I’ve been here since the beginning of the trial. I spent over 130 hours without sleeping out here, and they arrested one of our fellow comrades. So we have just been standing here yelling at the police, informing the public of the charges that Derek Chauvin is facing, and just trying to make sure that the community knows that there’s a big trial going on and making sure that they don’t forget it. They can tear down our artwork, but they can’t take us down with them.”
Amira Boller: “I came out here Saturday and met Aesthetics and saw all that she’s been doing, being here for 130 hours, no sleep, working her ass off, and I wanted to [support her]. … George Floyd needs justice. I mean, this whole city needs justice, not just Floyd, I mean everybody.”
Andeh Martin: “I want more people to be more aware and not just sit at home and act like things aren’t happening. Because we’ve all got our bodies and we’ve all got our privilege and we’ve all got to use it. We all live here together as a community, we need all our effort, and we need everybody to show up.”
Darnell Squire (center): “I’m from Houston, Texas. It’s important to be here, just because whatever’s been going on, it’s been going on for a long time, and since it’s freshly resurfaced, we just want to keep the knee on the neck, I guess, to keep it so no one can just sweep it under the rug. People are definitely appreciative of the [merch table]; George Floyd’s T-shirt is the most popular.”
Anthoni McMorris-Rice: “Mother’s Love [Initiative] is a nonprofit organization created by Lisa Clemons and a couple of other team members I think around in 2014, originally created to combat the gun violence here in north Minneapolis and south Minneapolis, and the surrounding areas.
“I’ve been working with Mother’s Love for about two and a half, three years. And our role was to kind of be de-escalation in trying to be the mediator between the community and the police, and to help with resources so anything that the community needs as far as housing, education program, parents and programming.”
Cheryl Anderson: “We’ve been here with various members of the team since the first day of jury selection. The reason why we’re here is just to make sure that everything’s peaceful. Everybody’s getting along. We’re here to just make sure there’s no riff-raff and to spread the love.”
Jennifer Jones: “I started this incense business (Your Majesty’s Royal Blends) in June after going over to Chicago and 38th …. Just, you know, trying to get understanding with what happened and process what I was feeling and everything as a mom. Hearing him call out for his mom, that’s what hit me hardest. And I just wanted to go and feel the energy there. So I was burning sage and I was burning incense and God started talking to me and told me to make incense, so I made my first one, and I named it ‘Black Man,’ after George Floyd. From there, I’ve been just out trying to love people and tell people to come together and try to just spread a little happiness through ‘cense.”
Joe (no last name): “It’s important for me to be here because I want to make sure that the justice system holds Derek Chauvin accountable. … He needs to be held accountable and convicted, just like anybody else who would commit a crime. With the injustice of it always happening, it’s my duty to be out here, and it should be for everyone else, as well.”
Correction: A previous version of this piece inaccurately specified the type of military vehicles in use by the National Guard.