38th and Chicago: Holy Ground

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“Get out of there, you’re standing on his body!” the minister yelled at the tourist.

The tourist, who looked like she mainly did Pilates 100 hours a day, jerked down her selfie-capturing phone and leaped into the air as if electrified, her nylon shorts flapping. She pranced off the painted figure that symbolizes George Floyd’s body. 

It’s blue and spectral, with white angel’s wings, and it’s painted in the street on Chicago Avenue, right in front of Cup Foods, north of East 38th Street: George Floyd’s body. It’s right where George Floyd died as three Minneapolis police officers kneeled on his body, killing him, and a fourth Minneapolis police officer stood guard, preventing the crowd from intervening.

All around George Floyd’s blue body, thousands and thousands of souls rally, day and night.

The pain and horror from this—what do we call it? a modern-day lynching? an extrajudicial execution?—have now sparked protests against Minneapolis police and solidarity for Black Lives Matter in Sydney; London; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; and too many other places to name. These protests are sometimes peaceful, sometimes raging. And they have been met with often shockingly bloodthirsty responses, as if to prove that no one is safe from police brutality, whether they live in Buffalo, New York; Washington, D.C.; or here. 

But it’s different at 38th and Chicago, where a spontaneous space of mourning, reflection, and celebration has taken over the intersection. The road is blocked at 37th and 36th Streets and a block over each way on 38th Street. The shutdown has created a traffic-free plus sign, or a cross, widened at two sides by an empty parking lot and an abandoned gas station. 

Volunteers provide security. After the first few days, no one has seen the police here. A big old school bus, now painted white and outfitted with bandages and supplies, blocks one road as a medical tent. Past it, a real ambulance from Hennepin Healthcare waits with a few National Guard soldiers, just in case. 

Inside this space, tens of thousands have come: to mourn, to dance, to give speeches, to say prayers, to leave artworks, to take selfies, to buy or sell T-shirts, to hand out religious literature—to do all the human things. 

I went, because you always go to the funeral. I think I was in my 20s when I picked this up as words to live by. At first I thought you always went to the funeral for the family and friends, to show support and bear witness to their grief. Eventually I realized you also go to the funeral for yourself, to focus your own grief and stop being so self-involved and busy all day. You do it for your soul. 

The first time I went to this particularly open and open-ended funeral, I did not want to go. I didn’t want to feel more pain. But what I found was so moving and healing, I ended up going to the corner of 38th and Chicago four times in a week. 

The first time I made my way there, it was early in the day, and as I arrived, so did maybe 150 church folk, including a few dozen Lutheran ministers with hand-embroidered stoles bearing white doves, rainbow crosses, moon-faced choristers, and such.

It was on this visit that the minister yelled at the tourist. Then we were all on our knees in the gravel-filled road, reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The idea that we must forgive those who trespass against us seemed relevant but uniquely difficult, as gentle George’s face loomed down from every vantage point: hundreds of images—posterboard and canvas, oil and acrylic, spray-paint and marker—taped to and leaned against the outside of Cup Foods. These portraits were interleaved with bunches and bunches of flowers, like a museum and a florist had both decided to flee town in a hurry. 

On my feet again, looking at George Floyd’s face alongside sayings like Rest in Power and Gentle George, it felt like a very Powderhorn place, that neighborhood of artists and the working class. Handmade signs about justice wallpapered the bus stop, joined by one lone plush tiger sitting on the bench, as if waiting for that bus to justice. It all felt like a shrine. 

People cared. A lot. A lot of people cared a lot. 

More art was coming as I stood there that morning. Men and women, singly or in pairs, arrived on foot bearing their tributes. I watched a gaunt man in faded green plaid approach with a black-and-white ink sketch of Floyd’s face on thick paper. He tucked it in among the other offerings on the west wall of Cup Foods, took a step back with closed eyes as if in prayer, bowed his head, and walked quickly away.

I came back a few nights later and wished the trespassing tourist could have returned with me. For that night there was no scolding minister, and the tourist could have done what many others did. Namely, lie on George Floyd’s blue paint shadow, like a child in a snow angel made by a parent. There, she could have taken a selfie or had friends photograph her from above. She could have lain beside him and wrapped her arms around him, as if the two were in bed, as so many visitors around me did. 

