On a temperate evening late in May last year — Memorial Day, as it happened — we were taking our family dog out for his daily walk in our neighborhood in south Minneapolis. At the time, we had no idea that less than a block from our home, Derek Chauvin was in the process of killing George Floyd at the intersection of Chicago Ave. and 38th St. In the days that followed, the notoriety of the police murder of Floyd became, of course, international news, and a spark for a great wave of anti-racist protest and civil unrest. The recent conviction of Chauvin for this murder is a step in the right direction, and is a significant, if exceptional, case of holding police accountable to some degree for unjustifiable acts of violence against community members.
Watching the trial over the last several weeks, it was most powerful to see the striking testimony of those neighbors who by chance were there to witness, and in many cases, record and try to prevent, the killing as it happened in real time. Learning firsthand about these people who were present on that day, and hearing their stories, provided a profound lesson about and example of what humanity at its very best looks like. In listening to these people recall their experiences and reactions, one could only be awestruck by their courage, compassion, and intense concern for the well-being of a man, George Floyd, whom none of them personally knew. It is also worth noting that the people who showed this care for Floyd were people from the neighborhood, while the police who committed the outrageous act of violence did not live in the community.
This conviction has only been made possible by decades and centuries of Black-led activism demanding that American society provide equal rights and justice for all. From anti-slavery movements to opposition to Jim Crow laws, the modern civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter organizing, all have contributed to ensure that every person in our nation, every group and every community, are treated equally. In this, African Americans have long struggled and worked collectively and tirelessly against a vast and pervasive racist system that on the whole provides white people with a level of safety and security that people of color are denied.
When a violent crime occurs in a public space, we sometimes hear of bystanders just walking by, not wanting to get involved in something that does not appear to concern them directly. That impulse is understandable – to intervene or even simply to stop and witness a volatile situation involving strangers is risky and scary. When the violent interaction includes armed individuals, as the police were, that risk is vastly increased; when the main perpetrator of the violence is in fact a state-sanctioned authority, as again is the case with police, the peril of stepping up and bearing witness is even greater, particularly for people of color. So the immediate involvement of that group of south Minneapolis residents, otherwise going about their normal, everyday business, people who happened to be walking by or driving to Cup Foods on that fateful evening, is truly remarkable.
A lot has happened in Minneapolis since that fateful evening 11 months ago. We know that serious, structural changes need to be made in how public safety is carried out in the greater Twin Cities area. Derek Chauvin’s criminal actions are one part of much larger and deeper problems that plague our communities and nation. Redressing the systemic racism and socio-economic disenfranchisement that are endemic to the country will require a long-term commitment to change.
Residents and activists in Minneapolis are actively engaged in developing ideas and plans for a form of public safety that genuinely lives up to its name, and that provides for communities that have historically been systematically denied this, specifically people of color, Black and Indigenous communities. Serious social change and progress toward justice inevitably involves uncertainty and a degree of turbulence, and we are in such a time now. The group of individuals who showed up to witness and speak out against injustice on that evening of May 25, 2020, at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, now known as George Floyd Square, are evidence that our community members have the strength, compassion, and wisdom to lead us toward a much better future for all.
Brendan LaRocque is a historian and member of the Central Area Neighborhood Development Organization. Meera Sehgal is a sociologist and resident of south Minneapolis.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)