“Be careful, and stay safe.”
As I sat on my 42-minute flight from the Eastern Iowa Airport to Minneapolis-St. Paul, I replayed these words said in the days leading up to my trip. Everyone from my parents to the Little Village news director seemed to think I was entering a warzone by visiting the Twin Cities, battling a pandemic and police brutality.
To be honest, I held some of those fears myself. After spending the weekend poring over Twitter videos and news articles depicting an angry city on fire in response to George Floyd’s murder by a police officer earlier that week, I exited the plane expecting chaos. But as I attended protests and drove through streets peppered with signs reading “Justice 4 Floyd” over the next week, it became clear that Minneapolis was a city uniting to pave the way for change.
While the Twin Cities are large urban areas, they’re typically pretty calm, save for honks in evening traffic and the light rail whooshing by. But when I first arrived, things were markedly different. Abundant road closures and blaring police sirens at all hours became the new norm. When a transformer box exploded on my first night, engulfing the neighborhood in which I stayed in darkness, I saw that as confirmation that Minneapolis had literally and figuratively grown darker.
What I hadn’t realized was that, though Minneapolis sparked the protests that transformed into a revolution, overtaking all 50 states and much of the world, its streets better resembled a mourning ground than a powder keg. Restaurants and stores, though boarded up to prevent glass from being smashed, were adorned with graffiti reading “Black Lives Matter,” “Rest In Peace” and Floyd’s infamous last words, “I Can’t Breathe.” If all these store owners have expressed support, I thought, this can’t be so bad, right?
The first protest I attended, a sit-in at the Minnesota State Capitol, took place on June 2. Despite the over-90-degree heat and an unforgiving sun beaming down on the crowd, thousands gathered on the lawn facing the Capitol building.
Unlike the pandemonium I’d seen online, the St. Paul event was peaceful, well-organized and symbolic of the resistance to current legislation governing law enforcement. Though National Guard members surrounded the area, they primarily served as water bottle distributors. On occasion, organizers warned attendees to keep sidewalks clear and stay on the grass to “avoid being arrested.” It was clear they didn’t intend to cause violence but instead wanted to make a statement through the number of bodies present.
The three-hour sit-in served as a prolonged message for both the Minnesota state government and to attendees of all races. Individuals spoke about issues plaguing the Twin Cities’ black communities, sharing statements that resonated with the crowd.
“The system was not made for us,” one organizer said. Another acknowledged the danger of thousands gathering during a pandemic, saying, “The time we’re living in is scary … but being black every day is scary.”
Emotions changed throughout the protest: It was sometimes angry, other times sorrowful. As one young black man began to lead the crowd in chants, he broke down in tears. Seeing this, others pressed around him, encouraging him to continue. Organizers held two moments of silence where attendees knelt to honor black individuals killed by police.
Though the protest had its solemn moments, laughter, joy and celebration of black life characterized the event as well. In between speakers, hits from renowned black artists like Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar kept the crowd’s energy up for hours as attendees danced and sang along. Vendors distributed free ice cream treats, snacks and drinks with big grins, encouraging attendees to stay for the whole event.
As thousands chanted, “No killer cops, no KKK, no racist USA,” their voices echoed off the marble building. Anyone inside could hear them loud and clear.
While some protests, such as the one at the State Capitol, were more symbolic than active, others like a 10k march on June 5 to “celebrate the life of George Floyd” engaged Minneapolis more directly. Organized by former NBA player Royce White, it was clear that much preparation had gone into the event. As hundreds gathered at U.S. Bank Stadium to march over six miles, tents with food, water and sanitization supplies welcomed them.
Like the State Capitol sit-in, organizers spoke to the gradually amassing crowd. But this time, the speakers were older and identifiable, ranging from professional athletes to the vice president of the Minneapolis NAACP. Prior to the march, the crowd heard from community organizers, cheered on black singers and chanted together.
The tone was best captured by a reverend who said a prayer prior to the march, which ended, “We want to cap this prayer with joy and love and happiness.”
At 5 p.m., while the sun was still high and the temperature well over 80 degrees, the march began traveling southward. What started as hundreds turned into thousands of individuals walking through the streets, holding colorful cardboard signs and shouting “Say his name,” “GEORGE FLOYD” and “No justice, no peace, prosecute the police.”
The first half of the march led to the intersection of Chicago Avenue and 38th Street, where Floyd was killed. Large portions of both streets had been blocked off since the protests began. Leading up to the junction, the street was painted with dozens of names of black individuals lost to police violence.
A memorial had formed at the scene of the crime, with an outline of Floyd’s body marking the spot where he stopped breathing. Other marchers informed me that a constant rotation of people had visited the makeshift memorial at all times of day to pay their respects over the past week. As a result, a litany of flowers, posters and artwork had been carefully placed by passersby, forming a shrine to honor Floyd’s life.
But this area wasn’t just a mourning ground. Sounds of all sorts, from music to chants to speakers, filled the air, and free foods and drinks were everywhere. At the site that had sparked so much anguish nationwide, the Minneapolis community chanted and sang and prayed together. Though intent on not forgetting what had happened, they celebrated the life of the man they had lost and called for justice so that it would not have been lost in vain.
By the time the march began trekking back to U.S. Bank Stadium, around 10,000 people had amassed. The hour-long walk towards South Minneapolis engaged more than the marchers: Drivers honked with fists in the air in solidarity, and children cheered from nearby houses as they watched the caravan parading through their neighborhood. Chants became more vigorous as the masses arrived back at the stadium, shouting Floyd’s name in unison.
In the vein of transparency, city-established curfews deterred me from attending night protests, so I’m unsure how the later demonstrations differed as far as peacefulness and messaging. Still, Minneapolis has become a beacon of hope nationwide for good reason: Its protesters are unwavering in their demands and have learned to organize well, drawing in individuals from different walks of life to support the Black Lives Matter movement and instigate change.
Outsiders can debate the merits of burning a police precinct or leaving graffiti on all visible surfaces, but one thing is certain: The Minneapolis community has truly come together in its time of grief and need.
Anjali Hunyh is an Iowa City native, former Little Village intern and a student at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where she’s studying political science. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 283.