That night was ecstatic and charged. Barbecues everywhere. Free food everywhere. A dance party raged in the now inactive and boarded-up gas station, Speedway. Several abandoned couches stood beneath the metal canopy where cars would ordinarily gas up, and upon them people lounged. A punk-rock girl in an elaborate 1980s-London outfit sat on top of a gas pump, shaking her shoulders to the sounds of Public Enemy, which blared from speakers to the north end of the Speedway. A handful of people danced; others stood in line for free food. 

To the south end of the Speedway parking lot, a soul DJ spun classics like the Delfonics’ “La-La Means I Love You.” It all felt a bit like the Gay 90’s, some 30 blocks north, with different adjoining nightclubs for different ages and stages. A dozen men climbed an aluminum ladder to the top of the Speedway roof. Two of them held large dogs on their backs. They had a microphone, and they started a few chants: “When I say George, you say Floyd—George FLOYD, George FLOYD.” 

Then, one bearded man in a black ball cap began to speak. “I have never felt so much love. I have never felt so much pride in saying: I am from Minnesota. Everyone you see—you see what we are capable of. Look around. These are your brothers and sisters. We can change this world. We can take it back. We are all we’ve got! White people, you are not silent. You are here with us. This is not a black problem. This is a human problem.” 

Behind the figures on the roof, the classic summer sunset clouds—tall as mountains, white and vibrant salmon pink—made the scene seem blessed. Everyone raised one fist, including a puffy-haired toddler sitting on the shoulders of a man in front of me. The angle of the sun made her hair look like a golden halo as she swung her chubby little fist in various directions. I felt hopeful for the first time since the murder.

Suddenly, a ruckus. People from the Speedway roof were calling for the crowd to make room for “Madam Congressperson.” Ilhan Omar herself appeared. Pale peach headscarf, pearl-gray dress, she stood in an opening made by the crowd. I could see her only because so many phones were tipped in around her, little satellites in the air, all capturing her image and displaying it on their camera screens. 

“I can’t believe in 2020 we’re going through this,” Omar began. “But we’re doing this for our kids. I don’t want to see my children murdered in the streets. And I don’t want to see any children murdered in the streets. That’s what you guys are here fighting for. We’re fighting for the freedom we all deserve. 

“I shed a tear the other day, when Lake Street and north Minneapolis were set ablaze. I did not cry because there was property that was being destructed. I cried because that was a symbol of dreams and opportunities that were being faded right before our eyes. What I do know is that every single day when we pour out to the streets, it gets us closer to making sure that we are no longer begging for crumbs, but we are getting proper investment in our communities.” 

She talked about legislation she’s bringing forth with other House members, including Ayanna Pressley, of Massachusetts, to condemn police brutality and demand national reforms. She closed by leading chants of “Say his name—George Floyd!” before a selfie line formed around her. 

The dance parties resumed. 

I had brought my 12-year-old daughter. As we headed home before curfew, I asked her what she’d remember from the night. “I thought a lot about what one of them said,” she told me. “No one is going to change this for us. We have to change it ourselves.” 

I’ll change my maxim about funerals now: Always take your kids to the funeral. 

The last time I saw 38th and Chicago, it was the night of the real family funeral—the one Al Sharpton flew in to lead. And the corner was wildly crowded, State Fair–crowded. 

I assume this followed the day’s television coverage. The big, big media was there. CNN had stationed a white satellite truck as big as a south Minneapolis rambler, a Yukon XL as big as a garage, and maybe a million bucks’ worth of gear. 

“She’s the one who was talking to Don Lemon,” a passerby said, gesturing toward a reporter in a lavender shirt and rhinestone necklace, who stood on top of a camera case to get a better perspective on the crowd. 

“I’d be more impressed if she talked to Lester Holt,” replied her companion: apparently the younger news host didn’t carry the weight of the old guard. 

