A tender act of resistance: Caring for George Floyd’s Square
Published 6:45 am Wednesday, December 23, 2020
By Christine T. Nguyen
This is part of a monthlong series looking at how the community has transformed the site of George Floyd’s killing — 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis — and at the people behind its transformation. It is the culmination of reporting over several months, and a partnership with South High School to engage neighborhood youth in telling their community’s story.
As he sweeps up leaves and debris, Paul Eaves points out offerings left to honor George Floyd at a memorial near 38th Street and Chicago Avenue. There’s a painting of a tree left by a visitor the first week of June. A protest sign that reads “cease fire now” has been roughly in the same spot for two months. Three black-and-white illustrations displayed in a clear plastic picture frame arrived more recently.
Eaves, 72, is one of the volunteers who regularly tend the area where George Floyd was killed by police. In this four-block radius, some residents and volunteers work together to keep things running as they hold the space while pressing the city to meet their demands. Eaves picks up trash and checks on plants. He shifts artwork and tributes around to make them more visible. He cleans to present what he calls an “aesthetic dignity” to the space.
However, he’s careful not to make the area look too perfect. It’s a living memorial and community creation, Eaves said. The space evolves as people continue to visit and leave new items in remembrance of Floyd and others killed by police.
“To me, this is a living embodiment of the spirit of Black Lives Matter. There’s probably many others around here but this is definitely one,” Eaves said. “And so it deserves getting on one’s knees and sweeping.”
Weather can be a challenge. A Buddha statue has been knocked over by wind a few times leaving it cracked. Before it snows, small trinkets get moved off the ground so they’re not accidentally shoveled up and thrown away. Plants and flowers have been moved into a makeshift greenhouse in hopes that they survive Minnesota’s winter.
“One could say it’s an impossible struggle, but ending systemic racism, one can think of it as an impossible struggle,” Eaves said. “But just because it appears impossible doesn’t mean you don’t keep doing something about it. My part is just tending this.”
Eaves is a retired teacher’s aide and former co-manager at a food co-op. He lives in the Longfellow neighborhood just 2 miles away from 38th and Chicago. In the late 1990s, Eaves was part of a monthslong occupation in the Coldwater Spring area to protest a proposed highway route.
As a white man, he respects the leadership of the Black community in George Floyd’s Square.
“Too often white people just step in and just take over things,” Eaves said.
Instead, he considers himself to be an assistant to lead caretaker Jeanelle Austin, who is working to preserve the offerings. They met in the initial weeks following Floyd’s killing. Eaves would visit the square every day to light sage to honor Floyd. Austin and a few others would be there sweeping. After asking if he could help, Eaves joined them every day at sunrise to clean the site before visitors arrived.
In those early months, fresh flowers and mementos spilled in the streets. People crowded in the intersection daily. As winter begins, the number of visitors and offerings left behind are smaller. But people still come.
“There are certain parts of the world that have a certain sacredness because of continued attention human beings give them. And this is one of them,” Eaves said.
He picks up a stuffed animal he calls “Lambchops” that wears a bow. A purple sequined heart-shaped box that holds a note he hasn’t, and won’t, read because it’s personal to whoever left it. All of these items left behind are physical expressions of people’s grief, frustration and healing, he said. And while he doesn’t know all of the individuals who have come to the square, in some ways Eaves feels like he knows them through the objects he tends to several times a week.
“During all the oppressions throughout time, there have been people resisting, creating, loving, grieving,” Eaves said. “As ancient as slavery is, this is also ancient. To resist and create and feel.”