On hallowed ground
By Charles M. Blow
I arrived in Minneapolis on a rainy Saturday, the city quiet and still, in the calm before the storm. It is a city changed, scarred and shifted, in anticipation and apprehension.
What strikes me first is the placidity, but I remind myself that rain, quite literally, dampens activity. And when opening arguments begin in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck before he was declared dead, so will a flurry of activity, just like the ones that have taken place during jury selection.
My hotel is near the site of the trial, which stands silent with no one near it. The courthouse is ringed by a double wall of chain-linked fencing, and beyond those barriers I can see a few soldiers and Humvees.
But I am not in Minneapolis to see where the trial will be. I am here to go to the place where the dreaded thing happened. I am here to visit the spot where Floyd lost his life, and am here to stand on hallowed ground.
That intersection, 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, also known as George Floyd Square, is a few miles south of downtown, just beyond Powderhorn Park.
I drive in that direction with some trepidation. I know what a vulturous view people can take — often rightly so — of the media who swoop in when a big event happens, when there is death, pain and strife, and simply vanish when they have exhausted their angles of coverage.
The people who live at the center of this coverage often feel more used than heard, like creatures on exhibit rather than people living through pain.
The closer I get to the intersection, the more Black Lives Matter signs I notice, posted in yards or in windows, or painted on glass. Despite my best attempts to prevent it, my mind immediately drifts to suspicion: How many of these signs are meant to mark the houses, like the lamb’s blood above the door frames in the Bible’s Book of Exodus, so the shadow of death might recognize their solidarity and pass them over?
The closest one can get to the intersection is at least a block away, because makeshift barricades have been erected in the middle of the streets in all directions.
On the approach from one direction a purple sign with white script attached to a lamppost reads: “Here you enter sacred space.”
And that is how I have always thought of places like this, why I am uneasy in them, like I shouldn’t be there, like I am disturbing something.
It is the reason that I never visited ground zero in New York. There is something different about these places where life is lost, and the loss has changed the world. Whether earth or pavement, those places remember things and whisper them back. These are the places where souls crossed over. You feel something when you are here, the way I felt something standing with Tamir Rice’s mother Samaria on the patch of grass where he fell and bled out after a Cleveland police officer shot him in the abdomen.
So I approach the intersection gingerly, making myself smaller with every step, trying to be nonintrusive and supremely respectful.
But there are a few people there, milling about, snapping pictures and making videos. Long gone are the massive scenes of protest from last summer. What is left is relic. Shrines and memorials. Teddy bears, soaked in soil, murals and graffiti, stanchions connected by Kente cloth-wrapped rope encircling the spot where Floyd lost his life, a cobalt blue figure with white wings painted on the ground where he was pinned.
I stand there, motionless, nearly nine minutes, the length of time Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck. I am surprised at how long it feels and how many thoughts come into my head, and I think of how many more must have crowded into Floyd’s mind.
Beyond the intersection, in the middle of which a large Black metal arm with clenched fist has been erected (the arm is growing red with rust), diagonal to the killing spot, is the parking lot of a storefront church called the Worldwide Outreach for Christ Ministries, which is having its regular food giveaway.
I speak with Angie Evans, the church’s food distribution coordinator, about what it is like to exist so close to a location that is morphing simultaneously into a place of pilgrimage and center of trauma tourism.
She says that it can be challenging because the intersection has become “kind of a tourist attraction, like coming to the Mall of America.”
It is this kind of infamy that can rob a victim of his or her humanity and a community of its identity. This is a kind of voyeurism that converts the solemn and sacred into a background for selfies.
Something world-altering happened at this corner. Long after the trial is over and the crowds stop trickling in, this spot of earth will still release its memory in a whisper, saying his name, George Floyd.