I managed to get stuck in a crowd between CBS News camerapeople and the documentary unit of Ben Crump, who is George Floyd’s lawyer and also the host of A&E’s Who Killed Tupac? They mainly talked about what there is to eat near the Marriott. (Not much.) 

The whole area in front of the Speedway was now a free store, with long tables under tents heaped with food-shelf items like ramen, boxes of cereal, soap, and tampons. Certain fashion trends emerged, like blue surgical masks with pieces of silver duct tape at the mouth and “Can’t Breathe” written on the tape. Or double T-shirts, with a new “We Still Can’t Breathe” shirt worn over the shirt you came in wearing. 

I talked to a black man who grew up in the neighborhood but now lives in North Branch. He asked me if the neighborhood was any better, and I didn’t know what to say, given the circumstances. At the main stage, a Native American organizer played “Amazing Grace” on traditional instruments. 

When he concluded, I talked to some beautiful African American teenage girls who’d each matched her cloth face mask to her outfit. They were from Lakeville and asked if I had made my way to see the grand piano, in the middle of 38th street near the CNN trucks. When I got there, a ponytailed pianist was playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Piano Man.” 

A white man told me that members of the neighborhood would arrive in the night, remove the pavement of the intersection with a jackhammer, and erect a roundabout containing a statue of George Floyd. I didn’t bother telling him that this would never happen unless the intersection also got widened to accommodate city buses. Chicago and 38th is an important bus station in a low-income neighborhood. 

A chaplain from Billy Graham’s “Rapid Response Team,” identifiable by his embroidered royal-blue polo shirt, told me he flew in from Florida. He flew to hotspots all the time. The man who believed in the coming roundabout said he was on the bridge when the gas tanker truck nearly killed everyone but ended up killing no one. One of the greatest acts of love he’d ever seen was the protesters running in to save the truck driver from the crowd that was beating him. 

“I thought I was going to see a guy pulled to chunks and thrown over the bridge into the river,” roundabout guy said. “But they were real pacifists. Like here. This is the safest place in the world right now.” 

I was trying to get a handle on what about this space of grief was so profoundly healing. Was it George’s face? In the course of my visits it had multiplied in the number of images, and now in size. The back of the bus shelter had become a vast black-and-white image. Or maybe the soothing magic here came from the mutual effort to create a sacred space? 

I thought I should try to write down the names of the flowers beneath the south-facing George Floyd mural, the orange-and-blue one. I spotted mums, freesia, lilies, roses. Countless bunches of grocery store bouquets, wrapped in clear plastic. Classic FTD-florist style arrangements, in pink and yellow vases, with religious cards on sticks. Had floral delivery workers placed them here, on behalf of mourners in other cities and states and countries? I took in the hardware-store hanging petunia baskets and elaborate casket toppers and easel pieces. Garden peonies with their stems wrapped in a wad of wet paper towels crinkled, wrapped in aluminum foil. 

During this reverie, a group of larger, older black men suddenly paused nearby. One of the men was yelling to his friends—urgently and profanely—that what happened to Floyd could never happen to him. If he were handcuffed with three cops on his neck and back, he would have chewed off the officers’ thumbs. 

His friends informed him he was crazy; he insisted it was they who were crazy. Didn’t they know he was stronger than Mike Tyson, who could bite off ears?

At first I thought: George’s body is right there. But then the statement haunted and wound through me—the bluster, the foolishness, the whistling in the graveyard. I started to love that statement more every moment I stood there. This man made a difficult pilgrimage through closed streets and crowds to say: It couldn’t happen to me. When the only reason we were all gathered here was because it could and it did. 

No one makes the hard climb to the top of the mountain to tell a prophet he doesn’t matter. Standing there, as three African American folks burned giant, arm-sized bundles of sage, I finally felt like I understood what 38th and Chicago had become. Like Robben Island, like the National Civil Rights Museum in the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, this was a space where change erupted from brutal and intolerable loss. Changes to policing, changes in seeing oppression, changes in resolving to do something about it. It started from this one corner in Minneapolis and from marching, fists raised, all over the globe. 

We had all come to the funeral, and so been gifted with a birth.


This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue.


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